The kind you’re born with, the kind you choose, the kind that teach Catholic school
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Once they gave a war, and everybody came. They called it World War II, and the entire basis of this essay is that one man’s recollections of it — necessarily different from every other man’s — are worth preserving.
I am not a professional veteran (although rather a gifted amateur). Until recently, I had not spent a lot of my time thinking about the war. I occasionally told stories about those years, as soldiers do. But I displayed no souvenirs, I never joined any veterans’ organization, I do not correspond with any old comrades in arms. Still, the war is always there, cutting my life in half as sharply as the three-quarter pole divides the Belmont Stakes. Like a good sprinter sent beyond his distance, however, I am taking a lot longer to finish the second half than the first, and laboring slightly in the stretch.
It is sometimes a bit unsettling to me when I mention the war and someone asks, “Which war?” In England, when you refer to the war, they know the one you mean. In America, we have many to choose from.
I call my war The Big Deuce. I didn’t make up that name (I wish I had) but I like it. I feel it has just the blend of utility and frolic appropriate to characterize a war which has receded far enough in time to be warmly regarded. Because what I remember about The Big Deuce is that it was very fine indeed. Now, that is a monstrous statement, the only defense for which is that it is true. I don’t think it’s true of more recent wars. The pleasure factor seems to have been missing from Vietnam, even in retrospect.
A very old friend of mine always used to refer to his war as “the Great War, not the late war.” He couldn’t bring himself to call it the First World War. That sounded like a mere preliminary, whereas for so many years it had been the undisputed heavyweight champion of wars. By the time the Deuce came along to challenge it, he had grown fond of it, so he devised a light-hearted designation to identify it as his. In contrast, what do the Vietnam veterans call their war? Nam. Short, sharp, bitter — and it may be that this will never change. It wasn’t a nice war, and it seems unlikely that it ever will be.
Not, God forbid, that we thought our war was any fun while we were doing it. War is hell. Everybody knows that. Like all wars, ours was full of dirt and boredom and incredible exhaustion and death. And the fear of death, which may be worse, although there is no way to check on it. We were scared, and we prayed (assuming the Deity to be on our side) for it to end. We thought it never would, and in endless wars the law of averages is inexorable. In short, we hated it.
When I look back on it now, though, it is usually with affection. The incessant bitching we did seems to have acquired an almost lyric quality. The insensitivity and obtuseness of the professional, thirty-year soldier come back to me as slapstick comedy. The bitterness is gone, replaced by something very like longing. I don’t want those years back. (I am an intelligent, educated man, so it follows that I am against war.) But I don’t want them to be lost either.
I grieve for the veterans of Vietnam, who did what they understood to be their duty, and then returned to find their presence embarrassing to their fellow citizens. When we came home, we were regarded as heroes, although few of us were. That was nice while it lasted, which wasn’t long. From what I’ve heard and read, most of those who fought in Vietnam think of it as one long uninterrupted horror. I don’t believe I have ever thought of the Deuce as one long anything. The war has no unity for me. It survives only as a collection of almost unrelated memories, with nothing in common except that they are, to me, The War — events, people, places, perceptions, even isolated words and phrases. These are the fabric of which my sea stories are woven.
“Sea stories,” incidentally, is the naval name — in the army, they’re called “war stories” — for the lurid tales service men tell each other during the long nights aboard ship or in barracks. Anyone can tell them, whether or not he has been to sea or to war. The terms carry a strong implication of exaggeration, but sometimes the stories are almost true. Naturally, all mine are gospel, and they are “sea stories” because I was in the Marine Corps, which borrows its occupational jargon from the navy, often with ridiculous results. We called the floor and even the bare ground “the deck,” for example. That at least has the virtue of brevity, as does “head” for what the army calls a latrine. But “bulkhead” for wall — any wall, including that of a quonset hut — is sheer nonsense. The vocabulary is firmly ingrained in all regular Marines, however, so we non-regulars used to delight in using the civilian terms in their presence. Nothing so infuriates a stiff-necked Marine colonel as to tell him that you “have to go to the bathroom.”
The Marine Corps is a branch of the navy, and the insistence on the navy idiom probably dates from the days when many of the Corps’ grandest officers came from Annapolis. The Naval Academy graduates had “command presence” which is supposed to mean that their manner automatically inspired respect. Sometimes, though, it simply denoted a slavish adherence to formalized trivia. A military education, although it trains you to act like a leader of men, is not always the best preparation for being one. The career officers who were not from the academy knew the difference. They called the Annapolis men “trade school boys” and it could be either a term of approval or a sneer. You had to listen carefully for the inflection.
I did not have command presence. I tended to giggle at obvious absurdities, for one thing, and since absurdities are an integral feature of military life I failed to impress my superiors (who never, never giggled) as being ready for serious responsibilities.
I seem to be implying that I was a cynical, sophisticated civilian, compelled by an innate sense of decency to serve my country, but contemptuous of military chicken (the generic term for the petty nitpicking which every soldier learns to endure; short for “chickenshit”). Totally false. I desperately wanted to look and act like the tight-lipped, clean-shaven men in the movies I had grown up with, who obeyed without blinking and never slouched. But it just wasn’t in me. In the Marine Corps, neatness counts, and I simply did not look like an officer. I took orders well enough, thanks to my training at the Bijou, but the movies had not prepared me to give them. The trouble was that I couldn’t shake the impression that this was a movie. I kept expecting Rita Hayworth to dash in weeping and tell me that John Payne had flunked out of flight school. We were taking part in the greatest war in history, and I felt like an atmosphere extra in a B picture.
When I went into the Marine Corps, I wanted to command troops in battle. But the Marine Corps knew better, and I became a supply officer in charge of a small group of highly competent NCO’s (non-commissioned officers: sergeants and corporals). I wouldn’t say they looked up to me, especially since several of them were older than I was, but they liked me all right, and that seemed to work just as well. We won the war. (I just gave away the big finish.)
The Marine Corps was right about me, you see. (In such matters, it usually is.) Friendship, mutual esteem and dedication are fine when all that’s required is hard work — and it was often shockingly hard. But it takes something quite different to order men to die, and I didn’t have it. I’m grateful for that now. In fact, though I would have been embarrassed to admit it then, I began to be grateful long before the war was over, but for a more selfish reason. In our kind of war, in which we walked ashore and faced the enemy head to head, the best combat officers had the shortest life expectancy. It wasn’t fair, but in war, despite the adage, very little is.
Although I wasn’t made of heroic stuff, I became a captain at the age of twenty-three, before I had even been overseas. This illustrates the wisdom of getting into the war on the ground floor. In the Marines, every officer has a number, and when his number comes up promotion is automatic unless he has some black mark on his record. Any little faux pas which might impede promotion is called “taking your finger off your number.” Getting a wee bit too drunk at the general’s dinner party would be an instance. Making an obvious pass (especially a successful one) at your CO’s wife would be a more serious one. Among reserve officers, failure to be promoted on schedule was merely embarrassing. For the career officer, it was a disaster, and he lived in constant fear of taking his finger off his number. If he offended a senior officer (and there were so many ways), the curse would hang over him forever. It might not interfere with his promotion next year, but he would spend the rest of his career wondering if it was going to prevent his becoming a general. And it might.
(Although I may use the present tense, because I am confident that some things never change, it should be understood that my sworn testimony is valid only for a period which ended more than thirty years ago. All I know about the Marine Corps today is what I read in the papers.)
One morning, during the battle for Iwo Jima, a major whom I will call John Smith refused to move his battalion. Major Smith had become battalion commander through the violent death of the original incumbent, and he turned out to be too human for the job. Half his battalion had been killed or wounded, and the troops he had left were devastated by fatigue and shock. He pleaded with the general to give them a few more hours of rest. (The rest you get while under sporadic fire and lying in a shallow hole in the sand is fitful, but it’s better than nothing. Far better.) The general said no. The Marine Corps credo is “keep moving.” The theory is that you will take fewer casualties in the long run if you maintain constant pressure on the enemy. The theory may well be correct, but it does not take into account the appalling mental and physical agony of men who have been in close combat for several days without a break.
After a number of exchanges by radio, Major Smith told the general flatly that he could not obey the order to attack. Now the general was in shock. Smith was a career officer with a spotless record, but he obviously had the soul of a goddam civilian. He was promptly replaced, and put under arrest. The men moved. Some of them died and some of them didn’t.
A few years later in New York, I was having a drink and exchanging sea stories with Barney Rafferty, an old friend from the Fourth Marine Division. “Did you hear what happened to Johnny Smith?” he asked me.
I said I hadn’t, but I assumed that he had quietly retired from the Marines, his service record in shreds but his conscience intact.
“He doing eight to ten in Portsmouth,” Barney said.
I gasped. “My God!” I said. I hadn’t known Major Smith except by sight (he looked like a Marine officer), but I admired what he had done, not least because it was such a futile gesture, and I knew there were others who shared my feeling. Stunned, I made a bad joke. “That’s really going to hurt his career,” I said.
“Yes,” Barney said softly, “he took his finger off his number.”
I remember something else Barney Rafferty said, under different conditions.
The day before we landed on Iwo Jima, our commanding general issued the usual pre-battle call to arms, mimeographed and handed to every member of the invasion force. The gist of it was that invading this ugly little heap of sand (it had been so heavily bombed and shelled that only a few scrubby bushes were left standing) was a privilege for which we should all be grateful. “It is,” the statement ended, “your birthright!”
On about the sixth day of Iwo Jima, I found Barney Rafferty sitting in a hole in the middle of a bleak, shell-blasted field. He had been through the worst of it from the beginning, and he looked it. Filthy, unshaven, bleary-eyed. His face reflected the sort of weariness that makes simply not moving a sort of ecstasy. I thought to cheer him up with a bit of mordant wit. “Didn’t you know this was your birthright?” I asked him.
“If I had,” he said, “I would have sold it for a mess of pottage.”
Now, I like a literary allusion at any time, but to produce one under those circumstances, I have always thought, showed real class.
The battle for Iwo Jima, as vicious and deadly as any ever fought, might serve as a paradigm for war. Four thousand Americans, and several times that many Japanese, died on an island five miles long. In 1968, the United States gave Iwo back to Japan. When I read that in the paper, I realized for the first time that The Big Deuce was officially ancient history. Not because of the act itself, but because the reporter felt obliged to explain that “Iwo Jima was the site of the major battle of World War II.” To me that was like explaining that Lincoln was once president of the United States. I remember the faces of the dead, their valor now celebrated in a parenthetical remark.
A soldier’s view of combat depends upon his temporal relationship to it. Beforehand, there are cold sweats, nervous jokes and, rarely, heroic bluster. Afterwards, there are horror stories, anger and the inevitable laughter. (Funny things do happen in battle, but one laughs primarily because one is alive.) As to how a soldier feels about war while the shooting is on, I’ll settle for Barney’s apt and graceful comment under pressure.
Between operations (for some reason we never called them battles), our division was stationed on the Hawaiian island of Maui in a camp on the slopes of Haleakala, the world’s largest extinct volcano. It was the only spot on the island where it rained constantly. (Real estate agents with useless land to peddle always seem to see the government coming.) Maui is now a lavishly advertised tourist paradise, replete with Hiltons, Holiday Inns and championship golf courses. I’m sure I would be lost there. But we knew it when it was a tropical backwoods, its population almost doubled by the arrival of fifteen thousand Marines. It is, I believe, a commendable trait, lauded in the better faiths, to be content with what you are given, rather than lamenting what you have missed. So I suppress my regret that I never got to Tasmania, and rejoice in the memory of Maui when it was still one of earth’s narrow corners, known but to a few. I have seen the hula danced by sloe-eyed girls wearing skirts made of real grass (ti leaves, actually) instead of shredded cellophane. True, it was at the USO in Haiku, but who’s quibbling?
Where else but on Maui could you sit in a mess hall and look out over vast fields of ripe pineapple while eating pineapple, possibly grown in those very fields, shipped to the mainland, canned, and shipped back to your table?
Wailuku was Maui’s metropolis, with a population of about five thousand. Everything else was small. Lahaina, the old whaling capital of Hawaii, was a sleepy little village known mainly for “the world’s largest banyan tree” and an ice cream parlor where you could get marvelous chocolate sodas. Regrettably, this place was closed in the evening, virtually forcing us to drink other stuff, which resulted in many court-martials — none of them, by the grace of God and my firm friendship with the entire MP company, my own.
From the beach at Lahaina, you could look south and west to the wide channel called Kealaikahiki. It passes between the islands of Lanai and Kahoolawe, and it is one of my favorite American place names. Ke ala i kahiki.
When the first Hawaiians made their miraculous canoe trip from the South Pacific, they brought with them a language spoken, in countless variations, over millions of square miles of ocean. By a common but mysterious process known in linguistics as the consonant shift, all the T’s in the old language became K’s in Hawaiian. Thus, “man” is tane in Tahitian, kane in Hawaiian; “forbidden” is tabu in Tongan, kapu in Hawaiian. Tahiti, the ancient homeland, is kahiki in Hawaiian, so the channel through which you go south from Lahaina is ke ala i kahiki, the road to Tahiti.
As a lover of words, both foreign and domestic, I find this information so delightful that World War II seems a small price to pay for it.
What passed for high society on Maui consisted of a coterie of white Americans, all claiming blood relationship, however remote, with one of the five families which ran Hawaii. (The so-called Big Five companies, which still dominate Hawaiian commerce, were all built by descendants of the old New England missionaries who brought God and sin and disease to the islands, and of whom it was said, “They came to do good, and they did well.”) High-ranking officers mixed happily with this sort, but my own civilian associates were largely with the multi-racial proletariat, who gave livelier parties, although they seldom made the papers — which was, in some cases, just as well.
I managed to crash this set through my friends in MP company. Enlisted MP’s in a war zone, like policemen everywhere, always know where the most interesting action is.
It was at one of these parties that I met a man whom I still think of as a character from a Damon Runyon story, because we were introduced during a crap game and his name was Walter Waikiki. Even Benny South Street and Nathan Detroit, the Runyon reader assumed, were aliases, but Walter assured me (and his friends confirmed) that the name was legit. I treasure it.
It was on Maui, too, that I received the letter from New Zealand — several times. Written by a young woman, it came in a tattered envelope addressed to Major Arthur Hill, Fleet Marine Force (a vague designation which included most of the Marine Corps). It began:
Dear Major Hill. I am writing to tell you that your daughter is almost a year old now and she is a beautiful baby. You would be proud of her. Diane refuses to write to you but I know she still loves you and would marry you if you came back. I know you can’t come now, but when the war is over . . .
Dear Major Hill. I am writing to tell you that your daughter is almost a year old now and she is a beautiful baby. You would be proud of her. Diane refuses to write to you but I know she still loves you and would marry you if you came back. I know you can’t come now, but when the war is over . . .
And so on. The old sad story. The writer was apparently Diane’s sister.
I was never a major, nor have I ever been in New Zealand. I returned the letter to the division post office, but two weeks later I got it again, and a month later a third time. Since there was no return address, nor even a last name, it could not be answered or returned to the sender, so I finally kept it.
From time to time throughout my life, I have suffered mild distress at the behavior of people with the same name as mine. (In college, there was an Arthur Hill who persisted in writing his name in public toilets.) But I doubt that this was quite the same thing. Surely, if “Major Arthur Hill” ever existed, the Marine Corps post office would have found him. After all, it kept finding me.
I sometimes wonder about that beautiful baby, now in her thirties. Did her mother ever tell her that her father was a major (questionable in itself) named Arthur Hill (most unlikely)? And what about the gallant “Major Hill”? Is he still alive, and if so does he ever repent of his duplicity? It is quite possible that he was dead even before his daughter was born. The First Marine Division, which spent some time in New Zealand, went from there to Guadalcanal, where it did a lot of dying.
There is, I realize, nothing unique about this story. It is all too common. But it touched me in a strange oblique way, because some Marine, in a moment of lust tempered by an unseemly prudence, made up a phoney name. And it was mine.
One should not write about the Marine Corps without mentioning the language. The official written language was the eerie English favored by all military organizations, in which a spade is not a spade but a “tool, entrenching.” Even in death, you could not escape it. When a man was killed in battle, the cause of death was recorded as WGS or WSF, for “wound, gunshot” or “wound, shell fragment.” I don’t know how they handled “terror, sheer” or “attack, heart.” There must have been a few of those.
But I am more concerned with the spoken language, which was vulgar in both the ancient and modern sense. It was the common, everyday medium of communication, and it was obscene. (Someone once defined “fucking” as the Marine Corps adjective.) It was also loaded with color and metaphor, much of which I have never seen recorded anywhere. The classic wake-up call of “Drop your cocks and grab your socks!” is now in universal military service, but it deserves inclusion here because it was my welcome to the Marine Corps. When bellowed by an eight-foot-tall sergeant at 5:30 a.m. while you lie cowering in bed on your first day in a strange and frightening place, it is anything but funny.
Whenever a Marine, usually in response to the news that he was wanted for some distasteful duty, left the scene hurriedly, someone was sure to say, “He took off like a striped-assed ape.” Or, in more genteel company, “He took off like a great bird,” which has a certain haunting beauty. And when the sky suddenly turned from light blue to ominous black, the obligatory comment was, “It’s gonna rain like double-cunted cow pissin’ on a flat rock,” an observation which, I think it is fair to say, makes up in imagery what it lacks in elegance.
The standard Marine Corps insult, routinely hurled at anyone deemed to have voiced a stupid opinion was: “You talk like a man with a paper asshole!” This is my favorite because of its surrealistic quality. I know what it means. It means, “Don’t be a jerk!” But why? What is the mysterious origin of this expression? Any reference to that part of the body (note my delicacy when I am not being documentary) suggests sodomy, I suppose, but why paper? Iron would be more to the point. (Which brings us to “pogey-bait,” the common term for candy. It dates back to the days of the wooden-ship navy when, presumably, fuzzy-faced recruits could be induced with visions of sugarplums to submit to an unnatural act, the verb for which was “to pogue.” Hence the popular epithet “candy-ass” for a weak-willed or indecisive soldier.)
I think of these phrases as peculiar to the Marine Corps, but the truth may be that their derivation, in most instances, is what the better dictionaries style Southern U.S. Dirt-poor Southern families contributed more than their share of sons to the enlisted ranks of the Corps. They made the best fighters, according to popular belief, because they had so little to lose. (There were plenty of Southern officers, too, but they usually came from a different social stratum. All of them, it seemed, had attended the University of Virginia, and they vied with each other in claiming the greater number of ancestors on General Lee’s staff, which must have been enormous. Many of them, honesty compels me to add, were superb officers.) In the case of the word “hockey” as a term for solid human waste, there is no doubt about its Southern origin. Most of the Southerners I knew during the war affected to think Canadians slightly eccentric because of their skill in playing a game whose very name was unacceptable in mixed company back home. A staple of Southern repartee, the word was in continuous use in the barracks, generally in admonitions like “Don’t give me none of your hockey,” or “Snap out of your hockey,” a common variant of which was “Snap out of your shit.” The latter was my key to the meaning of “hockey.” I had at first thought it simply meant fooling around, the official Marine Corps term for which is “playing grab-ass.”
Foul language did not distress the Corps’ image makers but dirty clothes did, so in 1944 they invented the Third Laundry Platoon and sent it to Maui to clean us up. Since we were the Fourth Marine Division, and since there was presumably one laundry platoon per division, it might have seemed more logical to call it the Fourth Laundry Platoon. But the military has always played tricks with unit numbers to confuse the enemy, and that may have been the strategy here. Conceivably, the Joint Chiefs of Staff hoped to lull the Japanese into reckless overconfidence by intimating that we didn’t have enough laundry platoons to go around.
The CO of the Fighting Third was Second Lieutenant William Jones Jr. He had a cushy job, but for one hideous drawback. His mailing address was: 3rd Laundry Platoon, FPO, San Francisco. This sort of tipped off the folks back in Roaring Rapids that Bill, though a certified professional killer just like the rest of us, was not in fact storming the shores of Tripoli. It was certainly no help in getting girls, which was one of the main reasons one joined the Marines. They practically guaranteed it at the recruiting office. They never mentioned the Third Laundry Platoon.
Since he controlled the only reliable source of hot water in the division area, Jones was immensely popular with bathing addicts, who plied him with gifts of food and booze in exchange for the use of his shower. People back home were impressed that service men had all the cigarettes they wanted, but they couldn’t identify with an abundance of warm suds. Even a mother who might brag about the money her boy was making on the black market in Paris would be embarrassed by a son who was the hot water king of Maui.
There were thousands of Marines whose jobs were even less dangerous than Jones’s, since no scalding water was involved. But none of them was so obtrusively labeled. If only they had called the laundry outfit, say, the Third Special Action Platoon, Jones and all his sweaty troops would have preserved their honor, and the shirts would come out just as clean. Probably cleaner.
There is no punch line to this story, but I have deduced a moral. When the war ended, and the world had been made safe for men of good will everywhere, I came home determined to write a novel. My subject, it hardly seems necessary to say, would be Life. I never wrote the book, but I thought about it a lot between drinks, and I did come up with a title. I was going to call it The Third Laundry Platoon, which had struck me as a poignant metaphor for Life as most of us live it. We start out with every expectation of becoming heroes, but we finally settle for a career in the Third Laundry Platoon. And, once we’ve resigned ourselves to it, we don’t mind so much provided they don’t call it the Third Laundry Platoon.
All is illusion and revelation. My comrades may not have shared my cinematic fantasy but neither could most of them quite believe in the reality of what we were doing. I remember the diffident wonder with which we read about ourselves in Time, a week or so after our first operation, the invasion of Kwajalein atoll. The story referred to our commanding general as “jut-jawed Harry Schmidt.” When we saw our leader, whom some of us had actually spoken to, described in Time’s imitable style, it finally hit us that we were the stuff of history. We called him Jut-Jawed Harry for the rest of the war. Not to his face, of course, but maybe he wouldn’t have minded. He probably had that Time clipping in his dispatch case through it all.
There were some among us, though, who had discarded their illusions about the reality of war long since — the survivors of Guadalcanal. As vividly as anything in the war, I recall a conversation with a legend. There were too many legendary figures in those days for all of them to receive the carefully programmed adulation they deserved. But Bert Rogers was an authentic Marine Corps intramural legend. In the finest tradition of the low-budget movie, he had volunteered for a perilous mission behind enemy lines, and had brought it off brilliantly. In the process, he had killed four Japanese soldiers, one of them with his bare hands. The courage which this sort of thing calls for is beyond the comprehension of the average person, and those of us who were average were somewhat in awe of him.
We stood on the deck of a navy transport lying in the great Lahaina Roads anchorage off Maui. A warm moonlit night. The division had sailed from San Diego just a week earlier, bound for Kwajalein. The ship was full of nervous people, secretly in fear of disgracing themselves in their first encounter with the enemy. We sought reassurance, hoping Captain Rogers would tell us we’d be all right when the time came.
But he wouldn’t talk about it. Quietly and politely, he brushed the subject aside. Someone suggested that modesty was unnecessary in that company.
“Modesty?” With a small gesture of the hand, he neutralized the word. “I killed four men.” Pause. “I will not kill any more.”
“But they were Japs!” someone said. I cannot place the voice for sure, but I fear it may have been mine.
“They were human beings,” Rogers said.
This was news to us. It would be fatuous to say that we thought of the enemy as animals or devils, but neither did we think of them as human beings like us. They were mad, irrational killers (as opposed to us rational killers). It is fair to say that this assessment of the Japanese drew as much upon their own propaganda as upon ours, and it was in large measure shared even by other Orientals. As a boy in the Philippines, I had listened to endless fearful talk about what would happen “when the Japanese attack.”
“I will never kill anyone again,” Rogers said. He spoke quietly, expressionlessly, used few superlatives and no profanity (a Marine Corps first). To the unspoken question, he responded, “I will try to avoid killing situations, but if necessary I will refuse a direct order.”
In war, most people kill from a distance, impersonally. (Sorry, pal, nothing personal.) Rogers was the only Marine I met who “knew” the people he killed, the only one close enough to see the look in their eyes. And the only one who took an oath never to do it again.
I thought of him a few years ago when I read a statement by a young, articulate spokesman of the Vietnam protest movement that anyone who served in the Marines would probably be “insane” for the rest of his life. Conceding the demands of polemic, I read this to mean that the man who spent time in the Marine Corps would carry the effects of it for the rest of his life. This is patently true, as it is true that a man who hears distant thunder at twilight or takes a walk in the woods will never be quite the same again.
While we are at war, we believe that the moral sanctions against killing are repealed, because it’s them or us. If we are suddenly made aware that they are us, as I was by Bert Rogers’ passionate vow, we don’t like it because it imposes a disturbing moral dilemma just when we need it least.
I never killed anyone. I never fired a shot (although I had enough of them fired at me to feel that I had paid a part of my dues) but I don’t doubt that I would have if the need had arisen. And, as the young man so strongly implied, I came out of the Marines a different person. But I’m not sure it was a worse one.
Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori? A dubious premise. Death is seldom sweet, and no sane man ever willingly dies for his country. But there is a hint of nobility in the willingness to risk death in a far place for the right reasons. The irony is that when the soldier does risk it, and perhaps loses, he never thinks of himself as doing it for his country, but for the friends on either side of him. Think about that. He joined up to fight for his country, and found that a bunch of people he didn’t even know when he enlisted had become the only thing worth fighting for. What is almost impossible for him to understand is that the soldier across the way is doing his best for exactly the same reason. When we have absorbed that simple verity — and not before — we will have taken the first real step toward abolishing war.
It is correct to call Marines “professional killers,” but foolish to say it with disdain. Every soldier is, by definition, a professional killer — even if he only runs a drier. If we resent having so many professional killers on the public payroll, the solution is simple — make peace.
For rhetorical purposes, I have pretended that there is some mystery about why I recall the war years so fondly. But, of course, I know the reason. I know why men gather in disorderly groups and wear funny hats and tell stories about those days. I do not join them, but I understand them. Old soldiers have selective memories.
The fear and anguish have been worn away by newer, more pressing anxieties. What we remember is the freedom from normal responsibilities, the sense of being united in a worthy purpose, the exhilaration of just being alive, the certain knowledge that the nation thought well of us (so essential to a soldier, so lacking in Vietnam).
But, you wonder, are those reasons enough? Men died. Yes, we remember the dead, but we no longer mourn them because we no longer know them. They are just kids.
So were we, then. And that’s the real reason.
NOTE: Most of the names I have used are, for one reason or another, fictitious. The exceptions are: Barney Raffery, Walter Waikiki and Jut-Jawed Harry Schmidt.
No doubt, you will have noticed that I spelled Marine with a capital M throughout. They told us to.
This essay originally appeared in South Shore, a new international review of the arts (Box 95, AuTrain, Michigan 49806; subscriptions $8 for one year/three issues). It’s a good magazine, with more heart than most arts journals, and we’re grateful for permission to reprint this. Art Hill’s new book, Booze, Books And The Big Deuce, is available from South Shore for $4.95.