War Stories

TheSmallestCarrierWho am I to write war stories? Shouldn’t such tales be left to those who’ve actually lived through the horrors and the glories of life on the battlefront? I’d acquiesce to these hard questions in a second if life were simple. But it’s not, and there are a few things you ought to know about me and my life experience before you judge my fitness to tell these tales of heroism.

With titles like “Dinosaur Wars” and stories like my Uncle Herb’s harrowing military adventures in the South Pacific in World War 2, it’s clear I have a strong bent in the warrior direction. But in some ways, as you’ll see, my stories have chosen me, rather than the other way around.

Most blatantly clear is my call to write the horrendous details of Herbert Albert Hopp’s proud but personally devastating days as a gunner aboard a torpedo bomber in the Navy in 1943. While Uncle Herb is gone without having committed his experiences to paper, it just so happens that I am highly trained as a writer, and also that I have been bequeathed a huge number of photos, documents and reminiscences of his tale of heroism in one of the pivotal battles of World War 2. Who else can or will write it?

Regarding my choice to frame the Dinosaur Wars stories in a military scope rather than finding some way to return dinosaurs to earth without the need to invoke war, I simply found it unlikely that humanity would sit by while our planet was recolonized by terrors from the ancient past without putting up some sort of fight.

So, that’s the genesis of my choice of subject matter, but let’s also have a look at my credentials as a war chronicler.

There, like a stone wall, stood JacksonFirst, and most simplistic, is the fact that my ancestry includes the line that gave rise to Stonewall Jackson, who most historians agree was the greatest general of the American Civil War. He fought on the wrong side of that engagement, but it is also true that the South never lost a battle until they lost my Great Great Uncle Stonewall. So, some interesting blood runs in my veins. The fact that I share his first name, Thomas, and his birthday as well, adds a sense of deja vu to my connectedness to him. His military strategies are still taught at West Point and I have a sense that at least some of my inherent understanding of matters military comes at the instinctual level.

My own relationship with military service is an obscure one that I will try to elucidate here in a few words. In 1971, at the height of the Vietnam conflict, I was a college student with a good solid college deferment to excuse me from military service. Even though I was a long haired hippy of the first magnitude and was, and am, fundamentally against armed conflict in this world, nevertheless I saw the iniquity in the way the obligation was shared out among young Americans. I didn’t feel entitled to my college exemption from the war when others had no recourse but to go when called.

When the plans for a draft lottery were announced by the Nixon government, the whole concept of such a fatalistic approach to war service began to influence my thoughts and actions. I decided to cast my fate to the wind. I declined to re-register my student exemption as I was required to do every year and as a result I received in the mail a new draft card that listed my status as 1-A. I put the card in my wallet and waited to see what the draft lottery would bring. I didn’t mention my 1-A status to my parents, who would have freaked out at the prospect of their beloved son in the Army and risking his life in Vietnam for a war effort that they as well as many other parents had come to see as an unnecessary and unjustifiable cause.

As to my own inner thoughts during the weeks when that card was in my wallet and the lottery was drawing near, I can only tell you a few things. I was committed to the choice I’d made. If my birthday drew a low number, then I’d be getting all my long hair shaved off and shipping out to Nam in the not-too-distant future. If I drew a high number, then the draft would fulfill its allotment of young men and never reach my birthday, and I would be exempted from any military obligation for the rest of my life. I was truly at ease with the uncertainty of my situation. Exemption would reaffirm my hippy notions of living life in peace. Conscription by the Army, on the other hand, was the source of a lot of late-night thinking on my part.

I recall a line or two from a popular song at that time, Arlo Guthry’s “Alice’s Restaurant.” In it, he imagined trying to escape the draft by being declared unfit for service due to homicidal fanaticism. “I wanna eat dead burnt bodies,” he hollered. At the end of his exaggerated and humorous exploration of the subject, Guthry was supposedly disqualified for having littered. For whatever reason, the irony of the notion of me swinging from hippy pacifism to Gung-ho fanaticism stuck in my mind. If they draft me, I thought, I’ll show them the most murderous son-of-a-bitch that has ever hefted an M-16.
The luck of the draw released me from any obligation to make good on this half-threat, half-promise. I’ll never know what the effects might have been of the discipline of military training or the horror of facing another armed man who intended to kill me. I can’t and won’t defend or attempt to argue one way or another about any bravery or lack thereof that might lurk deep in my innards. I will never be tested.

Nevertheless, with all that said it is now I, the trained writer, who confront the need to tell stories that reach down into the heart of the warrior. Perhaps some folks will think I’m patently unqualified. Others, though, may see that in my way I am prepared by the willingness I once expressed to go and fight. That compels me to write these tales, as does and the inescapable fact that brave family forebears have lived the sorts of stories I intend to tell.

About Tom Hopp

Thomas P Hopp is a scientist and author living in Seattle. He writes medical thrillers, natural disaster novels, and the Dinosaur Wars science fiction series.
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5 Responses to War Stories

  1. stella bandante says:

    Tom, your piece has the hint of bragging (?) about being willing to go to war, to kill or be killed, if the lottery had worked against you. And you state the necessity of including warlike behavior in your fictional writing. Without condemning or endorsing your point of view, I do want to comment.
    When we see the world out there as a macrocosm of the world within, we find that in personal life we are often faced with decisions that require a decision to “go to war” or to take the stance of the peaceful warrior and refrain from using violence as a problem solving behavior. Every time we catch ourselves balanced on that precipice, we have a choice. We can give in to our rage, our fear, our sense of righteousness, our vanity, and our need to win at another’s expense. It often feels great in the moment when those pressures build up and we release them through some form of violence, verbal or otherwise. And if we obliterate our foes, actually or metaphorically, we might feel some kind of pride for a moment, even a sense of accomplishment that we were able to annihilate someone for the perceived slight they have inflicted upon us. Or we can be stronger still and NOT give in to those primitive, aggressive drives. And in the face of a conflict, especially one that might result in victory for the ego, to rise above it and walk away is the true victory.
    Our culture, sadly, is driven by fear, hate, and violent conflict. From our war driven economy to what we choose as “entertainment”, violence is as ordinary as breakfast cereal. The fire that stirs in the breast as we recount the heroism of warriors on the battlefield, and as we pledge our loyalty to the troops who fight in countries we will never see, is pretty addictive. When will it end? Will it ever end at all?
    Perhaps the instinctive maps that inform our behavior from the limbic regions of brain are stronger than reason. Or perhaps, if enough of us find our strength in avoiding violent conflict and seeking nonviolent solutions to our problems and disputes, we may as a species eventually evolve beyond the need to pull the trigger. We don’t know from this moment how we may evolve, but it seems, with all due respect to your ancestors, that one of the greatest accomplishments we might achieve as a species, and on a personal level, is the ability to choose to walk away in the face of violent engagement.
    Yes, there is always the hypothetical question: what would you do in the face of imminent threat to yourself or a loved one? Hopefully, that will never happen, and if it does, then any means of protection would seem appropriate. But when we talk about the millions of people who have died senselessly in wars that never should have been declared in the first place (or enacted without a declaration of war), the degree of death and destruction that have occurred cannot really be justified as necessary to our survival. Wars that are waged in this way are an insult to humanity and I can’t really applaud the warriors who fight them. The best I can do is feel compassion for the young men and women who are being used as cannon fodder because the “grown-ups” just don’t have the courage to end the damn wars.

    • Tom Hopp says:

      Stephanie, you make some great points about war and war writing. I don’t think I was bragging, though, when I discussed my personal experience of the draft and the deeper question of whether I was prepared to kill for my country. It’s more of a confession, from my perspective. The continuity of my life with the warriors in my family’s past is not a source of pride exactly. It’s more a matter of examining myself and my motives, back then as a potential warrior, and now as a committed war story writer. One thing I will never do is brag about, or glorify war. In fact, the stories I have to tell all focus on the horror of it all, from the viewpoint of the soldier or anyone else swept into the maelstrom. Far from being some unexamined rah-rah for war, my work so far should make anyone contemplating war or the life of a soldier, consider what is lost as much as what is gained. As proof, I’ll cite my Herbert Hopp’s Story, which relates a tale of heroism in the South Pacific War, but tells it in terms of what was lost by Herb and his ill-fated crew mates. I have no doubt that, had I gone to Viet Nam with visions of being a brutal warrior, I would have returned scarred inside and out, or dead. Even my view of my larger-then-life ancestor Stonewall Jackson is tempered by research that taught me the enigma of the man. Before marching off in defense of slavery, he had been running a school that taught slaves to read and write, in direct contravention of Virginia State law. In the end, Steph, I’m no proponent of war. Rather, I’m astonished that the human creature, so instinctually capable of violence, can manage to live peacefully at all. The fact that so many of us can overcome our genetic predisposition to war and learn to live peacefully is a glowing arrow pointing to a brighter future, where every human on earth learns the skill of non-violence and basks in the resulting peace and prosperity. I hope my writing will help lead us in that direction.

  2. stella bandante says:

    Well said, Tom. I hear ya.

  3. Randall Karstetter says:

    Tom,

    I just finished reading Herb Hopp’s story and I think it makes a stronger case AGAINST war and the injustices that occur during it. Especially the privileged who take advantage of the underlings who do the work and take the risks. It had all the hallmarks of the 1 percenters using the ninety-nine percenters. I think it was a fascinating story, like you said “Not for the faint of heart”. But it tells war like it is and the toll it takes on the ones waging it both mentally and physically. I think it was well written and something that needed to be written. Thank you for doing it.

    Breaking news on the dinosaur front. On Thursday, May 3, Ed Koch, the mega contributor to ultra-conservative political causes and VP of Koch Industries, the oil conglomerate, annonced that he was donating $35 million (!!!) to the Smithsonian to build a dedicated hall in Washington, D.C. for dinosaurs. Dinosaurs are coming big time to Washington, D.C.! Who knew that an ultra-conservative, right-wing, Republican was highly interested in dinosaurs? I guess this shows the spectrum of interest in dinosaurs. I wonder if anyone will note the irony of a big oil executive donating money for a dinosaur museum that was made from the decomposing carcasses of dinosaurs?

    Anyway, as this hall is being built and when it opens dinosaurs are going to be a hot topic. Anyone who knows anything about dinosaurs is going to be hot as well. What do you think the commercial prospects would be of a movie about dinosaurs being released during this time? Maybe a really scary movie about intelligent dinosaurs? Ones that figured out HOW to live five million years?

    I know someone who could do it. And he had better invite me to his Oscar party.

    • Tom Hopp says:

      Thanks Randall. You’re right about Herb’s story being more anti-war than a glorification. I think any thoughtful presentation of war can’t help but be anti-war. It’s a bitter experience for victor and vanquished alike. Plenty of authors before me have explored this territory. However, I’m willing to go there again because as I talk to aging members of Herb’s generation I realize it hasn’t all been said before, and the depth of horror hasn’t been fully explored. The traumas have been under-expressed, if my insights from interviewing ninety-year-olds is any guide. When one of them says, “You just had to check my underwear to find out how scared I was,” that little joke doesn’t really nail down how bad the actual experience was. So I’ll keep working at it and see where my efforts lead.

      Regarding dinosaurs, if my experience so far of Hollywood is any guide, it may take so long for anything to happen with Dinosaur Wars that I myself may be a “decomposing carcass” as you put it, before the movie premiers. Then, I’ll be suitable for display in the new Smithsonian wing myself.

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