Sunday, May 28, 2006

The John Wayne Syndrome

Monday is Memorial Day, a day which was originally set aside as a federal holiday not to barbecue burgers or water ski on a lake, but as a holiday to remember our military dead, our fighting men and women.

I've got a confession to make: I was a lousy soldier. I was a reluctant (to say the least) draftee in 1966, and left a vapor trail behind me getting out of the Army in 1968. I'm not a fighter, I'm a peace-lovin' individual, so I don't really understand the military mind.

Even though I don't think war is any kind of solution for anything, I truly respect those young men and women who decide to go into the military. It's a tough decision to make, especially at a time when joining up might mean death or injury in Afghanistan or Iraq.

In thinking back I believe one of my problems was my own perception of what made a soldier. I knew I wasn't John Wayne. Now, this might sound stupid, but John Wayne was in a lot of movies playing a tough combat-hardened veteran who protected his men, knew what to do in every situation and was the bravest guy who ever put on a uniform and stepped in front of a camera to play a military man. No one could live up to the Duke.

I found out a couple years after Wayne died that he wasn't in the military at all. He was deferred during WWII because he was a married father. Well, so much for image! I guess he talked the talk, though. So much so that before I knew it was an act he made me feel inferior. It turned out that even John Wayne wasn't John Wayne.

OK, so that's the perception a lot of people have of soldiers, Marines, airmen and sailors: tough guys who don't wilt in the face of danger. I knew I wasn't one of those guys. Good thing they sent me to Germany instead of Vietnam, where the most dangerous thing I saw was a drunken old German man letting big beer-farts on a street corner. Talk about walking into a cloud of nerve gas!

That image of the John Wayne hardass G.I. carried over into popular media. In the 1950s and '60s magazines which I call "men's sweat" magazines were popular and continued to plug up newsstands until at least the early 1970s. They were popular with the guys in my Army unit, but we didn't take them serious at all. We used to lay on our bunks reading stories like "The Reasons We Became Wife-Swappers!" or "Hang-up Free Lust Mecca" out loud with a lot of laughing and hooting derision.

Still, those pictures of the G.I.'s on the covers were pretty compelling, letting us all know we didn't measure up. Looking at them now I see they look like 35-year-old models in WWII unforms posing for the artists, rather than the real-life callow youths we were.

Anyway, to all of our armed forces' men and women, those of you in a hostile land, those of you who've come home to your families, those who've come home injured or wounded, those of you who aren't going to make it home…I want you to know this old reluctant G.I. appreciates each and every one of you, and if I could wave my magic wand I'd send you all home to your loved ones in one piece.

Peace, and ciao for now, El Postino (Sad Sack '67)

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