Saturday, July 28, 2007

Politics: Plaster saints.

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.

32 comments:

Hobie said...

Well written! I was on the edge of my seat and you delivered, off site, a punch line which ties in neatly with your long (relatively so for a blog) lead-in. Bravo. And you only alluded to the "F" word once! I'm so proud!

Captain Harley said...

The real combat vets do not talk about it. They lived it and want to forget about it. Period.

Who is..... Carteach0? said...

I have run into very few people with combat experience who wanted to talk about it.

One of my students would talk a bit, about Iraq. It wasn't pretty, and he didn't want to go into too much detail. I didn't ask for more, it clearly hurt him.

My father limped all the time I ever knew him. All he would say was he had steel pins in both legs from German machine gun fire. Last and only thing he would say about his experience in the Air Force.

Harrison Bergeron said...

No, Bea Arthur with Tourette Syndrome is not what you meant and it's offensive to those who understand or otherwise have Tourette Syndrome. I understand what you meant, but you can write about it better by understanding your terminology better. Please help out by using the phrasing more accurately. Thanks.

Diamondback said...

It's been my experience that the less someone did in the military, the more they tend to talk about it endlessly. Combat vets, for the most part, never let it be known. It's hard to bring up any memories when they are associated with personal loss in a nightmare scenario.

Ben said...

Tam's 3 rules of the War Story are absolutely right on.

Capt Harley and Diamondback are right on, too.

GeorgeH said...

"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."

That would explain why every German I met in the early '60s said he had fought on the Eastern Front. We obviously killed all those generals.
I wonder what took us so long.

Anonymous said...

Harrison Bergeron said...
No, Bea Arthur with Tourette Syndrome is not what you meant and it's offensive to those who understand or otherwise have Tourette Syndrome.



I find your over-sensitivity offensive. Stop offending me, damn it.

Kristopher said...

Fuck you and the sheep you rode in on, Harrison Bergeron.

Fucker.

brbiswrite said...

It has also been my experience that combat vets don't tell war stories, except to say where they were fighting and and how scared they were.

Many Viet-Nam vets like myself stayed silent about our service. For some reason protestors thought the troops sent themselves and gave themselves all the orders.

I was of the non-combat variety. I worked at an airfield with a thousand others and ducked at the appropriate times, and then went back to work.

It is good to see that our service folk are getting the public support they deserve.

BRB

BryanP said...


I find your over-sensitivity offensive. Stop offending me, damn it.


Offensensitivity? Sounds like a new syndrome in the making.

BryanP said...

I am shocked that you use foul language in real life. You should stop by my workplace sometime. It's a very good thing me and my two coworkers are behind two closed doors with a loud dedicated AC system for the server room between us and the rest of the world. It's amazing how many phone calls end with *click* "Jaysus. What an effing moron." in endless variation.

Joseph said...

Some combat vets I have knows will talk about military experiences (usually humorous) but rarely combat. I figure for them, it's like trying to explain color to a blind man: If you were there, you don't need to tell what it was like; if you were not there, you won't understand what it was like.

Myron said...

I was lucky to get to serve with a number of WWII submarine vets in the late 50s. About 98% of their tales were what we referred to as "no shitters". As joseph said, the humorous stuff. I know 1 WWII submarine vet today who tells a little about some of the depth charge attacks he survived. And yes, these have been verified in a number of books, patrol reports etc.

global village idiot said...

No shit, there I was...

In FOB Speicher, near Tikrit, Iraq, sitting in the PX area having a latte from the Green Bean Coffee trailer (Green Bean is a sort of Starbucks for the ACU set), reading Stars and Stripes and trying to make up my mind if I wanted Burger King or Subway for lunch--their trailers were just across the PX area from the coffee shop.

As I sat and ruminated, I saw a few dusty, obviously tired GIs walk over to the trailer. They had obviously just come from a convoy and who knows how it went--I don't eavesdrop, it feels unseemly. And I found myself thinking, "Wow, here we all are--me, these guys just off a convoy--and we're all sipping lattes and eating Burger King in a war zone. What the hell kind of a war is this?"

SGT Phil Simcich,
300th A.G. Co (POSTAL)
late of FOB Caldwell, KMTB Iraq
OIF III
Official REMF

Dan said...

"...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."

Well put. I've noticed myself that I have never once met anyone in the Navy who wasn't a SEAL. At least not in the bars that I go to. It's like the people who claim to have been royalty in previous lives. No one ever claims to have been a pig farmer.

Anonymous said...

"It's like the people who claim to have been royalty in previous lives. No one ever claims to have been a pig farmer."

No, I wasn't royalty or a pig farmer "before". But, in this life, I did work on a cattle ranch as a kid. Which is why I went to college to get an office job.

And, as an SAL,
I closed many a "Legion Club" night with my friends singing "Amazing Grace".
I didn't sing.
I hadn't earned the right.
And, they never "talked real talk about 'Nam".

richard mcenroe said...

One other clue about war stories:

"If the teller is always the hero of the story, the smartest or bravest or noblest guy, it's almpost certainly a "war story.""

Dave said...

My father and some of his (non-local) friends were combat veterans in the Marines in WWII. Dad was in Carlson's Raiders, which certainly has had many stories told about them.

From the time I can remember, when they got together they told all kinds of stories about their service days, except for combat stories. They'd tell a little about the 'edges' of combat, like the foul-ups so common to beach assaults. They'd talk about friends (both those who lived and those who didn't), and they'd talk about stupid things 'someone' had done. And they'd tell funny stuff. Dad made Gunnery Sergeant in one of the toughest, most battle-hardened outfits in WWII, but you'd never know it if you just listened.

(And I'm pretty damned super-sensitive, so watch the F**kin' Tourette's jokes!! You B*st*rds.)

jagcap said...

I meet WWII vets all the time who are willing to talk about what they went through... The problem is that most of the time, folks only want to hear war stories. "Real combat vets" will talk, if they can trust you and if you've done a little homework, so that you can understand what they're talking about. I was ROTC and served 5 years in MDW and the only thing anyone asks about the 2 MSMs and ARCOM I earned was how many guys I'd killed... and that's after I've told them I did my time in the 80's as a lawyer...

M. Simon said...

Being Navy I'm especially attuned to the use of f..k in ordinary conversation.

My general rule was:

every third word - morale fine
every second word - morale bad
three out of four - the fecal matter has hit the air mover

M. Simon said...

SGT Phil Simcich,
300th A.G. Co (POSTAL)
late of FOB Caldwell, KMTB Iraq
OIF III
Official REMF

Cracked me up.

Simon

M. Simon said...

I always claim to be a Naval Nuke. That gets respect. Of course I was a Naval Nuke.

Any one want to talk neutron cross sections? Or how about heat transfer and fluid flow, fascinating subject. LOL. Or if you are from the A1W era we can talk lead pipes.

Anonymous said...

A mortar round hit our PX. I almost earned a CAB while flipping through the pages of a Maxim magazine 'cept I was protected from shrapnel by the rows of pillows, quilts and black plastic storage boxes for sale.
Damn.
Diggs
4th ID
Camp Liberty, Baghdad

PS. if the story doesn't change with every telling, it may be true.

Harvey said...

I humped ruck for fourteen months in VN. When I got back, I never said anything to anybody about my duty. I did find out that there were not clerks in VN. Everybody was a hero grunt, SF, LRRP, etc. I got sick of it and bottled up (two contexts) things even more. The only thing that haunts me to this day are the comrades who were lost. The NVA don't matter - they hurt and killed my friends. If a vet does not mention his friends in combat I know they are BS'ing. That's all that mattered.

Curly said...

I worked in sales, and for a while, had a sales manager that I particularly liked. I found out, after several years, that he had been as platoon leader with Merrill's Marauders. He never talked about it. I never doubted him, but confirmed that he really was, and had a Silver Star that he never discussed. If he was as good a platoon leader as he was a sales manager, his men were lucky, indeed.

Roy Lofquist said...

January 1961. Basic training, Fort Ord, CA. One meek, soft, little roly-poly kind of guy who rejoined the Army after his wife was killed in a traffic accident. He signed up to be a cook. The other guy a basic trainer, 12 years in and a corporal for maybe the fifth time. Picked on everybody but Mr. Roly Poly was his favorite. Graduation day. Mr. Roly Poly got to wear his medals. CIB and Silver Star. Look on the corporal's face: priceless.

Zoe Brain said...

As a general rule, it's those who have seen the most danger, and have accomplished the most amazing things, that are the most silent.

The French schoolteacher I once had, ugly as sin - that's because his face had been beaten to a bleeding pulp by the Gestapo. A member of the Resistance, he didn't crack at the time, and never mentioned it afterwards. I only found out decades later, in his obituary.

Here's to those whose valour in the face of immense adversity will never be made public while they live, whoever they are.

Don Meaker said...

I am an army guy, who has trained with Marines (once, when in ROTC we were the "aggressor force" for a Marine Reserve unit), with Special Forces (ROTC students act as partisans for the special forces units to link up with), with SEALs (I did a "mud run" at camp pendleton with a friend who was a reserve SEAL. We both got reserve credit for it.) and with Airborne (my battalion's officers were were evaluators for 509th Infantry on an exercise.

My real service was as a mechanized infantry officer during the Carter Administration. We had 5 times the firepower of the Airborne, but nowhere near the press. So, I have been sceptical of press coverage for a long time.

The Army has more aircraft than the Air Force, more boats than the Navy, more amphibious landings than the Marines. In any fight, the Air Force will get the lion's share of the funding, the Navy will get the lion's share of the command billets, the Marines will get the lion's share of the publicity. The Army does the lion's share of the fighting.

Jim said...

My dad was in the Navy in WWII but as D-Day approached he was sent to amphibious asault training and was in the 2nd wave on Utah Beach. He did not talk about that. He talked about training, about crossing the Atlantic, about being in England and Scotland, even about watching the naval shelling of the coast before the invasion -- but never about the landing and never about combat. Although I knew from things my mother had said that he sometimes had nightmares years -- even decades -- later, he did not talk about it. He talked about drinking and stealing a rack of lambchops from the officers' mess and pulling guard duty, and officious officers, etc. Humorous stories.

A couple of months before he died he was sitting around talking with me and my eldest (who was in his early twenties at the time) and for whatever reason (probably awareness of his failing health) he told us a few stories about the landing and its aftermath. I won't repeat them, but I can understand how they could trigger nightmares. That is the only time he ever mentioned anything that had happened in combat.

Thomas said...

"("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.)"

I've never found "f**k* awkward to use as an adverb. Examples: "Damn, that was f**king hard!" In that case, the universal word modifies "hard," an adjective. If I remember "Schoolhouse Rock" right, if it modifies an adjective, it's an adverb.

Using it as a conjunction is harder, although how 'bout this:

"I tried to lift that rock; f**king couldn't do it." The Word stands in for "but I," which is sort of a conjunction, isn't it?

sluggotinfantryman said...

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Iraq OIF III/278th RCT link

Military history of a more current event, Iraq the continuing saga