An' if sometimes our conduck isn't all your fancy paints,
Why, single men in barricks don't grow into plaster saints...
-from "Tommy", by Rudyard Kipling
My fascination with military history and the soldiers who made it began at a young age. In my early teen years my mother would go down to the town square on Saturday mornings to make her circuit of the thrift shops. Just off the square was a dusty little storefront that dealt in militaria from the Civil War to the present, run by an older gentleman by the name of Mr. Woodlief. Soon my Saturday mornings became a ritual; while my mother did her rounds at St. Agnes' Attic, St. Gertrude's Garage, and St. Sophia's Spare Room, I was deposited under the watchful eye and curmudgeonly tutelage of Mr. Woodlief, eagerly soaking up the tales spun by the old man and his customers. One morning I received a lesson that was to remain with me to this day.
The tinkling of the door bells announced my weekly entry into the cocoon of musty history and dancing dust motes that was my Saturday hideaway. On Mr. Woodlief's display counter, illuminated in a shaft of watery winter sunlight through the fly-specked windows, was a dress dummy wearing the tunic of an officer in the Army Air Force of WWII. I stopped and stared, transfixed by the gleaming officer's insignia and the impressive rows of medal ribbons. "You like that?" asked Mr. Woodlief. "That was mine during the war."
He began to name the decorations, narrating a little story on the origins of each one. I stood agog, absorbing the information. He squinted at me. "So, can you believe all that?"
I nodded mutely.
"Don't be an idiot," snapped my mentor, "I made all that up. Don't believe some guy's stories just because he tells them, unless you know some kind of facts that can back them up."
Plying my trade in later years, this skepticism served me in good stead. I saw many German Luger pistols brought back from WWII. If their bearers were to be believed, every other one was taken from a dead Nazi general, complete with a "swastika armband" which now couldn't be found. Apparently the Western Front was manned by whole divisions of Luger-armed generals, whose "swastika armbands" must have surely hampered any attempts at camouflage. Similarly, every other Japanese military sword had an ill-defined smudge on it, which was of course dried blood, from where the former owner of the sword had decapitated the foxhole buddy of the sword's current bearer before being bested by Our Hero. As for Vietnam tales, such popular currency in those pre-Gulf War days, I resolved that I would just flatly disbelieve anyone who claimed to have served in a combat capacity unless their story rang particularly true or was supported by outside evidence; as best I can tell, the US military effort in Vietnam consisted of thousands upon thousands of Ranger Sniper Green Beret SeALs, supported by one cannon-cocker, one truck driver, one helicopter crew chief, and one guy running a radio at Tan Son Nhut.
For the better part of my adult life, I have worked in the company of soldiers and veterans. I have learned a lot from them, some good and some not so much. On the negative side of the ledger, my language has taken a pounding. People who only know me through my writing, which while still heavily colloquial, benefits from at least a modicum of editing, are sometimes shocked to find that in person I speak like Bea Arthur with Tourette's Syndrome. ("F__k", while impossible to use as a conjunction and hopelessly awkward in the adverbial, is so remarkably versatile in every other part of speech.) On the positive side, I have become conversant with the War Story (and its close cousins, the Sea Story and the Cop Story.) Many, however, are unaware of the lore and protocol surrounding these tales.
The first important thing about the War Story is being able to identify it, and to tell it apart from a Fairy Tale. This isn't as hard as it may at first seem. A Fairy Tale begins with "Once upon a time..." while a War Story starts out with "No shit, this really happened..." Next is the appropriate usage of the War Story. A War Story may be used to instruct the new guy, astound your friends and relatives back home, or get a free beer at a bar from fellow veterans. Lastly come the elaborate rules surrounding the War Story: 1) If you are in a rear area, and the War Story happened to anyone in your unit, and no one from your unit is present, you may claim the story happened to you; 2) If your buddy told you the story but it happened over one year ago or over one thousand miles away from your current location, you may claim it happened to you; 3) If there is anybody in earshot who can flatly contradict your War Story, you may not claim it happened to you. Telling your story to a national audience puts an awful lot of people in earshot.
Once upon a time, an up-and-coming movie director wrote a tale of Vietnam. His story, informed by his own experiences there, rang superficially true. However, as time went on many veterans of that conflict pointed out that the experiences his protagonist went through, while individually and separately occurring on occasion over the duration of that long conflict, would have been impossible for one man to experience in one unit on one tour. Oliver Stone had been caught telling War Stories.
It seems Oliver has a groupie.