What does it mean to go to war? Nobody can truly answer that question unless they’ve been in combat. No matter how well constructed, almost no book, movie or video game can encapsulate the experience: Most tend to focus on the inhumanities of war, not the humans involved. But to better understand the pain and trauma of those we know who have experienced the battlefield, we must use some facsimile.
It feels both odd and completely appropriate to be thinking about this right now. We are in the midst of a war being waged in Ukraine by Russia; one that already has the markings of the unspeakable horrors of war.
A few weeks ago, I got an email from photographer Jessica Hines asking if I would be interested in taking a look at her book, “My Brother’s War” (Dewi Lewis, 2022). Her description of the book intrigued me; I said, “Yes.”
Hines’s book is all about her attempts to come to grips with the experiences of her brother, Gary, after he was drafted into the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War.
The war, as it was for countless others, turned out to be an infinitely traumatic experience for him. And though he survived his time overseas as a crew chief on Chinook helicopters, he came away from the experience marred with post-traumatic stress disorder and eventually took his own life.
When her brother went off to war, Hines was just a young girl. This book is her attempt to get a little closer to him. It is also a part of Hines’s own journey to find closure. It is an intensely personal document — one that I’m sure many people can relate to. Unfortunately, I think it is also a book that will continue to be relevant for too many years to come.
Hines initially began the project by photographing letters that her brother sent home, placing them alongside miniature army men. She thought the project would be done swiftly, but as she worked, it became a much larger presence in her life. She ended up meeting up with military veterans and even visiting many of the locations in Vietnam where her brother once tread.
It is impossible to come away from the pages of this book without being struck by intensely emotional chords. It reverberates with sadness and longing, not only for the lost time and experience Hines felt as a sister, but as a comment on the deeply destructive nature of war. War may beat down and destroy those caught up in the thick of it, but it also reaps indelible, heart-rending and lasting destruction on family members and loved ones.
This is no less true when life is lost outside of the concrete parameters of war, as in the case of Gary’s suicide. Destruction comes in many forms, not just in the corporeal effects of shrapnel tearing at flesh. The psychological trauma can be acutely intense if not deadly. Just because you can’t see something doesn’t mean it’s not there.
For so long, we didn’t seem to pay as much attention to the mental harm, it was taboo, especially in older generations. Nowadays, thankfully, we are more open to talking about it, recognizing it’s overall detrimental effects.
But as Hines writes in a passage in the book after visiting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial:
“What are missing from the wall are the names of those who died war-related deaths: from suicide, from injuries, or from exposure to harmful chemical substances. In my research to find accurate statistics for Vietnam veterans who have taken their own lives., I find only conflicting information. And so I doubt that I have the final truth about this subject.”
We’d do well to remember those whose lives have been upended by war. They deserve to be remembered for not only for their sacrifices but just for the basic fact that all human life has worth. The day Hines visited the Vietnam memorial, she taped a note with her brother’s name to it so that, at least for that day, he was there and could be seen.
As a meditation on the trauma caused by the Vietnam War on her brother, her family and herself, Hines book can be extrapolated to something, sadly, more universal. It is one of the most unfortunate and pernicious things about our shared existence on this planet that war is not only for us living here in the United States. That is shockingly, terribly, true, right now. As I type these words there are scores of people — soldiers and civilians alike, who will be marked forever by the jagged teeth of human conflict.
In the end, “My Brother’s War” is a universal and often told story, whether we like it or not.
You can see more of Hines’s work on her website, here. And you can buy the book, here.
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