For instance, Garry Wallace's essay on "Our Vietnam" continues to haunt me and has influenced my choice of other books to read this past week. The essay concerns the intangible definition of manliness, the crosses we bear whether we have been in combat with some enemy or with ourselves. Hemingwayesque, but in the best sense.
It somehow made me think of Nelson Algren's comic short story, "The Heroes," which was in The Neon Wilderness collection. Algren's story concerns the heroism of a couple of G. I. anarchists who rebel against the absurd insanity of war as World War II ends. They are far from heroes in the conventional sense of the word. To think so requires a level of compassion that must have been rare in the conformist, jingoistic post-war America in which Algren then resided.
Rare then, rare today.
Mailer short story, "The Language of Men," first published in Esquire Magazine in 1953. Largely autobiographical and probably Mailer's best short story, it concerns manliness and the gap between what a man thinks of himself vs. what he perceives as his worth in the eyes of others.
The Amazon link to Garry Wallace's Meeting Cormac McCarthy: Plus 9 Notable Essays of the Year is here. You can read my interview with him here and here and here. You can read Norman Mailer's "The Language of Men" at this link.
And along similar lines, you might also like to read Tracy Kidder's memoir of his reluctant Vietnam War service, My Detachment. Kidder, the author of Mountains Beyond Mountains, won the Pulitzer Prize for his humanitarian insights. I noticed again just now that Kidder included Sam Toperoff in his dedication. You can read my review of SamToperoff's brilliantly written war novel at this link.
Some years ago, one of Louisville's local stations ran a story about police arresting a persistent panhandler after repeated warnings. The homeless man, who held up a "Vietnam Vet" sign to motorists stuck in traffic, was identified and there was no military service at all in his background.
An ex-con still conning people. No phone, no pool, no pets. A man of means by no means, yet he seemed to find enough handouts to keep him in bourbon and cigarettes. No place for home? Third box car, midnight train. King of the road.
Disgraceful? Yes. But the offense is not really as destructive as, say, taking the heads off of parking meters.
Such homeless people, addicted to drugs or alcohol, afflicted by disease, and perhaps brain-damaged or autistic, test our religion--or if we are not religious, they still test our humanity. Veterans or not, honest or not, do they not also deserve our compassion?
Such sad cases are not the only ones to abuse the respect due to war veterans. In My Detachment, Tracy Kidder looks critically at himself, and at the way many other Vietnam veterans enlarged stories of their own experiences after returning from overseas duty. Stretchers that, "after a while, if you tell 'em enough, the ones people like to hear, you almost start to believe them yourself."
"Most of the American soldiers who went to Vietnam were boys, whether they were twenty-two or just eighteen. They had watched a lot of movies and TV. . ." When such men start drinking in a bar (or at the VFW/American Legion Post), swapping war stories, they feel compelled to make their stories more impressive than that of the last guy. The first liar doesn't stand a chance.
"But of the roughly three million Americans who went to the war dressed as soldiers, only a small minority returned with Combat Infantryman's Badges or other proof of a terrible experience. Imagine all the bullshit stories Vietnam inspired."
And what about all those liars? Do we not owe them compassion as well?
Sure we do. Liars or not, all the veterans who served their country deserve what little benefits they have--and more. The Vietnam War certainly took a big chunk out of my own youth, years I'll never get back. The politicians are yelling about how untrained we are for the modern economy. Heck, we wish they would renew the educational benefits for Vietnam era veterans. A lot of us old guys might go back to college. Maybe earn a doctorate.
Then we'd really have something to brag about.