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Murray Polner: Review of Dale Maharidge’s “Bringing Mulligan Home: The Other Side of the Good War” (Public Affairs, 2013)

Murray Polner, a regular HNN book reviewer, wrote No Victory Parades: The Return of the Vietnam Veteran and When Can We Come Home, about Vietnam War resisters.

Ten years ago Tad Bartimus wrote War Torn: Stories of War from the Women Reporters Who Covered Vietnam and the effect that war had on its participants. She had reported from Vietnam but was also assigned to cover an R&R reunion in Hawaii of Vietnam combat troops and their wives. "I expected to find happy, vacationing couples reuniting" but instead she watched "traumatized men and distraught women," the soldiers crying "as their stricken wives sat beside them, unable to comprehend what had transformed the boys they’d married into these grim-faced soldiers returning to war." It has never been any different, as Dale Maharidge discovered.

From an early age Dale Maharidge knew that his father Steve, a Marine veteran of the battles of Guam and Okinawa, was different from other fathers. Often inscrutable, he was given to sudden eruptions of anger (once striking his mother), drank heavily and would be silent for long periods of time, so unlike the young man who went to war,  his family said. And then there was a photo of himself and a marine named Mulligan, which his father always kept near him. One day, after staring at the photo his son heard him scream, "They said I killed him! But it wasn’t my fault!"

Maharidge, who teaches at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, set out to understand what had happened and why it had so changed his father in this engrossing, probing and painful memoir and "what occurred after the men came home. Many families lived with the returned demons and physical afflictions. A lot of us grew up dealing with collateral damage from that war -- our fathers," he writes. And so he began a twelve year journey to unravel his family’s mystery, inevitably involving other aging ex-Marines, a journey which led him to track down and interview twenty-nine former members of his father’s platoon, Love Company, of the 3rd Battalion, 22nd Marine Regiment, 6th Marine Division, men who had rarely spoken about the war after their discharge.

What started as a personal fixation with a photo of his father and a dead Marine inescapably led him to a discovery of the real nature of the war’s impact. What he uncovered barely resembled the party line of the war’s home front cheerleaders and the subsequent flow of commercialized hyperbole about the "greatest generation."

What he learned was that blast concussions had damaged his father’s brain and that post-WWII medical and psychiatric treatment for veterans was not as extensive as it is today; in fact his father was never treated for his brain injuries. Fenton Grahnert, a former Marine, told Maharidge that despite the GI Bill, "they turned on us -- eight and a half, nine million people loose from the military in WWII ... with not a ... penny of psychiatry help or nothing. You was on your own." He learned too that the Pacific War as recounted by the aging veterans he interviewed were filled with atrocities, each side slaughtering the other’s captives. No Japanese prisoners were taken on Guam, one veteran told him. (Which is not actually true -- 485 Japanese POWs were taken on Guam... from a garrison of 22,000. By comparison, over 230,000 German and Italian prisoners were taken at the end of the Tunisian campaign in North Africa in 1943). Not many prisoners were taken alive on other Pacific islands.

The battle for Okinawa – where some 25,000 U.S. troops still remain, over the objection of many Okinawans -- began on April Fool’s Day in 1945. Relying on Frazier Hunt’s The Untold Story of Douglas MacArthur, Maharidge notes the fight caused the deaths of an estimated 150,000 civilians, 110,000 Japanese and 12,520 Americans, plus 36,707 Americans wounded. His sketches of the carnage, while nowhere as complete as the brilliant Pacific war memoir, E.B. Sledge’s With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa, nevertheless portrays the bitter battles in places he eventually visited.

The elderly ex-Marines he interviewed had Maharidge worrying about their forgetfulness, exaggerations and possible fabrications. He quoted only those he believed. Some said they had adjusted well but most were casualties of war. Charles Lepant told him, "We were brainwashed from boot camp ... You didn’t hesitate. And when someone told you ‘go,’ you went." Looking at a photo of Japanese soldiers he picked up in Guam, he said the deaths of Japanese soldiers "bothered" him, Maharidge explaining that Lepant believed "most of those guys [in the photo] probably didn’t want to be in the war any more than he did."

Tom Price dissuaded his grandson from enlisting after the Afghan and Iraq wars began, his wife telling the boy "Tom still knows you don’t come back the same. You don’t come back a free-hearted, loving, caring person anymore." Captain Frank Haigler, Jr. told of a brutal senior officer [161] and a grieving sister of a dead Marine wrote him, "Nothing has been accomplished by his dying, or by all the other men dying. The world is not a better place to live in; on the contrary, it becomes a rottener place day by day by all appearances."

Another ex-Marine, Joe Lanciotti, self-published a book The Timid Marine in 2005 and wrote about GIs who suffered from combat fatigue and others discharged for psychiatric reasons or who simply deserted. Only one American soldier in World War II, Eddie Slovik, was executed for desertion. "I, and hundreds of thousands of combat, fatigued veterans could sympathize with Eddie Slovik, that frightened soldier... I was a very frightened and timid Marine." A few men mentioned a Marine who allegedly raped an Okinawan girl but was never punished. Maharidge finally found the alleged rapist and, filled with loathing, conducted an unsatisfactory interview, the old Marine denying everything.

In the end, Mulligan, it turned out, was Herman Walter Mulligan, a 22-year-old Southern-born Baptist, part-Jewish, part-Irish marine killed, Maharidge concludes, when he tossed a grenade into a burial place filled with Japanese explosives which the grenade inadvertently detonated. Steve Maharidge had not killed Mulligan but obviously felt that in some way he had contributed to his death. When Steve died the photograph of the two ex-Marines was buried with him in Arlington National Cemetery.

Bringing Mulligan Home is also replete with anger at the killing of civilians, official unconcern, and inept military leaders. But most of all it should prompt some Americans to wonder when and where our next generation will be sacrificed in yet another of our many wars.