Military memoirs abound, but few prove to be trustworthy accounts free of spin, bravura, or military glitter. John Merson’s War Lessons takes a rare reflective approach to this pressing issue of our time. In vivid, unadorned prose, he interweaves his own experiences in war with thoughtful assessments of how to prevent it. He highlights the daily experience of combat from the perspective of both the foot soldier and the villager in whose home the war is being fought. When he leaves Vietnam, Merson begins an odyssey that brings him back eight times. The book limns this process as a poignant personal voyage and the author struggles to understand why young people are drawn to war, how it changes those who fight it, why its destructive effects persist on both sides, how former enemies reconcile, and how soldiers wanted to be treated and remembered by the citizens who send them to war. War Lessons also offers hope, suggesting strategies for young people to help the world reclaim its humanity through healing actions such as participating in UN peacekeeping programs, working to prosecute war crimes, and protecting refugees.
From Chapter 1: Learning to Be a Soldier
A severe three-day storm hit our troop ship as we departed Long Beach, California, leaving most of us weak with seasickness. At the storm’s end, the clear Pacific air and salt spray cooled us. Crowded onto a ship with more than a thousand other men, I sought out a quiet place to read and found a hidden spot in the bow of the ship, where I spent my free time reading Shakespeare’s Coriolanus.
Every Marine in our detachment had a shipboard job. I was a member of the guard unit. We met each morning and were assigned to stand watch over supply and control rooms around the ship. Unable to find me for a special assignment one day, my team leader reported me to his superior as having missed guard duty. In the Marines, there is no gray—only black and white. You’re either present or absent; if you’re absent, you’re AWOL (absent without leave). When found, I was brought before the major commanding our detachment. After a few brief questions, he sentenced me to three days’ solitary confinement in the ship’s brig on bread and water. My only reading material was a Bible. Angry at the injustice of my treatment, I was determined not to let the punishment overwhelm me emotionally. Instead, I tried to view three days of reading and solitude as a respite from the military routine. I also spent several hours each day doing a hard physical workout. The Marine guarding my cell, peering through the small opening in my door to see what I was doing, began to fear for my sanity. Against orders, he began speaking to me and even offered me a candy bar, a kindness for which he could have been punished.
“Hey man, how you doing?” he asked.
“I’m okay,” I answered.
“Here, take this Milky Way.”
“I’m okay, really.”
“You just got to ask.”
At the end of my time in the brig, I felt a strange confidence that I might be able to withstand the hardships that were ahead of me. But this confidence was tinged with fear that my solitary nature could just as easily become my undoing. I couldn’t survive combat alone; I would have to connect with other people. I also realized that my desire to do things my own way could all too easily cross the military’s limits. Finding a quiet place to read was more than a personal preference; in an infantry platoon, it was an act of defiance. To stay out of trouble, I would need to set aside a part of my consciousness as a scout to navigate a path between the world of my imagination and the life of my group...
Excerpted from War Lessons by John Merson. Copyright © 2008 by John Merson. Excerpted by permission of Frog Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Table of Contents
Foreword by Ken Bacon ix
One: Learning to Be a Soldier 1
Two: Policy versus Results 11
Three: Support the Troops 25
Four: "Take Me in Your Arms, Rescue Me" 35
Five: Health Care 43
Six: Death and Remembering 51
Seven: Massacre at Dai Loc 59
Eight: Heroism 71
Nine: The Weight of Memory 81
Ten: Mentoring 87
Eleven: Doing the Blend 93
Twelve: How Long Is a War? 99
Thirteen: Home at Last 105
Appendix 1: United States-Vietnam Timeline 121
Appendix 2: Personal Timeline 123
Appendix 3: Map of Vietnam 125
Related Books and Movies 127
Reader's Guide 131
About the Author 133
“War Lessons is a timeless exploration of the horror and excitement of war for the individual soldier, as indelible as the scars war leaves on the soldier’s soul. The book is one that should be read by everyone who cares about the fate and future of our nation’s defenders.”
—Jan Scruggs, founder and board chairman of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Foundation
“This book is about death and rebirth, a tale of how one veteran overcame his guilt and anger from the battlefield by getting to know and helping to rebuild the country he had been trained to destroy.”
—From the foreword by Ken Bacon, president of Refugees International
“More than military memoir, Merson combines his experiences and writes of the limitations of war with considerations on how to prevent it, and proposes a variety of alternatives to war that are certainly compelling. This book should be on the desk of all world leaders who consider war as the only option to the solution of national differences.”
—Midwest Book Review