When you think of all the things people might get addicted to, war isn’t the first thing that springs to mind. But as one of my Vietnam War vet classmates back in the mid-1970s put it: There it is.
Consider the reality of being in that particular war zone. Most of the time in most of South Vietnam, the enemy was not the NVA or the Viet Cong. It was boredom. There you were, stuck halfway across the planet from your normal joys and diversions, enduring the slow tick of the second hand, counting off the minutes, waiting for something to happen, trying to cope with the testicle-stewing heat and humidity. The highlight of your existence was to smoke a cigarette.
Glory? That was something they’d used up a war or two back and there was none left to dole out to you.
But then there might be one of those moments.
Consider this scenario: You’re a grunt on patrol in the jungle. You’re walking next to the corpsman. This is the man who is to a squad of Marines what the medic is to regular Army troops — the guy you turn to when bad stuff happens to you and someone has to patch you up well enough to make it onto the medevac chopper.
The sniper hiding up in the canopy knows how important the health of the corpsman is to the squad. So the corpsman is who he targets.
And suddenly the corpsman is on the ground by your feet, bleeding from the round he has taken right through the neck.
Your buddies return fire — or try to, not actually certain where the sniper is. You are the only one who is close enough to help the corpsman. The situation requires you to act quickly, decisively, and correctly. By some miracle, the wounded man’s spine is intact and no major blood vessels were compromised, but his airway is blocked by the damage his upper throat. He will die after all — from suffocation, not blood loss.
Ordinarily, this is when you would yell for a corpsman to come help, but the victim is the corpsman. Somehow you remember the bits of medical training you received in boot camp. You cut the corpsman’s trachea at the right spot and shove in a bit of tubing you find in the med kit. Emergency tracheotomy. Air flows in. His lungs expand. The panic on his face fades into mere pain and horror. He will survive. Soon you’ll be loading him onto that chopper and he’ll be on his way to the evac hospital.
In the span of one minute, you’ve gone from common grunt to hero. One minute is the interval from the discharge of the sniper’s rifle to the moment you got that tubing into the corpsman’s throat and saw his chest expand.
Now consider this scenario. Your tour is over and you’re back in The World, working as a janitor at your old junior high in your hometown. Maybe it’s in Nebraska. Maybe in Idaho. Maybe in Georgia. On any given day, is there ever going to be a minute what you do will matter as much as what you did during that other sixty seconds back in the war?
Not much chance, is there?
And so — no adrenaline rush. No euphoria at the mere fact that you’re alive. No high.
You may be able to resist joining up again and volunteering for another tour, but even as you recall the awful things about your time In Country, you’ll find yourself craving the importance each moment had. Not that everyone becomes a hero, but every moment back then had the potential to be life-changing. In the span of a single minute or less, you could rise to the occasion and be a hero. You could crap your pants and run like a jittery rabbit to the nearest hole in the ground. Or you could die, which is as life-changing as an event gets.
But back home? Maybe you’ll find yourself doing things you wouldn’t have attempted earlier in your life, not because they are smart things to do, but because you still need a taste of excitement.
That’s where your choices become character-defining.
Here you have one of the main themes I explored in Piper in the Night. If you were wondering what kind of book it is, well: There it is.