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Courage and Understanding in “Marine Corps Issues”

             The Marines are touted as being the toughest of all American soldiers.  They go through the most intense, grueling training, and they are the first sent in to battle. However, David McLean’s story, “Marine Corps Issues,” shows us that nothing insulates us from the horrors of war and suffering.  No training is adequate to prepare us for not only the depravity and cruelty of others but also for those elements in ourselves.

            On one hand, we could see that a lesson from this story is to beware of digging deep into matters such as war. The son in this story is consumed with Vietnam because there is such an air of secrecy about it in his family.  By not talking about it at all, his parents have only encouraged his curiosity. He never truly stops to consider why his father does not speak of it. He can only see his burning desire to know, and perhaps to understand. This same urge to understand and perhaps try to “fix” what’s wrong is in “A Soldier’s Burial.” Starkmann holds his pain inside of him, but it effects how he acts.  His wife and others are afraid and concerned, but he doesn’t see it.  He simply wants to get through the days without having to talk about the pain of his war experience – he even denies that he is in pain (Caputo 56). Similarly, Joseph Bowen wants to forget the war completely, even to the point of packing up all his seventeen years in the Marine Corps.  The narrator tells us that “a visitor would have no idea about my father’s military career were it not evident in his walk and demeanor” (McLean 330). This is a common attitude it seems when we consider many other stories in this anthology.  “Point Lookout” tells of a nurse who in the beginning wants to avoid helping a doctor in ER because it reminds her of her time in Vietnam (Karlin 294). In “Paco’s Dream,” Paco never consciously asks himself why he survived when the other men in his squad didn’t, but his subconscious wrestles with it nightly (Heinemann 204-05). We see how some turn to drugs to escape their memories in “Waiting for Dark” (Brown 193).  And Norman Bowker only speaks of his pain to imaginary people in Tim O’Brien’s “Speaking of Courage.” What’s interesting is that these are all American stories.  The Vietnamese stories do not share this overwhelming theme of avoidance or suppression.  Perhaps because the war was fought in their country and for a longer time than American involvement. We really had no reason to be there, other than our self-appointed mission of making the world safe for democracy. For the Vietnamese, though, it was personal. Perhaps that’s why we spend so much time, like the son in “Marine Corps Issues,” trying to find answers that make sense, that help us understand.

            What he finds is a pain and reality that no book he read could begin to cover. When he opens his father’s foot lockers, he sees war in all its facets: the pomp and ceremony of uniforms and medals, the pain of separation in the letters and pictures from home, the grime in the old boots and tattered uniform, the cold reality of death in the teeth from kills, and the foolish idea that we can prepare for war in the Marine field manual, Escape and Torture, in which the father has marked everything that was done to him as a POW (338-39). The son cannot undo what he’s done nor forget what he’s learned. His father’s reaction upon finding him in the shed reveals to me that it isn’t only a matter of denial that has kept the father silent all these years.  I believe he wanted to protect his children. They shouldn’t be exposed to the suffering and pain that he was; something he cannot even put into words. However, if we’re to learn, then we must be able to put these things into words. The son loves his father most because after this moment, “there were heavily guarded moments, slow monologues as he groped for the correct words to tell me. It is another way I remember him, speaking the things that he knew he wasn’t capable of saying” (339). That sharing finally brought them together in a way they weren’t able to before.  It is in this that the son loves his father the most for it shows his fortitude and true courage. 

            As a writer, David McLean, like the narrator in “The Man Who Stained His Soul” who is asked to write the truth (Bao 171), can share this truth with a larger audience. I have no question to ask of this story, other than how do you find the kind of courage to survive what the father did? Of all the stories I read, many of which touched me greatly, this was my favorite. Perhaps I connect with the son more than I have with any other narrator.  I can see myself doing exactly what he did – my curiosity and desire to understand, even help, driving me to acts such as stealing the father’s keys or lying about seeing a movie on the subject. And I guess that many of us feel there are things about our parents we don’t understand or that they don’t understand about us, experiences that separate us from each other. To be able to bridge this gap, to find a measure of understanding and connection, is a beautiful dream. I also love this story because for all that he went through, the father did not lose his humanity.  He didn’t drop out of society, become addicted to alcohol or drugs, turn violent, or go insane. He lives with his pain and memories, his war wounds, and has had a good life in spite of the war. This is courage to me, and it has nothing to do with medals, victories in battle, or patriotism. It has everything to do with being human.


Works Cited

Bao, Vu. “The Man Who Stained His Soul.” The Other Side of Heaven. Ed. Wayne Karlin, Le Minh Khue, and Truong Vu. 166-171.

Brown, Larry. “Waiting for Dark.” The Other Side of Heaven. Ed. Wayne Karlin, Le Minh Khue, and Truong Vu. 189-200.

Caputo, Philip. “A Soldier’s Burial.” The Other Side of Heaven. Ed. Wayne Karlin, Le Minh Khue, and Truong Vu. 51-64.

Heinemann, Tony. “Paco’s Dream.” The Other Side of Heaven. Ed. Wayne Karlin, Le Minh Khue, and Truong Vu. 204-209.

Karlin, Wayne. “Point Lookout.” The Other Side of Heaven. Ed. Wayne Karlin, Le Minh Khue, and Truong Vu. 294-299.

Karlin, Wayne, Le Minh Khue, and Truong Vu, eds. The Other Side of Heaven: Postwar Fiction by Vietnamese and American Writers. Willimantic, CT: Curbstone, 1995.

McLean, David. “Marine Corps Issues.” The Other Side of Heaven. Ed. Wayne Karlin, Le Minh Khue, and Truong Vu. 327-339.

O’Brien, Tim. “Speaking of Courage.” The Other Side of Heaven. Ed. Wayne Karlin, Le Minh Khue, and Truong Vu. 155-165.