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Waiting for First Light: My Ongoing Battle with PTSD

by Jessica Dee Humphreys; Roméo Dallaire

For more than two decades, Roméo Dallaire, a retired lieutenant-general in the Canadian Armed Forces, has borne the inconceivably heavy weight of representing the public face of the international community’s failure to prevent the 1994 Rwandan genocide. He wrote the landmark chronicle of the atrocity, Shake Hands with the Devil, and now examines in painful personal detail the toll the experience has taken on him.

Waiting for First Light Romeo DallaireAs chapter introductions, Dallaire uses verses from “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” – Coleridge’s epic poem about a sailor returning home after a long, haunting voyage, consumed with visions of horrors no one wants to hear about. The author’s own prose glows with rage, a voice urgently seeking an audience unafraid to absorb what he has to say. Waiting for First Light, like most of Dallaire’s writing, is no military man’s stiff-upper-lip story; rather, it is an intensely raw memoir that exposes his every last frailty and vulnerability, a cri de coeur for those Rwandans he could not save as well as his fellow veterans battling demons no one else can comprehend.

The narrative jumps back and forth from recollections of the genocide’s gruesome imagery to the events of intervening decades, all of them influenced by the ghosts that haunt the author’s every activity. Dallaire knew something was wrong when he got back to Canada – which to his disgust many referred to as “the real world” – but figured he could remain in control by jumping into a manic work schedule that saw him constantly on the road discussing a genocide whose lessons few wanted to learn while struggling to make the military’s top-heavy bureaucracy function in a time of budget cuts and low morale.

Generals do not enjoy the same camaraderie as lower-ranking returning soldiers who can share trauma with battalion mates, and so Dallaire, who on the surface is a capable workaholic, fights his internal battle alone. His enemy during these days is the nighttime in a lonely Ottawa apartment where he works until exhaustion claims him. “I wasn’t living, only reliving,” he writes as he journeys along the grim descent into alcoholism, cutting, suicide attempts, and his growing distance from and irritability with loved ones. Dallaire’s torment entered the public sphere when he crashed into a Parliament Hill traffic barrier and was found passed out in a park.

There’s a lot going on here, and the text can be repetitive, emerging as it does from the flood of emotion in which Dallaire, despite therapy and medication, continues to drown. Some of the stomach-turning descriptions of human depravity also verge (in this context) on the gratuitous, and risk losing readers whose attention he would otherwise command with his salty tongue, gallows humour, and skill as a raconteur.

While the book serves as a platform for the many campaigns Dallaire continues to promote – from ending the use of child soldiers to the controversial Responsibility to Protect doctrine – these sections also feature some out-of-character clinging to unexamined notions that do not square with a man who easily deconstructs and dispenses with bafflegab. In this case, it’s the cloying insistence that Canadians represent goodness and virtue in a dangerous world – peacekeeping innocents abroad unconnected to the chaos in which we seek to play saviour.

Still, PTSD remains a stigma-laden affliction, especially in the military, and Dallaire’s courage in sharing his story is an important addition to the relatively nascent body of literature on the moral injuries and psychological scarring that afflict so many of those who do come marching home.