Sunday, January 13, 2008

A George Carlin Classic on Combat PTSD

Back in my flight attendant days, I generally bid to work the first class cabin. Not only were there fewer seats giving you fewer mouths to feed and water in that section of the plane, every so often you'd get to mix and mingle with some of the greatest (and worst) and/or famous (and infamous) people on the planet.

I met Muhammad Ali this way and Jonas Salk. Lady Bird Johnson, Pele, Walter Payton and Jesse Jackson. Billy Joel, Bobby Vinton, Cheap Trick, Amy Grant, Dream Theater, Ozzy Osbourne, Daryl Hall, Smokey Robinson. Oprah Winfrey, Weird Al Yankovich, Lee Majors, Anita Hill. The Toronto Blue Jays immediately after they won the World Series. Morley Safer, Bill Wallace, Lesley Stahl, Ed Bradley...the 60 Minutes gang on separate flights and times.

Frankly, I crossed paths with so many over my 15-year career that I can't even remember all of them anymore. And, looking at the brief list of names above, I can see I'm dating myself. Now you hardly ever see a meal even in first class, and even rarer still are celebrity sightings -- many fly on their own (or shared) leased aircraft these days if at all possible.

But back in my day, one celeb that I kept running into (not one, not two, but three separate times during my career) on my flights from Chicago to New York City was comedian George Carlin. He always had the same vibe on board as he has on stage (I've seen him there, too): a little rough around the edges, a compelling if no nonsense figure, mischievously witty and sharp as a tack.

And always, always a bit annoyed.

Carlin is known for his colorful delivery and razor-sharp examination of the English language -- and the humans who use and abuse it -- in all of its quirky wonder. Here's a classic bit (fortunately, a Sunday morning-friendly passage) on combat PTSD, a selection called 'Euphemisms' from his Explicit Lyrics CD.

I don't like words that hide the truth. I don't like words that conceal reality. I don't like euphemisms, or euphemistic language. And American English is loaded with euphemisms. Cause Americans have a lot of trouble dealing with reality. Americans have trouble facing the truth, so they invent the kind of a soft language to protect themselves from it, and it gets worse with every generation. For some reason, it just keeps getting worse. I'll give you an example of that.

There's a condition in combat. Most people know about it. It's when a fighting person's nervous system has been stressed to it's absolute peak and maximum. Can't take anymore input. The nervous system has either (click) snapped or is about to snap.

In the first world war, that condition was called shell shock. Simple, honest, direct language. Two syllables, shell shock. Almost sounds like the guns themselves.

That was seventy years ago. Then a whole generation went by and the second world war came along and very same combat condition was called battle fatigue. Four syllables now. Takes a little longer to say. Doesn't seem to hurt as much. Fatigue is a nicer word than shock. Shell shock! Battle fatigue.

Then we had the war in Korea, 1950. Madison avenue was riding high by that time, and the very same combat condition was called operational exhaustion. Hey, we're up to eight syllables now! And the humanity has been squeezed completely out of the phrase. It's totally sterile now. Operational exhaustion. Sounds like something that might happen to your car.

Then of course, came the war in Viet Nam, which has only been over for about sixteen or seventeen years, and thanks to the lies and deceits surrounding that war, I guess it's no surprise that the very same condition was called post-traumatic stress disorder. Still eight syllables, but we've added a hyphen! And the pain is completely buried under jargon. Post-traumatic stress disorder.

I'll bet you if we'd of still been calling it shell shock, some of those Viet Nam veterans might have gotten the attention they needed at the time. I'll betcha. I'll betcha.

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