In Dreams Begin Responsibilities

by W.D. Ehrhart

I had a particularly weird dream last night in which I was giving the commencement address at a school where I’d taught for many years. For reasons known only in dreams, I ended up talking about post-traumatic stress disorder and how PTSD is the inevitable result of subjecting a healthy human brain to traumatic stress.

The consequences are unavoidable. If you are subjected to traumatic stress and it doesn’t screw you up, you were screwed up before you encountered the traumatic stress.

You will not make the scarring go away with counselling or group solidarity (in the case of soldiers) or anything else I’ve ever heard of. There’s a reason it’s called traumatic stress. The best you can do with PTSD is learn to live with it. Most people manage to do that with varying degrees of success. Some people don’t.

But as dreams will have it, the audience didn’t like what I had to say—actually, in truth, that happens when I’m not dreaming, too—and began to heckle me. Someone shouted, “Why don’t you go back to Russia?” I know, that doesn’t make much sense in the context, but this was a dream.

With the mention of Russia, that led me to the current war in Ukraine. I think most of us here in the United States admire the brave resistance of the Ukrainians in the face of Russian aggression, the endurance and persistence of the Ukrainian people.

But I asked my now-hostile audience how the United States would respond if Mexico and Canada signed a military alliance with Russia. In effect, this is what the U.S. and NATO began to do in the 1990s with the fall of the Soviet Union. “We’re going to push our alliance right up to your borders, you Cold War losers, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Nyah, nyah!”

The long-term result was both predictable and inevitable. This is not to say that Tsar Putin’s actions are justifiable or in any way excusable. They and he are not.

But framing this war as good versus evil, democracy versus dictatorship is more than a little problematic, especially when you consider that NATO includes Poland, Hungary, and Turkey, not exactly stellar examples of democracy.

And have we Americans forgotten that Iraq in 2003 neither played any role whatsoever in the attacks of September 11th, 2001, nor possessed weapons of mass destruction, two facts which were known within U.S. policymaking circles prior to our invasion? The casus belli of our war in Iraq was as fabricated and phony as Putin’s excuse for invading Ukraine.

Well, you can just imagine my dream audience’s reaction to all this. There was pandemonium in the auditorium. People were standing on their seats, shaking their fists, shouting obscenities at me. I was trying to tell the graduates themselves that this is what happens when you exercise your First Amendment right to express unpopular opinions; this is what you can expect as you prepare to set out on your journey into the Brave New World that awaits you.

Just as the mob that had once been an audience began to clamber onto the stage and surround me, I woke up. The thing I always appreciate about dreams is that they aren’t real, they don’t actually happen, they’re all in my head. Whatever emotions have caused my heart to race and my scalp to sweat are dissipated quickly as consciousness returns.

Nevertheless, I found myself reflecting on where this dream had come from and what it meant. I’ve been thinking about PTSD because a friend who is an ex-Marine and Vietnam War veteran had recently read a book of mine and written: “Passing Time is a fine book, Bill. And the gradual evolution of PTSD was especially good, and as I remember it. I didn’t know what was happening to me—how could I have all these ‘symptoms’ and disabling rages and anxieties? I was glad to be home, so I was embarrassed at having episodes that checked off most of the PTSD parade of hits.” If you survive traumatic stress, you come away with PTSD. That’s just the way it is.

As for the war in Ukraine, I’m not taking sides. I’m not urging the U.S. government to send Patriot Missile Systems, nor am I arguing that the U.S. should mind its own business and stay out of this entirely. Indeed, whatever I might think is the best way to handle this miserable situation is of no consequence at all. The people running the show aren’t asking for my opinion, and aren’t going to take it into consideration. I can do nothing about this war.

What I can do is try in some small way to alleviate the suffering of the millions of non-combatant civilians caught in the midst of the carnage. My wife and I are making monthly contributions to a relief fund for Ukrainian civilians, and will continue to do so for as long as this war lasts.

I’m not looking for kudos or compliments or your recognition. I mention this only because, in the midst of a world I can do little to change or improve, this is one small thing I can do. Small as it may be, it is something I can do. Something about lighting a candle rather than cursing the darkness.


W. D. Ehrhart is a retired Master Teacher of History & English, and author of a Vietnam War memoir trilogy published by McFarland & Company, Inc.

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