Themes from Fortunate Son by Lewis B. Puller Jr.

Intro

I love Marines. They are America’s Spartan warriors. They are always ready to do battle. They are closet idealists and pessimists.

Marines have an intense feeling of identity. They have almost a mystical connection of belonging to an elite fighting force of almost invincible warriors.

Some of this attitude comes from their brutal and efficient training. Another part of that comes from their deep confidence and pride in their mission and leaders.

There is no better friend, and no worse enemy than a U.S. Marine.

Lewis “Chesty” Puller, Sr.

No Marine has commanded more respect and admiration than General Lewis “Chesty” Puller. His bulldog face, his barrel chest, gruff voice and common touch made him the epitome of a Marine combat officer.

His long, distinguished career made him a legend. He was the most decorated Marine in history. He was a descendant of Robert E. Lee and a cousin to George S. Patton.

In a forty year career he rose from buck private to general. He fought in five wars. On five separate occasions he was awarded the Navy Cross- a military honor second only to the Medal of Honor.

Chesty Puller was a Marine’s Marine. The men under his command idolized him. He is a legend in the Marine Corps the way babe Ruth exemplifies baseball or the way Yeats stands for the melancholy Irish.

It would be hard to be his only son.

Lewis B. Puller, Jr.

Lewis B. Puller Jr, was a sensitive and intelligent man. He is a gripping writer who tells you about his tragic ordeal after Vietnam in his autobiography “Fortunate Son.”

Puller’s story is a difficult book to read because of the subject matter, but it is wonderful at the prose level. It tells a harsh and forbidding story that made me think about the larger themes of his book.

Puller’s story sounded so much to me like my own story- only bigger, more intense and much more tragic.

His book is an autobiography, a record of the life of a wounded Marine. His writing is haunting, devastating and his story lingers with you long after his book and life have ended.

His book explores his suffering. His telling of that suffering is sincere and brutal. He makes you have sympathy for him. His redeeming quality is his optimism and absolute refusal to give up.

Puller’s thoughtfulness and undiminished patriotism and his heroic battle against injury, alcohol and depression provide a genuinely moving human drama.

He wanted to reclaim his life despite losing half of his body on a booby trap in Vietnam. He endured years of surgery and rehabilitation, alcoholism and a feeling that he had let himself and his father down.

Puller’s book had the blood-red glare of anger and bitterness. But his story had hope, the glow of morning sunlight of a promising new day. His chronicle was moving and powerful.

Puller writes with simplicity and candor, with touches of spontaneous humor. His outcry of agony and isolation is harrowing. It leaves the reader overwhelmed with wonder at the torture a human being can absorb this side of madness.

Puller makes you bear witness to his pain, rage and bitterness. Puller had come so far, only to end his own life in the end. His death baffled and disappointed me.

I wanted to explore some themes from the book.

Father and Son Relationships

Puller’s relationship with his father Chesty dominates his life. Chesty was a loving father. Chesty was nearly fifty years old when Puller was born.

Puller wants to make his father proud. He writes about the unspoken assumptions of responsibility of being Chesty’s only son and heir to his father’s heroic legacy. Almost every decision he makes in his early life is in reaction to his father’s legacy.

Chesty was proud when his only son went off to Vietnam as a Marine Infantry Officer. Puller returned three months later as one of the most grievously wounded men of the Vietnam War.

Human Life

Puller’s greatest contribution to literature is the exploration of the value of human life. Puller constantly wonders how he will continue to “live” and “to function” and most importantly “to contribute and serve” even after the loss of both legs and most of his hands.

Even after a horrific trauma Puller still wants to serve and help his fellow man. His physical loss did not diminish the value of his life to society.

Puller made a conscience choice to do a lot with his life after Vietnam: 1. He became a lawyer. 2. He helped to organize and build the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. 3. He ran for public office. 4. He served on clemency board that helped thousands of fugitive draft dodgers return to the U.S. from Canada- his feelings on this issue is one of the best parts of the book.

Puller’s story provided hope and a long overdue appreciation for Vietnam veterans. His story inspired thousands of wounded veterans from his war in Vietnam to veterans of the wars in Iraq and Vietnam.

Puller had the courage to go on after a savage wound where he lost half his body. He was grief-stricken and angry about the loss of his legs and hands but he did something heroic by choosing to live.

I think Puller displayed the same steely courage of his father in the face of adversity.

Sacrifice

There is a Greek ideal of “kleos”- the glory that comes from a warrior performing a heroic deed, often at the cost of his own life. Marines embody the ideal of “kleos”-self-service and sacrifice.

Pullers felt he made an honorable sacrifice for an unworthy cause. He felt cheated that his great sacrifice was never appreciated and written off by indifferent public as meaningless.

For years after his physical “recovery” strangers, friends, and acquaintances were “put off” and “uncomfortable” by looking at Puller’s mangled body. This was a constant reminder to Puller how people felt about him and Vietnam.

This is truly a soldier’s greatest fear- for your sacrifice to be unappreciated and forgotten. A soldier can and will endure any hardship as long as he thinks the cause is worth it.

This was the real reason for Puller’s pain. Puller felt he had been tricked into throwing his life away for an uncaring country.

Puller’s second pain was emotional. He was the “fortunate son” of a legendary hero. Puller admired and deeply loved his father. For Puller there was no other path than to become a Marine.

His wounds cut his military career short. Puller feels he let himself and his father down. His sense of disappointment and sorrow of what might have been haunts the book.

Puller’s grisly physical and traumatic emotional injuries were almost too large to be overcome in a single lifetime. In the end, Puller commits suicide. By that act he became another casualty of the Vietnam War.

Hope

Puller’s book gave me hope. His struggled to find a new point of view which supports his “new” life and the sacrifices he made inspired me. Puller taught me to live beyond my injuries and my past.

Ironically, Puller’s closest he gets to peace is when he recovering from another bout of alcoholism. While in Alcoholics Anonymous he sees that life is paradoxical. To be happy human beings must often learn to live with two contrasting viewpoints, to make a compromise of what we feel and what we think.

Writing

Puller is a wonderful writer. His personal voice is engaging and honest. It was a privilege to get inside the mind of such an intelligent, sensitive and caring man. He makes it easy to read about tough subjects (death, trauma and depression).

His prose clear, accurate and most important honest. Puller never shies away from telling us about his life, the reasoning behind his actions, even the parts he is not proud of. His unflinching honesty gives the book authenticity and credibility.

Puller’s Impact

I know what it is like to be the son of a powerful and legendary man. My father was a decorated war hero. My relationship with my father and his early death has dominated my life, the same way it did Puller.

Nearly every decision I made in my life, either consciously or subconsciously, was a reaction to my father’s legacy. Like many dutiful sons, I only wanted to make my father proud, the same as Puller.

I was blessed. As I got older I realized there was no one was keeping score. All the decisions I made in my life, were mine and mine alone. My father loved me and was proud of me, he told me so many times.

I know that my father would have been proud of me no matter what I did with my life. I think he would have been most proud that I try to be a good husband and provider for my family.

He would have been very proud that I became a writer because it made me happy. He would have adored my wife Muna.

Lewis B. Puller Jr.’s book taught me the value of a human life. That no matter what has happened to us we choose what our lives become by the choices we make. Our lives are the sum of the decisions we make.

I prayed for Puller after reading his amazing book. His story gave me a balm for my pain and some much needed closure.

Thank you, Mr. Puller and God bless you. Your service and sacrifice inspired me to write more and to try harder. I hope you finally found the peace that eluded you in life.