Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Q&A with Kenneth E. Miller

Kenneth E. Miller is the author of the new book War Torn: Stories of Courage, Love, and Resilience. He also has co-edited The Mental Health of Refugees. A psychologist, he has taught at San Francisco State University and Pomona College. He is based in Amsterdam, and works with War Child Holland.

Q: You note that as a psychologist, you’ve spent two decades focusing on people affected by war. How did you end up concentrating on this, and why did you decide to write a book about your experiences?

A: I come from a family where social justice and community service were core values. Both my parents were leaders in the human services field in the community where I grew up, and were deeply concerned about issues of civil and human rights both locally and globally.

My sisters—one is a leader now in New York City in the field of public health, and the other works to strengthen struggling public schools in and around Boston. So I guess there were certain core values that got into us early on.

And if I’m honest about it, I’d have to admit that growing up in a tough neighborhood in rural upstate New York for 13 years, before we moved to more cosmopolitan Ithaca, I had a pretty challenging time with a series of violent, angry thugs who had a special radar for a sensitive Jewish kid.

It left me with a deep dislike of bullies, and a contempt for the use of force to impose one’s will. And the link there to working with folks impacted by war, I’m sure there’s a connection.

But more concretely: as a graduate student in clinical psychology at the University of Michigan, I met a couple one evening who were presenting their work in Guatemala on an innovative mental health program for rural communities who’d survived the recent genocide and ongoing state of terror.

I was immediately drawn to the way their organization had integrated social justice, psychology, and a respect for local cultural beliefs and practices. I was hooked—and ended up spending almost two years on their project and its adaptation in refugee camps in Mexico (chapters 1-2 of the book).

As an undergrad I’d been quite active in organizations working for justice in Central America, and also in the university’s peer counseling organization. I’d never imagined one could integrate these two interests, psychology and social change. And here was this amazing project that was doing just that.

Everything I’ve done professionally has really followed from that experience in Central America. Funny, because I almost skipped the presentation by the couple that night in Michigan. It’s amazing how one’s world can change so powerfully based on a seemingly small decision…

I fell in love with the work in Guatemala, and then in the refugee camps in Mexico, and found my niche working to understand and address the needs of communities affected by war.

People sometimes think it’s a dark sort of calling, but really, many of the most inspiring and wonderful people I know, I’ve met through my work. Courageous, warm, and sometimes very funny people, who manage to find humor in the most insane places as a way of staying sane when everything is in chaos, or when life has been completely turned upside down by violence, loss, and displacement.

It really is a labor of love for me, as it is for them. And perhaps it leaves me feeling a bit less helpless in the face the tyranny in the world, to be a part, however small, of something that tries to counter that tyranny and its effects on everyday folks.

Q: In the book, you write, “In wars fought today, the most common victim isn’t a soldier, but a child, a schoolteacher, a young mother, a grandparent.” Do you think there is enough focus on the civilian victims of war?

A: This is a great question. I do think there’s a change underway, with greater attention today than ever before to civilian victims of war.

You can see it in lots of places: for example, the number of popular films on the topic (e.g., Hotel Rwanda, Welcome to Sarajevo, The Killing Fields), and the media coverage, which increasingly focuses on civilian casualties, especially in Syria and Afghanistan.

Photojournalists have done an amazing job of bringing the brutal experience of war into close view, with heartbreaking images, like the small Syrian boy sitting stunned in the back of ambulance, covered in dust and ash, in the immediate wake of a bombing.

That’s an important change. Academics and other writers are still a bit slower to make the change; if you search on Google for books on the impact of war, 90 percent of what you’ll find is still books on the impact of war on soldiers and other combatants, even though 90 percent of war’s victims are civilians.

I don’t mean to diminish the importance of focusing on veterans and other former combatants; it’s enormously important to understand their experiences and the challenges they face when trying to reintegrate into civilian life.

But the simple truth is, the vast majority of people whose lives are upended by war are not soldiers. These are the children, the schoolteachers, the young mothers, the grandparents I speak of in the Introduction.

Every time Syrian President Assad has his planes drop barrel bombs on residential neighborhoods, he’s killing and wounding civilians; he’s turning children into orphans; he destroying schools and hospitals.

This isn’t “collateral damage”; these are his targets. And this, by and large, is what war has become: the destruction of civilian life by armed actors, who of course also attack each other.

You see it in every Taliban attack, in the Rwandan genocide, in the extraordinary violence unleashed by the American invasion of Iraq, in the tens of thousands of “disappearances” committed by death squads throughout Latin America.

Q: You also note that many war stories are also love stories. Can you say more about this?

A: I learned this first from Tim O’Brien, one of my favorite writers, in his book The Things They Carried. I realized that sometimes what we think is a war story is much more than that—that there are stories of love tucked into stories of war wherever you look.

The extraordinary things parents do to protect their children from harm, the love of community and justice that keeps people working in the most dangerous places, and yes, romantic love.

War can intensify our connections; it reminds us of the fragility and preciousness of life. And so we may hold tighter and with greater appreciation to those we love.

In Afghanistan, I met a woman called Emma Carroll, an aid worker—the book is written in memory of her—and learned how powerful it can be to just hold and be held in a context of so much violence and loss.

Q: Your book focuses on various areas of the world. Are there common themes you found among them when it comes to surviving war?

A: I’d have to quote Jim Garbarino from his foreword to the book on this one:

“…that we are as resilient as we are fragile; that healing often occurs in the absence of professional healers; and that the impact of war is far more complex than has been imagined by “Western” psychiatry and its related disciplines.”

I’ve tried to capture these themes in the stories that run through the book. Regarding the last point, there are three stories that all have the title “Not Just The War” (Parts 1, 2, and 3). 

In the West, we’ve traditionally viewed the impact of war in terms of trauma stemming from exposure to war-related violence (bombings, assaults, and the like). Certainly this is partly true.

But over and over again, everywhere I’ve worked, I’ve seen a far more complex picture: that war destroys social networks, leaving people isolated, without their usual support systems; it destroys livelihoods, and leaves people impoverished and desperate for work; it can heighten can family tensions and increase family violence, exposing women and children to greater danger within their own homes; and it can lead to the exclusion or marginalization of large groups of people—women widowed by war, children orphaned by it, survivors of rape by soldiers living with shame and social rejection; and people disabled by landmines and other violence.

So to reduce the impact of war to a simple diagnosis, PTSD, and a single cause (exposure to war-related violence) is to miss an awful lot.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m currently exploring writing about some of the same ideas I wrote about in War Torn but through fiction, to give myself room to play more creatively with the process of storytelling.

And in my day job, I’m developing mental health interventions for Syrian refugees in Lebanon and other war-affected populations in other parts of the world. 

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: My primary aim with War Torn is to bring readers behind the headlines, into the lives of everyday folks surviving extraordinary circumstances, to make the reality of war a bit more real for people.

It’s gotten way too easy to start wars with little thought to the devastating impact they will have on people’s lives. That impact is horribly real, and needs to stay front and center in our minds as our elected leaders make decisions about where to engage, or not engage, in battle.  

I also want to capture the courage and resilience I’ve seen everywhere I’ve worked; it’s inspiring, and an important counterweight to the images of survivors of war solely as devastated trauma victims.  

Finally, I’ve tried to write a book that will also appeal to teachers, practitioners, and policy makers, even though it’s not written in academic language. I believe War Torn offers important lessons on how we can better understand and address the social and psychological needs of civilians affected by war.  

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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