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Healing From War
By Miriam Axel-Lute

The Golden Tortoise: Journeys in Viet Nam

By Ed Tick

Ren Hen Press, 108 pages, $15.95


War and the Soul: Healing Our Nation’s Veterans >From Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

By Ed Tick

Quest Books, 289 pages, $19.95


Ed Tick has worked with vet and other war survivors, for decades now. He has ventured beyond the standard understandings and treatments of post-traumatic stress disorder into an experiential kind of healing that can cure, not just manage symptoms.

In these two books, Tick tells some of those stories, but in incredibly different contexts. The Golden Tortoise is a travelogue, done in a combination of poetry and prose (mostly haiku), plus an English poetic retelling of a Vietnamese myth from which the book gets its name. The golden tortoise reclaims the sword that had been given to a king to free the land of invaders once that task is done. This theme of a land returning to peace after devastating war echoes throughout this slim volume. Again and again, Tick and the veterans he takes on trips to Vietnam are surprised as their memories of horror are overlaid with forgiving welcomes and regrown jungles. For anyone, and this includes those of us born after the war ended, to whom “Vietnam” still means a war more than a country, The Golden Tortoise is cheaper than plane fare.

War and the Soul is an entirely different enterprise. The book’s subtitle, Healing Our Nation’s Veterans From Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, implies perhaps a how-to guide. That is in here. But Tick is doing much more. Ultimately, War and the Soul attempts to both examine exactly what war does to those who participate in it and argue that war has become so destructive that we must restructure our mythology to rid ourselves of the impulse to wage it.

Unlike many who are deeply critical of war, Tick starts by approaching war from a respectful and historical standpoint. The first section, in which he introduces much of the Greek and Native American mythology he calls on throughout the book, is an examination of the role war has played over time and how it served as a rite of passage or initiation for young men.

Tick then explores what happens when this desire for a meaningful rite of passage runs up against the realities of an infinitely more destructive and impersonal modern warfare and a modern system that expects veterans to transition immediately back into “normal life.” He doesn’t sugarcoat or moralize. He doesn’t condemn soldiers who committed atrocities under kill-or-be-killed conditions (though he does highlight some cases where soldiers were able to hold on to their moral compass). Tick’s concern is with what naturally happens to people under these extreme conditions. His conclusion, starkly illustrated, is that PTSD is a misnomer. What has happened to people who experience war is not a stress disorder, but an identity disorder, a loss of the soul.

The final section goes through some of the steps that Tick has used to help veterans recover from war trauma, including storytelling, purification, restitution, and initiation. This section especially has many of what makes this book most powerful—the stories of the veterans and other war survivors with whom Tick has worked. I was moved to tears, especially by the description of a cathartic weekend retreat in which Vietnam veterans and men of their generation who did not go to war shared stories of the time with each other. It sounds plain said like that, but believe me, it was anything but. I could have taken an entire book of these stories, stitched together with the barest of organizing frameworks.

For better or for worse, Tick emphasizes his exploration of cultural war mythology at least as much as the direct stories. He does make a good argument that we need to deal in mythic dimensions to really get at the root of war trauma. But his goals on this front are so ambitious he can’t fully realize them, especially when many of his basic premises are going to take some absorbing for your average reader.

As a result, Tick slips into universalizing (“all cultures . . .” “all religions. . .”) and imperatives (“we must . . .”) when more careful contextualizing, stories, and explanation would serve him better. We never entirely understand the spiritual framework Tick is working in either, though it is clear that it is important to him that the vets’ language, such as that of soul loss, not be watered down to psychiatric terms like disassociation.

Nonetheless, no one else is trying to do what he is, either on the level of healing individuals or trying to change cultural mythology about war, and both need to be done. War and the Soul should be read by anyone who wants to better understand their own or others’ experiences of war. And if it serves as a starting point for several more explorations of the topic, perhaps each geared to more targeted audience, that can only be to the good.

Ed Tick will read from and sign War and the Soul on Saturday (Dec. 10), 2-4 PM, at Albany Center Galleries, Albany Public Library, 161 Washington Ave., Albany.

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