Soldier
Photo: Blend Images Photography/veer.com

Oliver Stone's Platoon came out in 1986. There'd been Vietnam movies before then, but none had touched that unhealed wound the way Platoon did.

And the phenomenon of the movie gave rise to another: Vietnam veterans, generally reticent about their experiences, started talking to each other. One day I got a call from another vet I knew, asking if I'd like to join a small discussion group. I agreed, mostly out of curiosity.

There were four of us. The man who'd called me, Ed, now a lawyer, had pulled two hard-fought tours as an infantry officer in the Central Highlands. I had done one tour with Vietnamese troops in the Delta. The other two men hadn't actually served in Vietnam, but each was a veteran in his way. Will, a conscientious objector, had refused the draft and performed alternate service as an orderly in a VA hospital. Robert, the oldest of us, had seen combat as a marine in Korea.

And so, haltingly, we began to tell our stories. Robert had been sitting on his for more than 40 years and had trouble with the hard parts, though he had a sharp memory for the absurdities of military life. Will was still angry about the war, and in his anger tended to draw on the political language of the '60s, which left an uneasy silence in the room. Ed, my acquaintance, was direct and almost cool in telling of his horrific tours—boys choppered into his unit in the morning, then shipped out in bags the same night. It had changed him. He'd begun reading Gandhi, Dorothy Day. He became a pacifist, not a smart move for a career officer on the fast track to general. The army had been a poor sport about this change of heart; they'd made his life a misery before discharging him.

My own experiences, though not nearly as dire as Ed's, were sometimes hard to express, and like Robert, like Ed himself, I moved quickly to the refuge of rough soldierly humor, recalling the petty grotesqueries of that life and the various pranks and acts of defiance by which we'd tried to refresh our suffocating souls.

In that spirit, Robert and Ed and I were topping each other with stories about the meanness of our garrison towns—at Fort Bragg we'd called the citizens of Fayetteville "Fayette Cong"—when I caught Will staring at us in despair.

"You're doing it again," he said.

"What?"

"Making it sound like a lark. Like some great adventure. And you guys know better. No wonder kids keep joining up."

I could see that he felt left out, perhaps at some instinctive level even rued missing the experience that bound us. But he was right. We knew better, yet could not speak of all this, even to deplore it, without giving it a certain glamour, the glamour of blood mystery and exclusive, ultimate fraternity.

I have never forgotten Will's sadness, its profound ambiguity.

Yes. No wonder kids keep joining up.