Violence Rages on Well After the Conflict Is Over -- How War-Time Torture Can Turn into a Life of Domestic Violence
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Today, in the bleak room he shares with Azhar and their young son in South Beirut, Ahmad removed his plastic shoes to show me his swollen feet, still purple and marked by sunken scars where toenails used to be. He says that when he has flashbacks he feels overcome by powerlessness and rage. What these feelings compel him to do threatens to destroy his life. He sometimes loses control and hits Azhar hard, and then he weeps and begs her pardon. His eyes seem to leak even as he says these things.
I am here to listen. I listen to what people like Ahmad and Azhar tell me about war and the violence that attends it because my own life -- the only life I can know firsthand, and even that imperfectly -- has been darkened by war. That war is now commemorated with paper poppies, the Great War, in which my father served with uncommon distinction and from which he returned a hero, irrevocably changed, subject to nightmares and sudden rages and drunken assaults upon innocent furniture and my mother and me, and tearful reconciliations we were not permitted to reject. I watch the BBC coverage of the distant ritual of Armistice Day and see many people, mostly women, advanced well beyond middle age, weeping with remembrance.
Their memories, I imagine, might be like mine: the memories of people who never participated in the war and yet have never escaped it. My father, at sixteen, enlisted in the American Expeditionary Force to take part in the war to end all wars. But that's not how it worked out. In some ways, as the BBC presenter says, the Great War laid the foundation for more wars to come, and certainly for wars at home, like the one my father waged for twenty years and more against my mother and me in a dark-green-shuttered house in a small town in Wisconsin. The war my father carried home in his khaki canvas bag from the trenches of Flanders to the valley of the Chippewa is the shadow in which I've lived my solitary life. It is surely the reason that now in my seventieth year I sit in this seedy room in a fading hotel long favored by journalists and stare at cigarette burns in the worn carpet, and see only the purple toes of Ahmad and the fading yellow bruises on the face of his wife.
My father used to say that wars were made by men who had never been to war, men who didn't know that once started it never ends. The Great War ended with the Armistice in 1918, but my father lived another sixty years; and during all that time the war never left his memory or his nightmares. Nor is it ever far from mine, because the violence my father brought home fell on me and shattered what ever small childish trust I may once have had in the simplicity of love. The violence of war does not end when peace is declared. Often it merely recedes from public to private life. I am here in Beirut talking about war, writing about war, because my father fought bravely in a brutal one. And that changed everything for him, and consequently for me.
For many years I studied violence in the family and wrote about it in several books. I was part of a widespread movement of women in the United States and elsewhere who worked hard to change attitudes and laws about violence against women, inside and outside the home, and to provide services for women and child survivors. It was the home that I wanted to make safe for women and children because the home was what I knew, in all its fearful rage and sorrow.