“The Play Soldier” is historical fiction. There are two principal reasons I wrote it. First, to explore the draw of the combat experience. Men used to want to to see action. It was a critical rite of passage. For a long time, you couldn’t win public office unless you’d gone through it. Unlike most American males now, people volunteering for combat arms seem to believe it’s still necessary. In September 2006, one of them, PFC Bennie Crouch, was on his way to Iraq with the US Army’s 2nd Brigade Combat Team. The Colorado Springs Gazette put him on the front page. The top header belonged to him. “The war,” he said. “It’s something a man needs to experience.” The few narratives I found about the way the attraction develops needed more emotional appeal. A novel would do the trick. Second, I wanted to address a perpetual deceit.
There was a rash of high-profile exposures of false heroes in the early 1990s, VIPs, not just hoi polloi, pretending to be war heroes. As with combat allure, the fraud lacks a human-interest narrative. Before my book, the Library of Congress found only one other about the fraud; it’s a novel, too, but 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.
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.” 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. That one was mine and my generation’s. Special. Inimitable. Worth the risk. Yes, the few hairy circumstances in Africa were less dangerous 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. Fake valor is an ancient con.
The best novels inform. I wrote how I learned. So, the story necessarily includes blunt trauma from cross-class, cross-cultural, and cross-racial clashes that occur on three continents. One of my reviewers said the book “makes you think”. Since the story unfolds in 1975, the novel had to contrast today’s trash-pop world with the dying 60s’ defiant screams. And I wanted to show why the truth outdoes the myth of the French Foreign Legion. Lastly, sharpening the exotic, the story unfolds in the last European colony in Africa, the French Territory of Afars and Issas, now simply “Djibouti”.
The New Yorker cartoon courtesy of William Hamilton