[I became FaceBook friends with Robert Sommer after an exchange with Oklahoma poet laureate Jeanetta Calhoun Mish. Bob was kind enough to send me an advance copy of his book then. Although I had difficulty extracting myself from the book once I started reading it, the content was difficult for me to process. Difficult as any important story told with lyrical and thoughtful earnestness. Difficult to figure out the entry point into such a complex story. Thanks to Jeannetta for the indirect introduction, and to Bob for writing.The FB page for Losing Francis is here. You can order Losing Francis (Fomite Press, 2018, $15) through your local bookstore or other used and new sources. ]
Thank You For Your Service
A Review of Robert Sommer’s Losing Francis
by Lew Rosenbaum
“Sometimes people told me . . . thank him for his service. They were sincere. They meant well. But now, after years of war, and with so little sacrifice by so many and so much by so few, phrases like that resonate in the hollow white noise of bumper-sticker platitudes that have become the background chorus of our lives.” Thank him for his service? What could they know?
That refrain repeats itself, sometimes in Francis’ own words, throughout the Robert Sommer’s powerful collection of connected essays that form a coherent memoir. Losing Francis gives us a strong and complex rendering of the complicated story of Francis Sommer, the son of anti-war activist parents, a young man who joined the army to fight in Afghanistan. Francis, with an IQ of 140, did poorly in school and barely graduated from high school. Without prospects for college, he resorted to alcohol abuse and found his way to the army as a kind of salvation. The army deployed him in Iraq and then Afghanistan, and 4 years later, in 2007, discharged him. He was treated by the VA for PTSD with a variety of medications, went to Johnson City Community College (Kansas City) where he nearly completed his education in culinary arts, and then, drunk, drove his car into a ditch and killed himself in 2011.
I have waited for months to write this. I’ve actually sat down at the computer three or four times and too much inundated my head. I couldn’t get straight all the strands, all the interwoven threads. But somehow the poignancy of “Thank you for your service” seems to strike at the heart of it. What service? Francis certainly came to question the rationale for sending him overseas. When you are “in-country,” you are obligated to defend your comrades’ backs, because (if for no other reason) you depend on them. But what about the tasks you are performing on the ground? And also, imagine the misgivings of parents, like Bob Sommer and his wife Heather, who picket against the war while their son is on the front lines. Francis comes to understand and support this, but isn’t there at least a little kernel of guilt that can never be assuaged by the slogan: “Support the troops. Bring them home”?
And then, of course, fundamentally, the pragmatism of American life removes us from the fields of conflict, the battlegrounds, such that fewer and fewer people have any personal ties to the wars. Without a draft, with more and more deployment of drones and high technology warfare, the number of Americans isolated from any action of armed forces in war areas is minimal and shrinking. Just exactly who are our troops serving? How does a soldier come to terms with his or her “service,” perhaps what they have come to regard as crimes committed?
Robert Sommer feels bitter about the environment of “so little sacrifice by so many and so much by so few,” where “bumper sticker platitudes” fill the air. This is how he describes what it was like leading up to his son’s deployment (p. 68):
This is an American project, an American invasion and war, and it is without doubt coming soon, any day, following a long, intense build-up of arms and troops, and fear-mongering by the Administration and its apologists. By now, thanks to additional support for the war (and fear-mongering) in much of the corporate media, Americans have been mostly won over to the cause and along the way have become expert on a handful of factoids about the Middle East, which they recite to one another in coffee shops and kitchens and break rooms and garages and offices and warehouses and bars across the country.
Whoever tells the best story wins the hearts and minds of the people. And clearly the best story was being told, through the corporate media, and repeated in every venue, over an over again. What makes this observation relevant and resonant are the factoids and platitudes and outright lies swirling in the media environment today. It’s not clear who has the best story, but it is clear that the best story does not have to be grounded in reality. And when Francis Sommer returned from deployment, that very unreality clashed with the reality he knew and had experienced.
Francis Sommer was diagnosed on discharge with PTSD. He showed signs while still on active duty. His father observes that PTSD is not simply isolated to the combatants. It is contagious, it vitiates families and communities. Much of the narrative that describes Francis after his deactivation portrays his inner and external conflict. That conflict started years earlier. Robert Sommer tells the story of a call from Iraq in 2004. There were occasions when Francis asked his father to take the call where his mother could not hear. This was one of those calls. Francis had killed — by mistake — one of the translators on his team. He was trying to come to grips with what he had done (the army hand cleared him of any blame) and wanting to hear his father’s voice. So they exchanged words and assurances. And, Robert says, “everything wrong with that war was compressed into what had just happened and now what we said . . . turned anger and pity into jingoism and nationalism.” How can there not be post traumatic stress and its contagion?
The outcome of Losing Francis is betrayed by its title. It’s not entirely clear when Robert and Heather lost Francis — the author questions this as well. But there is one definitive moment, the moment that the police came to the door to inform the parents about the car crash and the death of their son. It didn’t matter that they had avoided the scenario they had rehearsed years before, expecting the visit from military personnel. It didn’t matter that the Francis that returned from war was not the same person as before; or that even the pre-war Francis was, in a sense lost. This was finality. It’s over.
Or is it? Losing Francis brings memory to lyrical life, and “Memory is not altered by truth, only strengthened. . . Like seeing rust on the hillsides, and dying glaciers, and wars.”