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Many novels, particularly thrillers, make it with their plot. Jack Higgins comes to mind. Others do it with characters. Lots of those, but none better than James Gould Cozzens, except, perhaps, for George Eliot.
The merit in War Boys by M.A. Schaffner though is in its setting. Not only the place in a geographical sense, but also the time and social circumstances. The pictures drawn there more than make up for weaknesses in plot and character, which to be frank, may be more my failure as a close reader rather than those of the author. I had to drop being English major because I thought of Moby Dick as a story about a bunch of guys who worked in the whaling industry.
What A Father
One well drawn character is the protagonist and viewpoint character Charles Barker, who is about 14 or so when the story begins. His family has just moved and as he wakes up imagining his father getting ready to go to work, we meet another memorable character and learn much about the circumstances Charles finds himself in:
He didn't have to see his father leave to know that the old man had put on his service khakis, pressed sharp, with the new commander's oak leaves on the collar and the bright gold scrambled eggs on the shiny visor of his cover. He'd have worn brown shoes you could see up girls' dresses with and a breastplate of fifteen or twenty silk ribbons from all his campaigns and achievements since 1944, including the one he had the most pride in, the maroon Good Conduct Medal that only enlisted men could earn, and that told everyone he met he'd worked his way up, step by step, form E-1 to O-5. They'd see it and know that behind the open smile and easy, down-home manners of this slightly chunky, balding former Texas farm boy stood a man who knew more about the navy, than any officer who'd gotten his stripes straight from Annapolis or NROTC, including all the tricks and wiles of his sailors.
I tell you. In my mind that passage alone is worth the price of admission. And it gives us a picture of a boy with a very clear idea of what a man should be. I'm reminded of some of the Cozzens characters who never could quite be the man that they thought their father was.
The passage also tells us how Charles (and his friends we will later learn) is immersed in military culture purely from being a Navy brat. As one of his friends puts it when trying to conceive of doing anything other than becoming a Naval officer.
I mean so what do I do now? I never really thought of anything else, man. I hate to admit if, but I don't know dick about anything but this. I mean, just what do civilians do, Charles? Just what the fuck is an accountant or an insurance executive?I suppose I should mention the language is pretty rough. It strikes me as quite realistic though. I was a teenager during the same period and when you throw in that Charles and his friends spent time with marines and sailors a few years older then they were, I mean, what do you fucking expect?
.....I'll tell you what I do know, dude. I know the name of every rank from E-one to O-six. I can tell a squid's job from the color of his jersey stripes and those fucking cartoons on their sleeves. I know carriers are named for battles, battleships for states, cruisers for cities .... fuck. I know the price of a blow job in every port in the Western Pacific and how much you can save by paying in the local currency. -
Charles goes into military culture in a different way than his friends. He is fascinated with military history and collects highly authentic tin soldiers, that he paints himself, and fights battles with using detailed rules. He would probably have preferred sticking with that rather than the more dangerous play soldiering that Explorer Post 360 exposed him to.
In The Jungle
The plot centers on Explorer Post 360. And here is where the setting comes becomes critical. Commander Barker, has just been transferred to Subic Bay in the Philippines where he will supervise the construction of a new wing of the naval hospital.
There aircraft carriers docked looking like ghost gray cities rising from viridian sea into cobalt sky, while their white warplanes waited on the the adjacent airfield like a well-organized flock of nesting seabirds.Explorers are kind of a post-Boy Scout experience that can be kind of specialized. I remember briefly being part of an Explorer post that consisted of going to the headquarters of an insurance company in New York and listening to talks on business. Explorer Post 360 was nothing like that.
It was definitely outdoors focused and had an ideal setting.
The hills occupied most of the base, and bore fifteen thousand acres of mostly uncut and unvisited rain forest, the last of its kind on the island of Luzon, protected from local citizens and all other enemies foreign and domestic by the U.S. Navy.Charles also goes out for the wrestling team, which leads to something of an epic journey as middle class American high school kids in order to go to a wrestling match against other middle class American high school must journey by bus through the third world.
...they couldn't seem to travel more than a few miles without encountering a jam caused by anything from a broken-down jeepney to a carabao laboriously crossing the road to an encouraging chorus of car horns and shouting drivers.When they finally reach the town they are headed for Charles notes lights on the wall.
Those aren't lights, dude, That's the sun setting on the broken glassThe dark part of the story centers on a mock Viet Cong Village which Marines had used for training. The boys camp there and play war using flash lights.
It's to keep the Joe's out.
Whoever gets caught in a beam is blown away.Back To The Father
Charles is hesitant about his Explorer adventures and subtly tries to get his mother to forbid his participation, but his father ends up encouraging him. When Explorer Post 360 participates in a recreation, under somewhat more benign conditions, of the Bataan Death March, his father encourages him going so far as to loan him his combat boots.
"But you wore those in Korea."(This is one place where I would like to learn more about Commander Barker. Given his job as an officer in medical administration, it seems that as an enlisted man he might have been one of the corpsmen who provided first aid to Marines in combat. I have reasons to know that there is a heavy dose of the autobiographical in this novel and I can only hope that someday Michael Schaffner might write something like James Bradley's Flags of Our Fathers.)
"Yeah, and there were a few nights when I'd have given anything to know that someday I'd be loaning them to my son."
The Core Story
Although I would not have wanted to lose any of the details that Shaffner dwells on, the movie version of his book will likely focus on the central part of the story as Explorer Post 360 gets for its "adult leadership" a young petty officer who is borderline psychotic and decides to carry the adventure and toughening aspects of the Explorer experience beyond anything the parents would have approved.
What the hell you little jerk-offs whining about? A little rain? Shit, man, hundreds of dudes die every week in 'Nam - thousands if you want to get technical and count slopes - and you're complaining? Shit.
Petty Officer Prahler tells the boys wild stories about his experience in Vietnam with the Navy SEALs and riverine naval operations, which seem altogether inconsistent with his current duties supervising a riding stable.
The most senior boy in the Post struggles to inject some sanity into their activities
..he heard him whisper to Prahler like a loyal XO whose captain had just steered a little closer to the iceberg.To no avail:
..most of the boys had begun to show up primarily from morbid curiosity, wondering if their next outing would involve something like a quick march on short rations around the wrong end of a firing range in the middle of the next typhoonThe dramatic tension builds and one of the expeditions goes very, very badly.
The problem with War Boys as something of a dark boys adventure story is that Petty Officer Prahler enters on page 169 and the dramatic climax is on page 260. The book is 325 pages making for rather a longish epilog if you think of it as being mostly about the misadventure in the jungle.
And The Times
Although it is clear from early on that the action takes place during the Vietnam War, it is only towards the end that there are references to events that anchor the chronology more firmly in time. And here I must admit that this is not just a book review but in a way part of the high school memoir series that I have been working on for a year.
The Explorer Post 360 boys are much closer to the Vietnam War in a sense of pure geography and their interaction with men or sometimes boys not much older than them going to and coming back from Vietnam, but their peculiar circumstances insulate them from the way Americans back home are experiencing Vietnam.
The events leading up to and the adventures with Petty Officer Prahler absorb Charles's freshman year in high school. The first easily datable event happens after that.
The collision of the destroyer USS Frank E. Evans with the aircraft carrier HMAS Melbourne off Vietnam had the destroyer cut in half. The bow went down within five minutes resulting in the death of 74 men, That was on 3 June 1969. It made a profound impression on people at Subic Bay where the remaining part of the ship would be towed.
I entirely missed that and have no contemporaneous memory of that. That is also true of the Stonewall riot that occurred a few blocks from my high school that same month.
We follow Charles into his Sophomore year, where he notes a story in the back of Stars and Stripes about 100,000 people attending a war protest in Washington in November 1969. He thought at first it was a misprint. Not long after the story of the My Lai massacre broke. The boys Charles knew all had a lot of sympathy for that company of Army grunts who probably had good reason for killing all the adults in the village and it's not like you could leave the babies to fend for themselves.
In my high school, the war and peace movements were cheek by jowl. Xavier High School in Manhattan was a Jesuit High School, but it was also organized as a Junior ROTC regiment. We wore uniforms and marched and received classroom instruction in military science. A classmate who had a career as an Army officer told me that the classroom instruction was of high quality. I was a senior in 1969-1970 and one of the blocks of instruction was Counter-Insurgency taught by an officer who had recently been in Vietnam.
Ah but the peace movement. One of the most prominent peace activists at the time was Father Daniel Berrigan, a New York Province Jesuit on the run from the FBI. Ironically, more than a few Xavier graduates chose the FBI as their career. The young Jesuit scholastics and priests became embarrassed by teenagers in pseudo Army uniforms saluting them in the street.
Charles has his first romance and the girl raises doubts about the war. Asking him if he would go, he says he didn't think he would know how to.
Charles also reflects a lot on history. I wonder if some mature reflections of the author were kind of backdated into the young lad. When his family visits the site of MacArthur's last headquarters in 1942, he reflects on the situation then.
Pampered, underequipped, and wholly unready to fight, that garrison scarcely gave the Japanese a good workout before dying piteously on a forced march to prison camps. Still, Charles thought, they'd done what they could. In that way, it seemed to him, they set a more realistic standard of bravery than any hero he could imagine, including the general who had a abandoned them with a fatuous phrase. Charles wanted to see a real memorial here - a bronze statue of a cavalryman eating his horse, or a cook trying to set the sights on a Springfield rifle. It didn't seem right to boil it all down to MacArthur and "I shall return". It then occurred to Charles that most soldiers never did return from the wars, he enjoyed reading about and re-creating with games and toy soldiers.The Shadow Of Vietnam
One of my classmates recently staged a play about our high school during that period. He called it The Institute - Coming of age during the Vietnam War.
Cautioning him to not let the strange setting he finds himself in warp him, one of his teachers makes a fateful prediction
You're not a sailor or a marine, Charles, The war will end before it gets to you.That was true for Charles and also for my bunch of cadets who kept marching and learned about platoon tactics and counter-insurgency and the psychology of leadership (the mission and the men - officers eat last). We almost all went to college and miraculously the war ended before we graduated. Only it wasn't true because the war still got to us - in attitudes toward government and institutions and other changes in the culture. That might have to be another post, though.
|Michael Schaffner (second from left) as Harrisburg Grand Review 2015|
Michael Schaffner told me that his father was in fact a combat corpsman in Korea, It is worth noting that War Boys is dedicated to Captain L.J. Schaffner, MSC, USN