Boswell: “Lord Mansfield does not.”
Johnson: “Sir, if Lord Mansfield were in a company of General Officers and Admirals who have been in service, he would shrink; he’d wish to creep under the table.”
Boswell: “”No; he’d think he could try them all.”
Johnson: “Yes, if he could catch them: but they’d try him much sooner. No, Sir; were Socrates and Charles the Twelfth of Sweden both present in any company, and Socrates to say, ‘Follow me, and hear a lecture on philosophy;’ and Charles, laying his hand on his sword, to say, ‘Follow me, and dethrone the Czar;’ a man would be ashamed to follow Socrates. Sir, the impression is universal; yet it is strange. As to the sailor, when you look down from the quarter deck to the space below, you see the utmost extremity of human misery; such crouding, such filth, such stench!”
Boswell: “Yet sailors are happy.”
Johnson: “They are happy as brutes are happy, with a piece of fresh meat, –with the grossest sensuality. But, Sir, the profession of soldiers and sailors has the dignity of danger. Mankind reverence those who have got over fear, which is so general a weakness.”
Scott: “But is not courage mechanical, and to be acquired?”
Johnson: “Why yes, Sir, in a collective sense. Soldiers consider themselves only as parts of a great machine.”
Scott: “We find people fond of being sailors.”
Johnson: “I cannot account for that, any more than I can account for other strange perversions of imagination.
War groupies are usually third tier professional writers who, for whatever reason, have decided to make military history their forte. They generally are not combat veterans-their combat experience runs to listening to grandpa’s stories of what it was like at St. Mihiel, or whatever. They write books by recycling the books of other war groupies, interviewing vets involved in the topical events, reading a couple of autobiographies written by the generals involved on both sides, collecting some black and white archival photos then gluing the whole dog’s breakfast together with some eighth grade-level prose. Bam, you’ve got yourself a 250 page book on WW2 US Army Air Force Combat Air Support, or the 75th Ranger Regiment’s jump into Panama, or whatever. Think “book version of a History Channel special,” and you won’t be far off. In fact, the History Channel’s roots are in this genre, as best as I can tell.
“Who cares, B?” you might say. “Different strokes for different folks, poorly written military history, Furries, horses, whatever floats your boat. What, are you going to shine the Batsignal at the sky every time some journalism major from Temple University publishes a poorly written book on the 781s Combat Furniture Repair Squadron’s last stand at the Meuse? Why does it matter?” It matters because we live in a democracy with a volunteer military. Most Americans have never seen service. Most of those who have served have never seen combat. As WW2 and Vietnam fade into the past, more and more citizens make it through life without knowing a single combat veteran. Human nature being what it is, most men are naturally curious about war, and speculate on it more than almost any other subject of which they have no experience. Every little boy plays at war, and the fascination doesn’t disappear with age. War groupies exploit this for petty financial gain by feeding into the fantasies of combat virgins. In their retelling, the storm of random misery, senseless suffering, incompetence, incoherence, bullshit, and occasional heroism that makes up war gets streamlined into a comic book story.
On a personal level, dealing with the aftermath is a profoundly alienating experience for a combat veteran. Trying to find common ground with someone who hasn’t served over fishing, video games, women or sports is infinitely preferable to having them try to connect with you over war as it appears in their imagination. The question that comes up over and over again, and generally brings a meaningful conversation to a halt when it does, is “have you ever killed someone?” A moment’s thought should tell the person asking the question that it’s about as appropriate as asking an acquaintance about his wife’s sexual preferences. Combat is filled with moments of intimacy with the great mysteries of life and death, and to discuss these moments inappropriately is to profane them. The only book I’ve every read that comes close to expressing the nature of the experience is Matterhorn, by Karl Marlantes. When these moments are commodified and sold by war groupies to combat virgins, it cheapens the veteran’s experience and leaves the virgin more ignorant than before. You are better off knowing that you know nothing than having false knowledge.