Unsung Hero, by Harvey Pekar

Unsung Hero

My question is how is Unsung Hero a Harvey Pekar book?

Unsung Hero is the Vietnam War memoir of Lance Corporal Robert L. McNeill, told entirely in the first person by McNeill, illustrated in graphic novel—i.e., comic book—style.

I gather from other reading that McNeill was a co-worker of Pekar’s at the Veterans Administration hospital in Cleveland, and that McNeill told his story to Pekar, but that is never stated. (Though almost all the illustrations are of the story McNeill is telling—mostly scenes in Vietnam—maybe 5% of them show the present McNeill in the foreground talking, and a minority of those have another figure sitting near him which presumably is Pekar, though it doesn’t look much like him.)

A Harvey Pekar book is generally about Pekar. Even insofar as there are other topics, they are addressed through his experience with them. So you’d expect here that we’d see Harvey getting to know McNeill, offering his assessments along the way of McNeill and his story, going off on the occasional—or not so occasional—tangent into other mundane aspects of his life, working in plenty of homespun Pekar philosophy and humor along the way, etc., but in Unsung Hero there is precisely zero of any of that. This is a hundred percent O’Neill’s story, told by O’Neill in his own voice. Pekar has no “dialogue,” not even the occasional question like we might see in a Studs Terkel oral history book.

Nor can you say that Pekar’s contribution was the drawings, because he never does the drawings in his books. In Unsung Hero, the art is by David Collier.

So what did Pekar do? Presumably he functioned as the editor. McNeill told him his story, either in writing or into a tape recorder, I’m guessing the latter, and then Pekar helped craft it into its final form.

Even if what McNeill gave him was extremely raw and had to be altered so much that Pekar’s role was more that of a writer than just an editor, it’s still stretching it to call him the author. Almost all the time I would think that someone who contributed what Pekar did to this project would either not be mentioned at all (a “ghostwriter”) or at most would be given some sort of secondary billing such as “by Robert McNeill as told to Harvey Pekar,” or “by Robert McNeill with Harvey Pekar.”

I have to think that the reason Pekar instead is billed as the author of this book is purely the commercial one that people have heard of Pekar and not McNeill, and so are more likely to buy a book they’re told is by Pekar rather than by McNeill.

So, Unsung Hero is not, except in the loosest sense, a Harvey Pekar book. Thus it can’t really be judged as a good or bad Pekar book. It should instead be assessed on its own merits, as if Pekar’s name didn’t even appear on the cover, which is how I’ll assess it from here on in.

It’s a very short book. It’s not just that it is written in comic book style; it’s pretty much the length of a comic book, just with a book cover attached to it. I read it in less than an hour.

Substantively, I think it’s quite good. It is one man’s experience in Vietnam, told in a straightforward, matter-of-fact way.

McNeill joined the Marines at age 17 (which requires parental approval) and was sent to Vietnam at age 18. That’s a reminder that wars tend to be fought by children and by people barely older than children.

While in some respects the young McNeill seems like an intelligent, capable person who can think for himself, even so when you’re thrust into highly unusual, and in this case dangerous, circumstances, and you’re that young, it’s to be expected that much of the time you’ll be acting from instinct and impulse, or conforming to whatever those around you are doing. There’s very much that sense with McNeill, that often he is being bounced around by forces out of his control and he is just trying to survive. There’s plenty you can find fault with in his decision making as irresponsible or just not that bright, but when you remind yourself that this is a teenager in traumatic circumstances rather than a grown man in familiar circumstances with the luxury of contemplating each decision, then his behavior becomes a lot more understandable.

He is a pretty heavy drug user in Vietnam, gets with hookers at every opportunity (and contracts venereal disease as a result), and blows off many of his assignments (e.g., patrolling only a small portion of the area he is assigned to and pretending to have done it all), but in all of that, one gathers, he was just going along with common practice.

The amount of racial tension he recalls is interesting. An African American himself, it sounds like he socialized almost exclusively with other African American soldiers. He and his fellows were influenced by, if not part of, the Black Power movement, which made the powers-that-be quite nervous, resulting in periodic crackdowns within the military such as banning certain handshakes.

He notes that the Vietnamese used propaganda specifically targeted at African American soldiers, telling them this was not their fight, that they were being tricked into a war of nonwhite versus nonwhite to benefit the whites, which he admits had some degree of effectiveness because it had considerable truth to it.

McNeill received a medal for heroism for his actions when his position was attacked by Viet Cong one night. What really happened—as he tells it—was much different from how his citation reads. It’s not so much that the whole thing was phony—arguably he did indeed behave heroically as such things are defined militarily, though again he pretty much was just acting automatically, basically shooting like mad in a highly stressful situation where he had no time to think—but the details were a lot messier. Even his being where he was when the attack came was as a result of disobeying orders, trying to get out of something he didn’t want to do.

McNeill probably deserves more praise for things a soldier wouldn’t conventionally be praised for than he does for his conduct that won him a medal. But it’s all a part of the irony, ambiguity, and complexity of war.

I respect McNeill for his honesty. Not everything he tells puts him in the best light by a long shot, but his attitude seems to be, “I’m just going to lay it out the way it happened, the way I remember it, and people can think what they want to think about me.”

Certainly I empathize with him, given the life-threatening danger and trauma he and his comrades were forced to deal with. Then again, when I read accounts of the horrors of war as experienced by Americans, I think about how the soldiers (and for that matter often the civilians) of the opposition have it far, far worse. The percentage of American soldiers who failed to survive their year or however long in Vietnam without being killed or maimed is dwarfed by the percentage of Vietnamese who were slaughtered by the Americans and their allies, as has been true in America’s wars since then.

Bottom line, if you want an oral history sort of account of the life of a grunt in Vietnam, Unsung Hero tells it like it is.

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