By and large this blog is composed of book reviews, author events, anything bookish. I don’t extend myself into the political or economic arenas because I’m not always savvy enough to know what I’m talking about. But sometimes I do raise my head from a book long enough to see something I believe needs to be shared. On Wednesday I reviewed Cara Hoffman’s new novel, Be Safe I Love You, which highlights the trauma being inflicted on our armed forces by a war that will not end. Just making it home is not enough. These young men and women often return damaged—either mentally or physically or both—and the system we have in place is grossly inadequate.
Be Safe I Love You is fiction but this letter, from Hoffman, which I only discovered today, is not. It is real and it is heartbreaking. And the fact that another veteran, suffering from PTSD, shot and killed three soldiers and wounded sixteen others at Fort Hood on Wednesday is one more indication that the system is broken. If our government is going to blithely get us into these conflicts it must commit to finding working, effective solutions for the protection of the people who fight.
I wrote Be Safe I Love You to show how war affects not just the men and women who fight, but whole families and communities. Homecoming is never a simple joyous parade. Some folks return intact and some don’t. And most people are unaware more American soldiers and veterans have committed suicide in the last decade than have died in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. Their families live not just with the aftermath of these deaths but with the painful and complex mix of terror and sorrow that come before them. A lot of research went into writing this book, particularly on women soldiers, but some of the writing was closer to the bone.
My older brother enlisted when he was in his teens, became a paratrooper, remained in the National Guard, did two tours of duty in Afghanistan, and worked for many years as a military contractor. Before he joined the army he read a lot of science fiction and had a gift for physical comedy. We played mad libs and built forts.
When I was in middle school he returned home on leave, unrecognizably fit, and proceeded to teach me—a nerdy four-foot-six eleven-year-old—how to kill someone. How to punch them in the throat or push my thumbs into their eyes. How to fight with everyday objects, how to jump off a roof or out of a moving car.
These were not skills I could employ in the school library where I spent most of my time. To this day I have never needed to jump out of a moving car or off a roof or to kill a person with a plastic drinking straw. But I have a very clear understanding of what combat training makes of a home.
It has been eighty years since the publication of Journey to the End of the Night, Louis Ferdinand Celine’s seminal novel based on his life during and after World War One. The points Celine made in Journey have been made many times since: that “war is a racket” and “upstanding citizens are hypocrites” are common themes in literature. But few novels have so relentlessly and remorselessly attacked the sacred concepts of heroism and sacrifice without somehow pulling the punch at the last minute, ultimately romanticizing war as a thing that gives life meaning, war as an inevitability. The first thirty pages of Journey should be required reading for us all. But it’s the following 450 pages where Celine depicts the dark absurdity of life after combat that make the novel resonate. Where he talks about what war does to the people who don’t go and fight.
Be Safe I Love You is about war and family. About the bonds between siblings. About trauma and resilience; and what is sacred and what is not.
It is a picture of the lives of military families, especially women soldiers;
an homage to Celine whose work I love and believe unparalleled;
and an elegy for my brother who taught me to survive the things he taught me, and for whom I am still waiting to come home.