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Table of Contents
BOOK REVIEW
Year : 2018  |  Volume : 16  |  Issue : 2  |  Page : 195-196

War Torn: Stories of Courage, Love and Resilience by Kenneth E. Miller. Burdett, New York: Larson Publications. 2016 (295 pages) ISBN-13: 978-1-936012-78-7,eISBN: 978-1-936012-79-4


MD, MPH, psychiatrist Peace in Practice, Amsterdam

Date of Web Publication30-Jul-2018

Correspondence Address:
Leslie Snider
MD, MPH, psychiatrist Peace in Practice, Amsterdam

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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None


DOI: 10.1097/WTF.0000000000000155

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How to cite this article:
Snider L. War Torn: Stories of Courage, Love and Resilience by Kenneth E. Miller. Burdett, New York: Larson Publications. 2016 (295 pages) ISBN-13: 978-1-936012-78-7,eISBN: 978-1-936012-79-4. Intervention 2018;16:195-6

How to cite this URL:
Snider L. War Torn: Stories of Courage, Love and Resilience by Kenneth E. Miller. Burdett, New York: Larson Publications. 2016 (295 pages) ISBN-13: 978-1-936012-78-7,eISBN: 978-1-936012-79-4. Intervention [serial online] 2018 [cited 2018 Oct 16];16:195-6. Available from: http://www.interventionjournal.org/text.asp?2018/16/2/195/238097

War Torn: Stories of Courage, Love and Resilience recounts the journey of one man’s travels and work in post conflict settings. It intimately explores the lives of the people with whom he shares those journeys—clients, colleagues, friends and lovers. The book marries personal stories with an accounting of the author’s evolving understanding and professional development in the field of mental health and psychosocial support (MHPSS) in emergencies. With a self-effacing and often humorous style, the author puts aside his assumptions and book-learned ideas in order to live the experience together with those on the front lines. War Torn is a testament to the adage that our ‘patients’ are our greatest teachers, and they bestow upon the author a nuanced and complex understanding of the human impacts of conflict.

Each chapter in War Torn is dedicated to a different conflict setting. The author vividly describes the sights, smells and sounds of each country so that readers feel that they are walking alongside him, from the jungles of Mexico to the dusty streets of Afghanistan. The author explores not only the inhumanity of war, but also the ways in which humanity emerges ‘like flowers breaking through the concrete’—vulnerable, resistive and emboldened. The journey begins in the highlands of Guatemala, where the author accepts a volunteer job evaluating a programme of creative arts workshops to help children to heal from the effects of civil war and genocide. Along with his girlfriend, he ventures through this first foray into war, gaining an appreciation for the dangers of research in war zones and for the enduring grief for the disappeared.

He follows the path onward to refugee camps in Chiapas for Guatemalans fleeing violence and persecution. Here, on the Mexican border, he begins work on his PhD dissertation while offering creative workshops for children. The author realises something that would shape his future work – that viewing people’s experiences solely through the lens of trauma from direct war experiences obscures the huge impacts of daily life stressors (such as poverty, uncertainty and statelessness) on people’s wellbeing. In hindsight, he returns to his dissertation data while writing the book to uncover the ‘compelling story’ of women in two refugee villages hidden within his data: ‘the story behind the numbers was about gender. It was about what communities look like when girls are encouraged to attend school and develop fully, when women are allowed to play an active role in all spheres of communal life.’ (page 104)

But the reader is truly drawn in by the stories of nights spent with a family who offer him and his girlfriend a place to stay while they conduct their work, and a unique entry into the community. He also describes the mysteries of the rich spiritual traditions surrounding them, replete with vignettes of bewitching, susto (soul loss) and healings by curanderos (traditional healers) more effective, and infinitely more affordable, than the modern medicine out of reach of refugees.

The next chapter examines the author’s work with Bosnian refugees in Chicago at a Center for Torture Survivors on the south side. Here he delves into the loneliness and isolation of refugees who have lost loved ones and community and who find themselves in a land far from the dreams they once held. In the therapy room, as he and his colleagues struggle to help people with debilitating, traumatic memories find a measure of peace, he describes his leap of faith—or perhaps more aptly of desperation—in his first use of Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing. He also delves into the sordid mess of a war that exploited religious and ethnic intolerance and the impossible dilemmas for families trying to survive.

As a research project with Afghan refugees in San Francisco was abruptly halted by the events of 9/11, the author took an opportunity to work in Afghanistan with the anthropologist Patricia Omidian. He offers a serious critique of the usefulness of measuring what is obvious—that war is bad for people’s mental health—in favour of a cultural and contextual exploration of the experience of people who have survived 25 years of war, brutality and violence. Through the Afghan words for the heartbreak of deep grief and loss (jigar khun) and lion-like rage and tension (asabi), he begins to understand at what point people encounter the limits of resilience. He wrestles with deep aspects of culture, such as the ingrained adherence to honour killings that he cannot truly comprehend. It is also in Afghanistan that he carries out his seminal work on daily stressors that has broadened not just our view of how people suffer after war, but also the myriad ways in which they can be helped: ‘if you wanted to ease depression among Afghan women, a good starting point would include literacy and livelihood projects with strong social components, …microfinance loans…and domestic violence interventions…’.

The final chapters bring the reader to Iraq and Sri Lanka. The entry for Iraq in the spring of 2006 is short, but intense, describing torture and rampant killing by the government, the Taliban and American security personnel. These are hard truths, made more real by a sign on a door in the Medico-Legal Institute of Baghdad: ‘Office of Mass Graves’. In Sri Lanka, he recounts the astounding story of villagers who survived massacre by the Tamil Tigers by leaving their homes each night for 8 years to find a safe haven for sleep, returning in the morning to pick up the threads of their lives. This strange existence became the subject of his documentary film, Unholy Ground.

War Torn is not an easy read, given its context and poignant narratives of personal suffering. ‘No way around it: if you’re going to write about war, you’re going to tell some painful stories,’ he explains of this ‘dark topic’. For example, the author describes the murder of a Sri Lankan friend who encouraged him to tell stories from both sides of the conflict, despite the danger of government reprisals. Shortly after their conversation, his friend was ambushed and shot for doing that very thing—bravely telling the whole story.

Reading War Torn, many readers may experience an historical account of the professionalising of the MHPSS in emergencies field as evolved from its forebears in trauma studies and individual therapeutic approaches. The author provides a clear narrative of how the field developed toward consensus and clearly worded guidelines (Inter-Agency Standing Committee, 2007) that were lacking a decade ago. War Torn illustrates why the tenets we hold dear are so important—how they help us to ‘do no harm’ and even to do a measure of good.

The author begins the book with the question: ‘war story or love story?’ and ultimately comes to this answer: ‘I feel a renewed strength and a deepened sense of meaning when I think of my friends … in every war-torn country in which I have spent time. The work is a kind of love story, and for me, deeply redemptive.’ The author offers readers another path to redeeming our humanity—by taking action and supporting organisations that he lists at the end of the book. Perhaps it is only through journeys into the extreme places of fear, hatred and damage that the life stories of War Torn are able to reveal so intensely the mirror image of those experiences: courage, love and resilience.[1]

 
  References Top

1.
Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC). (2007). IASC Guidelines on Mental health and Psychosocial Support in Emergency Settings. Geneva: IASC.  Back to cited text no. 1
    




 

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