Book review: Soldiers Once by Catherine Whitney

Published on Wed, Nov 4, 2009 by Margot Griffiths

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When Catherine Whitney’s brother died alone in a shabby apartment in Texas, she hadn’t seen him in 16 years. Alienated from his eight siblings, Jim Schuler was just another Vietnam vet, dead before his time. Except he wasn’t just another vet. None of them were. They were all unique, all courageous in their own way, and the family that lost touch with their daring, rebellious brother Jim, sought to finally know him even as they were burying him.

In the face of opposition from siblings who felt Jim should be allowed rest in peace, Whitney has written her brother’s story – Soldiers Once, My Brother and the Lost Dreams of America’s Veterans. Yes, she breaks the privacy and anonymity Jim Schuler sought during the last years of his life, but she also exposes the injustices of the American military system; a system that Whitney believes failed those who deserved to be honored as heroes. After coming home to a country that often disdained them and could never compensate them, war vets found the emotional toll of war went on forever.

In writing this book, Whitney strove to make her own reparations, expressing an affirmation of Jim that she couldn’t seem to do while he lived. She has deftly woven the threads of one man’s tragedy into the universal tapestry of war’s grim legacy. Stark facts and horrendous statistics about Vietnam are blended with a portrait of Jim Schuler ­­– a young man searching for some sort of glory in a war that no one wanted and no one could win.

Whitney argues an open and shut case against dealing with the “complexities of other cultures” by destroying them. In her estimation, the fight for freedom and democracy that the U.S. champions, has overridden the upholding of justice. Now, the current conflict in the Middle East renews an old question. Is this a just war? Any attempt to answer that would be facile but to reflect on it, without absolutes, might be one of the smaller benefits of war. That, and the peace movement, born out of the outrage and heartbreak of Vietnam. Catherine Whitney was a part of this movement, and back in the 1960s, she blocked traffic on Seattle’s I-5 along with thousands of other war protestors.

Her advocacy of peace was seen by her brother as direct opposition to his sacrifice for his country. Perhaps, in part, this informs the author’s yearning to set the record straight. In exploring her brother’s story, Whitney comes to terms with her own culpability. In her own words, “I failed him ... I hardened my heart.”  Her mind was closed to his problem drinking and post traumatic stress. When he rolled up his pant leg to reveal the vicious scar of an old war wound, she said, “That’s terrible. But, come on, Jim. It’s been 15 years.”

Such self-revelation takes its own brand of courage.

Catherine Whitney is a native of Seattle, Washington.