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Seeing the Moral Injury of War through a Humanistic Lens

Northeast Ohio’s leading educational, cultural and arts groups have come together this spring to focus on what many consider the scourge of humanity: war.

“Remembering War” is the theme of the first annual Cleveland Humanities Festival.

WKSU’s Vivian Goodman reports in this week’s State of the Arts, on a collaborative effort to look at the impact of war from a humanistic perspective.

Peter Knox, a scholar of classical Greek and Roman literature, directs the Baker-Nord Center for the Humanities at Case Western Reserve University. “We are scholars in history, literature, language, philosophy, religious studies, investigating the phenomena of human experience and creativity.”

In a series of coordinated events this spring, Knox has invited the region’s libraries, museums, universities, and cultural institutions, including the Cleveland Institute of Music, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, to take a humanistic view of war.

Festival without festivities
 “People have asked me why we call this a festival when the theme is war. There’s nothing festive about war. What we celebrate is that we’re lucky enough to live in a part of the country where we have wonderful cultural institutions, great universities that allow us to have conversations about things that matter.” 

A Cleveland Humanities Festival event this weekend will look through Mark Zannoni’s lens at the aftermath of war. “Everything was shot in Vietnam in 2010,” says the Cleveland photographer. 

Zannoni’s photographic narrative is titled “Vietnam: 35 Years After the Fall of Saigon.”

The hardcover book includes 189 color photos. “It’s documenting the remnants of the Vietnam War and where Vietnam stands today, and where we’ve come in the four decades since the end of the war.” 

Symbolic end
Zannoni will show images and talk about his book at the Bedford branch of the Cuyahoga County Library this Saturday, a significant anniversary. “That’s the date that the North Vietnamese tanks crashed through 

Zannoni's book cover
Cleveland photographer Mark Zannoni shot the photographs for his book in Vietnam in 2010.

  the palace gates. The symbolic end of the war was April 30, 1975.”  

In this, his first year at the Baker-Nord Center, Peter Knox at first considered organizing a symposium on Vietnam, but decided to broaden the discussion.

“We’ve got no shortage of anniversaries of wars and we’ve got more recent conflicts as well. And we are always in some way or another, it seems in this country, contemplating either the effects of recent war or the possibility of starting a new war. Before we do that I think it’s important for us as a culture and as citizens to think very seriously about what war means, what kind of moral injury we might suffer if we make a poor decision.”

Lessons from the Classics
Moral injury, was the topic of Dr. Peter Shay’s keynote address to open the festival. Shay is a psychiatrist who treats veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, with insights he gained from reading Homer’s Illiad and Odysey.

"He realized that there were many points of contact between the experiences of the heroes of those ancient poems, Achilles and the war at Troy, and Odysseus on the journey home, that reflected the experiences of U.S. veterans who experienced the trauma of combat.” 

Knox says Dr. Shay encourages medical colleagues to look at PTSD as a form of moral injury.

“To think of it not as a psychological disorder because that’s not in effect what it really is.  It’s a form of injury, this wound that causes people to suffer when they return from combat when their sense of what is right has been violated.”  

Warrior Actors
At another Cleveland Humanities Festival event, actors from the New York Warrior Chorus also illustrated the concept of moral injury.

For an audience of fellow war veterans at the Museum of Contemporary Art they staged classical plays.

“A way of working through the complex emotions that are triggered by moral injury for the veterans who do it and for the veterans who watch it.”

Classics scholar Peter Knox especially appreciated the relevance. “Those famous ancient Greek plays by Sophocles and Euripides, they were written by veterans, men who had served in war.” 

Making sense of war
Knox says from ancient times to today, a humanistic view has revealed the moral injury war inflicts on the larger society.

“It’s reflected in works of art, in literature, in popular culture. And that’s the contribution of the humanities. The humanities put our experiences into a context that we can process and try to make sense of.” 

Pham Quy Tuan and his family.
Pham Quy Tuan and his family. Pham Quy Tuan (left) with his children (left to right) Pham Thi Kim Ngan and Pham Quy Trung, and wife, Nguyen Thi Thu Hieu. (The cat is unnamed.) On 1 August 2009, while looking for metal using a metal detector behind his home in Hai Lang District, Quang Tri Province, Tuan hit some unexploded ordnance and lost his left hand and right arm.

  Cleveland photographer Mark Zannoni has long been trying to make sense of the Vietnam War.

“I was born in 1970. The war ended in ’73. U. S. military operations ended in ’73. The war ended in ’75, so maybe in my sub consciousness when I was 2 or 3 years old, hearing it on TV, seeing it on the Plain Dealer photos.  I don’t know. But I’ve always been interested in the war.” 

Remnants of hate
Zannoni is an editorial and documentary photographer and one of the first to capture images of 9/11.  The idea for his book came when he was in Hanoi 6 years ago and spotted some  anti-American graffiti.  “It was just stuff that was there from the 60s and 70s.” 

He says it upset him at first. “You never want to see your own country, which you love your country, and see something like that.” 

He eventually realized the posters and relief sculptures he saw in Hanoi reflected historic, not current public attitudes.

“I’d received absolutely no hostility. People embrace you because you’re American.” 

But he kept encountering things that bothered him. “Like for example you see a relief art on the wall with the aircraft with USAF, U.S. Air Force, in flames going straight down.” 

Historic wall art
Walking one day in Hanoi he noticed the sculpture on the wall of a former power plant.

McCain capture sculpture
This photo from Mark Zannoni's book shows a sculpture in front of the lake in Hanoi where Senator John McCain's plane landed after being shot down and where he was subsequently captured.

“Three NVA, North Vietnamese Army guys, with a gun pointing to the sky, an aircraft that says USA on it going down. There’s a date: October 26, 1967.” 

There was also an inscription that he got someone to translate for him. “It says 26 October, 1967, site of Yen Phu City Electric Factory. The security team of the factory in cooperation with anti-aircraft forces shot down an A-4airplane at this site, and the pilot was captured at Truc Bach Lake.” 

That pilot was Senator John McCain. Another relief sculpture on the other side of the lake marks his capture.

“And that’s this picture here on page 8. And it has a picture of a guy with his two arms in the air surrendering. It says USA next to it. And apparently this is where John McCain’s plane came to rest in the lake.” 

Zannoni got no response at first from college students he interviewed in Hanoi about what caused the war.

“And finally some girl said, ‘America wanted our minerals.’ But then, to be fair, if you asked so many 20 year-olds here about the Vietnam war they probably don’t know anything either.” 

Next year’s theme
Another hot topic, immigration, will be addressed at next spring’s Cleveland Humanities Festival. The Baker Nord center’s Peter Knox is already lining up speakers and he says they settled on the theme long before this years’s presidential race began.

“Before any particular candidate seemed to make this more topical. But I think that however events unfold in the next year or so it’s still going to be a subject that will matter.”