Normandy claimed its victims quickly Vietnam didn't

May 17, 1994|By MIKE LITTWIN

Early next month, Bill Clinton and thousands of others will storm the shores of Normandy for the 50th anniversary of D-Day.

They will come to commemorate that sad and heroic June day when men risked their lives for a valiant cause, eventually winning against enormous odds. Maybe you saw the movie.

I've been to Normandy.

I've been to lots of battlefields, where history comes in easily digested lessons. Stand where Napoleon once stood and you get a sense of how the course of the world can change. Or you think you do, anyway.

Normandy was unexpectedly different. And not just because the history is so recent and so clearly drawn. It was the war of great villains and great heroes -- a war of few ambiguities. You always knew which side to root for.

As I looked over the bluffs down to Omaha Beach and tried to put myself where no man should be, tried to imagine how I'd measure up, I felt something entirely new pull at me.

If you don't know the history, they have markers to tell of the 3,000 who died in the first hours on a stormy beach pelted by rain and German artillery. If you don't yet grasp the enormity, there is the cemetery, home to 9,835 graves, marked by marble crosses or stars of David, that stretch into the horizon.

Suddenly, I was choking back tears. I didn't expect this to happen. I didn't know anyone buried there in a war fought before I was born.

But I felt this urgent connection, that this was somehow about me. Then I understood. This was the war of my father.

And it's the war that is framed, always and inevitably, against my own war, the one I didn't fight in, the one that's forever close to the surface of my generation's consciousness.

Lew Puller fought in that war, of course.

You've read about his recent suicide and how, 25 years after leaving two legs and parts of both hands in Vietnam, he shot himself. Many would call him a victim of the war that, on some levels, seemed to have only victims.

In alcoholic despair, Puller killed himself, but not before writing a book that would win the Pulitzer Prize. "Fortunate Son" was a book about him and his father, his war and his father's war.

His father was Chesty Puller, the most decorated Marine of all time. Even as a land mine blew Lew Puller's body apart, he was thinking of how his father would have done better.

My father was in that war. He was not a hero, just a grunt. He had a few medals, battle medals and good-conduct medals, but he never showed them to me. He believed that no one who knew battle would ever want to talk about it.

He was not quite 18 when he signed up, and he always told me he had enlisted because he had failed to buy any books for the semester. Maybe that was just legend.

What I knew to be true was that he was in the Philippines, preparing for the invasion of Japan, when Truman dropped the A-bomb. The bomb may well have saved his life. He was the wrong person to argue with about the morality of Hiroshima.

It was in retrospect, of course, that World War II became a holy war. Everyone always knew Hitler was bad, but we didn't get into the war to stop the man who engineered the Holocaust. America stood on the sidelines until Japan forced our hand.

Still, it was a heroic war, with a heroic ending. A great victory, with great victory parades.

Lew Puller's war had none of that.

His was a war marked by division and ambivalence. Men who in another time might have been heroes were ignored and sometimes even reviled.

Puller eventually turned against the war. At the same time, he felt bitter against those who hadn't fought in it.

He felt guilty about surviving when his friends hadn't. And he wondered how he could survive at all with half a body, all of it racked with pain.

He also wondered why people couldn't separate a bad war and good people.

Puller's story was an exceptional one. He became a lawyer and a writer. He overcame alcoholism. He became more than a productive member of society.

Then it all caught up with him. And he killed himself. As he died, we were forced again to remember what many wish to forget.

He died a month before we celebrate the memory of his father's war and a time when men could still be heroes. If you must fight a war, it seems you are owed at least that much.

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