September 14, 2021

Glenn Petersen (Photo courtesy of Petersen)

Glenn Petersen, a professor of Anthropology and International Affairs at Baruch College and a professor of Liberal Studies and Anthropology at the Graduate Center, recently published War and the Arc of Human Experience, a memoir and anthropological examination of the 70 missions he flew in Vietnam when he was 19 years old. As part of his quest to understand the war’s aftermath, he traces his history from a high school dropout to a Ph.D. student at Columbia University, where he was Margaret Mead’s last graduate student, to becoming a parent, which unraveled the coping mechanisms that had kept him successful for so long. 

The Graduate Center: How did you manage to look at yourself with an anthropological perspective, employing the tools of participant observation decades after you experienced these events?

Petersen: I have an unusual capacity to take in what’s going on around me and store it — that’s why I succeeded as an ethnographer. Virtually any event that I remember from the past, I can see in its context.

When I am able to cross-check — by talking to guys I spent a lot of time with, for example — I find that I’m pretty accurate. One of my central working positions in ethnography and anthropology is that there’s usually not a lot of coherence between what people say and what they do. And so I’m constantly cross-checking to make sure I’m not fooling myself.

GC: You had only a 10th-grade education before you joined the Navy. What led you to getting an Ivy League Ph.D., specifically in anthropology?

Petersen: I hated school. If I hadn’t run away from home, I would have dropped out anyway. And yet, when I ran away, I went to the town of Santa Barbara, and within months I was enrolling in a class in the community college there. There was a part of me that was dead set on getting an education. 

My grandfather subscribed to National Geographic from almost the day it was published. So I had an idea of the rest of the world. Later, when I was stationed in rural Tennessee, there wasn’t a lot to do, and so on the weekends I went to the library on the base. One day this book was sitting on the new acquisitions table, The Door in the Wall, by Oliver La Farge. He was a working anthropologist and a Pulitzer Prize–winning fiction writer. And I read all of his stories about anthropologists in the field that had been collected there. 

When my ship was sailing down from Vietnam to Australia, we sailed through the South Pacific. I flew out every day to get bearings for the ship. I was looking at paradise, these incredibly beautiful little islands. I said, I have to live on one of these islands. I realized that this is what anthropologists do, and so I decided to become an anthropologist. 

And because I only had a 10th-grade education and didn’t know I couldn’t do it, I did it. I was so lucky. I drove a truck and taught as an adjunct after I had my Ph.D. After 150 applications over two years, I wound up with a job at Baruch, and I’ve been there ever since. 

Glenn PetersenWar and the Arc of Human Experience picture

GC: You write that you wanted “to tell veterans of more recent wars what may be lying in wait for them, too.” What would you like them to know?

Petersen: I wrote my book because I want desperately to share with today’s vets my understanding of war trauma. And the impact of Afghanistan’s fall, like Saigon’s and South Vietnam’s collapse nearly 50 years ago, is exactly the sort of thing I feel compelled to warn them about.

What I really want veterans to know is there’s a fundamental contradiction — to expose yourself to danger repeatedly, day in and day out, you have to be able to block it out. And because you have, on the surface, blocked it out, you think, I’m fine, nothing’s happened to me. That ability to repress all the danger, all the stress, makes you very functional in the short run. When you get out of the military, you think you can do anything. There’s a classic image of a Vietnam veteran as someone who’s really screwed up, but the overwhelming majority of veterans are pretty functional, because they’ve learned to block stuff out.

When I came back from the war, I was able to get my GED and get through college in two years, while I was working half time, and I got my Ph.D. and my job and tenure, and I was made the head of my department. I was on this track of total success, because I had such a narrow focus. 

And then, almost the moment that my daughter was born, 20 years after I’d come back, my brain got rewired. There’s plenty of research on this, showing that the parent is as affected by raising the child as the child is by being raised. Suddenly I no longer had the ability to block out the war. Then I took the radical step of realizing that one of the reasons I was so functional was that I was self-medicating. I drank myself to sleep every night for 25 years, and I couldn’t do it anymore. I knew I was going to die if I kept going. And the minute I stopped self-medicating, all hell broke loose and the war came rushing back. I’ve been in treatment ever since then.

My experience with all of this is: We do not yet have a way of making the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder go away. We can treat the symptoms, but all of these treatments seem to be just temporary. 

Peterson and grandson in chair

Petersen with his grandson. (Photo courtesy of Petersen)