When I was in high school, a boy a year ahead of me lied about his age and joined the Marines. It was the height of the Vietnam War, and that’s where he was headed. I didn’t know him that well, so it was strange that a friend of his said to me, “You should write to him. He’ll like getting a letter.” Maybe it’s because I was already a committed writer, filling spiral notebooks with poems and short stories, or maybe this guy just wanted his friend to have some letters to ease the loneliness. In any event, I wrote him.
Thus began a correspondence that would go on for years. I still have his letters bound up with twine and faded with age. As a high school student, I obviously couldn’t be part of the anti-war movement, but I longed to be. I adopted anti-war slogans and criticized a government that was sending young men to die in a jungle on the other side of the world. But at night I would write letters to a boy who was in basic training, learning how to be a soldier. Learning how to kill. Our letters to each other got longer until the envelopes I received, and sent out, were thick with folded pages of confessional and increasingly familiar writing.
He began to change. I was witnessing the inevitable evolution of a boy who was being trained, and trained hard, to hate an enemy he’d never met, to kill at a moment’s notice without remorse. One of his earliest letters, when he got to Vietnam, said, “There are more shades of green here than you could ever find in a box of crayons.” His observations were hardly ever that innocent again.
He didn’t die in Vietnam, despite the fact that he increased his risk by signing up for a second tour. So it might seem odd that I’m writing about him on Memorial Day. But I think something did die in him. I saw him several times when he came back to the States, and the last time I saw him he frightened me a bit. His eyes were blue steel and everything about him was hard, unyielding, and lightyears away from the boy who lied to join the Marines, mostly to get away from his parents. The boy who packed up a few belongings along with his doubts, his fears, his troubled conscience over what he would be asked to do, and traveled to a jungle he knew nothing about into the heart of darkness that would change him forever.
We lost touch, although I’ve made some efforts to find him. When I think about him, I also think of all the young boys we turn into soldiers, and what dies in them even if they appear to come back whole. In the Sixties, there was a wide-eyed belief that we could have a world without wars. No one talks like that anymore. Something has died in all of us, replaced by a sad acceptance that this world is a violent place, that there will always be wars and rumors of wars. There will always be boys whose innocence will be extinguished like the fragile flame it is, in faraway places where wars rage on for years.
I think Memorial Day is a time to think about them too.