New Book Can Be a Friend to War Survivors

March 29, 2010 — "Before it happens, people cannot imagine what violence will be like. When it is finished, they are so changed they cannot remember what came before," writes David Niyonzima of Burundi, a small East African country, in a new book called "Surviving War."

Roberta Culbertson, director of the Center on Violence & Community at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, recently published "Surviving War," a collection of poetry, essays and photographs for veterans, family members who have loved ones recovering from war and personnel working with veterans.

"The center brings the resources of the humanities – story, history, poetry, culture, arts and reason – to communities seeking to rebuild after violence," Culbertson wrote for the center's Web site. "These human creative 'tools of thought' are the real roots of all recovery; they reassert and reclaim culture and humane values after these have been severely tested or destroyed. Culture, beliefs and the yearning to be human again must not be overlooked in times of aftermath."

Currently, the number of soldiers in Iraq has dipped below 100,000, while the number in Afghanistan is projected to top 100,000 before the year is out. More than 30,000 wounded have returned from Iraq, and about 5,000 from Afghanistan, according to

How do these individuals resume their lives again after pain, fear and violence? Poetry can speak indirectly or directly to what they're going through. It's not for everybody, but it's effective if the words come out right, Culbertson said.

"When soldiers come back, often their families don't 'get it,' because the soldiers don't want to talk about what happened," she said.

"The book is like a friend, but you don't have to talk to it or argue with it. You can put it down when you're tired, but it's there when you need it, right there for you, and it usually has something good to say," Culbertson said.

So far, 500 copies of the book have been distributed for free to military installations in the U.S., many of them in Virginia (the Norfolk naval base is the largest in the world, Culbertson noted), and the center has ordered 500 more. They're being used in chaplaincy and counseling programs, too, she said.

The book also can be ordered online and delivered anywhere. It's a compact volume that can be easily carried.

"The purpose of war has changed," Culbertson said. It used to be a matter of taking over an area to stop the enemy from doing so. Now, there's more fighting unseen assailants, and the weapons are more destructive. At the same time, soldiers are supposed to act more helpful, in more of a policing role, in areas where it is difficult to distinguish friend from foe.

"That plays with the idea of what is normal," she said.

Culbertson found many of the book's poems and photos online, and she said that shows people who've experienced war (and other types of violence) use artistic means to express what they've been through, what they're living with and to make connections with others and the world around them. She wanted to help spread their words.

The works span a century of wars from World War I and Lt. Col. John McCrae's well-known "In Flanders Field" to present-day experiences of the Middle East in Brian Turner's "Tigris River Blues." Turner served in Iraq for a year and in Bosnia-Herzegovina before that.

"There's a feeling I can't quite shake./ Everything has sunken into the abstruse./ I read my own red pages/ as death whispers from the rotors," Turner writes.

W.D. Ehrhart, who has become known for his Vietnam poems, has one in the book called, "The Next Step," which lists the ways a soldier could get killed taking that next step.

In another piece, "A Letter to Vietnam," George Evans writes, "During Vietnam ... things were the same as they are now for those who are young and poor. ... I'm grieved but not guilty. Sad but not ashamed. That does not mean I lack compassion. It does not mean I sleep at night, or don't sweat at night. It does not mean it is easy to live."

In contrast, the last poem in the book, by Deng Ming Dao, is encouraging. It's about how anything can be the subject of a poem, including war and peace.

A photo essay in the book, "Taking a Break," by William E. Thompson, an Army reservist who is also a photographer, shows the troops playing cards, boxing, napping, reading, sitting on a swing set and lining up for Communion at an outdoor Mass.

Thompson resumed his career as a photojournalism instructor after being deployed in Iraq in 2003. He also served a six-month tour in Kosovo.

Thompson's and others' photos show soldiers smiling, soldiers' expressions inscrutable in shadow, a soldier petting a kitten. In one photo, a soldier walks in one direction and a dark child walks in the other, both seemingly about to sneak out of the picture's borders. Another photo captures a group of women who are Blackhawk helicopter crew members, wearing triumphant grins and fatigues, just returned from a mission on Christmas Day.

Culbertson has a few short writings of her own in the book, in places where she wanted to stitch parts together, she said. For poems, she sought short, deep and accessible ones, poems that come from the heart. Her framework was to make sure the writings are apolitical, not blaming soldiers or saying it's weak to have the emotions they find they have.

The Center on Violence and Community also publishes "Tough Times Companion," a biennial collection of poetry, photography and essays for people suffering difficult times and for use by survivor groups. It is available free and distributed to hospitals, shelters, clinics, sexual assault centers and doctors' offices. The third volume will come out in May.

— By Anne Bromley