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Experience

Experience April/May 2024

War Was Cool—Until It Wasn’t

Stephen M Terrell

Summary

  • War has been glamorized for entertainment in movies and television series.
  • WWII veterans were silent about their wartime experiences.
  • During Vietnam, a generation raised on the romanticized vision of war was confronted with the reality.
War Was Cool—Until It Wasn’t
jacoblund via iStock

Jump to:

When I was a young boy, war was really cool. I owned an original G.I. Joe, and before that I had those small plastic toy soldiers you saw in the movie Toy Story.

But by the time I was in high school, Vietnam was in full swing. And by the time I was 18 and headed to college, the coolness of war had long worn off.

Playing war games

My best friend in elementary school was David True. Television and movies were filled with westerns—“Gunsmoke,” “Have Gun Will Travel,” “Wanted Dead or Alive,” “Rifleman”—and war shows—“Combat,” “Galant Men,” “Rat Patrol,” “Twelve O’Clock High.”

Hell, even the comedies were set in the war: “McHale’s Navy,” “Mr. Roberts,” and the granddaddy of them all, “Hogan’s Heroes.”

On those evenings when David stayed at my house while his parents went bowling, we often played war. We’d form a combat patrol and march out against imaginary German soldiers, hiding behind trees and bushes, crawling up on pretend fortifications in the form of neighborhood garages and sheds. In the way of television actors, we’d sometimes “die” in our brave assaults, then get up to charge again.

Ours was a glorious view of war generated from battlefield triumphs in World War II portrayed in movies and weekly on our television screens. Yes, guys died in those movies, but it was never bloody. No one’s brains were ever splattered in The Longest Day, not like in Saving Private Ryan that followed more than three decades later.

Silence should have been noticed

Neither of us had been touched by the pain of war. My dad, born in 1900, was too young to fight in World War I and too old to fight in World War II. My brothers were too young for Korea, and with one exception, too old for Vietnam.

Two served: Tom in the Marines and Jim with the First Armored Division at the dawn of the 60s. Dohn, the one brother who was old enough for the early stages of Vietnam, was exempt, first by being married, then by being married with a child. By the time those exemptions were gone, he was too old for the draft.

But I did have four uncles—and one “near-uncle”—who served in World War II. My mother’s brothers, Bob and Donald, served in Europe. Uncle Bob served in Europe, going in shortly after D-Day. My Uncle Donald was an MP serving in England then Europe toward the end of the war.

My other two uncles were my mother’s brothers-in-law. They both served in the hellhole of Pacific combat.

The near-uncle whom I never met was my aunt’s long-time fiancé, Orville Stevenson. The oldest volunteer to serve from Delaware County, Ind., he was the one who didn’t return. He was killed in the early hours of D-Day when the glider in which he was riding crashed behind enemy lines.

As different as my four uncles were, they had one thing in common—they never said a single word about their World War II experiences. Not one.

It’s not that they didn’t talk. Bob, particularly, was a great storyteller who could have a whole room rolling in laughter with his tales. But not once did he say anything about the war.

That should have told me something, even when I was young. But I guess each generation must learn for itself what war really is.

Realization hits

For me, that first lesson came from Zack Wheat, a helluva baseball player and the catcher on my brother Dohn’s high school baseball team. Zack caught my attention because I wanted to be a catcher.

He joined the Army after school, and because of him, I first heard of Vietnam. Word came back that Zack had been severely injured in the early stages of the Vietnam War. No one was calling it a war yet, but the injuries and deaths were just as real. Zach spent weeks in an overseas hospital. Suddenly, war didn’t seem quite as romantic.

By the time I was a high school sophomore, the country had gone from the Tonkin Gulf to Tet, and I wasn’t finding war so glamourous. Then I heard Robert F. Kennedy give a speech at Ball State University during his short-lived presidential campaign.

What I remember from Kennedy’s speech wasn’t any flowery rhetoric or even an impassioned plea against the war, although he spoke against it. Rather, it was Kennedy standing in front of a crowd of mostly college students and making a case for ending student deferments from the draft.

RFK reasoned that the war in Vietnam was being fought by young men who didn’t have the resources for college—the poor, the uneducated, minorities, and sons of blue-collar workers. These young people were being forced by the draft to bear the overwhelming burden of an unpopular war.

It took guts. RFK was roundly booed and jeered. But he spoke the truth. It again changed my view of war and it forever made Robert Kennedy one of my heroes.

The luck of the draw

My oldest brother, Tom, was the Marine in the family. But as I was finishing high school, he was attending seminary to become a minister. One day he showed me a book and suggested I read it.

I didn’t do so at the time, but in the summer between high school and college, I read Catch 22. I still remember sitting in the back of my sister’s car reading the section near the end where Yossarian fully recalls his experience with Snowden’s death in the back of a bomber.

And in an instant, the absurdity of war all came together—the insanity of old men leading young men to their deaths while corporate America grew wealthy. What Bob Dylan termed the “Masters of War.”

More than 50 years later, Catch 22 remains the most influential book of my life.

Two years later, when I was a sophomore in college, the student deferment abolished, the nation held a lottery. Your birth date was your lottery ticket. I and the four friends I grew up with riding bikes and playing baseball and hide-and-seek and Army got to see who was going to play Army for real.

It was the only lottery I ever won. But my friends weren’t so lucky. Fortunately, none went to Vietnam, and they all came home.

Remembering Radio Ron

But some of my friends later in life served in Vietnam—and they all came home wounded in one way or another, whether they were hit by bullets or not. One of my good friends was a lawyer who sometimes went by the moniker Radio Ron.

On June 27, 1969, Life magazine ran the photo of every one of the 242 American soldiers killed in Vietnam during the week between May 27 and June 3. For many, it was an eye-opening visual of the toll of young lives being taken in that awful war.

For Radio Ron, it was something else.

Ron was horribly injured in an ambush that week. The soldier on his left and the soldier on his right had their photos in that magazine issue. Those experiences haunted Ron for the rest of his life, which sadly ended on a cold winter’s night from his own act.

Needless to say, I don’t find war cool anymore.

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