“The Play Soldier” is an historical novel about classic manhood and the enduring fascination with war. Whether sublimated from base instinct by ruling elites to protect their wealth, or a simple fascination ennobled by them to do the same thing, we’re exploiting virility for the sake of world peace now. Still, combat is the most powerful life experience, and it’s been available to every generation of Americans unless they avoid it, or it avoids them.
The plane ticket below to Saigon was cut in May 1968, the deadliest month of the Vietnam War: 2,169 U.S. combat deaths. The draft inflamed the unpopularity of the lost cause then with many Americans evading military service. Now look close. The ticket wasn’t used.
Two days before I was to leave, a kidney stone blocked my return as a Navy photographer/journalist to the most extraordinary war America will ever have, but now I was a petty officer in an elite rating. Five years later, fresh out of college, needing “experience”, and with America not at war anywhere as far as I knew, I chose to begin bush bumming in the deserts of the African Horn and Sudan to experience something of what I missed in SE Asia (I’m a romantic that likes desert). I knew about the Horn and its history, particularly as they were in the 19th century. I also knew things were changing. Yes, the risk was less than a shooting war’s, except when it wasn’t.
Grand tours like that are anachronisms now or suicidal. Too bad because they produce epiphanies and teach empathy, the last being the rarest life skill few learn. Former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara learned it late. He wouldn’t press charges against the man that tried to kill him for McNamara’s role in escalating the Vietnam War.
One more thing, I wanted “The Play Soldier” to inform, not just entertain.
Photo: In Ethiopia in 1974, trying to persuade an Afar why my camera didn’t steal souls. I had close calls from Afar who believed it would capture theirs.