Today, Memorial Day, is a day when we are asked to remember those who died while serving in the armed forces. Knowing this, I am compelled to think about my high school buddy, Bruce Kline, who was shot down while piloting a helicopter in Vietnam. When I visited the great black granite wall that is the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C., I found Bruce’s engraved name and, I must admit, I couldn’t hold back the tears. He was a good guy and he deserved to have a good, long life.
While I’m in a confessional frame of mind, I might as well admit that I also lost my composure recently while I was speaking to a Rollins class about my days as an anti-Vietnam War protestor. In that discussion, I referred to Bill, a friend whom I met in 2004 when I traveled to Vietnam. Bill was a marine during the war and told me about the time when he tripped a booby trap wire while on patrol. The explosion permanently damaged Bill’s foot and killed his buddy who was walking behind him. Bill was crushed. He had felt that his life had, in a way, lacked purpose. But his buddy, for whose death he felt responsible, had been a good man with a wife and family and a promising future. Bill genuinely wished that the explosion had killed him instead of his friend. He visited Vietnam multiple times on trips that offered therapeutic advice for veterans. Survivor’s guilt continued to haunt him.
That story so touches me that every time I think about it, I have to fight back the tears, and I actually lost that fight during my talk with the Rollins students. So, right then and there, out the window went my tough, macho image.
People who know me well are aware that I was very much against the Vietnam War and, in fact, I was discharged from the Navy in 1967 when I made it clear to my superior officers that my anti-war sentiments were so intense that I would be nothing but trouble in the service.
But my anger at our government for dragging us into unjustified wars on the basis of duplicitous fear-mongering does not mean that I don’t feel for those men and women who put their lives on the line when called to do so. So, here’s to you, Bruce and Bill and Bill’s friend - even though I never knew you. I admire all of you for your courage and discipline.
The same goes, of course, for those who served in World War II, a justified war if there ever was one. This includes Dad, who served stateside as a pilot in the Army Air Force, and his younger brother John, who was wounded while fighting the Nazis in France. Dad’s older brother Phil was in the merchant marine, which was not technically military service, but just as vital to the war effort and just as dangerous.
So yes, I have strong pacifist impulses, but I can’t help but honor those who willingly put life and limb at risk during wartime. However, I also have concerns about the way we sometimes think about war. This thinking is all too often focused on the word “warrior,” a word toward which I feel an acute wariness. There is an implication in this word which suggests glory in battle but, from the accounts of many veterans, I have concluded that whatever glory is to be found in the maelstrom of killing and dying inherent to combat, glory is a rare and fleeting thing.
Rather than warriors, I see people like Dad and the other veterans as citizen soldiers, people who have set aside their civilian lives to take part in a national effort that tragically brings death and destruction to multitudes. My image of the ideal soldier is not that of a bold and glorious warrior, but rather that suggested by cartoonist Bill Mauldin’s characters Willie and Joe.
In addition to Bill Mauldin’s wonderful World War II cartoons, there is a movie that for me captures the ideal of the citizen combatant: The Story of G.I. Joe. This film comes from the writings of the war correspondent Ernie Pyle, who was renowned for his ability to capture the essence of ordinary men and women in theaters of war. Ernie, by the way, was tragically killed during combat in the Pacific.
The Story of G.I. Joe was based on real incidents. It stars Robert Mitchum and brings to life vivid images of ordinary men asked to do extraordinary things. We come to feel for these men as they pursue their quest, the central one of which is to not get killed as they do their duty. But some of them do die in the process, and when they do, it is not as glorious warriors, but rather as brave and decent human beings doing something they deeply wish they didn’t have to do in order that we all might live better lives.
So again, here’s to you, men and women, living and dead, who have served with courage during wartime. Please understand that my reluctance to use the word “warrior” is in no way meant to disparage what you do and what you have done as you serve in defense of our Democracy.
Dad in pilot gear, ca. 1942