Book Review

A Rumor of War

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I picked out the book, ” A Rumor of War”, from the base library yesterday.  It is a well-known Vietnam classic, written by Philip Caputo,  a Marine infantry officer in Vietnam. 

I’m only a short way into the book, but I’d like to make some comments because I sense where the book is going.  First, Caputo is an excellent and powerful writer.  He presents his experience in Vietnam with emotional impact–the best kind of writing.  But there is a cynicism from page one and it isn’t just a cynicism about how the war was fought, it’s  a generalized cynicism which has its roots in the anti-war movement of the time, which Caputo admits he was a part of. 

Caputo begins the book by saying that he joined the Marines as a way to escape the hum drum of life at home, where crossing the street was the most danger he’d face in a day.  I suspect that this is a normal reason that many young men join the military.  However, the best Soldiers and Marines are those whom find in their “job”  a higher purpose.  Soldiering is too difficult and trying at all levels for it to be just another job or a mere source of excitement.  It is also too important.  The higher purpose in everything a serviceman does must remain at the forefront of his mind, or else everything will seem useless and tedious.  It should be apparent to everyone that the Spartans did not stand to the last man at Thermopylae with the same motivation they carried while tilling their fields and the Athenians did not save Western civilization at the Battle of Marathon while merely punching a time card.

In reading some of the reviews of a Rumor of War on Amazon, many reviewers carry on about the horrors of war, and use the book’s theme to reinforce what I suspect they already believe; that Vietnam was a bad war, while WWII was a good war.  To me, the biggest difference between the two wars is that we lost in Vietnam and won WWII.  Our mission was essentially the same in both wars.  We felt no real threat to the American mainland during WWII, though Pearl Harbor set the United States in motion.  Still, our goal in both wars was clear: Prevent a totalitarian regime from crushing free nations.   And there is almost no difference as to the evils presented by the Soviets and Red China when compared to Nazi Germany.  Basically, the Soviets became what the Nazi would have become had they not been confronted early enough. 

Early in the book, Caputo has hinted at terrible changes he saw take place in soldiers over the course of the war.  Some of them lost their sense of compassion and found joy in killing the enemy.  Again, this is no different than in WWII. 

Caputo admits that he came to enjoy aspects of combat, a sentiment expressed by many soldiers, if only in hushed tones.  History bears witness that this is true.  What soldiers truly hate is not war per se, but losing at war.  Soldiers are supposed to fight wars, that’s what they do.  They are also supposed to win wars.  My own cynicism stems not from the Afghan war, not from any sentiment that Noam Chomsky would find heartening, but from the fact that most politicians are liars, idiots and scoundrels.  They have no idea what a good war looks like, no sense of strategic realities, and almost all of them can be classified as careerists worried more about losing the vote of the 21 year old undergrad than the life of a 21 year soldier sent in to battle for the vote the politico worries about losing.  I generalize, and to those government officials who do not meet these criteria, I commend you.  But speak up and be heard. 

The Afghan war has been handled more poorly than Vietnam. Fortunately the jihadists are amateurs compared to the hard corp communists of the 50s and 60s. In Vietnam there were real reasons for not attacking ,directly, North Vietnam.  The Soviet Union and China were very powerful militarily, ruthless, cunning and frankly, both had a large number of political allies in the United States.  In Afghanistan, we let Pakistan kill our soldiers because politicians are politicians.  See above.

As for the behavior of soldiers in war that Caputo speaks of, I can say that I never once saw any actions by US soldiers against our enemy that was illegal or evil.  In fact, our soldiers treated the Afghans better than fellow troops in most cases.  This did appal me.  Because of Hearts and Minds, soldiers shook hands with and smiled at  they knew helped the insurgency to kill fellow Americans.  The Afghans knew no consequences for actions against the US military in most cases.  There were benefits to helping both the insurgents and the Americans, but always the insurgents knew when to apply force and so in most districts, progress was an apparition.  When Americans weren’t around, things deteriorated very quickly.

Sometimes I have to book a book away

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I picked up the book, Jarhead, from my post’s library. The author, Anthony Swofford, is a veteran of the first Gulf war where he fought with the Marines.

Swofford is a talented writer. However, by his own admission, he was never meant to be a Marine. He says he knew it was a mistake from the get-go. I’m betting though, it made him a better and stronger person, despite the fact that he hated it. Hey, everyone hates Boot Camp. I despised it, and curse the existance of all Drill Instructors. But once your done, the rest of the Army can seem pretty easy by comparison. I guess there’s one good thing about it…

So Swafford’s book does what good art should: conveys emotion, making the reader feel like the author does. Unfortunately, Swafford is depressed and dislikes the Marines. Which of course makes the reader depressed and dislike the Marines. So I put the book down, and went on to reading Ralph Peters’ newest novel: The War After Armegeddon.

Some feelings are better left surpressed. Others should be cultivated. Being a depressed Soldier is even worse than being a depressed civilian. Read the Illiad and take a look at Achilles.

Fields of Fire

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Right now I’m reading the Vietnam war novel: Fields of Fire, by James Webb. Webb is one of the most highly decorated combat Marines who served in Vietnam, and he has served in a variety of government positions, including Secretary of the Navy and Assistant Secretary of Defense. He is currently the Democrat Senator for Virginia.

One of the main character refers to himself as Snake, a tattoo of a serpent on his arm, and fresh ink of a skull and two crossed daggers on the other. The words: Death Before Dishonor under the daggers. A down and outer who harbors a rage that makes him an outcast in society. But than he finds the Marines and his rage is now a strength. He never quits and his smoldering fury motivates him, drives him to prove to the world he has the right to exist.

Here’s a line from the first chapter:

“The trivialities of boot camp rolled off him….He was beaten, but did not flinch….Beat me, Sergeant…It ain’t any different. You can’t squash me, and if you can’t squash me, you lose. More, sir. Harder, sir. Faster, sir. I love it, sir.

It created a mystique about him. His ability to endure, that iron shell from which all other traits derived, was also a magnet that drew the other recruits to him…his reasoned suggestions without regard to pain, caused him to be the man they sought for guidance. And he loved it. To merely endure, to accept the pain that others feared and dreaded, was the ticket to dignity that had eluded him all his life. And to fight, to grant his natural ferocity its whims, now brought him accolades instead of trouble.”

I relate with this character. Everyday, when I get up and face the harshness of military life, the asshole NCOs who crowd out the decent, the tough runs and hundreds of pushups. The hours of studying for what is sure to be the toughest week of my life at the INSCOM Soldier of the Year event. I love the pain. I can feel the universe flinch when I smile at discomfort. It’s not supposed to be that way…

When pain becomes your fuel, you’ll find yourself capable of things you thought impossible. There will be no more depression, no more stress, only a Zen Mind capable of forgetting Self and doing the job and summoning a dark joy that’ll power you like a diesel engine. When I was in AIT, and the 1st Sergeant was doing sprints around the track with us, I was one of the few that could keep up with him. He was in incredible condition and could rip off pushups like he was a human jackhammer. He pointed to me and said to someone beside him: “I like that guy–he’s Diesel.” I’d never heard that term used as an adjective before: Diesel. But I understood.

Be Diesel. Don’t let hard times get you down. Eat it, chew it, spit it on the ground.