Thursday, April 05, 2007

Used Books and War Heroes

I have a near obsession with used books. I like it when I come across pre-driven volumes with dedications scrawled on the inside cover pages and imagine the occasions that inspired them, with names of friends and parents, all anonymous, written on the interior folios. Yesterday I was reading Fortunate Son: The Healing of a Vietnam Vet, an autobiography by Lewis B. Puller Jr. It was an account of Puller’s experience in Vietnam and his injury, which Sen. John Kerry described, “He was cut in half. He should have died.” Puller spends considerable time in the book talking about his experience growing up with his father, the most decorated marine in US military history. Puller then speaks candidly of his own depression after suffering debilitating injuries in the unpopular war, his campaign to gain amnesty for those Americans who fled to Canada to avoid the draft, and his struggle with suicide thoughts.

As I flipped the pages, a newspaper clip gently fell into my lap. It was undated and the publication unknown. But clearly it was an obituary on Puller who apparently committed suicide. The obit spoke about Puller's book and the Pulitzer Prize he received for it in 1992. Before the clip fell out, I wondered what Puller was doing now, some 15 years after writing his book. Kerry said about Puller’s demise: “He had to will himself back to life [after his injuries]. Tragically, in the end he was not able to give himself the lift he gave to those who read his book.”

Enduring injury—having your flesh, limbs, or organs compromised—while in the service of one’s nation has always been associated with the highest of values. And when the compromise is “ultimate,” there is special remembrance offered. The earliest forms of literature include elegies of military heroics. There’s a universal appeal to courage in the face of battle. From the epic Greek poems to modern film, heroes draw us in. Muslims enjoy the stories of the Companions of the Prophet in their victories against tremendous odds, enduring injuries with complete personal abandon; and Biblical praise of war violence is legendary. When a person gives his “ultimate” sacrifice, he or she is called a martyr (in multiple contexts, religious and secular). In Islamic parlance one is a shahîd, literally a witness or one who gives testimony: witness or highest demonstration of one’s commitment to the defense of one’s nation; testimony of one’s complete selflessness; or witness to God’s pleasure, which immediately enwraps the souls of those who fall in battle.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

As-salamu 'alaykum,

Yes, Fortunate Son: The Healing of a Vietnam Vet is a very powerful and touching book, especially if one knows that the author's father, Lewis "Chesty" Puller, remains an icon for U.S. Marine machismo and warrior spirit...and as a former Marine, I can personally attest to that. However, as you've mentioned, finding out that the author, Lewis B. Puller, Jr., committed suicide a couple of years after completing this heartfelt autobiography came as even a more of an emotional blow than the book itself. Just another example of the tragedy of war...

After reading this book, as well as Brotherhood of Heroes: The Marines at Peleliu, 1944 -- The Bloodiest Battle of the Pacific War, by Bill Sloan, I see General "Chesty" Puller in a completely different light. Rather being the "Marine's Marine" of near mythological status (see this uncritical work of hagiography), I see him as an self-serving and egotistical commander who was obsessed with taking objectives in order to please his superiors and advance his career, regardless of the casualties inflicted upon his men.

Anyway, I'm glad that you found the book interesting. You probably already know that the title, Fortunate Son, comes from the title of the song by Creedence Clearwater Revival...and the lyrics of the song are actually included in the beginning of the book. I think they were a very appropriate choice...

4/05/2007 9:20 AM  
Blogger fromclay said...

Thanks, Mere. CCR's song is actually powerful. I think about it as the Iraq war drags on.

Some of the lyrics are:

Some folks are born made to wave the flag,
Ooh, theyre red, white and blue.
And when the band plays hail to the chief,
Ooh, they point the cannon at you, lord,

It aint me, it aint me, I aint no senators son, son.
It aint me, it aint me; I aint no fortunate one, no,
. . .

It aint me, it aint me, I aint no millionaires son, no.
It aint me, it aint me; I aint no fortunate one, no.

Some folks inherit star spangled eyes,
Ooh, they send you down to war, lord,
And when you ask them, how much should we give?
Ooh, they only answer more! more! more! yoh,

4/05/2007 10:15 AM  
Anonymous Irving said...

The comments say it all too well. The tragedy of war is just that, started by rich and ego-centric men that poor men and women fight. The aggressive nature of men is not heroic, though personal heroism is all too real and sad in war. Inshallah, we will evolve out of this age of adolescent behavior and recognize the real heroes. The men who work each day to support their families, the women who bear children and raise them with strength and value, and all the others of every profession that save lives, and protect lives. Though some wars against fascism of all kinds must be fought, education is the real key to ending the need for war.

Ya Haqq!

4/06/2007 11:41 AM  

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