Yamamoto’s Folly

December 7, 2018

I can’t remember Pearl Harbor because it happened so long ago, before the world existed for me, for most of us. There are a few who remember, a few witnesses, but in the main the story has been overtaken by screenwriters and historians.

It has been 77 years since Pearl Harbor— just about a lifetime, longer the distance between the Gettysburg address and the first public demonstration of television. It is difficult to argue the world grows gentler as it ages.

It is not comfortable for men like me to talk about the necessity of making war. Born near the end of the baby boom, I fell into a fortunate crease—too young for Vietnam, too old for more recent military actions. Yet like any man who has reached mid-life without wearing a uniform, I sometimes feel just a little cheated, like I might have missed out on an essential passage. Having never gone to war, I have the luxury of imagining that there must be something fine about it.

As it was, my military experience came early, as a “dependent.” I grew up on airbases and around military folk. I spent what we call the Vietnam era under the comforting roaring of gray-bellied airplanes while my father was often far away.

I don’t remember ever wanting to be a soldier, to join the family business, though I read the comic books and watched the television, same as everybody else. I knew about Sgt. Fury and his commandoes, Vic Morrow and his Combat, Christopher George in Rat Patrol. The movies taught me that Hitler’s SS had the best uniforms, Bible black with silver insignia. Evil dressed sharp, with draped leather boots, riding crops and sometimes even a glinting monocle.

I understood early enough that life was not like the movies, that Jim Brown and Lee Marvin and the rest of the Dirty Dozen were actors putting on a show. Real war was not something that we talked much about in my family; the nature of my father’s work was such that we never knew exactly what he did or where he did it and this made it possible for us to imagine that it was just some sort of business trip.

To talk about “the war,” was dangerous; the subject was freighted with queasy feelings, and somehow I came to associate Vietnam with a kind of cancer. I do not mean I was thinking metaphorically, I mean that I came to emotively associate the war itself with the disease, that somewhere in my preadolescence consciousness the concepts became confused—I knew Vietnam was not cancer the same as I knew my Uncle Roy was not Elvis Presley; still I could not help but link them. One meant the other, but with another name.

I guess this is a way of explaining how I understood at an early age that war was not something glamorous and fulfilling, not a chance to test oneself against the battering winds of history, but something that clenched at guts and blasted hearts to dry skulllike ruins. It ruined young men, it took their legs and their taste for living, it sent them deep into dark and silent dens to sit and smoke and think. It sent them scrambling after medicine to make the thinking stop.

In school there were girls who wore plain steel bracelets engraved with the names of men gone missing. I knew the children of some men who did not come home, some of whom were presumed dead. I remember lying awake at night listening to the cocktail clink and chatter of the adults a thin bedroom wall away, and I could tell when the talk turned serious. I knew war was not a joke.

I knew kids—military brats like me—who were fascinated with the paraphernalia, who kept dud hand grenades and samurai swords in their bedrooms and who could pick out planes by silhouette. They had collections of Colby books on fighting gear—they knew about tanks and heavy guns and how to build a booby trap with poisoned-tipped pungi sticks (or so they said).

They pulled on dungarees and Tshirts and crawled on their bellies under wire fences and pretended they were behind the lines, they made their plastic rifles crack and spit, and each in his turn fell, joining the valiant fraternity of the brief heroic dead, rolling spectacularly down dirt mounds to something they imagined was like composed, dignified sleep.

I supposed I played these games too. I did what kids do. But I played them without any special fervor. I had a different sort of uniform in mind. I wanted to be a centerfielder; I divided my plastic soldiers into baseball teams and imagined that their rifles were bats. Leagues were formed, season statistics kept and copied into wire-bound notebooks that were slipped onto a shelf tight with John Tunis and The Sporting News.

Maybe when I was in the fourth grade, before I realized that my color blindness would disqualify me, I thought I might become a pilot. It seemed a free and reckless thing to be, and I liked the race car driver helmets and the many-zippered flight suits and especially the shiny gray jacket that reversed to orange. I also signed up with the Civil Air Patrol, thinking that maybe I could guess which lights were red and which were green.

With my father’s help, I built a few models of balsa wood and tissue paper, cutting the pieces from the template with a razor, going light-headed from the smell of model dope and airplane glue. I didn’t fly them, never even bothered to attach the rubber bands that would have made it possible for the propeller to pull my Sopwith Camel, my P-38, my Zero through the air.

I hung them from the ceiling in my bedroom until one day, when I was 14, they seemed ridiculous. I took them down and put up a poster of the Rolling Stones and never again thought of flying as a career opportunity.

Like my friends, I was amused by the ROTC geeks at my high school, their earnest “Yes, sirs” and their drill. Some bad cases—friends of mine—acted up and got sent to military school in Virginia, which seemed at the time the worst fate that could happen. I grew my hair as long as Vice Principal J.C. Howell would allow and played basketball with my hippie stoner friends.

My father retired from the military and joined the private sector and we moved as a family for the last time. He put his ribbons in a drawer and wrapped his uniforms in plastic. I wore his old field jackets and aviator sunglasses to school, imagining I looked like the shaggy young freaks I’d seen in San Francisco or on television.

Now I am much older than my father was when he died. I don’t know any more about war than I did when I was a kid, and I think that I’m probably very lucky. For the world is not a friendly place and there are people who would kill you for your American smugness, just to interrupt the flow of fortuity you’ve been blessed to receive, just to wipe the idiot grin off your overfed Western face.

I understand some of that hunger and that hatred, just as I can read a book and imagine how the kamikaze pilot talked himself into it, or how Yamamoto might have believed the only path left to him was to try to kill the giant in his sleep.

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