Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Trying to understand heroism

Perhaps pro-military was the wrong word. What I'm trying to understand is why heroic stories *only* seem to work as fantasy or history. Part of it I understand; I've talked to a lot of combat vets. I've talked with men who landed on Normandy on D-Day and men who fought in the Battle of the Bulge. I know that The Longest Day is history-based fantasy and Saving Private Ryan is gruesomely realistic fiction. I know a Marine Corps vet who landed at Inchon and came home from Korea with three purple hearts; all he'll say about it now is, "I seen some shit," and then, if you press him on the subject, he'll start talking about all his friends who didn't make it back.

When I was a kid, we had a family friend who was a Navy landing craft man attached to a Marine division in WWII. His war record reads like an itinerary of the Hellholes of the Pacific. He received a list of citations and decorations as long as your arm, but the only time I ever heard him talk about the war was one time when he was drunk, and then he started to relate the story of the time his landing craft was sunk by artillery and he spent three days on the beach as a temporary Marine rifleman, pinned down by Japanese fire, watching the bodies of his friends bloat up in the tropical heat and wash in and out on the tide...

He was a man who chain-smoked Camels, drank cheap hard liquor straight, and died younger than I am now. It seems I've known a lot of combat vets who chose that exit.

But never mind that; here's my question. My generation grew up on tales of Alvin York, Audie Murphy, Horatius at the bridge, and Davy Crockett at the Alamo. Then we lost our virginity in Vietnam and came home to write books like The Forever War, after which we proceeded to crawl back through American history and deconstruct and debunk all our heroes. (The notion of Crockett dying at the Alamo to keep Texas from being part of Mexico seems particularly ironic these days.)

But as I get older, and as I learn more, I discover that I am *not* one of these peace-at-any-price war-never-solved-anything sorts. Yeah, war never solved anything important: only Naziism, Fascism, Japanese Imperialism, negro slavery, Napoleonic Imperialism, Moslem Imperialism (twice)...

But how do you convince your sons that, horrible and tragic as it is, there are some things worth fighting for, and that can only be protected and saved by fighting for them? Especially, how do you do this after you've rejected all of your own history?

Is putting a heroic speech in the mouth of Samwise Gamgee really the only way to do it these days?