(Note: this blog post was originally written in conjunction with our Vet Visions and Voices art and music benefit. The bit at the end about art and music will make more sense knowing the context)
My parents grew up believing in the boogie man. For both my mother and my father, that faceless monster lurking under the bed and in the shadows trying to kill them was no fictitious character from a Grimm fairy tale. He was an all-too-grim reality.
My grandmother used to tell us stories of being stalked like pray, in the early days of Nazi-occupied Vienna. She used to tell us of the eerie silence punctuated by shrieks of horror and gun shots which echoed down the empty dim streets. When the shrieks got louder, she explained, she grabbed my father, then four years old, and his brother and they hid in the closet. All they could do was wait and prey that theirs would not be the house chosen that night. They were lucky. Many of their friends, and my relatives, were not. This was my father’s childhood.
My mother’s boogie man was not from Vienna. My grandparents on my mom’s side of the family emigrated from Russia during the pogroms, systemic waves of anti-Semitic violence that lasted for decades. The ceaseless terror led to the deaths of thousands of Jews and the diaspora of millions. My grandparents came to Brooklyn afraid of everything, trusting no one. This was my mother’s childhood.
I was a young boy of 7 or 8 years old when my mother hit the mean New York streets. The omnipresent anxiety which had always lurked just beneath the surface of my mother’s skin had blossomed into full-blown terror. Threats were everywhere. Everyone was coming to take her away. They called it paranoid schizophrenia. I know it was the boogie man. She ran from him, the monster chasing her soul, the Golem from the pogroms, until the day that she died.
Many Vets join the service believing in a fairy tale too. The fairy tale of nationalism. They are told from birth that they are born under a great flag, founded by mythic fathers whose faces are carved into the mountains. They want to be part of this great fairy tale, one of the few, the proud. The armed services gives them that chance. Overnight, they go from joe schmo to GI Joe. They join to be somebody, to have their name etched into the fairy tale. They join to fight the boogie man.
Something happens in the fog of war, though. The boogie man becomes unclear. You do nothing to stop a young boy you pass in your caravan, on Kabul’s dusty roads. Your buddies pay with their limbs and lives. You don’t make that mistake again. Every child becomes the enemy. You cannot afford to take a chance. And yet, they can’t all be the boogie man. You know that innocents have died by your hands. You stop trusting everyone and everything, including the mission. Why are we here? Who sent us? Who is the damn boogie man? Could it be…me?
The horror that you are, or have become, the enemy is little different from the horror that the enemy is everywhere. It makes little difference if you are the one holding the gun, or the one staring down its barrel. When you play a central role in the horrific drama of war you become wounded in your soul. You have been betrayed by the myths that are meant to sustain you, the myth of community, and the myth of childhood.
Art and music are powerful tools for re-writing the myths of our lives. They enable us to go beyond the symbols and myths we’ve inherited and tap into our deep personal primal symbols and myths. Art and music allow us to exorcise our anger and cultivate healing visions and melodies. When we share these creations we form new communities, bonded by our new myths and symbols. And in doing so, we may finally extricate our boogie man from our hearts and souls, and chase him back into the night from whence he came.