I was six when I learned about the end of the world. My dad and I were having burgers at the Boardwalk, our little town’s only diner, where tables consisted of repurposed and shellacked heavy-cable spools and where, behind the polished maple bar, hung a clearly displayed Colt .45 in a well-used holster, a hunting rifle, the head of a six-point buck, an American flag. It was 1979, and I’d just asked my dad if the Iranians were our worst enemies, because I’d been listening to the old ranchers at the next table talking about bombing that place straight back to hell. I knew the answer was yes, because Iran had taken hostages and it was on the news every night, and even the old ranchers were talking about it. Iranians were bad, bad people.
But I remember: my dad setting his burger carefully onto his plate and leaning forward to peer at me from beneath the brim of his best cowboy hat. The clean one, his going-out hat. I remember him shaking his head, and his eyes tightening around the words:
He told me, in vivid detail, about nuclear weapons. How a nuke detonating ten miles off would vaporize you before you could blink, and for some reason I imagined this happening to my mom. He told me how, at that very moment, the Americans and Soviets were poised to fire nuclear missiles at each other—enough missiles to vaporize everything, over and over and over.
It began a period in my life lasting several years, until high school, during which I had recurring dreams about the flash of white light, usually viewed through my bedroom window, over the mountains to the east. That’s where the dream began and ended. The flash, and I would start awake, thinking of my friends, of my mom, of my dog and my brother.
I didn’t want them to get vaporized.
I hated the Russians for those dreams. Some of my friends hated the Russians, too. We didn’t know anything about Russia, just that it was scary, powerful…The Enemy. The Russians could vaporize us. My friends and I made a pact to become soldiers, and face down that threat. After high school, we vowed, we would join the military.
Often we argued about which branch of the military was the best. (My friend Bobby was going to be a Navy Seal, because that’s what his dad had been. His dad was also my little league coach, and he yelled at me a lot, which made me pretty sure I wasn’t going to the Navy.) I was partial to the Army, because I’d read all my dad’s Mack Bolan novels, and (with the exception of the untouchable Han Solo) I idolized no one more than I did Mack Bolan. Mack Bolan did not fear the Russians. Mack Bolan was a Green Beret, and Green Berets were Army.
I read a lot of military fiction in those days. Mack Bolan, and spinoffs like Able Team and Phoenix Force, stuff full of gritty heroism, unrelenting toughness, splattered with graphic violence, and always without any real sense of loss. That was what I liked.
I expected Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War to be more of the same. Lurid battle porn, but in space. Mack Bolan meets Star Wars. I stole it off my older brother’s bookshelf when I was fourteen.
The first time I read it, I hated it. The protag, William Mandella, wasn’t like Mack Bolan, or Lee Marvin, or Han Solo. He wasn’t a hero at all, really—just this big, bewildered kid watching as bad and arbitrary shit happened all around him. His sense of dislocation upon his return to civilian life disturbed me in ways I didn’t understand. And the end of the book? A useless war, lasting centuries, begun over a miscommunication? Are you kidding me?
I was in no position in those days to understand that this was, of course, The Point. But the book made an impression. It stuck in my craw. So when a teacher later in my Freshman year made me read All Quiet on the Western Front (as punishment for talking in class), the sense of unease it gave me wasn’t unfamiliar.
I came across other books about war. Slaughterhouse Five, Catch-22, Johny Got His Gun (solely because of that Metallica video), A Farewell to Arms, Going After Cocciato. Books with disaffected, even cowardly, protags. Books that began to pierce the jingoistic veil within which I’d grown up, and helped me down a path towards a more nuanced understanding of the world.
Reading each of them, I felt the echo of that first disquieting experience The Forever War gave me. As an adult, I know what Haldeman wanted to tell me, and what, as a Go Army kid, I didn’t want to hear: war, even if sometimes necessary, is inherently corrupt, and corrupting. War damages people. To my estimation, this is the truth that pervades all good books about war. If, in your Mack Bolan novel, you elide that truth, your book probably isn’t very good.
I didn’t enter the Army after high school. The Soviet Union collapsed. The white flash never came, nobody ever got vaporized. My buddy Pat still went, though. He was in the army for several years, but after Kosovo, he abandoned a promising career. He was a Captain in the Rangers. A real-life Mack Bolan. When I asked him over beers one night why he left, his eyes got hooded, like he knew I wouldn’t get it, and he shrugged.
“There’s the right way. And there’s the Army way. Just…fucking idiots.”
He was right. I didn’t get it, not completely. I hadn’t been there. But maybe, at least a little bit, I did understand. I felt like I’d heard those words before, spoken by the likes of Yossarian and William Mandella.