Book Review: Waiting for First Light

Waiting for First Light – My Ongoing Battle with PTSD by Roméo Dallaire with Jessica Dee Humphreys.  

Review By Grant T. Smith


r2The reason you want to read this article is, when you learn of this book, and read this book yourself, your life will be changed. I am going to tell you about Waiting for First Light – My Ongoing Battle with PTSD by Roméo Dallaire with Jessica Dee Humphreys.  


Last week, I was in the middle of reading a book in preparation for writing this review. It was about ethics because I am anxious to do a series of three reviews about ethics (books still to be determined). But, while driving home on Friday night I listened to an interview by Carol Off (CBC’s As It Happens) with Roméo Dallaire. They were discussing his new book. I was instantly mesmerized – I wept, I gasped for breath – more importantly I came home and immediately purchased the book online. Since then I have shed many tears, learned a great deal about the struggle of service, and realized I was still reading a book about ethics.


Here is an excerpt, in which Dallaire expands our understanding of post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”) and highlights that the source of the disease is, perhaps, moral conflict:   


“The source of my injury was not experiencing the extremes and ugliness of war, per se. It was not the result of combat, or of any one specific incident. For me, and for too many other veterans, the source of this operational stress injury is repeated assaults on our most sacred and fundamental values and beliefs. The physical ramifications can be lethal, but PTSD is also a moral injury that ravages our minds, our souls. The constant ethical, moral and even legal dilemmas that confronted me in the months leading up to and during the genocide pounded my mind like a judge’s fierce gavel, and the verdict was always guilty.”


The book is a chronicle of the retired General’s time after the Rwandan genocide. For those of you who are too young to remember, the genocide in Rwanda occurred in spring and summer of 1994. It is estimated that more than 1,000,000 Rwandans (it is recorded that 90% were of the ethnic group Tutsi) were slaughtered in a period of approximately 100 days. The commander of the UN force was General Dallaire and his pleas for support from the international community went unanswered. If you wish to learn more about the genocide I would suggest reading Shake Hands with the Devil – The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda, also written by Dallaire.


This book does not go into great detail about the genocide, for that is not the intended purpose. Instead, we are reading to gain an understanding of his specific journey with PTSD and perhaps to further our general understanding of the toll this disease can take on our soldiers, our police, our firefighters, our paramedics and other first responders.


I want to talk about the craftsmanship and I want to try and move away from the innate value of the subject matter so that we can look at the author’s work. The book is primarily chronological in that he talks about his PTSD struggle over time from its beginning to today, however Dallaire and Humphreys often take us back to Rwanda, both by using the General’s journals or records of the time and by dwelling in the mind of a man living — if living is the term — in his remembrances. This is compelling to the reader and also mirrors the realities of PTSD. I thought this well explained when the authors stated about veterans:


“They come back home, but now they perceive home not as the true reality but as a weird bubble of safety, a privileged place untouched by the chaos others endure. Veterans can have a terrible time reconciling themselves to that inequity.”


Perhaps you can glimpse here the appropriate nature of mixing past with present in the presenting of the journey.


Through most of the book, we see little hope of recovery and it is not until the last two chapters (the book is divided into six) that Dallaire starts to see a way to define the future. Even there his future, in my perception, is directly tied to the past in that he defines his future by railing against his past. We begin to learn about a particular part of the battle in Rwanda and many other modern wars, as we start to see the challenge of child soldiers.


“Today there is no more explicit example of soldiers at risk of a moral injury than those who encounter a child combatant on the battlefield. This ethical conflict is what makes the use of child soldiers so effective— it’s an assault on the soul of the opposing force, just as rape as a weapon of war is an assault on the soul of the civilian population.”


Here again Dallaire is showing us that the ravages of PTSD come as much from dealing with constant moral crisis and the total abandonment of human values. This is not the war of our forefathers.


I want to conclude and encourage you to purchase the book, but I also want to tie this piece to the editorial I wrote. My editorial is about service. Please join me in an act of service on Friday by attending a ceremony at a cenotaph near you and showing your support to our veterans on November the 11th.


“Because our veterans do not shy away, because they carry the moral norms of our society into immoral situations and then suffer the consequences, we all have a shared responsibility to care for them when they come home. They have performed a duty for the nation and the world, and we all must acknowledge, not deny, what they have had to experience on our behalf, and on behalf of all humans. Presently, we cast PTSD as an individual’s problem, but it is not, and it must be shared.”