|Vietnam Veterans of America|
|Books in Review, March/April 2022|
The Tale of the ‘Underground Hero of Grizzly Bear Stuff’
Doug Peacock, who served two tours as a U.S. Army Special Forces medic in Vietnam, made a name for himself in his postwar years for doing something extraordinary that was directly related to his service in the war. An outdoorsman all his life, growing up in Northern Michigan, Peacock instinctively knew his troubled emotional state after coming home from Vietnam would be ameliorated by spending huge amounts of time, much of it by himself, living basically off the land in remote, inaccessible parts of the western U.S., Canada, and Mexico.
Peacock headed for the wilds of Yellowstone National Park. That’s where, to his surprise, he ran into his first grizzly bear. That encounter set the young veteran on a long quest to observe and chronicle the lives of those fearsome creatures. In the process, he became a staunch, unconventional, and sometimes not-law-abiding advocate and protector of the grizzlies—or, as one witty observer put it, “the underground hero of grizzly bear stuff.”
Doug Peacock, who received the VVA Excellence in the Arts Award at the 2017 National Convention, chronicled his sometimes harrowing, often thrilling, and ultimately healing adventures in Grizzly Years: In Search of the American Wilderness. That 1990 book covers the time he lived in Yellowstone and tracked grizzlies in Wyoming and in the massive Bob Marshall Wilderness Area in western Montana. National Geographic Adventure magazine named it one of the 100 best adventure books of all time.
In Walking It Off: A Veteran’s Chronicle of War and Wilderness (2005) Peacock wrote about how he dealt with his PTSD by backpacking in the deserts of the American Southwest, the Northern Rockies, and in the mountains of Nepal. That memoir also includes flashbacks to his tour of duty in the Central Highlands. The book offers a “visceral, intellectual, and spiritual look” at the natural world, said former Marine Lt. Philip (A Rumor of War) Caputo, who called Peacock “a direct literary descendant of Thoreau, with a few genes from Audubon, and his mentor,” the environmental activist and author Edward Abbey.
Which brings us to Peacock’s new book, Was It Worth It? A Wilderness Warrior’s Long Trail Home (Patagonia, 320 pp. $27.95), a group of evocatively told wilderness tales that didn’t make it into Peacock’s previous books. The book also amplifies Peacock’s work with grizzlies and other large wilderness animals. It amounts to a summing up of his unique life and work in the last fifty-plus years and ends with the answer to the title’s question.
Was It Worth It? also is suffused with flashbacks to Peacock’s war experiences and his reflections on how they have influenced his “good life full of swamps, rivers, woods, deserts, and mountains,” since he came home in 1968.
“From 1965 to 1968,” Peacock writes, “I worked as a Special Forces medic who attended to too much collateral damage—that cowardly phrase they apply to the pile of small, dismembered bodies after a botched air attack.” After coming home from the war in March 1968, he says, “I applied the anger I had built doing that to the defense of wild things, dimly realizing that the fate of the Earth and her inhabitants depended on uncompromising protection of the wilderness homeland and wild creatures. My war experiences, good and bad, prepared me for the fight; it was a gift. I learned to love grizzly bears.”
This richly produced book (published by Patagonia, the outdoor clothing and gear company) is illustrated with many stunning color photos. Those images add even more life to Peacock’s first-person tales of the epic wilderness treks he took, mostly alone and living mostly off the land. That includes backpacking in “the huge roadless country” between Ajo and Yuma, Arizona; rowing down the Big Hole River in Montana; observing polar bears in the High Canadian Arctic; scoping out black spirit bears in British Columbia; tracking Siberian tigers in the Russian Far East; and exploring Belize’s jaguar country.
Doug Peacock is a multi-hyphenate: an author/filmmaker/conservationist/wildlife activist/naturalist/adventurer/grizzly bear expert. Not to mention being the inspiration for a memorable fictional character, George Washington Hayduke, in Abbey’s novel, The Monkey Wrench Gang.
The former Green Beret shows off his not-so-shabby writer’s chops in Was It Worth It?. Here’s one example, a mediation on a solo night in the Sierra Madre Mountains:
“The treasure of beauty and mystery that lingers here belongs to the mountain, along with the last Mexican grizzly. I switch off the tiny flashlight and look up at an emerging planet. The stars are coming out. I hear a last gobble of a tom turkey safe in his roost. A coyote yaps somewhere in the wilderness. I cinch up the shoulder straps of my backpack and make my way down the canyon in the gathering dark.”
That’s just one example of many engaging passages you’ll find in this summing up of a good life’s work.
A DEAR JOHN MYTH
Myth or reality? The Vietnam War led all other American conflicts in Dear John letters and the reason was that many women back home took out their hatred of the war on their boyfriends and husbands taking part in the fighting on the other side of the globe.
It turns out that the contention that the Vietnam War spawned more Dear John letters from disloyal women back home than any other American conflict since the invention of the postal service is based on anecdotal and deeply flawed evidence—and very likely is a myth. That’s what Susan L. Carruthers reports in her revealing, deep dive into the history of her subject in Dear John: Love and Loyalty in Wartime America (Cambridge University Press, 336 pp., $29.95).
The idea that Dear Johns “were singularly expressive of home front disapproval is much more easily proposed than proved,” Carruthers concludes. She goes on to say that the myth itself “tells us more about the politics of those making the claim than about the motives of women who broke off relationships with men serving in Vietnam.”
In this academic but mostly readable book, Carruthers does a fine job digging out the origins of the term “Dear John letter” during World War II. She uses many primary sources—including veterans’ memoirs and oral histories—to delve into what has motivated women to write the letters, how the GIs who received them reacted, what contemporary journalists and mental-health professionals have had to say about them, and how the letters have been portrayed in pop music and Hollywood movies.
In addition to calling into question the purported outsized prevalence of Dear John letters in the Vietnam War, Carruthers devotes a fair amount of space to a close examination of those letters (and post-captivity marital breakups) among U.S. Vietnam War POWs and their spouses.
Carruthers, a history professor at the University of Warwick in England, says that her book “has less to say about why individual women wrote Dear John letters than about why other people had so much to say about the severance of romantic ties between men and women in wartime.” In doing so, she shows that women—not surprisingly—have borne the brunt of the blame for what many see as an almost traitorous act in every American war since World War II, including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
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