Questions and Answers, Veterans’ Day Edition: Fortunate Sons

Questions and Answers, Veterans’ Day Edition: Fortunate Sons May 30, 2016

 Though here at journey’s end I lie
in darkness buried deep,
beyond all towers strong and high,
beyond all mountains steep,
above all shadows rides the Sun
and stars for ever dwell:
I will not say the Day is done,
nor bid the stars farewell.

— Sam’s song from The Return of the King


It’s been far too long since I visited this column, now several years old (catch up on past entries here if you’re new to the site). So, I’m reviving it by pairing up two songs that hold especially poignant significance for Veterans’ Day, Memorial Day, or really for any day where we reflect on the costly sacrifices of our military servicemen, living and dead.

On the “Question” side, we have Bruce Hornsby’s shattering song “Fortunate Son,” based on the tragic life and death of Vietnam veteran Lewis Puller. On the “Answer” side, a song by Rich Mullins called “I’ll Carry On,” which is open to more than one interpretation but can naturally be read in the voice of a young man going to war.

I’ve highlighted “Fortunate Son” before, but I’ll explain its background again here. To appreciate its power, one has to understand the story of Lewis Puller. The son of a decorated World War II veteran, he went to war eager to follow in his father’s footsteps. Later, he wrote, “It was just assumed… a tacit understanding.” But his career was brutally cut short when he stepped on a landmine, leaving him a double amputee forever bound to a wheelchair. However, he still projected toughness and resilience, writing a Pulitzer-prize-winning memoir and launching a successful political career. Sadly, he ultimately succumbed to alcoholism and crushing depression, shooting himself dead in 1994. He was survived by a wife and two children.

The title of Hornsby’s song is taken from Puller’s memoir, entitled Fortunate Son: The Healing of a Vietnam Vet. Its lyric captures the deep, wrenching sadness that defined a generation of Vietnam veterans. It also captures their bitterness, as politically, many of them would go on to become vigorous anti-war activists. Whatever side you fall on in the Vietnam debate, there is certainly room for clear-eyed compassion towards the likes of Puller, whose service left him physically and emotionally shattered despite his attempts to rebound.

Writing after Puller’s suicide in a first-person voice, Hornsby powerfully imagines the inner turmoil Puller was experiencing even as he tried to put on a brave front. From the first verse, we get a picture of someone so hardened that he is no longer able to receive simple kindness from others without feeling patronized. A man drives by and waves “wildly” at him as he watches a street parade from his wheelchair, and he bitterly assumes the man must be thinking to himself, “Better him than me.” The chorus then recalls his devastating war experience: “I’ve stared down the devil and had to look away. Called out to the angels, but no one ever came.” But it concludes, with heavy irony, “That’s all right, I’m a lucky one. Oh, such a fortunate son.”

The second verse, which is later re-echoed in the bridge, subtly foreshadows Puller’s ultimate suicide: “I might have to go out and burn one, have a drink or a few. Fade away in a cloudy haze of smoke, give the old man’s best salute.” The “cloudy haze of smoke” could refer either to a cigarette or to a smoking gun. The “best salute” could be the last salute, the last goodbye.

In thinking about Puller’s end, I am reminded of the devastating climax of The Deer Hunter. I think about the haunted look in Nicky’s eyes as Michael takes his wrist and pleads with him not to put the gun to his head. “Nicky, do you remember the trees? The mountains? Remember that?” Nicky always loved the trees back home, all different, changing and fading and blooming with the Pennsylvania seasons. “Come home,” begs Michael. “Just come home.” Slowly, remembrance dawns, like a crescent of sun over the horizon, so near you could reach out and touch it. Nicky smiles one last time, then wrests himself free and pulls the trigger.

Veteran suicide is still very much with us today. The statistics are stark and sobering. Even veterans who still believe in the cause they were fighting for face vastly increased risk of addiction, divorce, and harming self or others. (Witness, for example, the remarkable story of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, who was barely able to salvage his marriage and his emotional health after four tours in Iraq.) And indeed, stories like that of WWII hero Louis Zamperini, who abused alcohol and beat his wife before being saved at a Billy Graham revival, show that such struggles were not new even to the Vietnam generation. It’s easy for ordinary citizens to put veterans on a pedestal, to ascribe superhuman strength of mind and will to them. The reality is that veterans are often very flawed, broken men, suffering and struggling like any other flawed, broken men.

But there is hope to counter-balance the hopelessness. Both Zamperini and Kyle, through God’s grace, were able to turn their lives around, and they represent countless other veterans who have been able to do the same. While we can feel compassion for veterans dealing with injury, PTSD or depression, we also recognize that they have a choice about how to deal with these things. Puller dealt with it by clinging to bitterness, sinking into addiction, and ultimately taking his own life. Kyle and Zamperini found renewed purpose in serving Christ and others. True, severe disability can put veterans like Puller at a disadvantage when it comes to rebuilding one’s life. But that didn’t stop Puller from writing, campaigning, and more. His primary struggle was spiritual, not physical.

It is with that in mind that I offer Rich Mullins’s song “I’ll Carry On” as the perfect response to “Fortunate Son.” As I mentioned before, it doesn’t have an explicitly military setting. In fact, I think Mullins originally envisioned it to be the story of someone who bids farewell to his next of kin to set sail for the New World. However, it’s subtle enough to fit into many coming-of-age narratives, including the journey of the young man who goes to war.

The narrator kisses the earth on his father’s grave before he leaves to pursue “a dream that can kill with its beauty…a hurt that can heal with its pain.” There is also reference to a sail being hoisted, at which the narrator knows his heart will break, “as bright and as fine as the morning.” (Mullins is really at his poetic best here.)

While the narrator is hopeful, he is not naive. He recognizes that he “may never get home again,” literally or metaphorically. He is leaving a part of himself behind forever. And he is not without fear that the very dreams he holds so dear “may betray,” as Lewis Puller’s dreams betrayed him. Yet this does not deter him from facing the future with calm assurance:

But I’ll carry the songs I learned when we were kids

I’ll carry the scars of generations gone by

I’ll pray for you always, and I’ll promise you this

I’ll carry on, I’ll carry on

This is his pledge, his war-cry against that last and deadliest of darts the enemy can hurl: despair. Through song, through prayer, through remembrance, in life and in death, he will not say the day is done, nor bid the stars, the trees, the mountains, farewell.
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