Dear Imprudence: The Questions You Don’t Get To Ask

A concerned family member writes to Miss Manners:

Dear Miss Manners:

My brother served in Iraq a couple of years ago. He suffers from PTSD and was wounded. The physical wound is not one you can see, but people (family especially) will still ask him what it was like to fight in the war and even go so far as to ask if he killed anyone.

It never ceases to amaze me the way that people feel entitled to information about other people. They love to ask questions about your disability, and when a person happens to be a veteran and has seen combat, one of the first questions that comes up, almost without fail (unless that inquiring person happens to be a veteran or the family member/close friend of a veteran), is whether or not that particular veteran has killed some body.

Have you ever killed anyone?

I just can not fathom having to live with the reality of having lived through that burden, let alone having to deal w/ having to relive any of the emotions attached to that each time a thoughtless person asks “Have you ever killed anyone?”.

The letter writer wants to avoid having to stay away from a family function to keep zir brother safe from such carelessness from other family members, and honestly that breaks my heart. A PWD should not have to completely cut themselves off from friends, family, and other outside contacts to avoid triggering situations, but the reality is, this is overwhelmingly the way that it usually works.

I know for a fact that there are many veterans living in isolation because of PTSD, and yes, several of them are women, because of people who aren’t veterans, who can’t grasp what that must have been like (and not even all of us, as veterans can know what that is like), who can’t abstain from getting too nosy and triggering their PTSD. Why can’t we just have the same conversations as everyone else? Not everything in our lives revolves around our disabilities and our experiences in The Sandbox. Not everything is about the worst thing that has ever happened to us.

I like the way Miss Manners answers this letter:

Can you do this without creating consternation and even more curiosity about his condition?

She cautions the letter writer to caution the family to avoid the topic of war without creating a more awkward situation that might cause the family to avoid zir brother as if he is a ticking time bomb.

[He] will probably tell us about the war eventually, but right now it’s his least favorite topic, and I know he’d appreciate our staying off the subject.

This is the perfect way to describe this.

This is the 60th anniversary of the Korean War, the Forgotten War, many call it. My grandfather is a proud veteran and a Purple Heart recipient. He didn’t like to talk about the war with us, even when I was a shining eyed, curious young girl, who was almost never denied anything she asked of her grandfather. It was painful for him to remember, and the only time I ever saw him reminisce was when we traveled to Des Moines for his unit’s reunion many years ago.

But after I joined the Navy he sent me a letter at my A-School sharing a moment of understanding for what I was doing, and later, when my partner and I PSC-ed to Korea, he sat and talked to us for hours about what he remembered of the country. He told us harsh and sometimes beautiful stories of his memories. He told his of his marching from Pusan all the way to far North, of being picked up by Navy ships, transported back to Pusan and doing it again, after salvaging boots from the dead to cover their own bleeding feet. He tells it better, and I hope to get it recorded the next time I see him. But he told it to us in his own time, when it didn’t hurt him anymore.

I remember when The Kid’s Tae Kwon Do instructor told us of his memory of being a child during the war. A child in her class said that he was too young to do something or another well. The Master told us a story, of being eight, and of being held by his mother in a drainage tunnel and being told to not make a sound while North Korean soldiers ran over head. He was able to barely breathe, soundlessly, and stand against the side, like you see in movies, as they flashed their lights looking for people. He shared that story with us freely, and I remember the look on his face, as if he could still feel the chills of fear, like he was back there for a moment, but stronger now, sixty years later.

We have no right to ask them to regale us with the details of the horrible things they had to do to get by, to make a living for their families, to live, all because they were told it was the right thing to do. Or because they had to survive. They had a moment to think, but they have a lifetime to live with that decision.

People who live through wars will tell their stories when they are ready, because the pain will give them a moment of release, it will subside for a moment, or forget to pound them with the aggressive flashback or terror.

We, as people who have never lived through that, have no right to inflict that upon them.

9 Comments

  1. My grandmother’s funeral, July or August of 2003. I’d just been back from deployment since May, which was the last time I saw her. During that deployment, I was part of a Tomahawk strike team that launched missiles in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

    Word got around to the family, naturally. And at the funeral two of my grandmother’s cousins cornered me and wanted to know all about launching those missiles and how many people did I kill and what did it feel like and if I hadn’t been in the stupid dress blue uniform for women with its stupid restrictive jacket I think I might have committed physical violence to get away from them.

    It felt like a violation, it felt threatening, it disgusted me to see how their eyes shone and they licked their lips and felt entitled to ask me these things. Finally after “I don’t want to talk about it” didn’t stop them from asking, I said “If you want to fucking know what it feels like, I’m sure there’s a recruiter in town.” and shoved past them.

  2. Ugh! The Dress Blue Jacket! (Not sure what service you were in, but the Navy’s is particularly restricting feeling, and irritating because it is So Different from the men’s uniform, and more noticeably so than any other branch’s)

    I get incredibly protective of people when I feel like these areas of their lives are being violated, because my friends who have seen this type of combat sometimes feel awkward about fending off the violating questions. Pointing them to the recruiter never occurred to me.

  3. This post reminded me of what it was like to hear the answers to those questions, to hear the full, real story of what combat is like. It was Veteran’s day, my senior year of high school and we had a half day in order to make up for missing days earlier in the year (normally we had the day off). My history teacher, a many I admired greatly, decided to tell us more about his experiences in Vietnam. We knew he had served and was on the ground when he was all but still a kid, and that one of his buddies didn’t make it back, but he never really said much of his own experience and no one ever asked.

    Let’s just say that people who are so completely rude and unthinking as to ask about a person’s combat experience are probably not prepared for the real answer. I cried most of the next period because his story, because of the unimaginable pain that continued to haunt him decades later, because no one should have to experience those horrors. It brings me to tears to think of it now.

    I can’t imagine what goes on in people’s heads when they question a veteran in that way.

  4. My husband retired from the Navy 16 years ago this July (he served 20 years and 20 days), and part of that 20 years was in the Persian Gulf. We’ve only been married 3 1/2 years, but I never asked him about his service in the Gulf, I figured if/when he wanted to talk about it, he would (I had friends who served in Vietnam and I heard enough horror stories from their tours of duty that I know better than to ask what it was like).
    He did tell me about fighting the fires on the USS Stark when she was hit by missiles (his ship was one of the ones called out, they had been escorting ships the day before). When he talks, I listen, and I don’t ask questions – I just listen and let him say it however he needs to say it. It was not easy for him, he lost friends on that ship, and all I can do is say I’m sorry he had to go through that.
    For anyone to question a veteran – that shows a remarkable lack of tact and empathy, IMO.

  5. My father served in Vietnam towards the end of the war in an air cavalry unit. I haven’t ever asked if he killed anyone.

    While he was there he was in a medevac unit flying helicopters with no guns and big red targets on. He’s told me about some of the ugly things and they are really damn ugly. I have no idea how many people died in the back of his aircraft. I’ve been told I have to prod at him to get him to tell everything he saw and did in country. Because if he were to die without having told someone or written it down that would be something precious lost for ever. It’s always struck me as horribly invasive and not a little creepy. If my dad wants to talk about it I’m willing to listen but he doesn’t want to talk about it.

    I know he doesn’t want to talk about it because my dad is a huge nerd about flying and will happily rattle on about the time he spent in Bosnia driving gunships with IFOR (if he ever fired his weapons outside of training there he’s never mentioned it) and he has lots of pictures of fog/cloud-covered mountains and stories about the mess service. Live-weapons training where you get to blow shit up with actual missiles, he’s said, is about as much fun as a person can have and its infrequency (anti-tank missiles are expensive) makes it a rare pleasure indeed.

    He doesn’t talk about his time in Vietnam except for funny stuff like when a rocket hit his unit’s water truck and they got to discover that beer was better for brushing teeth with than Coke — those being the only liquids they had available in quantity until they got a replacement for the dead truck. War is only very occasionally funny so there’s a lot getting left out.

    I’m bad at reading subtext quickly but I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about it and I think for all it was terrifying flying targets in an active and losing war he’s relieved to not have killed people. Unless I’m wrong and he did kill people and he just never talks about it. Either way it’s not something I’m going to prod at. I don’t want people prodding at my traumas out of curiosity.
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  6. Started to write a comment, but it got really long so I took it over to a post on my (most recent) blog.

    Excerpt: “Then I end up telling them that people need to understand that people don’t come back from war the same — that most of us who raised our right hands and swore to defend our homes are being forced into an evil war of which they want no part, and they come back damaged. And it’s awful that petty voyeurs have to rub salt in their wounds to satisfy their own curiosity.”

  7. “Not everything is about the worst thing that has ever happened to us.” I think that’s good advice for pretty much anyone who has to deal with PWDs, although it’s especially pertinent with disabled veterans.

    I will admit to my own privilege here, not in the indelicacy of asking veterans about experience in active combat (well, at least not recently; as an autistic child—not that that’s any excuse—I asked a LOT of rude questions to people) but at times trying to put the whole burden of a war’s events on one person. I know I’ve asked my grandfather, a World War II veteran, at times whether or not he was aware of the Holocaust. He wasn’t, but that doesn’t make any difference, since even though I’ve always had difficulties putting myself in others’ shoes I now realize that that would be akin to people whom I don’t trust with my medical information asking me about what has triggered my panic attacks in the past. This is one of the reasons I’m very glad my dad wasn’t drafted to be sent to Vietnam, since if he were (in a hypothetical alternate world where he would still somehow be my father and I would therefore still exist…) I would no doubt feel irrational rage wanting to blame him for contributing to the atrocities the Vietnamese suffered during the war, even though I know it would be prejudiced and classist to pin the blame on the draftees instead of those in power who were the architects of such a misbegotten war. I think that’s something that veterans, peace activists and those who fall into both categories can agree on—that the real culpability of war lies with those who wage it and yet do not shed any blood for it.

  8. I don’t understand people who ask those questions. I don’t know why they think that’s remotely acceptable. I don’t understand them, and I don’t want to.

  9. If I say anything to someone about their service, I usually just thank them. Because I know most people who go into the military have a desire to serve and protect their country among their reasons for going, and I think as a person who will never serve, it is only right that I thank them for doing that with part of their lives.

    My grandfather was a WWII vet. He was in the south pacific mop-up; he joined right at the end of the war. I think there were only two stories he told about his time in the Navy. One about what happens when you’re using freshwater soap and the shower changes over from fresh water to salt water, and one about the food and mealtimes. He and my grandmother also talked about the way they became closer and eventually married; she wrote letters to all of the servicemen she knew during the war as her way of supporting the war effort. I think, as a child, I may have asked him about the ship and about the places he went, but I don’t think it even occurred to me to ask him about the darker parts of serving. And now, being older, I am horrified by the idea that people do that.

    It just…I can’t wrap my head around why you would. I guess it’s some kind of living vicariously; civillians who will never kill someone want to know what it feels like to do it. It just strikes me as a very dirty, wrong sort of living vicariously. If I’m going to live vicariously, I’m much more interested in more positive experiences like…what’s it like to fly, and where did you go, what amazing places did you see, what interesting people did you meet. And even at that, those are things that I would be thrilled to listen to, but still wouldn’t ask unless I knew the serviceperson or vet well enough to know that they would be happy to share things like that.

    ~Kali