|Chester McMullen and I on his dad's boat off Grand Bahama Island in 1963.|
A high school friend of mine died on Nov. 28, and I have been thinking about him. His name was Chester McMullen. We lost track of each other long ago, when he went to Vietnam. A Marine courier, he got caught behind enemy lines during the Tet Offensive.
I learned this from a mutual friend – Tim Ohr, also aVietnam veteran. A few years ago, when Tim wrote a novel based on his war experience titled Under the Gun, he used an excerpt from Chester's letter during Tet as his epigraph. Here it is:
Phu Bai February 7, 1968
Please. I do not
wish to hear
|Chester and I emcee the 1964 senior assembly|
Behind us are Wallace Charles and Sarah Brown
and Bob Biles and Cindy Darling.
In our high school in Clearwater, Fla., Chester was a brilliant kid who did not necessarily apply himself to classwork. Possibly that is why we were friends. He was an ace debater and public speaker, and he introduced me to Catcher in the Rye, On the Road and other books considered subversive in those days. His dad took us on a boat trip to the Bahamas when I was 16, and together Chester and I emceed the senior assembly at school. I know little about his life after his discharge from the service except that it was difficult.
I mention his death here because I think the snippet Tim Ohr used from his letter says a great deal about my generation’s introduction to war. I was in the army from 1966 to 1970. I was a cold warrior, managing to stay out of Vietnam, but in the last few months of my hitch, I served on the funeral detail in a support company at Fort Gordon, Ga.
I fired the 21-gun salute at funerals in Georgia and South Carolina where we men in uniform were not a welcome sight. This was especially true in African-American cemeteries. The war had been lost by then, but young men were still dying in Vietnam and coming home in body bags. Wives and mothers wailed as the slaps of our rifle fire echoed in the distance and the concealed bugler began blowing Taps. These rituals may have brought some closure to the families in the short term, but losing husbands and sons to a lost cause cannot have been easy.
In the many years since then, I have visited the D-Day beaches and cemeteries in Normandy, the battlefields at the Somme and Verdun, the trenches at Ypres, the American cemetery at Belleau Wood, a dozen or more Civil War battlefields and thousands of soldiers’ graves. From the Civil War through the current war in Afghanistan, I’ve seen a similar arc in the public reaction to war. It invariably runs from enthusiasm to despair.
The bitterness of Vietnam does not color my view of all wars, but I remain skeptical of the spin that war is a glorious enterprise. Whether at Cold Harbor or Belleau Wood or the Bulge or Heartbreak Ridge or Hue or Kandahar, war breaks the human spirit.
In researching Our War I read the wartime letters of dozens of New Hampshire soldiers. Many couldn’t wait to fight and defeat the enemy in 1861. Without exception the realities of war stilled these first stirrings of their hearts. Those who survived the carnage would have understood just where my friend Chester McMullen was coming from when he wrote home in 1968.