A Lesson in Perspective from Roxana Robinson's 'Sparta'

When I picture the Marines, I see stocky boys raised in a military family, “problem kids” sent away to be straightened out, or Southerners who have grown up toting guns and ready to do their duty.

I don’t picture a classics major from a liberal, Northeast family who wants to continue a tradition of honor and courage dating back to Sparta. I definitely do not picture the son of the pacifist, sign-waving hippies of the sixties. And so, even the premise of Roxana Robinson's Sparta challenged my perspective.

Although I will never be able to literally put myself in someone else’s shoes, through reading I can at least pretend. This increased perspective and deeper understanding is one of my favorite benefits of reading. So while I can’t say that now I really know what it is like to be a war veteran, I have a significantly better idea than before I read Sparta.

After returning from a four-year stint in Iraq uninjured, Lt. Conrad is unable to slip back into civilian life. He suffers from constant headaches, panic attacks, and rages and finds communicating with his family and girlfriend incomprehensibly difficult. Eventually, he feels like he is not even occupying his body at present because of his inability to leave the past behind.

Conrad speaks frequently of the different worlds he occupies. When home with his family, he thought “They all wanted to draw him home, into their world, and they all wanted to enter his world, but in a safe way. They wanted funny stories and brave ones, scary ones only if they were bearable. They wanted their hearts wrung, but in a tolerable way. They wanted to learn that his world was safe, or, if not safe, that it was livable after all.”

Far too frequently, those statements exemplify how many of us approached the Iraq War and continue to approach the conflict in Afghanistan. It is easy to let 24 hours slip by without remembering that we are a country at war, that more than 6,000 Americans have lost their lives for these wars, and that countless more, whom we consider safe because they are back in the States, continue to daily suffer the horrors and consequences of what they experienced abroad.

Particularly heartbreaking was when Conrad finally sought help with the V.A. for his PTSD and ended up spending less than five minutes talking to a doctor who simply handed him several prescriptions, some with side affects of suicidal behavior.

After spending four years in Iraq, Conrad’s view of America drastically shifted. Seeing his men die of heatstroke and dehydration caused Conrad to be aghast at the casual attitude toward water at home: “There were those plastic bottles all over the place, on benches in parks, on sidewalks, on counters. Still partly full of clean water, like little comments, little boasts, saying, See! We have so much of this we can afford to waste it.” And I thought studying abroad at a posh university campus gave me a new perspective of America, when I was never hungry, much less shot at.

The hard part of finishing an eye-opening book like Sparta is figuring out what to do with the new-found perspective. We can’t exactly quit drinking clean water. We have to keep going to work, eating dinner, and even finding reasons to laugh and enjoy ourselves. But at the very least we can keep our increased understanding with us. We can acknowledge that we are at war and acknowledge the struggles of war veterans. We can remember that every solider is a unique story with unique struggles, not a stereotype.

If you want to put a face and name to the death tallies of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, check out this interactive page at Washington Post, and if you want greater comprehension of the struggles of war veterans told in a gripping, heart-wrenching manner, give Sparta a read.