“The Play Soldier” is historical fiction. There are two principal reasons I wrote it. First is to describe the draw of the combat experience. The few narratives I found about the way the attraction develops needed more emotional appeal. On that score, a novel would do the trick.
In 1785, English man of letters Samuel Johnson probably had war on his mind when he said, “Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier or a sailor at sea.” Pfc. Crouch above, who survived Iraq, seems to acknowledge combat as the rite of passage most men once considered it to be. Johnson’s observations tend to be timeless. So if he’s right, the majority of men today privately disparage themselves.
I can relate to the disappointment. The MATS ticket below was photographed today in 2019 not in May 1968. Look closely; it was never used.
A kidney stone crushed my efforts to return to the most extraordinary war America will ever have. This time as an NCO in “one tight fucking rate”, as a yeoman called “Journalist”. Then in 1974, to get over the letdown, I let the romanticist in me take me four times to the African Horn and the Sudan. A different war would have been a poor substitute for Vietnam. Yes, the risk was much less than a shooting war’s, but cold steel will shake you up. Below, I’m in Ethiopia in 1974, possibly harming his culture but wanting to keep myself safe by persuading the Afar my camera won’t steal his soul.
Dr. Johnson made his famous remark to his biographer James Boswell who had gone around in the uniform of a British officer. The Play Soldier himself is tattooed with the Marine Corps’ coat of arms, though he, like Boswell, avoided military service. Which introduces the other major reason for this book––to explain the need to fake military valor.
There was a rash of high-profile exposures in the early 90s. VIPs pretending to be war heroes. But the deceit remains a perpetual phenomenon and probably always will. And as with combat allure, it lacks a human-interest narrative. Before my book, the Library of Congress found only one other about the fraud and it’s a novel, too. It’s French by Jean-François Denieau––“A Self-Made Hero” (“Un Héros Très Discret”). In 1996, the book became a movie nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes.
The best novels inform. I wrote what I would want to know about. So the story necessarily includes blunt trauma from cross-class, cross-cultural, and cross-racial clashes that occur on three continents. Since it unfolds in 1975, “The Play Soldier” had to contrast today’s trash-pop anxieties with the safer wildness of 40 years ago. Also, I wanted to show why truth outdoes myth when it’s about the French Foreign Legion, which an educated American not long ago told me was disbanded. Lastly, to sharpen the exoticness, the story had to unfold in the last European colony in Africa, the French Territory of Afars and Issas. Djibouti.