Backstory

A QUIRKY AD SPARKED HISTORICAL FICTION ABOUT WHY MEN CAN’T STOP GOING TO WAR

In 1984, in a Ventura, California, bookstore, I was arrested by the November Esquire’s cover girl, a knockout who was all the more stunning because she wore a camo-covered helmet and a torn OD-green T shirt. She appeared stunned herself. Looking straight at me, she seemed to ask, “Do you know what I just read about me?” The header next to her called her “The Secret Love of a Man’s Life”. I myself never got further than making a date.

The feature she’s advertising is a brilliant guided tour through the jungle by William Broyles, Jr., whose eloquence is in Esquire’s swashbuckling style. Broyles, ex-LT, USMC, Vietnam, with Esquire’s blessing, had bucked propriety and written “Why Men Love War.”

To get this post straight right now, I agree with former war correspondent Chris Hedges who said, “War is necrophilia. I don’t miss it; I miss what it brought.”  He clarifies: “War is zen. I mean, colors are brighter” and weapons appear to be “pieces of art”.  He even felt Salvadoran Hueys hunting him were seductive; however, he still calls war the “nymph with poison breath.”

On a wall in my den among the edged weapons, shark’s jaws and Foreign Legion trappings, is the most important document I own.  It’s a free one-way ticket to the Vietnam War, but uncanceled, as in “never used”.  Hopefully, Chief Fox and Warrant Officer Cathey will read this.

Even though military, I was no hawk; I didn’t want to kill anybody. I simply wanted to be in the far-out movie that guys who’d returned from there told me it was, and that I better see it before The End. I accepted the chance it could wreck my hearing, at the least. Of course, nothing bad would have happened, right? I also wanted a job that let me compile a knock-out photo portfolio, all expenses paid. But two days before I was to ship out as a Navy JO (journalist), an upper-class MOS, a kidney stone blocked the way to my ultimate working holiday.  If you don’t know, a plugged kidney can make you wish you were aborted.

I visited Vietnam briefly, aboard a ship that was in the Battle of Okinawa. I enjoyed the light-shows from fire-support missions and napalm strikes, chatted with patrol boat crews, was mesmerized by three mystery explosions rather close offshore. I was satisfied staying in the yacht club. Until she blew me a kiss. Years later, still drawn to combat, I tried touring other battlefields: Rhodesia, Portuguese Guinea; refused entry. So I tried sneaking into the Ogaden, then Eritrea; caught each time, suspected of being CIA. Luckily, they never pressed the issue. Since I was in the African Horn then, I decided to make the best of the experience. Disappointment was easy to take, though; those other wars were inferior when I’d been admitted to the most extraordinary one the US will probably ever have.

A Navy doctor told me the stone was my golden bullet. Ex-battalion surgeon, Robert Blok, seems to disagree. Blok became possibly the oldest person to get a Purple Heart when in 2009 on his fourth tour in Iraq, an IED tore a retina and gave him short term-memory loss. He was 65 and had kept volunteering, wanting to see action. “Hard to explain,” he tried, “but you feel your very best in a combat zone.”

Like an athlete at the top of his form? Since war has been called a game. “(A) brutal, deadly game,” Broyles adds, “but a game, the best there is…. No sport I ever played brought me to such deep awareness of my physical and emotional limits.” He also ties the love of destroying and killing to childrens’ playtimes of pretend violence.

Recruiters regularly have a hard time figuring out what triggers to pull to make quota. Blame incessant, small-gauge fighting all over the world for the last 17 years. “An enduring condition,” says legal historian Mary Dudziak, Emory University School of Law. She explains we’re passing through “a time in which war no longer bothers everyday Americans.” It’s said the country has “war fatigue”. That doesn’t mean pacifism. Boredom or anxiety can bring on weariness. So be patient. Historian Will Durant found that in the last 3,400 years, there was no war for just 29 of them.

Evan Thomas, who wrote “The War Lovers” to explore Americans’ war fever in the age of Teddy Roosevelt, believes the fever can only be cooled. Collective amnesia will take hold again, he predicts, when the beheadings and IED mutilations are forgotten, and young men, and old men who missed seeing action as young men, will be ready to load and lock once more because, he says, “(T)he lust for war is too fundamental to the male psyche.” Perhaps for our closest evolutionary cousins, too. Primatologists have determined that chimpanzees are natural-born killers. Even groups of as many as 32 chimps were observed attacking single males from other communities.

Now check out the popularity of war movies and books, particularly video games to keep the desire warm. So how many men that never served, regardless of generation, regret they didn’t go all the way?  In 1785, that paragon among men of letters, Samuel Johnson, wrote, “Each man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier or a sailor at sea.”  He may may be right.  Now time travel to October 2006 when, en route to Iraq, PFC Bennie Crouch, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, USA, confessed, “The war, it’s something a man needs to experience.”

In “Why Men Love War”, Broyles, who became a publisher and screenwriter, is a platoon commander once more, leading you on an insightful patrol through a lot of contact as he gives a death-based aphrodisiac its due, calling the heightened sexuality that war brings “the weapon of life”. Among his observations are that war changes you, being “at some terrible level the closest thing to what childbirth is for women”, that war-story lies have a “moral, even a mythic, truth”, that Hemingway was right to exhort the veteran to “(a)dmit you have liked to kill” because, Broyles explains, war invests troops with “an almost animal force.”

But among the nymph’s enticements, Broyles admits, are enough “I can’t fucking believe its to last a lifetime.” On the other hand, he attacks some of her allure, too, for example, those famously tight relationships only men that saw action are supposed to have. Broyles disagrees it’s friendship. Because it’s war, he counters, it’s actually comradeship. He quotes his colleague, Philip Caputo, who declared comradeship a “bond that cannot be broken by anything…other than death,” because it will ennoble self-sacrifice, make troops worship death, make somebody fall on a grenade when he could have gone for cover or tried to pitch it.

I liked desert, admired the great explorers and wanted to meet vanishing warrior cultures. The Horn, though, could resemble a western with no horses. It was criscrossed with trails from cattle drives (really), tribesmen, liberation fronts, federal troops, colonial troops, territorial police and shifta—outlaws. I made four trips there of several months each between 1974 and 1978, got into all the nations, went up the Red Sea twice to visit Sudan, and I saw things. After a kid threw his javelin at me, I’d often wonder if I’d be able to get it together like Sir Richard Burton with his face transfixed by a Somali javelin. He carried on that night in 1855 near Berbera, sabering his attackers with one hand while the other steadied the shaft. Below, I’m in Ethiopia in 1974, possibly harming his culture but wanting to keep myself safe by persuading the Afar my camera won’t steal his soul.

The few narratives I found about men captivated by war didn’t explain enough or at all how they got that way. And if nobody’s written the book you want to read, then write it yourself. And always write what you know. Midwest Book Review called “The Play Soldier” “riveting”; Divas Reviews said, “(I)t makes you think.”

New Yorker cartoon courtesy of William Hamilton;

Photo by the author