The Inner Hell of a PTSD Sufferer

Larry Burrows photo, 1966Larry Burrows photo, 1966

Continuing on with connections between Barack Obama’s reading list and the winding down of American involvement in Iraq, I notice that there are a number of Philip Roth novels. As the list is from when the president was in his twenties (for the most part), it is missing a more recent Roth work that I’m willing to bet the president has read. Certainly I hope he has read it given that The Human Stain contains the most excruciating depiction of a PTSD sufferer that I know of. (It’s also a book about race passing, something that would catch Obama’s attention.) It’s not enough to assess the cost of the war by the number of dead and wounded. One must tally in as well those who have been psychologically crippled.

The veteran’s name is Les and at one point in the novel his former war buddies, led by Louie, introduce him to a special kind of therapy. By attending an Asian restaurant, their theory goes, he can confront his trauma and begin coping with it. The restaurant they choose is Chinese, not Vietnamese, but to Les it doesn’t matter: they are all “gooks” to him. Here are a couple of passages:

By repeating to himself “I gotta get out of here” he is able to put himself into a trance and, even without any appetite, to begin to eat his soup. To take down a little of the broth. “I gotta get out of here” and this blocks out the waiter and it blocks out the owner but it does not block out the two women at a wall-side table who are opening pea pods and dropping the shelled peas into a cooking pot. Thirty feet away, and Les can pick up the scent of whatever’s the brand of cheap toilet water that they’ve sprayed behind their four gook ears—it’s as pungent to him as the smell of raw earth. With the same phenomenal lifesaving powers that enabled him to detect the unwashed odor of a soundless sniper in the black thickness of a Vietnam jungle, he smells the women and begins to lose it. No one told him there were going to be women here doing that. How long are they going to be doing that? Two young women. Gooks. Why are they sitting there doing that? “I gotta get out of here.” But he cannot move because he cannot divert his attention from the women . . .

Throughout the meal, Les is a time bomb ready to go off. What finally triggers an explosion is the waiter approaching from behind to refill his water glass:

Now the shakes have set in big-time. He cannot deal with the rice. It falls off the fork, he’s shaking so bad.

And Christ almighty, here comes a waiter with the water. Circling around and coming at Lester from the back, from out of fucking nowhere, another waiter. They are all at once but a split second away from Les yelling “Yahhh!” and going for the waiter’s throat, and the water pitcher exploding at his feet.

“Stop!” cries Louie. “Back off!”

The women shelling the peas start screaming.

“He does not need any water!” Shouting, standing on his feet and shouting, with his cane raised over his head, Louie looks to the women like the one who is nuts. But they don’t know what nuts is if they think that Louie’s nuts. They have no idea.

Stories like this make the point that we had better be very, very sure before we take military action.  The human toll is staggering.

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  1. By Lit and Shared Political Conversations on March 25, 2011 at 8:51 pm

    […] of Iraq and may help getting it out of Afghanistan. I used Philip Roth’s novel The Human Stain to talk about the mental health problems, especially Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, suffered by returning soldiers.  I also hoped that a […]


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