It has often been said that the difference between a fairy tale and a war story is that a war story begins with, "Now this ain't no bullshit!" Combat veterans know that these words signal the time to roll up pant legs, and in some cases (if spoken by a Marine), to put on hip waders:-) Semper Fi!
When veterans gather in groups, war stories naturally begin. Each tale told inspires two more. Each tries to outdo the last in a version of war story one-up-manship.
Vets tell war stories for two reasons: first, to establish themselves in the group pecking order; second, to entertain.
When a vet comes into a new group, he tells his stories that (like subtle name dropping) tells everyone where he has been and what he has done. Dogs sniff each others butts; vets tell war stories.
Once everyone knows his place, the stories are told solely for their entertainment value. Creativity is highly rated and rewarded. The teller gets high marks for humor and originality; low marks for old, worn out, cliche, shoot 'em ups.
Real combat vets are a tough audience to play to. The slightest factual error, technical *faux pas*, or nomenclature boo boo can run the BS meter into the red zone causing a total story melt down (TSMD). A TSMD is not a pretty sight.
I have seen more of this than most vets. While touring Vietnam with the band, I was in with a new group every day for six months. Each place we stopped, the process of butt sniffing would begin with the first shared beer and end in the early morning. As we crawled out of a puddle of stale beer and puke, there would always be one guy slurring, "That's nothin'! You wanna talk about incomin'? This ain't no bullshit..."
When I got out in 1971, I joined the SF Reserve unit in San Diego. Over one-hundred SF VN Vets met once a month to drill and tell war stories. Nobody at work or school wanted to hear about the war, so we vented on each other. I heard and told enough war stories to last a lifetime.
Between drills, I spent a great deal of time in my old stomping grounds, Oceanside, home of Camp Pendelton Marine Base. There I met Marine Vvets that added their litany of war fiction. I rarely let on that I was a vet. I learned to enjoy hearing the stories told by vets to (what they thought) was a non-vet. A whole new genre emerged.
In 1974, I returned to the All Volunteer Army. SF was closed, so I got assigned to the 25th Division as a PFC in an infantry line company. Computers controlled the new army. I was an E-6 out for three years (Reserve time did not count) with a heavy weapons primary MOS.
The computer assigned me as an ammo bearer in a mortar squad. I went from Staff Sergeant in the Green Berets to PFC in the infantry, overnight. I did not even get to drop the mortar round down the tube. My job was to hand the round to the assistant gunner who cut the charge and then he handed it to the gunner who dropped it down the tube.
I found this unwarranted demotion so humiliating that I did not sew my combat patches and CIB onto my uniform and basically kept a low profile. No one knew I was an ex-Green Beret or a Vvet. I looked younger than my age, so people took me for what I was, a PFC ammo bearer. As a consequence, I got to hear another batch of war stories told by the NCO's. They were the guys who served with the infantry line units in Vietnam: the Cav, the Americal, the Bloody Red One, the 101st Airborne. Boy, could those guys tip the BS meter.
When I entered the college classrooms in 1977, I met Vvets attending school under the GI Bill. Again, I kept a low profile. I can't believe Vvets say they couldn't talk about the war. That's all they talked about. It seemed that no matter what the subject being discussed, some clown in a boonie hat would throw his shit digger up in the air and somehow make a tie-in to the war. "Excuse me professor, but I was in the Nam, and I can assure you that you don't need a microscope to see amoeba. In the Delta, two of 'em carried off my buddy."
A wall did exist between vets and non-vets, but it was a wall the vets erected themselves.
I discovered something as a result of my clandestine listening: war stories told to non-vets have another set of rules and another set of purposes. Whereas stories told between vets are to establish unity or entertain, stories told to outsiders are to establish distance and shock value in an effort to impress or gain sympathy. "You ain't got a clue," is a phrase you will never hear in a rap session between combat grunts. It is almost mandatory when addressing the uninitiated.
Vet stories told to vets must fall within the scope of combat reality. The stories told to outsiders have no ground rules. Anything goes. The bigger the lie, the greater the shock value, the better the story. If the story ends with, "Man, if you've never been in combat, you ain't got a clue," so much the better. Story time ends, a pall falls over the assembly, the vet swaggers off satisfied in his own mind that he made a point.
What he did was place another brick in the wall. His listeners will then retell and embellish the story, ending with, "Man, Vietnam vets are weird." The vet goes to his PTSD session and complains that nobody wants to hear about "The Nam. Nobody understands." Another brick in the wall.
There was a time when I looked forward to clandestine encounters and sought them out. I was so tired of real war stories, having heard every variation on every theme a dozen times over, that this new variety was, if not entertaining, at least it was amusing. If I saw a guy wearing a jungle fatigue jacket with a combat patch, I'd sit beside him and strike up a conversation. A simple, "Where you in Vietnam?" was usually all it took. If he faltered, a line like, "Did you ever have to kill anybody?" was enough to get a good story. I saw no harm in doing this, especially as an audience of one.
I have since changed my mind about that. A great deal of harm has been done by the collective myth makers, bullshit artists, and pseudo combat vets. Their version of Vietnam has become the standard, and I hardly recognize the war I fought in.
The legacy of the Vietnam war has brought us dehydrated camping food and PTSD. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder was invented...oh, excuse me...discovered in the mid-seventies to explain why Vietnam vets were so wierd. I suppose the researchers surmised that Vvets had no one to talk to, and no one wanted to hear what they had to say. The solution was a simple one. Pay vets to tell war stories; hire professionals to listen to them.
I BCed the above paragraph along with five or six others related to PTSD to Jonathan Shay to get his comments prior to posting this essay. As you may surmise, my position on this subject is rather negative. Jonathan is a professional, a psychologist, a highly respected author and authority on the subject of war induced mental trauma.
This opened a lively debate between us as I tried to convince Dr. Shay that his whole life and decades of education were a complete waste of time. He, on the other hand, tried to tell me I should read about the subjects I know little about and confine myself to writing about those I do. So far, Jonathan is winning. I'll keep you posted. Please pardon this digression; now, back to what I know.
The Vwar lounge has a wealth of good, solid combat veterans who tell it like it was. It has a good many combat service and support people who also tell it like it was. Unfortunately, it has too many creative writers who bring their war story BS into the lounge. Bullshitters abound, and I regret having humored so many for so many years.
I have no remorse or guilt regarding anything I did in that war. When I recently stood at the Vietnam Wall, however, a great sense of guilt washed over me. It was as though the spirits behind that wall pointed a collective finger at me and said, "How could you let them do this? Why did you not speak up for the truth?"
Whether the spirits were real or just a figment of my subconscious, the fact remains, "Evil triumphs when good men do nothing." In this case, the lie wins when those who know better don't challenge it. I will not play that game any longer, and I *will* tell it like it was and like it wasn't.
For the uninitiated who wish to avoid deception, the following guide should prove useful:
"My whole company/platoon/squad got wiped out"
Company, never. Platoon, The 1st Cav lost a platoon at Ia Drang but a few were found later. Squad, possibly, but improbable. Probability <1.0%
"I had to kill a kid to stop him from fragging my truck/APC/Huey/bunker/squad"
Vietnamese kids were too smart for suicide deliveries when GI's would easily trip a booby trap. A waste of kids and grenades. Probability .00234%
"Whores had razor blades in their vaginas."
Ouch! Nasty, but not fatal except for whores stupid enough to go along with this scheme. Besides, all the whores were on the side of free enterprise. They were our whores. Probability 10-20%
"I had to kill my buddy to stop VC torture."
Good tear jerker. A real PTSD favorite. Begs the question, "Why not kill the VC?" Probability .000034%
"Baby used as booby trap."
This is an insult to motherhood of any nationality. This is so stupid, it does not deserve a probability rating.
"I tortured/killed enemy POWs to make them talk."
Possibly, but highly unlikely. Probability 1-2%
"I dove on a grenade that didn't explode."
Another American cheated out of a CMH by communist lack of quality control in manufacturing. Pity! Probability .00876%
"I parachuted behind enemy lines on secret missions."
Between me, McMike, Dave, and McBride, we can account for every secret jump. The men involved would fit in your living room and have room for a pool table. Probability .000000045%
"I went on solo missions."
Right, Rambo! Probability .00000000000000000000000000001%
"It was hand to hand after the bayonet charge."
Bayonet charges and hand to hand combat exist only in CMH write-ups. The bayonet charge went out with the Civil War.
If anything is more useless Than tits on a Marine It is the bayonet stud On an M-16
Hand to hand happens only when both sides run out of bullets and want to keep fighting. This happens so rarely in the age of automatic weapons that it is damn near unheard of. When the defender runs out of bullets, he surrenders. When the attacker runs out, he stops pressing the attack. The odds of both running out at the same time defy the odds.
"I scalped a live VC in a fit of rage."
VC are very fidgety and will not hold still even for a hair cut. Scalping is out of the question, especially if they know you are upset with them. Sorry JBJ, but this did not fly. I was humoring you, but not anymore.
I hope this helps, but BS war stories have become very sophisticated. With so much out there to hone a good tale, and with so much time to test what works and what doesn't, the fibbers are hard to spot for the uninitiated. Look for stories that have no names, dates, places, or units defined below division level. If you ask for this info, be prepared for the secret mission, or everybody got wiped out scenario. If you press too hard, be prepared for the universal PTSD shut down, "Man, you ain't got a clue."