Glenn Petersen flew seventy combat missions in Vietnam when he was nineteen, launching from an aircraft carrier in the Tonkin Gulf. He’d sought out the weighty responsibilities and hazardous work. But why? What did the cultural architecture of the society he grew up in have to do with the way he went to war? In this book he looks at the war from an anthropological perspective because that’s how he’s made his living in all the subsequent years: it’s how he sees the world. While anthropologists write about the military and war these days, they do so from the perspective of researchers. What makes this a fully original contribution is that Petersen brings to the page the classic methodology of ethnographers, participant observation—a kind of total immersion. He writes from the dual perspectives of an insider and a researcher and seeks in the specifics of lived experience some larger conclusions about humans’ social lives in general. Petersen was long oblivious to what had happened to him in Vietnam and he fears that young men and women who’ve been fighting the US military’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq might be similarly unaware of what’s happened to them. Skills that allowed him to survive in combat, in particular his ability to focus tightly on the challenges directly in front of him, seemed to transfer well to life after war. The same intensity led him to a successful academic career, including the time he represented the Micronesian islands at the United Nations; how could anything be wrong? Then surreptitiously, the danger, the stress, and the trauma he’d hidden away broke through a brittle shell and the war came spilling out. As an anthropologist he sees in this a classic pattern: an adaptation to one set of conditions is put to a new and practical use when conditions change, but in time what had once been beneficial turns into maladaptive behavior. In writing about why we fight, he shed lights on what the fighting does to us.
Glenn Petersen is professor at the City University of New York’s Baruch College and Graduate Center.
List of Figures
Chapter One: Why We Fight
Chapter Two: Becoming a Warrior
Chapter Three: Everyday Danger
Chapter Four: Stress and Decompression
Chapter Five: Thinking I’ve Left War
Chapter Six: Daddy, Daddy, Daddy!
Chapter Seven: War and the Arc of Human Experience
Chapter Eight: Everyday War
Chapter Nine: Why We Fought
AppendixS: ERE, Torture, Psychologists, and the CIA
About the Author
When Sailors gather together to share sea stories, we start with “this is no shit” and tell a whopper of a tale—the most harrowing, the most hilarious, the most absurd experience of our service. Each old tale that is retold, however, is accompanied by the nervous grin, the wink, the subtle nod, the shudder, or the raised hairs on the back of your neck that accompanies memories of the everyday dangers we endured for months on end. These are the tales we do not often tell but are necessary to understanding the experiences of serving in the military. War and the Arc of Human Experience is more than a sea story. It is a detailed exploration of these everyday dangers. More importantly, it is a personal journey through one Sailor’s confrontation with the layering of these war-time experiences and their impact throughout his life after the service. His work is illuminating and provocative for veterans, and instructive to those who live and work with all who served in both peace and war.
Rarely does an author demonstrate the fortitude, determination, and curiosity to go where Glenn Petersen takes us in War and the Arc of Human Experience. From escaping a toxic family environment to joining the Navy where, as a young sailor, he was responsible for hundreds of lives in unfathomably dangerous circumstances, Petersen, like so many others, brought back from Vietnam the enduring aftershock of war.
As a veteran with PTSD and a renowned anthropologist, Professor Petersen courageously explores his personal experience in the context of its cultural and historical moment. Petersen’s passion, his gift to readers, is to put everything on the line in sharing his story.
A beautifully written examination of what is carried home from war, the complexities of notions of healing and reconciliation, and establishing a life in anthropology while processing these formative traumas and working towards moments of reconciliation. War and the Arc of Human Experience dives deep into the culture and times that sent Glenn Petersen and a generation to fight in Vietnam, and the legacies of pain that emerged, even as he wrestles with these formative experiences that marked survivors in ways both negative and positive. A powerful work that will be widely read.
Though set in the Vietnam War, this could be a memoir of all wars. Petersen gives us a gripping introspective work of military psychology that captures what is real about war and the path that leads each of us to it. Reading about him running away from a difficult father straight to Vietnam, then to academia, fatherhood, sobriety, fraught relationships, and treatment, helped me understand myself better and will make the reader understand us a bit better too.
Petersen combines autobiography with historical anthropology to puncture the reigning understanding of the Vietnam War in the United States. His deeply moving account both humanizes the history of the war and deepens our understanding of how entrenched narratives of masculinity and class draw young men to sign up for battle and shape our historical memory of the wars they fight.
Glenn Petersen thought he left the Vietnam war behind when he came home and walked into the alternate atmosphere of 1968. He gravitated to an old dream, became an anthropologist and lived on a South Sea Island. But the war lived on deep in his mind. When he hit 40, made Professor, and became a dad, it began to bust out, and he’s been coping with it ever since. This is a PTSD story, told with an anthropologist’s attunement to all the cultural currents from his 1950s youth up to now, and remarkable self-examination, never shying from contradictions or self-doubts. For all those who have gone to war since, it is a warning.
9/14/21, The Graduate Center, CUNY interviewed Petersen about his memoir.