The Trouble With Being a War Hero
The trouble with being a war hero is that those who become such heroes by virtue of being killed in action lose their humanity. That is, they become icons, as it were, and their flaws and idiosyncracies, those things which make us human, all too human, disappear in the fog of their idealization. Everything they did before they were felled in battle are seen as leading up and even pointing to their deaths, so that their lives are sanitized and even glamorized to a point where they become something like saints. They become unreal.
I knew, as a brother, one such person, who has become something of a war hero, namely Charles J. Schultz, known to me and his family simply as “Charlie.” Charlie was KIA in Vietnam in 1967 where he was waging war as a 2d Lt. in the United States Marine Corps. He had volunteered to be a Marine officer and he could have avoided the war altogether as he had been accepted to the University of Michigan School of Natural Resources after graduating from Muhlenberg College in 1966 as a pre-med major. As to be expected and is appropriate, Charlie has been honored by those who knew him and a scholarship is given annually by Metuchen High School, where he went to school, in his name and the name of another graduate in the same class, Richard Herold, whose remains have not been recovered.
In reading one of Charlie’s books on JFK – he was a devotee of Kennedy – I came across the following marginal note: “How do you know when you are angry?” It was the only marginal note in a rather large book. It intrigued me at first because I thought you must know when you are angry. On further thought, however, I concluded that that was not necessarily the case, that you could be angry and not realize it because it was buried in your unconscious. Maybe you were angry at a parent and, because such anger isn’t considered appropriate, you hid it or from it. Which is what I did with my mother whom I thought of and often said was a saint. As a therapist pointed out to me two years after I had declared my mother was a saint, I was actually quite angry with my mother and was compensating so as not to deal with that anger. It just wasn’t something I wanted to face.
So perhaps Charlie was feeling with anger too, although not produced by the same source as mine. We can never know now. But the point is this: Beneath all of Charlie’s nerdiness – he chose to wear a coat and tie to high school in order to raise its ambience, as he put it, beneath being Mr. Boy Scout, rising to head his troop in whatever rank is the highest in the Boy Scouts, beneath being his fraternity’s president and the president of the interfraternity council in college, beneath being a 2d Lt. in the United States Marine Corp, he was angry young man who didn’t know he was angry and didn’t know what he was angry about.
In other words, he was a human being and one who felt things, especially injustices and cruelty perhaps. He rescued and healed an abused dog he named “Jack” after you know who and he wanted to do whatever it is one does after going to a school for natural resources. And so he was angry, or so it seems. And perhaps it was this anger that led him to think he should enlist in the Marines and to make war in Vietnam. Maybe he was angry at himself and was trying to prove his manhood by virtue of becoming a soldier. That’s something that happens frequently.
It doesn’t really matter here what Charlie might have been angry about because the point is that he was beneath all his accomplishments – and they were many – a young human being who was angry. Which is to say he was a human being, nothing more and nothing less. His life was cut short, ironically in a war characterized by injustice and cruelty but a war also covered over with flags and other symbols of patriotism, as wars always are. Would it have mattered had Charlie been able to consciously know his anger? I don’t know but my bet is that it would have.