When Steve Maharidge returned from war in the Pacific in 1946, he seemed a different man — "quiet and dark, often intoxicated. Steve pretty much remained drunk for the next four years," writes his son, Pulitzer-winning journalist Dale Maharidge, in this harrowing chronicle of combat's aftermath. Following Steve's death, Dale began his 12-year quest to understand the roots of his father's drinking and rage, pursuing the surviving members of L Company, his dad's Marine unit, and ultimately connecting with 29 men who fought with him on Guam and Okinawa.
Like many in L Company, Steve enlisted as a teenager — street-tough, battered by the Depression, but utterly unprepared for the violence, cruelty and physical injuries he would sustain. Like his comrades, he also remained silent for most of his life about experiences that ran counter to a sentimental vision of "the Good War": the execution of prisoners, rape, civilians incinerated in cave hideouts, children murdered, gold teeth extracted from corpses. "There are no nice wars," one veteran acknowledges, as the testimony of his buddies confirms.
"Them landings," recalls one Marine. "I hear them artilleries. That haunts me." Another: "The smell — of death, the wounded, the guts, the blood. … There was thirteen of us still standing out of the whole platoon."
The book is haunted by the spirits of the dead and the unforgiven, a rendering of World War II not as national triumph, but as personal catastrophe for the men who fought it and their families. For Steve and many others, the lingering effects of PTSD and traumatic brain injury produce problems they can neither articulate nor understand. The author poignantly evokes the reservoirs of anxiety and violence underlying the seemingly placid postwar life of his blue-collar family, where "steel dust mists through the house" to finally reside in "our marrow" much like the repressed horrors of the war. The subtext, sometimes made explicit, is the plight of today's soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Steve's experience "was repeated at an untold number of houses all over America, from battles in all wars, from then on forward: Okinawa. Inchon. Dak To. Tora Bora. All were veritable factories churning out" concussive brain injuries and PTSD.
"Mulligan" is that rare thing: a book propelled into being by heartfelt urgency and prodigious skill, a mission truly accomplished — and just in time. One veteran confided that he had filled a shoebox with cassette tapes he secretly made while driving, addressing a stuffed doll in the next seat about the war. "But I was really talking to my children. … It's all in there. The box is now in the closet. When I die, they can listen to them."
Thanks to Dale Maharidge's brave book, we can, too.
Fred Setterberg is the author of "Lunch Bucket Paradise: A True-Life Novel."