January 20, 2015
Guest: David Morris
DAVE DAVIES, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross who's off this week. Post-traumatic stress disorder is now the fourth most common psychiatric disorder in the United States, according to our guest, David Morris. He brings more than an academic interest to the subject. He struggles with PTSD symptoms himself. Morris was a lieutenant in the Marine Corps the 1990s, where he saw no combat. But when he became an embedded journalist in Iraq and Afghanistan, he witnessed horrific death and injury and was nearly killed himself when a military Humvee he was riding in hit an IED.
When he returned to the states, Morris began researching PTSD and how it's affected not just combat veterans, but rape victims and survivors of other trauma, including natural disasters. David Morris has written for Slate, Salon, the Los Angeles Times and The Nation. His new book, "The Evil Hours," is an exploration of the history and science of PTSD, as well as an account of his own experience and treatment. When I spoke to David Morris, he began with a reading in which he reflects on the nature of trauma.
DAVID MORRIS: (Reading) We are born in debt, owing the world a death. This is the shadow that darkens every cradle. Trauma is what happens when you catch a surprise glimpse of that darkness, the coming annihilation not only of the body and the mind, but also, seemingly, of the world. Trauma is the savagery of the universe made manifest within us, and it destroys not only the integrity of consciousness, the myth of self-mastery and the experience of time, but also our ability to live peacefully with others, almost as if it were a virus, a pathogen content to do nothing besides replicate itself in the world over and over until only it remains. Trauma is the glimpse of truth that tells us a lie, the lie that love is impossible, that peace is an illusion. Therapy and medication can ease the pain, but neither can suck the venom from the blood, make the survivor un-see the darkness and un-know the secret that lays beneath the surface of life. Despite the quixotic claims of modern neuroscience, there is no cure for trauma. Once it enters the body, it stays there forever, initiating a complex chemical chain of events that not only changes the physiology of the victims, but also the physiology of their offspring. One cannot, as war correspondent Michael Herr testifies in dispatches, simply, quote, "run the film backwards out of consciousness," unquote. Trauma is our special legacy as sentient beings, creatures burdened with the knowledge of our own impermanence, and our symbolic experience with it, is one of the things that separates us from the animal kingdom. As long as we exist, the universe will be scheming to wipe us out. The best we can do is work to contain the pain. Draw a line around it. Name it. Domesticate it, and try to transform what lays on the other side of that line into a kind of knowledge, a knowledge of the mechanics of loss that might be put to use for future generations.
DAVIES: Well, David Morris, welcome to FRESH AIR. You know, you bring a literary perspective to the subject, as well as, you know, a review of scientific understanding and personal experience. And I thought we'd talk about what you experienced as a correspondent embedded with American troops in Iraq. And why don't you tell us about the incident - the most dramatic incident, I suppose - where you were in a Humvee on that patrol.
MORRIS: Well, this was during the height of the surge, fall 2007. It was the end of a four-month period of embeds, and so I was just kind of generally exhausted and had just left this really bad neighborhood in Baghdad known as Dora, which had taken some of the - one of the - the unit I was with, there, had taken as many casualties as any unit I'd embedded with.
And so I went out for what I thought would be one of my last embeds, in my last embed in Baghdad, in this neighborhood known as Saydiya. And we were just out on a patrol, and we got a call from headquarters that we needed to go look at this street that was on fire. And it was a predominantly Shia neighborhood, and they were burning down - the Shia were burning down the houses of, presumably, their Sunni neighbors. So we drove to - we drove down this for three or four minutes - to this one cul-de-sac that was on fire, just to go see what was going on. And when we got there, there was smoke pouring over us, and it was kind of like - driving into it was kind of like driving into a cave. And all the light just kind of became a little sepia and darker as we got into it. And once we got in there, we realized we were in a cul-de-sac, and the Bradley armored vehicle ahead of us started to turn around. And the whole patrol started to pivot and do a 180. And as we were back - as my Humvee was backing up, we ran into an IED that blew up half - the rear half - of the Humvee and lit it on fire. And so there was smoke pouring into the cabin. And I didn't know it until much later, but everybody in the Humvee had lost their hearing except me, so it was kind of this weird submarine feeling of I can't communicate with anybody. You know, everyone's yelling. And eventually, we had - the IED had damaged the right rear wheel of the vehicle, and so it took us a while to figure out the state of the vehicle and to put out the fire. But eventually, after driving back and forth for a while, we were able to back to our patrol base with no casualties, although everybody had lost their hearing.
DAVIES: Right, so you weren't hurt, but - what do you remember of the explosion?
MORRIS: When I think back to it quickly, sometimes I can remember the explosion, sometimes I can't. The explosion itself, like a lot of survivors, when that moment of maximum terror happened, time seemed to slow down a little bit. And it wasn't just that time was slowing down, but there - the world seem to be filling with more information, and I was noticing more things. And it became difficult - you know, I thought - I was - I got really angry once the IED went off because I realized what a stupid mistake we'd made. And I kept waiting for someone to shoot from us from the left. I kept waiting for the ambush to be completed and for us to be killed 'cause we were sitting ducks for a long period of time. But there was a long time where I couldn't really remember the sound of the explosion. And then later, when I went into the therapy in the VA, I was able to remember it, sometimes. But when I think about it, a lot of times, my brain just goes to static like a TV turned to a dead channel. I can't really - my brain just doesn't want to go there a lot of times.
DAVIES: Now, you write that after that event, you experienced - if I have the term right - apophenia, which is - well, why don't you explain?
MORRIS: Apophenia is the perception of meaningful connections in unrelated events. So after the IED went off, I began thinking about various aspects of my experience before the IED went off, which - the day before I hit this IED, I was out on a patrol, and the soldiers I was with said, hey, sir, have you ever been blown-up before - meaning had I ever hit an IED? And there was this really awkward pause because everybody knew that that was really a bad question to ask. And everybody got mad at that soldier for asking me that question because, you know, I hadn't been hit - I hadn't hit an IED yet, but now, that was all going to change.
When I look back on that event, that question kind of seemed like a warning. It seemed like the universe had sort of - had kind of created - had built this design that included me hitting an IED the next day. And apophenia is something that a lot of trauma survivors sort of struggle with - the idea that, you know, the time and the anniversaries of traumatic events seem to recur. And I think this is sort of a common theme among survivors, of trying to look for a deeper meaning, some sort of meaning in the near-death experiences that they've been through. And for me, I kept noticing patterns that seemed to point to this IED attack that I survived.
DAVIES: You write that two years after you were back from Iraq, things began to change. And there was an incident in the theater. You want to describe that?
MORRIS: Yeah, I was watching an action movie with my girlfriend - and I don't want to say which particular movie it was, but there was, fairly early in the film, an explosion that happened inside a Humvee. And what happened is, I just got up and ran out of the movie theater. But I don't entirely remember leaving the theater, and I basically woke up in the hallway of the theater, looking at people's hands and sort of patrolling back and forth inside the theater - outside the actual movie theater. And the experience of seeing that explosion was so similar and so reminiscent of how I imagined myself dying in Iraq that my brain just kind of shut down, just like an overloaded electrical grid, and I left the theater 'cause it was just too overwhelming.
And I think, you know, movies are, you know - it's difficult in some ways for the mind to differentiate between movies and real life in a lot of cases, and - particularly action movies, today, are so good at being realistic. And this movie was so realistic that it just overwhelmed me, and I had to get out of the theater as soon as possible.
DAVIES: And it was after that you began having terrible nightmares?
MORRIS: Yeah, that was kind of the initiating event. And I - when you're in Iraq, you work very hard - or at least when I was there - you work very hard to not think about the worst things that could happen to you. And so you distract yourself. And I hadn't really - I had all this unprocessed dread and unprocessed experience of being in Iraq, and that movie - seeing that explosion and sort of - it was sort of a preview of what my death might've looked like. And so that stirred up like a fish tank. It stirred up all the stuff that had kind of been asleep, all these memories that had kind of been dormant for a long time and brought those back up. And suddenly, you know, I had to deal with them again.
And so I began seeing different random items exploding in my dreams, like Chinese take-out or the garbage pail behind my house. And you know, the members from my old Marine platoon would start mixing in with my Iraq memories from 10 years later. And it became kind of this, you know, collage of different sorts of experiences mixing in, but always with an explosion which would end the dream and swamp everything in this ocean of blackness.
DAVIES: You write that you - part of you got a black pleasure from these nightmares, as if it were an honor to be haunted from war. Tell us about that. What do you mean?
MORRIS: Well, I think, if I'm being totally honest, I was a bit of an adventure-seeker. And I went to Iraq for a lot of reasons, but one of them was I wanted to be a part of what I thought of as the event of my generation. And so in a way - and a lot of - you know, I grew up around a lot of Vietnam veterans, and the idea of having some sort of reminder of that or of being a man with a history, a man who had been through intense experiences and was haunted by that, was something that I wanted, in this very perverse way. I wanted to be a man with stories. I wanted to be a man with a past. I wanted to be a man with some mystery to him. And one of the ways you can get that - you can have a certain amount of mystery - is to go to a war and be haunted by it.
I think, you know, war - that's one of the reasons people, and young men, in particular, are drawn to war, is it gives you a sense of gravitas. It gives you a sense of having accomplishing something, just surviving it. So there was sort of this aspect of being interested and wanting to pursue that idea of being damaged by something. It's, you know - it's obviously a self-destructive impulse, but as it began to happen, I recognized OK, this is something that I've read about before.
DAVIES: We're speaking with David J. Morris. His new book is "The Evil Hours: A Biography Of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder." We'll talk some more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, our guest is David J. Morris. He was a Marine infantry officer who did not see combat, but then was a war correspondent later in Iraq and struggled with the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder. He's written a book about his experience and PTSD. It's called "The Evil Hours."
What are the typical symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder?
MORRIS: Your typical post-traumatic stress disorder survivor is dealing with three things, hypervigilance and hyperarousal - feeling amped up all the time, an emotional numbing, feeling like you can't really feel anything except anger and sadness - and then a variety of intrusive symptoms like nightmares, hallucinations, hearing things, seeing people who aren't there. So they're sort of three major symptomatic areas that are typically defined as post-traumatic stress disorder.
DAVIES: And you say that there's this quality of disconnectedness from your surroundings and from the people around you.
MORRIS: Yeah. Speaking for myself, when I came back the first time from Iraq in 2004, I just - there was a sort of - almost an apartness that I felt in myself. I felt like I was kind of on a different sheet of music than everybody else around me that hadn't been to the war. And I sort of - you know, I felt like I was on - you know, a lot of trauma survivors come back, you know, or emerge from their traumatic experience and feel as if they're on the other side of something. And so the goal of any survivor is to resolve this failed homecoming and to try to be less apart and be more - be more involved in the world and present in the world.
DAVIES: And in the medical and psychiatric literature on PTSD, is it related to other conditions we know of, like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder?
MORRIS: No. PTSD's kind of this odd sort of - in a way the redheaded stepchild within psychiatry. It's - you know, it's really - it's caused by an exterior event, which, you know, schizophrenia is really more of - is thought of as more of a brain event and being related to genetics and the particulars of brain chemistry, whereas PTSD is very unusual in the sense that it is caused by a horrific event happening to a person. So it's - and even in the new DSM, the DSM V, it has its own separate category of trauma - traumatic disorders. So it's really - kind of really in its own category.
DAVIES: And there's sort of no common agreement about the science behind it, right?
MORRIS: Yeah. Interestingly, PTSD is a condition born of strife, but its scientific life remains controversial. And I have to say, you know, there's a small but vocal cadre of researchers, many of whom are located in Great Britain, who think that PTSD is a medicalization of normal human adversity and that it's basically a social fiction that's been foisted on unwitting survivors by a group of, you know, well-meaning but misguided psychiatrists, you know, who began their work during the hysteria of the 1970s - 1970s America, post-Vietnam America. So there's a number of competing schools of thought about what PTSD is and there's a lot of - and the neuroscience - we're really kind of just in the beginning stages of nailing down the neuroscience behind PTSD. And, for instance, a number of researchers have been looking for the biomarkers of PTSD. And so far, they haven't found any.
DAVIES: It's interesting - you say that when you look at PTSD as it exists in the medical literature, it's a junk drawer of disconnected symptoms. It's not really understood well. But I want to talk about a couple of aspects of it that you describe. And one of them you say is it changes the sufferer's sense of time. How does that happen?
MORRIS: Well, I argue in the book that, in some ways, PTSD is a disease of time. And a lot of people - PTSD is many things, but one of the things it is is a failure to live fully in the present. And I think what happens a lot of times with traumatic - survivors of trauma is they have these compulsive returns to awful events, and they are unable to live in the now.
And, you know, it's a disease of time because any healthy person when they're going through life, they're able to live in the present and enjoy the sunlight and enjoy their daily life. But PTSD when it's - you know, in the worst cases, you find people that are - you know, in the very worst cases live in almost a hallucinogenic moment of, you know, this always going back to the past. And the trauma that they went through takes on this timeless character.
And one psychoanalyst I interviewed mentioned that for a lot of survivors of trauma, it becomes almost a circular - you know, most people experience time in sort of a linear way - one moment to the next, the past to the present to the future. And for some survivors of trauma it becomes circular, where they're living - they live in the moment for a little bit. And then they go - they circle back to, you know, the moment when they're in Iraq or Afghanistan or the moment they were raped. And then they come back to their present for a little bit and they swing back into the deeper part of their past, and it keeps recurring. It has this circular-type flow to it.
DAVIES: And one of the things you write is that it appears people suffer from PTSD more intensely if they experience a trauma in which they have no control, as opposed to situations in which they do have some control.
MORRIS: Yeah, the helplessness is one of the main predictors of who's going to end up with PTSD and who doesn't. And the idea that you have absolutely no control over your environment is very hard for people to deal with because, you know, you are basically completely helpless and unable to control your destiny and your survival. And that tends to cause people to experience greater distress in the long-term, so - and that's one thing I discovered in the book is I thought - you know, we sort of assume that PTSD is sort of the realm of soldiers and veterans, when in fact, the most common and most toxic form of trauma is rape.
In a lot of cases that - I think one of the reasons that is true is that a - you know, a soldier may have some control over his or her environment. They have a weapon with them; they can move; they can take cover. But oftentimes in the cases of rape, the victim is completely overwhelmed and trapped and cornered. And from the moment the attack begins, they are rendered almost completely helpless, which is interesting. And you see that in the diagnosable rates of who gets PTSD and who doesn't. Rape survivors tend to have it almost 50 percent of the time, whereas your average war veteran - particularly for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans - the rate of PTSD diagnosis is more around 10 to 12 percent. So a rape victim - rape is, in a manner of speaking, five times more traumatic than combat.
DAVIES: David Morris's book is "The Evil Hours: A Biography Of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder." He'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. We're speaking with David Morris, a war correspondent and former Marine whose new book focuses on the history of and science behind post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as his own experience with PTSD symptoms and treatments. Morris never saw combat as a Marine, but saw plenty of death and injury as a journalist in Iraq and was nearly killed himself in an IED explosion.
You have a fascinating section of the book where you talk about treatments of PTSD, including your own experience when you were struggling with its effects and went to the Veterans Administration system. Let's talk a bit about that. First of all, you get into a kind of therapy called prolonged exposure, PE. Explain what this is and how it's regarded by the Veterans Administration.
MORRIS: Prolonged exposure is one of the VA's leading therapies, and it's based on the work of Ivan Pavlov, the Russian physiologist. And the idea behind PE is basically, it treats PTSD as, in a way, just kind of a learning disorder. And the idea is to get you to tell the story of your worst trauma over and over again in the presence - in the comforting presence of a therapist. And the idea is if you keep telling the story and keep repeating it, eventually the story will lose its traumatic charge and it will seem almost as if someone else is telling the story, so it will become just like all your other memories.
DAVIES: And so you told the story of this horrific explosion in a Humvee again and again in greater detail, like, how many times?
MORRIS: Dozens of times per day. I was asked to tell the story of my IED attack in Sadia - at one point, I counted it was about 12 times in one session, two sessions a week. So I figured I had told the story at least 100 times to this therapist.
DAVIES: And how did that affect you?
MORRIS: It was interesting because at first, it forced me to remember it more. And so I was able to make some connections and understand some of my feelings at the time. But for me, personally, after a while, I found that telling the story activated all of my memories of being in Iraq. And I could feel my blood getting hot. I could feel my physiology changing as I was telling the story. I found that it actually activated a lot of the old memories that I'd had about Iraq, just living close to death for months and months and months. And I think that was sort of - one of - you know, the therapy didn't work for me, you know. But it does work for a lot of people, and there's a lot of research behind it.
Prolonged exposure's, you know, possibly the most researched therapy - PTSD therapy - that's in use. But for me, I found that focusing on just a single traumatic event really was beside the point because I had - you know, I had lived with one unit that had been - we'd been mortared every day for seven days straight, you know, but we didn't talk about all the other - all of those traumatic events, all the - you know, all the near-death experiences I'd had for the weeks and months before my worst IED attack. So being forced to tell that story just activated all these memories and just put me - it had the effect of putting me back - putting my body back in Iraq, even though I was still living in the United States.
DAVIES: And it was interesting, you know, your therapist, Scott, you write, kind of told you, look, this is like going to the gym. It's tough, it's work, but over time we know you will get better. Your - the symptoms that you were experiencing did not get better, and it kind of led to a really scary incident. You want to describe that?
MORRIS: Yeah, I was asked to keep telling the story over and over again, and the analogies that the VA uses are often medical in nature. And they say, well, this is like cleaning out a wound, so we're taking off the bandage, and we're going to disinfect things. So, you know, it's going to burn. It's going to hurt at first while we clean out that wound.
But after having gone through this therapy and telling the story of my IED attack over and over again, after about five weeks of doing this, I began to not be able to sleep. It was really hard to read and write. And then late one night, I was kind of tired and my cell phone - I was trying to use my cell phone, and it wouldn't dial out. And I suddenly got just really angry and out of the blue took a stainless steel kitchen knife and stabbed the cell phone so hard that it bent the kitchen knife 90 degrees. And I have to say I'm not a violent person. I'm someone that really hated doing hand-to-hand combat training in the Marine Corps. I don't practice any martial arts, so this was, I thought, very uncharacteristic of me. And, you know, this happened after several weeks of doing this prolonged exposure therapy. So that was - to me, it seemed like the therapy in this instance was not helping, but was actually - for me, made my symptoms worse and put me back - it put my body and my mind back in Iraq.
DAVIES: Right, so you discontinued that therapy. And then as you looked into the literature about this prolonged exposure therapy, what did you learn?
MORRIS: Well, prolonged exposure has an excellent scientific pedigree. It's been studied in depth by the VA, and there's a lot of empirical support for prolonged exposure being a good PTSD therapy. However, there are some dissenting voices. A couple researchers at Harvard discontinued prolonged exposure therapy because they found that the Vietnam veterans they were using it with - it made their symptoms worse. It caused one particular Vietnam vet to break 19 months of sobriety and start drinking again. And there are a number of VA clinicians who find prolonged exposure therapy to be unconscionable and refuse to use it because they fear that it will re-traumatize veterans.
DAVIES: Then you tried another kind of therapy at the VA - cognitive processing therapy. It's derived from cognitive behavioral therapy. You want to explain how this was supposed to work?
MORRIS: Yeah, cognitive processing therapy or CPT - you know, in my journal, I wrote that prolonged exposure - if prolonged exposure is like a form of emotional chemo, than CPT is more like tai chi. It asks - CPT asks you to examine your thoughts about the world and how those impact your feelings. And, for example, to look at why you might feel paranoid driving your car on the freeway in the United States and sort of do some reality testing and ask yourself, you know, is it possible that I'm being irrational here and that I'm acting as if and thinking and behaving in a manner as if I were still in Iraq, when in fact I'm back in the United States? And sort of doing some empirical comparison to where you are.
DAVIES: And you make these charts - right? - this is what I experience, this is how it makes me feel. And then I examine whether that's - whether that might be an unrealistic interpretation of events. Did it help?
MORRIS: Yeah, I found - you know, in a way, I sort of felt like CPT was like a sort of first aid. It wasn't really high-impact, but it was a great calming and sort of almost meditative exercise to stop and start looking at your thoughts and examining why you might feel certain ways about your experience overseas in Iraq or Afghanistan. And for me, CPT was much more helpful because it didn't seem to - you know, we were allowed to let sleeping dogs lie. And we could talk about what we wanted to, and we weren't forced to habitually, repetitively go over these horrific events. And so for me, CPT was much more effective.
DAVIES: David J. Morris's new book is "The Evil Hours: A Biography Of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder." We'll talk some more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, we're speaking with David J. Morris. He was an officer in the Marine Corps - did not see combat there, but later saw a lot of combat as a war correspondent in Iraq. His book about post-traumatic stress disorder is called "The Evil Hours."
We should talk about medications. There are some drugs that are used to treat PTSD. The most common is propranolol - do I have that right?
DAVIES: How does that work?
MORRIS: Well, propranolol is not actually the most commonly prescribed drug. But it is a drug - a really fascinating drug that some people have called the "Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind" drug. And it's a very common heart drug, a beta-blocker that basically suppresses the human adrenal response. And researchers have found that they can alter the memories - emotionally charged, significant memories - by asking a trauma survivor or asking a person to relive that event and then giving them propranolol, which will change their body's adrenal response to that particular memory.
It doesn't always work. They found that it works about half the time. But it's this very common heart drug that has been around so long that it's fallen out of patent. And it's sort of - you know, the research on this is still pretty early, and we don't have it kind of all nailed down yet. But it's interesting because this drug, in theory at least, holds the potential to basically erase huge amounts of trauma in the human race, which raises a number of questions, like, should we, you know, how do we deal with someone, you know, who might've committed a crime and, you know, is going to have to testify about it and can take propranolol and change the nature of their memory of, you know, a really significant event? So propranolol's kind of this - feels almost like a science-fiction drug when you start looking into the implications of it.
DAVIES: You're chemically modifying your own memory?
MORRIS: Well, in a manner of speaking, yeah. You're changing the way your body responds to it. You're changing the emotional charge of the memory by taking a drug that changes, that suppresses the normal adrenal fight-or-flight response.
DAVIES: SSRIs the, you know, the anti-depression drugs are also prescribed a lot for PTSD, and a lot of people believe they help. But like with depression, I think, you know, the mechanisms aren't so clear. You didn't take any drugs - is that right? - for your symptoms. Was that a choice of yours?
MORRIS: No, I was asked to take part - I was originally selected for a study at the VA San Diego that would look at the effects of SSRIs, like Zoloft, and compare them to normal therapy. But I was told that I drank too much 'cause I occasionally had three drinks a night, so I fell out of that study. So I never actually, for my struggles of post-traumatic stress, I never actually took any pharmaceuticals.
DAVIES: You know, in the book, literally in parentheses, you say that you personally think alcohol in moderation is one of the best PTSD drugs ever invented, and you find other survivors agree. Why is that in parentheses?
MORRIS: You know, I guess I was a little worried 'cause it is sort of a, you know, controversial thing to say. And, you know, a lot of people totally don't deal with their memories and the memories of their trauma by drinking their way out of it, you know, and drinking themselves into a kind of numbness, and I'm not recommending that. But I think in taken in moderation, you know, I really like alcohol. And I like it so much that I still want to taste it, so I rarely have more than two drinks a night 'cause I want to keep my tolerance down and that's - you know, alcohol is a very - is a great anxiety-reducing drug. And I think if you manage it correctly, like you're supposed to manage any medication, you can get - you can derive from it a great benefit, you know? And like Winston Churchill said, alcohol's a great servant but a terrible master. And I think if you commit to making - to keeping it as a servant, you know, you'll mostly be OK.
DAVIES: You described after you came back from Iraq - you say since 2004, you trust people less. You worry that life is random, you drive slower, you doubt less, you walk carefully over broken asphalt, avoid crowds, don't go to action movies. When someone is following you on the sidewalk, you'll stop sometimes and let them pass. You still that way?
MORRIS: Sometimes. I notice on the street - I did that the other day. I don't - I still have in the back of my head kind of this itch on my skin if I feel like I'm being followed by somebody. So I still have sort of these, you know, glimmers of, like, paranoia or something, which I'm OK with. I've kind of come to peace with this, and, you know, one of the reasons, you know, I wrote this book was to kind of come to grips with that and come to grips with, you know - and leave my war service - my military service behind. And, you know, that was sort of - writing this book has been a way of sort of saying goodbye to that part of my life and saying goodbye to a certain version, you know, mythology of myself as this indestructible adventurer - this war correspondent, this, you know, indestructible war correspondent person.
And, you know, I think one of the biggest decisions - you know, I learned a lot of things in Iraq, some negative but a lot of positive things. And one of the things I learned is that, you know, there's nothing - you know, surviving danger doesn't make you holy, doesn't make you inherently a better person. There's no metaphorical import from, you know, seeing a firefighter, seeing an ambush or seeing someone shot is not inherently meaningful. But for a long time I thought that sort of thing would - you know, if I survived a war, I would be a certain kind of person. I would be sort of this mystic almost, who could see through the normal day, the normal scrim of daily events to some deeper reality. And so I've sort of, you know, moved beyond that and accepted that that's - you know, I don't really believe that anymore and have moved on to other - you know, other new things in my life.
DAVIES: I have to say there's a beautiful passage late in the book where you talk about what you learned and didn't learn from Iraq. I wanted to ask you, do you have healthier relationships now? I mean, do you feel like you're where you want to be there?
MORRIS: In some ways, I think it's made me better as a person 'cause I'm more interested in people than I was before. You know, when you get addicted to going to war, like I did for a number of years, you sort of look at normal life as being somehow less interesting and less meaningful and less powerful, and so you sort of focus on the extremity of life. And, you know, I remember one of my most powerful memories in Iraq. It was really kind of boring in a way, and it didn't happen during an ambush or during contact. But I remember walking away from this really - this army of Italian headquarters, and it'd been a really trying embed in a very dangerous area. And I had been disappointed that the embed hadn't gone as I wanted it to. And there was this offensive that was supposed to happen, and it, for a variety of reasons, got delayed. And I remember walking away from that battalion command post being disappointed, but saying to myself, man, you're walking away but you've got your life. And you can live in this moment for the rest of your life and enjoy the fact that you're alive and enjoy relationships now.
And, you know, I want - you know, I sort of want more from my, you know, basic human relationships now because I realize that, you know, going to war and accepting some of the realities of post-traumatic stress have taught me that, you know, I want to have - you know, we're only on Earth for a short period of time, and I want to have as much experience and I want to connect with people as much as I can before, you know - with this small period of time that I have. And, you know, living in the shadow of near death can give you that insight, and I felt like that was one of the insights that I got after being in Iraq.
DAVIES: David Morris, thanks so much for speaking with us.
MORRIS: Thanks for having me, Dave. It's great to be here.
DAVIES: David Morris's book is "The Evil Hours: A Biography Of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder." Coming up, David Bianculli reviews "The Nightly Show" with Larry Wilmore, Comedy Central's late-night successor to "The Colbert Report." This is FRESH AIR.
DAVE DAVIES, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. Last night, Comedy Central premiered the replacement for Stephen Colbert in the late-night TV slot following "The Daily Show" with Jon Stewart. It's "The Nightly Show" with Larry Wilmore. And our TV critic David Bianculli has this review.
DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: The year 2015 is going to be a busy one in terms of late-night television. In March, James Corden replaces Craig Ferguson as the new host of "The Late Late Show" on CBS. In May, also on CBS, David Letterman steps down as host of "The Late Show," replaced in September by Stephen Colbert. And Colbert's timeslot replacement on Comedy Central premiered last night - "The Nightly Show" with Larry Wilmore.
Like Colbert, Wilmore was a "Daily Show" correspondent before getting his own show. Wilmore's reports were some of the best and most biting in the history of "The Daily Show." "The Daily Show" billed him as its senior black correspondent. And he usually acted as unofficial interpreter, explaining racial differences and sensitivities to his white host. On "The Nightly Show," Larry Wilmore eliminates the middleman, but continues his particular comic perspective.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE NIGHTLY SHOW")
LARRY WILMORE: Tonight-ly, the Oscar nominations are out, and they're so white, a grand jury has decided not to indict them.
WILMORE: Oprah marched on Selma this weekend. She has a dream that "Selma" shall overcome "The Wedding Ringer" at the box office.
WILMORE: Yeah, we talk "Selma," Ferguson and Eric Garner. It's Comedy Central's worst nightmare - brother finally gets a show on late-night TV.
BIANCULLI: I really like watching and reviewing opening-night talk and satire shows. But you have to accept the limitations. This initial glimpse is only that - a first impression because talk shows, more than most TV genres, are unusually fluid. Every new show hits the ground running with lots of ideas in play. Some work and stay. Others are altered or completely scrapped as the new show and the new host strive to find a distinct voice.
Over the summer on HBO, another veteran "Daily Show" correspondent, John Oliver, launched his own show called "Last Week Tonight With John Oliver." Quickly, its distinct specialty turned out to be the extended story, a lengthy comic focus on a single topic. "The Nightly Show," as it begins, adopts a similarly ambitious approach, devoting the bulk of each show to a single issue. In the premier, it was the idea protests, everything from the civil unrest in Ferguson to complaints about the absence of black films and talent on this year's list of Oscar nominees.
One of Wilmore's approaches is the same trick used by Stewart, Colbert and Oliver - pull clips from local and national TV news shows and comment on them sarcastically. Last night, Wilmore did it to play against audience expectations, starting by saying that a particular movie was robbed by not being nominated for best picture, and noting that its subject was as resonant now as when he was a child, Wilmore had the entire audience thinking he was talking about the movie "Selma," about Martin Luther King Jr, until he cut to a clip of "The Lego Movie." And as Wilmore continued and showed a TV news clip, he made it clear that he was going to deliver his opinion and that it wouldn't always be protectable.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE NIGHTLY SHOW")
WILMORE: No, everything is not awesome.
WILMORE: How did "The Lego Movie" not get nominated for best picture? God, this was shocking. (Sighs) Well, in less shocking news, this also happened...
(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS REPORT)
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: While the civil rights movie "Selma" earned a best picture nomination, director Ava DuVernay was snubbed. So was lead actor David Oyelowo.
WILMORE: Oh, black people didn't get nominated for an Oscar? (Yawns).
WILMORE: Yeah, man, I guess. Look, don't get me wrong, Ava DuVernay should've definitely been nominated for best director. But David Oyelowo - whatever Yelowo? Whatever, he's a British brother. I don't really care about them. All right.
WILMORE: I could care less. All right, so, what do we as a people need to do? Man. You know, I wish there were a black Hollywood expert who could go to bat for us.
(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS REPORT)
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Reverend Sharpton has called for an emergency meeting here in Hollywood next week to discuss possible action around the Academy Awards.
WILMORE: Again? I mean, no one else could represent us? Look, look, Al, Al - Al, Al slow down, man. You don't have to respond to every black emergency. You're not black Batman.
BIANCULLI: In another segment, Wilmore even criticized Oprah Winfrey, who had described the Ferguson riots as unfocused. He used a local TV news clip to bolster his point, a clip that showed photos of young African-American men being used as targets on a police shooting range.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE NIGHTLY SHOW")
WILMORE: It's not that these protests are less focused. It's just that the goals are less tangible. In the old days, it was about being able to sit at a lunch counter or going to the same schools or even voting. Today, we're just trying to not get shot on our way to work. Now, look, I know it sounds like I'm exaggerating. People may think, hey, hey, come on Larry, calm down, calm down, police aren't targeting black guys. OK.
WILMORE: Roll 122.
(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS REPORT)
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Tonight, a South Florida family is outraged by this image right here and others. They say North Miami Beach police used it, and the images of five other minorities, as target during weapons training.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: People that are out there are supposed to be protecting us are using us as target practice.
WILMORE: That story was reported way back in today.
WILMORE: OK? The police in Florida are literally using pictures of young black men as targets. Now, how can we see that and be surprised when it happens in real life? I'm not surprised when Kobe hits a jumper. That dude practices.
BIANCULLI: Those parts of "The Nightly Show" worked very well. The rest of the show, the bulk of it, was devoted to a roundtable discussion, with Wilmore as moderator like Bill Maher on HBO's "Real Time." This segment will take work before it really works. Interviewing several people at once is harder than talking to just one person. And even with New Jersey Senator Cory Booker as one of the opening-night guests, that part of the show didn't sparkle as much. But it may depend upon the topic.
And the intended focus of Wilmore's Tuesday night show, which he announced at the end of Monday's premiere, was enough to draw a collective gasp from the studio audience. The topic? Bill Cosby. For Larry Wilmore and the brand-new "Nightly Show," that's reaching for a comedic and topical third rail and intentionally probing a very uncomfortable and volatile subject. But that was Wilmore's specialty on "The Daily Show," and it's smart of him to continue it on his own program. I don't have any idea what Wilmore's opinions are regarding the Cosby allegations and their coverage by the media, but I already know I'm eager to find out.
DAVIES: David Bianculli is founder and editor of the website TV Worth Watching and teaches television and film at Rowan University in New Jersey.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.