17 Years ago today, the Second Battle of Fallujah began. It was the single largest urban battle US forces engaged in since Hue City, Vietnam, in 1968. I usually don't make a big deal of memorializing it, but maybe I should.
The men I fought alongside in Fallujah were the best men I ever knew. Not all of them made it. None of us made it home unchanged.
I share my worst memories with my bravest brothers.
I truly would not have it any other way.
This year, the memories sting a little harder than usual. The disastrous collapse of the US mission in Afghanistan, and the restoration of control to the Taliban, marks the final and utter failure of our adventures in the Middle East.
I suppose it was inevitable. Bringing US-style Democracy to those places was always a fool's errand.
Even so, the images of the Afghanistan pull-out, and the news that we left Americans and Allies behind to face the mercy of our enemies, just hammers home how little we accomplished, despite all the blood, sweat, and tears.
But the one thing that I learned in my years of service is that courage and valor exist independently of causes.
Win or lose, right or wrong, the Marines and Corpsmen of 1/3—and one particular Army Ranger brother—were the bravest sons-of-bitches I've ever had the pleasure of knowing. It was an honor to chew the same ground as those men, and if given the choice to do it over again, I'd do it in a heartbeat. Even knowing how it ends.
So tonight, boys, this cigar and this drink are for you.
To Brave Men and Lost Causes.
May all we meet again in happier times.
Which way Western Man?
Just kidding. The decision was made long ago in modern America, and not for the better.
In case you doubt the above sentiment, that second image is taken from a viral TikTok video going around. In it, a man on a New York subway car aggressively shouts at a woman half his size, before punching her right in the face. It wasn't sudden. Not one man present stood up to protect her.
Or there's the incident from Philly a couple of weeks ago, in which a woman was sexually assaulted on a crowded train car for over 40 minutes.
Chivalry is dead, folks. And I'm not just talking about offering a woman your seat, or holding the door for her.
Chivalry was—and is—a warrior's code.
Men who trained their entire lives in the arts of combat adopted it as a standard of personal behavior, one emphasizing honor, bravery, and willingness to protect the weak.
In short, it was a way for the dangerous members of civilization to ensure they stayed dangerous to the right people, while remaining harmless to the rest.
A society of warriors needs such a code. Otherwise they're not protectors. They're nothing more than armed, violent thugs.
Through our stories, myths, and legends, aspects of this code trickled down to Western men of all social classes. Holding a door for a woman, offering your seat, standing whenever she entered the room, removing your hat in her presence. These were common courtesies expected of men in general as recently as two or three generations ago. They were reminders for men not to misuse their natural strength. That women were to be honored and respected, and by extension, protected.
Exactly when this changed is hard to pinpoint. But I have a theory.
American men used to be warriors.
Most people my age have grandfathers who were drafted into WWII or Korea. My great-grandfathers on both sides of the family were drafted into WWI. My dad was drafted, too, for the Cold War/Peace Time draft. While I'm thankful he never saw combat, something my dad said about the experience always stuck with me:
"When I look back, I can at least say I stood up when my number was called. That's something. I didn't run, and I went where they sent me."
His attitude is typical of his generation, and of the generations previous. It's hard to imagine men from those eras standing idly by while a woman is assaulted.
Even if they weren't professional fighters, like the knights of old, all American men knew they might be called on to fight. For most of them, the idea of running away or shirking from that duty was considered beyond the pale. It would earn them ridicule, contempt, and legal consequences.
That changed in Vietnam.
Leaving aside the morality of that war, the number of men who dodged the draft was unusually high. Hundreds of thousands of men evaded compulsory service in Vietnam. Almost 210,000 men were formally accused of violating draft laws, while more than 360,000 were never charged.
On January 21st, 1977, President Jimmy Carter formally pardoned all draft dodgers. That was the day physical cowardice—running from a fight—ceased to have any real consequences in America. Legal penalties, social consequences, and shame were no longer the price for turning your back.
Indeed, the Vietnam draft dodgers are now held to have some kind of moral authority, opposing an "illegal war" by bravely standing up and doing nothing, while some two million others faced hell in their place.
So yes, friends. Chivalry is dead.
It's dead because our men are permitted to be weak. It's dead because our men are taught not to feel shame. It's dead because honor and duty were allowed to become punchlines. It's dead because our men no longer face consequences—even social ones—for habitual cowardice.
Chivalry is dead because our men are not warriors.
They have no need of a warriors’ code.
Sadly, when I wrote that joke, I didn't even notice the double-meaning behind the phrase "left them all behind."
Dark times, friends.
The state of the Afghanistan pullout and the incompetence of our leaders has me enraged. Though I suppose that just proves there's nothing new under the sun.
Anyway, I've always used humor to vent my frustration, as the above image shows. But behind that humor, I want everyone reading this to realize something:
Future history books will deny this happened.
The pullout is going to be remembered as an unqualified success.
People our government abandoned overseas will be dismissed as reckless fools who should have left sooner.
The Retired Special Ops guys working outside regular government channels to bring them home will be slandered as opportunistic liars.
If you think I’m being dramatic here, understand this: Lt. Colonel Stuart Scheller, the only active-duty officer with the courage and integrity to stand up and demand accountability for this failure, is already being painted as a mentally unstable risk to his family.
They will lie. They will tell the version of events they want you to remember, and they will call you a liar or a dupe for remembering the truth.
Don't let them.
Check on your Brothers. If you're my Brother, I'm always here.
The other day, my wife asked me a dead-simple question: "What's your favorite book or story of all time?"
Of course, I couldn't pick just one. But after thinking a while, I did manage to narrow the list down to only three. My favorite story of all time is Richard Connell's "The Most Dangerous Game." If I'm forced to pick something novel length, then it's a toss-up between David Morrell's First Blood and Glendon Swarthout's The Shootist.
What's telling, especially for a guy with "SF/Fantasy Writer" in his bio, is that none of my answers is even tangentially SF or Fantasy.
That's because—as I realized somewhat recently—I don't actually like SF or Fantasy all that much. What I really like is Action/Adventure. I just don't mind if my Action/Adventure has magic or ray guns in it.
That said, I don't want to hammer on my growing disillusionment with SF and Fantasy (even the supposedly "pulpy" classics). What I want to talk about today is something else I realized about my answer, particularly the two novels.
Of my three favorite stories of all time, two are directly related to a pop culture transition that happened in America in the 1980s, one more obvious in retrospect than it was in real-time.
I'm talking about the complete shift from Cowboys to Commandos as our "default" pop cultural heroes.
Backyard Bradleys and Saturday Morning SEALs
Maybe it's tough to remember with the rise of superhero media and the resurgence of Star Wars. But once upon a time, kids in America were obsessed with all things G.I. Joe. Toy shelves were absolutely crammed with Hasbro's pint-sized, plastic commandos and their intricately designed vehicles. The cartoon played on a practically endless loop in syndication, spawning an animated movie. Real life celebrities like Sgt. Slaughter and Joe "the Refrigerator" Perry joined the franchise with figures modeled on their likenesses. Slaughter even voiced himself in the cartoon.
And of course, let's not forget the comics. Marvel's G.I.Joe actually ran longer than the toy line did, owing mostly to writer and Vietnam vet Larry Hama's rather sophisticated treatment of the subject. To this day, it's rightly regarded as one of the best tie-in comics ever produced.
G.I. Joe mania was a surprisingly long-lasting and robust trend, driving other toy companies to cash in with their own military-themed figures. Mattel put out GUTS, beefed up, cooler versions of the traditional plastic army men. Galoob made figures based on The A-Team, both in 3.75 and 6-inch scales. Coleco put out toys for Rambo: The Force of Freedom, a kids' cartoon (lol) spun off from one of the most successful R-Rated action franchises in history.
What, you didn't know there was a Rambo cartoon?
Ruby-Spears' Rambo was clearly an attempt to cash in on the success of G.I. Joe. Aimed at the same audience (and with the same goal of selling toys), it featured a similar set-up and premise: an elite, secret counter-terror organization, called on to fight a group of evil militants with a catchy name (S.A.V.A.G.E. instead of Cobra).
Needless to say, this pop-cultural saturation colored the actual-cultural landscape.
There was barely a TV in my old neighborhood that wasn't tuned in to the Joes or Rambo on any given afternoon. Our connected back yards were turned into one massive, constantly-evolving plastic battlefield. Whenever we played in the woods or at the local playground, we invariably fell into some variation of "war" with sticks as guns, pretending to be G.I. Joe characters, A-Team members, or characters from the various action movies we'd caught on cable.
And yes, folks, we saw a LOT of those.
Bottom line, if you were a typical kid in the 80's, there's a good chance the relatively new (but so very old) archetype of the Invincible Super-Commando ruled your imagination.
It was different for my father's generation.
My dad, my uncles, and everyone in their generation grew up with John Wayne, the Lone Ranger, and Hopalong Cassidy. The western gunfighter was the hero of the day, and though "war" was an ever-present game, kids were just as likely to play variations of Cowboys and Indians. There was a pop-cultural mythology to draw from with the Gunfighter, and with public boogeymen like Geronimo and the Dalton Gang.
By contrast, there were few, if any, named soldier-heroes in their fiction. Certainly not characters as towering as the ones found in Westerns. That might be because WWII was still fresh in the public consciousness. Sure, John Wayne played in war movies, notably The Sands of Iwo Jima and The Longest Day. But while his characters were always square-jawed and tough, none were as invincible as his cowboy heroes.
If you think about it, that's only natural. My dad's generation knew men who'd fought at Iwo and Normandy. And while they certainly looked up to and respected these men, seeing them up close—and so soon after the action—reduced them to human scale in the popular imagination. The mythology of the war hadn't had a chance to grow up around them, and it wouldn't for another decade or so. They weren't Brokaw's "Greatest Generation" yet. They were just immediate family, friends, and neighbors.
This extended even to the bonafide heroes of the war.
Never mind that Audie Murphy did more in real life than most fictional commandos ever will. The fact he was still a living, flesh and blood man made him appear less mythical than other folk heroes like Billy the Kid and Wyatt Earp.
Ironic, because First Blood author David Morrell has stated in interviews that he partly based his original conception of Rambo on Murphy. The idea of a troubled war veteran at home was one of the pieces that took hold of his imagination, and inspired him write one of the greatest thriller novels of all time.
From Printed Page to Silver Screen
Note: this section contains mild spoilers for the books and films discussed.
First Blood was published in 1972, and introduced the world to Rambo. If you're familiar with the 1982 film of the same name, then you're familiar with the plot. Drifting Vietnam vet and Green Beret Rambo is hassled and hustled out of town by a local sheriff. He bristles at this treatment, and begins pushing back, until it escalates into an explosive moment of violence at the jailhouse. Escaping into the woods, Rambo must evade the largest manhunt in state history, led by the same sheriff.
Much like Tarzan and Conan the Barbarian, if you're only familiar with the Hollywood treatment of the character, then you don't really know him. The novel's Rambo is much more of a sympathetic villain than a hero, and the movie's villain, Sheriff Teasle, is far more heroic and admirable in Morrell's book.
Naturally, the Stallone film made significant changes. The script turned a morally complex struggle into a more straightforward story of an underdog being harassed by the authorities. The movie's body count is much lower (just one, and it's an accident; a fact most people forget in the wake of the uber-violent sequels).
The biggest change, of course, is that Rambo survives the movie's climax, whereas Morrell's book gives him a tragically fitting end.
Along with Kurt Russell's performance as Snake Plissken in 1981's Escape from New York, Stallone's version of Rambo helped usher in the 80's era of Action Movies. While both Escape and First Blood are somewhat sedate, cerebral films, the decade's box office would come to be dominated by an archetype that blended Russell's rough, cool, demeanor and Stallone's raw physicality.
The Action Movie tough guy, typified by Stallone's performance in the First Blood sequels, Schwarzenegger's Commando, and anything starring Chuck Norris, was usually a military or ex-military badass.
Whereas traditional, John Wayne-type war movies emphasized the camaraderie of the platoon, the Action Movie commando was usually alone, fighting hordes of disposable enemies with nothing but his rippling muscles, a machine gun, and maybe a little karate. If he was lucky, he had a team, but they usually didn't survive through the third act, necessitating the Action Hero squaring off against the villain mano-a-mano (or tank to helicopter, in the case of Rambo III).
The Shootist was published in 1975, and it deals with the death of the last great gunfighter of the American West, J. B. Brooks.
In the novel's opening, we learn that Brooks, a larger-than-life figure in his youth, and a man who always lived life on his own terms, is dying of prostate cancer. He decides he doesn't want to go out in bed, wracked with pain and too feeble to stand. So he looks for an opportunity to die the way he lived: on his feet, facing life head-on, with his guns in hand. In the process, he befriends a middle-aged boarding house proprietor named Bond Rogers, and her young son Gillom.
It's a deeply moving story, one dealing with themes of modernization, violence, and facing death with dignity. It's as much about the death of the West itself as it is about the death of Brooks.
The Shootist was made into a movie in 1976, the last to star legendary actor John Wayne. Criminally underrated, and sticking close to the source material, the film was a fitting swan song to Wayne's career, one he spent playing the type of characters J. B. Brooks used to be before sickness and old age caught up to him.
In addition an aging Wayne, the film features performances by classic Western film stalwarts like Jimmy Stewart, John Carradine, and Harry Morgan. The movie also opens with a montage of scenes from Wayne's earlier Westerns, under Gillom Rogers' narration describing J.B. Brooks' life and career.
Simply put, this film—arguably even more than the novel—unfolds as if it knows it's saying goodbye to an era of mythic storytelling, one that dominated the American psyche since the age of the dime novel. Like Brooks himself, it's trying to be the last of the "heroic" Westerns, going out on its feet, on its own terms, with guns in hand.
From Six Shooters to Uzis
Looking back, you can't readily blame the influence of blockbuster action films for trickling down to inspire G.I. Joe. The "classic" G.I. Joe toy line debuted in 1982, the same year as First Blood's cinematic adaptation, and the 80's Action Movie as a defined genre wouldn't really get going for another couple of years. Direct inspiration simply wouldn't have been possible.
Rather, there was just something in the social zeitgeist of the time. The Miracle on Ice gave everyone a proxy for victory in the Cold War. Reagan was in the process of re-building our military, creating a budgetary arms race that eventually spent the Russians into submission. The economy was good. Americans felt good about being Americans again.
It was this overall zeitgeist that fueled the creation of both the 80's G.I. Joe line, and the 80's Action Hero.
It's hardly surprising. If the "Tough Cop who Doesn't Play by the Rules" is the hero we can associate most with the 70's (via Dirty Harry), then it's easy to see why America was eager for a change. There's a gritty, grimy realism to those old 70's cop thrillers. And while the "Rogue Cop" archetype may be good for audience catharsis, he also serves as a stark reminder of an overall corrupt and lethargic system. After all, Dirty Harry was at least partly a response to public anxiety about the police being unable to catch the Zodiac Killer.
The 80's Action hero, with all the flash and boom of special effects behind him, is another animal entirely. Even when he's nominally a cop (or, as in the case of Mel Gibson's Martin Riggs, a commando turned cop), the Action Movie hero took on the bad guys with guns, explosions, and a macho swagger his nihilistic 70's counterparts couldn't match.
These weren't stories of lone men doing the right thing against an uncaring system. They were stories of men at war against the Bad Guys.
And they were winning.
That said, the mano-a-mano fight at the end of a typical 80's Action Movie has far more in common with the classic Western's high noon showdown than it does anything in a traditional war movie.
Whereas classic war movies give us stories of valor in the face of uncertainty, the 80's Action Movie gives us stories of strength and courage against easily identifiable villains. Faceless Japanese soldiers aren't enough here. The evil Russian officers in Rambo III and the corrupt ex-soldiers in Commando are Black Hats, just as surely as the outlaw Liberty Valence was. The audience jeers at them the same way a wrestling crowd jeers at a heel, and they're paying good money to see them shot down in the climax.
The 80's Action Hero is, in effect, an updated gunslinger, transported from the dusty streets of Dodge City to the jungles of the South America, the deserts of the Middle East, or the high-rises of Los Angeles.
In a way, Regan was the most fitting President we could have had at the time. In a decade where an updated gunslinger dominated our pop culture, who better to serve as leader of the free world than a former Western movie star?
Riding off into that Saigon Sunset: Commandos to Capes
The disillusionment of Vietnam is arguably what killed the "heroic" Western. The movie most often given credit for ending the genre is Pekinpah's The Wild Bunch, with its gritty, graphic violence. Pekinpah himself wanted the climactic massacre to feel more like a firefight on a hot LZ than a showdown, and few would argue that he missed the mark.
Westerns after The Wild Bunch just weren't the same. Any filmmaker trying make a Western had to rely on grit, deconstruction, and revisionism to be taken seriously. From 1969 on, the bright, hopeful Western was largely a thing of the past.
Similarly, the Post 9/11 era killed the Cinematic Super Commando. While "straight" Action Movies had already declined somewhat in popularity by the late 1990's, the fall of the Twin Towers and the wars in the Middle East made it impossible to take a John Rambo or a John Matrix seriously anymore.
After all, it's hard to buy into Invincible Super-Soldiers mowing down waves of terrorists when simple, roadside bombs are sending planeloads of real soldiers home in flag-draped coffins. The IED and the insurgent have reduced the larger-than-life, cinematic Super-Soldier to human scale. With the war in Afghanistan entering its 20th year this fall, it's doubtful the old archetype will return to popular consciousness any time soon.
If the Cowboy Gunslinger was my dad's generational hero, and the Invincible Super-Commando was mine, then the current one is undoubtedly the Comic Book Superhero. He provides the same kind of escapism that Westerns and Action Movies used to, complete with the easily identifiable Black Hats and the mano-a-mano showdown.
Time has marched on, and our default heroes have traded in their Uzis and camo for superpowers and spandex, just as surely as they traded in their six-shooters.
Which brings me, in a roundabout way, back to that question my wife asked me a few days ago, and my answer.
I find it fascinating that two of my all-time favorite books are a Western about the death of the last Gunslinger, and a thriller about the first modern Super-Commando (even if he is arguably the bad guy). I didn't read either of them until later in life, well after I'd already been immersed in the existing archetypes of both genres.
When I first read Morrell's book as a teen, I was shocked by its departure from what I—and everyone else in my generation—thought the Rambo character was. The Shootist I only read last year. Like Morrell's book, it's grittier than the film it spawned, refusing to flinch from the ugliness and the regrets carried by a man who has outlived the bad times. It takes the mythical Gunslinger typified by Jack Schaefer's Shane, and reduces him to human scale.
Two books. One that explores the passing of the archetypal hero from my dad's generation. The other, inadvertently, giving birth to the archetypal hero for mine.
I suppose it just means I'm a product of my generation, in one way or another. And that while each generation will have its larger-than-life heroes, sometimes the most memorable stories are the ones that take those titans, and simply examine them as men.
For about a year now, I've been studying Kali/Arnis, the Filipino art of stick and blade fighting. I had some brief exposure to it a bunch of years ago, thanks to my travels in the Marine Corps and some guest instructors in my hometown dojo, but this is the first time I've ever been able to really study the art in depth. It's been a wonderful experience, and I am more than grateful for my instructors and their dedication.
I've also been slowly rehabbing my injured knees, both of which were abused hard in the military. Success is coming by inches, but it's coming. Whereas nine months ago I couldn't even do one squat with no additional weight, through long hours of careful rehab, I've worked my way up to doing two sets of 20 squats with a light resistance band on the weight bar.
It's a slow improvement, but a dramatic one.
The bottom line is I'm at the age where I have to start taking my my own fitness a lot more seriously. I can't rely on youth and good genetics to keep me healthy anymore. That means working out much more regularly—and with much more careful focus—than I ever used to.
To that end, I recently read Sun and Steel by Japanese author Yukio Mishima.
Something of an infamous figure, Mishima was a hard-right Japanese nationalist who orchestrated an unarmed takeover of a Japanese Self Defense Forces facility back in the 1970s. His stated goal was to inspire the soldiers to rise up and overthrow the Prime Minister, and install the Emperor as the new and rightful ruler of Japan. Failing in his ultimate goal, Mishima committed ritual Seppuku the old fashioned way, with a knife straight to the guts.
Sun and Steel is Mishima's meditation on weightlifting, martial arts, and physical culture. Fans of the book describe it as Mishima's odyssey in search of new and more extreme experiences. And while while the book is justifiably famous in certain weightlifting and bodybuilding circles for its inside look into an iron-willed mindset, it's Mishima's thoughts on the martial arts—the sword arts in particular—that have stayed with me.
Some of the book's most striking passages talk about seeking the deeper, truer reality beyond the flash of the fist, or beyond the the tip of the sword. But he's not just rehashing the idea of the Void or the Nothingness from Miyomoto Musashi.
Quoting Mishima: "There, above all, lay the essence of action and of power. That reality, in popular parlance, was referred to quite simply as the opponent."
The empty space beyond the sword isn't a Void. According to Mishima, it's alive, vital, and powerful.
I've been thinking an awful lot about that quote since I first read it. I've been pondering what Mishima really means here, and how it links to the rest of the book as a whole. And after a few hard sparring sessions—including one with training knives that left me sore for about four days—I think I've finally got it.
Human beings have deeply buried instincts, survivals of older memories from our ancestors. How do you know to be afraid of a bear or a lion the first time you ever seen one? How do you know what it's after—what it's even capable of—as it's stalking towards you? How do you know to fight of flee rather than offer it a hug?
Answer: you automatically know the big predator is going to eat you because in the distant past, big predators tried to eat your ancestors. Fear of them became an ingrained survival trait.
Taking the idea a step further:
Every single person alive today is only here because some ancestor of theirs won a fight over a watering hole or a piece of food. I don't care how peaceful you are personally. Someone in your family tree caved in the skull of another human being with a rock and took their stuff. Or ripped open their guts with a flint knife and squatted on their territory.
More likely, it was several someones.
Just like every human has a deeply-buried instinct telling him to fear a predator, every human has a deeply-buried instinct urging them to fight, conquer, and kill for survival.
Blade and stick arts—perhaps more than any other martial arts—drive us back into contact with that primal mindset. Practicing overhand blows to the head with a stick, or practicing straight thrusts to the stomach with a knife while your opponent tries his damndest to stop you... There's something about it that drops you into a mentality stretching back to the dawn of time.
That extreme reality beyond the tip of the sword, that level of vital experience Mishima kept chasing with his hours of dedicated practice? What he was chasing was a connection with the primal reality of our distant past.
What Mishima was looking for wasn't a new experience. He was looking for an old experience. One of the very oldest possible.
It's a shame he didn't find it until the very end.
Sun and Steel is published by Medina University Press. Copies are available from Rogue Scholar Books.
I'm an award-winning science fiction and fantasy writer based out of North Carolina. This is where I scream into the digital void. I like cookies.