Alum Sean Flachs, '01, is featured in the book, "No Man's Land: Preparing for War and Peace in Post-9/11 America," by his West Point mentor Elizabeth Samet. The book is available on Amazon, and a selection is below:
A ROOM OF ONE’S OWN
Healing, be it physical, emotional, or both together, is among the chief labors of homecoming. It demands the capacity to reconcile past and present and to navigate a future of yet invisible contours; the ability to weave new stories when the old ones no longer hold; the ability to discover a home in no man’s land. The future officers with whom I’ve read Homer’s epics might recognize the process as that of moving from the world of the Iliad to that of the Odyssey. The war at Troy only seems endless; the clearly defined lines of battle established there disintegrate into a postwar world of unknown enemies and uncertain limits. It is a world in which the most pedestrian and the most fantastic monsters present equally dire threats to the assumptions by which Odysseus has defined himself at home and abroad. In following Odysseus home to Ithaca or Aeneas from the burning city of Troy to Italy, a soldier learns essential skills: how to differentiate false anchorages from true and how to navigate disordered space and measure disobedient time.
It is this imaginative capacity that might help to counteract what one lieutenant I know experienced as a sense of post-deployment disintegration. “I went to a few weddings,” Sean wrote when I asked him how he had used his leave on returning home after a year in Afghanistan commanding a detachment of troops who handle military working dogs trained in mine detection. But these reassuring rituals were not enough: “I was so fragmented I found it hard to get into the swing of things. This has happened from time to time in my life, but it was especially strong when I returned home.” Sean’s “solution” over the years for the problem of fragmentation has been to return to the Benedictine monks who educated him at the St. Louis Priory School. Sean’s description of his retreat to the monastery reminded me of Pico Iyer’s essay “Chapels.” Iyer, who also goes on periodic retreats to a Benedictine hermitage, defines a chapel as any place “where we hear something and nothing, ourselves and everyone else, a silence that is not the absence of noise but the presence of something much deeper: the depth beneath our thoughts.” That’s not a kind of silence easy to find in a war zone, but it is also increasingly difficult to find it at home, in an environment defined by connectivity, where, in Iyer’s words, “Times Square is with us everywhere.” Arguing for our ever-present need of chapels, Iyer explains, “We’ve always had to have quietness and stillness to undertake our journeys into battle, or just the tumult of the world. How can we act in the world, if we haven’t had the time and chance to find out who we are and what the world and action might be?” Circumstances have led me to read Iyer’s reference to battle in literal-minded fashion. Indeed, I don’t know why it should still sometimes surprise me that my own chapel has become Grant’s Tomb, located on Morningside Heights, in uptown Manhattan. It is there that a silent solitude born of widespread indifference to an old soldier helps me to understand the significance of my commitments to new soldiers.
Sean has tried to relax on tropical vacations, but they don’t provide what he needs: “the same sort of rest and centered reflection that I get in the stark, earwax-yellow walls of the monastery.” Of his latest sojourn, he writes, “I planned on staying just a few days and going home … for New Year’s Eve, but I ended up staying a full week. Not the most exciting type of redeployment, but … the priory is one of the only safe places I know; it is the only place where I know how to remember who I am and what I want to become.” Remembering who you are and what you want to become isn’t easy under any conditions, but military life tends to make the project peculiarly difficult. What Sean wants to do is to write. He’s harbored this dream for a long time, and we met for many hours during his senior year at West Point to review his notebooks and journals. Sustaining his goal and cultivating a creative life in the army remain constant challenges. The military celebrates the value of reflection, especially in the context of the resiliency training devised in response to the alarming incidence of PTSD, yet it is a culture that remains deeply uncomfortable with sustained bouts of meditation. Fundamentally biased toward action, it pays lip service to the value of reflection while remaining uncomfortable with such invisible, unpredictable activity.
The ancient Roman poet Horace, who was briefly and ingloriously a soldier, insisted on a fundamental incompatibility of military service and the deeply imaginative, deliberative life in an ode (2.7) dedicated to his old friend Pompey, with whom he had served in the defeated army of Brutus during Rome’s civil wars. From the comfort of his Sabine farm, Horace recounts how, throwing down his shield at the battle, he was whisked away to safety in a cloud by Mercury, protector of poets. The ode parodies the traditional epic deus ex machina: “But swift Mercury bore me aloft in my panic into a dense cloud; you a returning wave carried back again into the seething straits of war.” In Homer the cloud is usually only a temporary stay of execution for the warrior; in Horace it succeeds in permanently removing the poet from the battlefield to the safety of his rural retreat.
Thanks largely to Wilfred Owen, Horace has become synonymous in the minds of many readers with the phrase dulce et decorum est, an uncomplicated expression of the patriotic ideal that it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country: Owen calls this the “old lie.” Yet in this ode to Pompey, Horace manifests no illusions about the unalloyed sweetness and propriety of a battlefield death. “With you,” he tells his erstwhile comrade, “I experienced Philippi and swift flight, a shield ill-left behind, when virtue was broken and threatening armies shamefully bit the dust.” There is no necessary connection articulated here between the warrior’s exploits and the poet’s lines. Horace severs the worlds of poetry and soldiering. Cowardice—literally running away—liberates him into poetry and all its imaginative energies, while fate sends Pompey back to the battle and subsequently into defeat and exile. Martial vice becomes poetic virtue, and Horace never regrets his choice. Only, it seems, by turning his back on war can Horace begin to make art, his poetry a vocation the other life would not permit. Meanwhile, Pompey has been cheated altogether out of some other life, his steadfastness on the battlefield having been recompensed with exile in that second no man’s land into which war so often deposits its survivors.