(To read the entire "War Memoirs" series, please click here.)
I really like Clint Van Winkle’s Soft Spots. But, as Clint reminded me when I met him last year, that didn’t come across in my review. I described Soft Spots as “a good, but by no means perfect, book” and I stand by that line.
My review had a confluence of problems. First, I focused on the negatives in the book, as opposed to the positives--something I’ve consciously tried to change in my more recent war memoir reviews. Second, Soft Spots got caught in my attack on a literary genre. You see, I’m aiming at memoirs--specifically war memoirs--and Soft Spots got caught in the metaphorical crossfire. Finally, I read Soft Spots too early. It was the second war memoir I reviewed in the series, and I didn’t realize at the time how good it was in comparison to the books I would be reading.
To make up for it, and to offer an awesome Christmas gift alternative, I present my favorite scene from Soft Spots. After all the writing we’ve done on Lone Survivor recently, I’d like our readers to know that better exists.
This section comes from chapter eight, my favorite chapter, while Clint reflects on war and answers the question, asked to him by a naive college students, “Did you kill anybody?”
“My grandpa never talked about World War II to anyone. The family knew he had served in the Army but not much else. After I became a Marine, he started to tell stories about his war to me. It was a “good war”--the other “war to end all wars” that didn’t end any wars I found out he served overseas for three years, dug fighting holes in occupied Berlin, got in bar fights in France, spent time in Wales. He talked about going and coming, his Army buddies and training, but never got into the stuff I really wanted to know. Had he ever killed anybody? Had he been granted the “privilege” of taking the life of another in combat? To me, killing was the important part, the part that mattered. That was war, right? Finally I asked him.
“His reply confused me. It was cryptic and unsatisfying. I’d expected to hear about him bayoneting a Nazi or kicking somebody’s teeth in. More than that, I expected to hear a gleeful recollection of it all. Instead, I got an account of how he shot at a German sniper.
“His engineer unit was doing what engineers of when rifle rounds started to impact around their bivouac area. Not many rounds, just a few. My grandpa found concealment and returned fire with his M1 Garand rifle. Up to that point in the story, I was with him and extremely happy to hear that a Van Winkle had “gotten one.” But that wasn’t the part I found confusing; it was how he ended the story. After shooting at the German, who eventually fell out of a tree, he walked over to where the sniper lay. The German, sprawled out and riddled with bullet holes, was dead. Here’s the kicker, though: Instead of being happy, Grandpa was relieved to see that the German soldier had more holes in him than he had fired. That was the end of the story. Maybe he killed the guy, maybe he didn’t. Grandpa didn’t want to know either way, and, at the time, I couldn’t understand why.
“When I got back from Iraq, and saw my grandpa, we talked about war again. However, we talked about it in a different manner than we had years earlier. We talked about the places we saw and the friends we gained. We bypassed the death and shooting. Our wars were sixty years apart but weren't really any different. It didn't matter how many years separated our wars or where we traveled to fight them. Blood still dried the same way around wounds and charred bodies still crusted over the same as they always have. It didn't matter that he'd fought in a "good war" and I fought in a controversial war; because the effect turned out to be the same: Neither of us could find anything praiseworthy about combat.
“I understood the silent portions of our conversation, what was said when nothing was said at all. The true stories hid in the silence. Instead of being grandson and grandpa, we were just two combat vets who understood what war does and the importance of being around others who don’t have to ask questions.
“In war, no one asks you if you killed anyone.”