The Chicago Humanities Festival asked me months ago if I had any ideas for the current festival, whose theme is “Peace and War: Facing Human Conflict,” and I suggested putting historian Joseph Ellis on a panel that would try to explain what about valor in combat is so important to some that if they can’t claim it honestly they’ll lie.

That’s what Ellis did, letting it be known to his students at Mount Holyoke College not only that he’d served gallantly in Vietnam but also that he’d been a leader in the antiwar and civil rights movements. Other panelists would have been easy to find. Wes Cooley, for instance, a former Oregon congressman who told voters he’d fought with the special forces in the Korean war when he hadn’t left the States. Sadly, former Illinois circuit judge Michael O’Brien died last year in a one-car accident. Before he was unmasked in the mid-90s, O’Brien had not one but two Medals of Honor engraved with his name, and he’d printed up an official-looking pamphlet that told the fictitious tale of how his heroics at sea earned him his nation’s highest award for valor in combat.

As there is no such panel, I’m free to amend my proposal. Instead of panelists who’d echo Ellis, I’d now recommend ones who’d confront him, and I have two names to propose. One is Peter Pouncey, who like Ellis didn’t let what he didn’t know about war stop him. Unlike Ellis, he invented a novel instead of a resume.

Rules for Old Men Waiting was published last year when Pouncey was 67, and some critics compared it to Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It, both being short first novels by lifelong academics about flinty old Scotsmen looking back. But A River Runs Through It is essentially a memoir of Maclean’s youth. Rules for Old Men Waiting is a tale of three wars, and Pouncey, who’s president emeritus of Amherst College, fought in none of them. Aside from some schoolboy drilling he was never in uniform.

The protagonist of Pouncey’s book is a scholar, MacIver, who is dying over a winter in the dilapidated country house he’d shared with his late wife. He decides to organize his own last days and thoughts by writing a story. Pouncey made MacIver a historian of the First World War who’d fought in the Second and whose son was a casualty of Vietnam. The story MacIver writes as he dies is set in the trenches of Flanders.

A book jacket and publicity material that were oddly vague about Pouncey’s background inspired me to play a hunch. I called him. Sure enough, he said forthrightly, he’d never served and had no regrets. “Not a second,” he said. “I’m sure I would have got myself shot.” Why war then? I asked.

MacIver “is deeply concerned with his own anger,” Pouncey said. “That comes out most vividly in a warlike context, though MacIver also shows it in sports.” Pouncey wanted to delve into “that sense of the in-the-gut capacity for rage which is essential in the classical understanding of the epic hero. Presumably war proceeds from those impulses.”

Pouncey is a classicist whose previous book was on Thucydides. He told me the alternative to the “warrior epic ideology” was expressed by Andromache when she said of Hector, her husband, who was slain by Achilles, “Why could you not have died close to me holding your arms out to me in bed and telling me some private thing?” MacIver’s wife died in such a way, but MacIver, with no wife to reach out to, dies with his head as full of battle as Hector’s. Pouncey said he had no idea he’d touched something fundamental until the grateful letters from old men began to arrive. “I would answer men’s concerns about their anger and violence and how it fits. I don’t think you ever answer those satisfactorily. But I thought it important to lay it out that those are the strains of thought that discomfort a man close to death.”

The other panelist would be a New York therapist named Edward Tick. I came across Tick in 1983, when I noted in a Reader cover story that a type of essay had begun to appear in which people who’d avoided fighting in Vietnam lamented–without exactly regretting the choice they made–the missed opportunity to learn or prove something or other about themselves in Vietnam. “War, if it exists, is a required course, and a course with a final examination,” Tick confessed in a piece in the New York Times Magazine. “I was, I came to feel, among those men of my generation who had never been tested.” A “veteran of jungle combat” who came to Tick for help made him feel “weak, inadequate, physically smaller, although we were the same size.”

Edward Tick with a guide last month in Vietnam, presenting a new home to an elderly woman whose hut was destroyed in the recent typhoon

LAST MONTH I found Edward Tick in Vietnam. He’s made those veterans he felt diminished by his life’s work, and at the moment he was leading a group there to seek “healing and reconciliation.” In a recent book War and the Soul: Healing Our Nation’s Veterans From Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder he’d observed, “We rush to engage in war, to report its triumphs and losses, and to celebrate it in our histories, yet we fail to discern our idealization of it. We continue to believe that war is divinely sanctioned.” Tick and his vets know better.

“It turns out that it is a damned good thing I wasn’t with them during the war,” Tick wrote in an exchange of e-mails, “because I probably would have been too damaged from that experience to serve them as I have as a healer since the war.” He wrote me about an infantryman in his group who’d survived hand-to-hand combat in Tay Ninh province and after the battle helped toss 300 enemy corpses into a pit. “He has felt decades of remorse for profaning the dead. He has wanted to find that mass grave and return the remains to the Vietnamese people and make peace with the dead.” That’s what the vet had done. After the remains were dug up and reburied in a cemetery, he waded fully clothed into a lake to rebaptize himself. Then he climbed a mountain. Buddhist monks prayed for him and other “wandering souls.”

Ellis has said he invented a history in Vietnam to “salve” his guilt at letting others do the fighting and dying there. I asked Tick what he made of him. “You know he isn’t the only one,” Tick replied. “One of the more vocal and celebrated Vietnam nurses has just been exposed in that community as a made-up life.” Tick also told me about a patient getting VA benefits and treatment for posttraumatic stress disorder who’d made everything up. This guy “wanted to be counted as one who served, one who was hurt, and become one who was supported by the system.”

Tick then generalized. “There is so much hero worship of veterans,” he wrote, “so much ignorance and denial of their true suffering, so much mythology that says that the only real men are the ones who were in uniform and in combat, that many men succumb to the mystique and feel something crucial missing in them if they did not serve.” Even among veterans there’s a pecking order, he told me. “They all hero-worship those in the most severe combat while denigrating their own service as less worthy. It is as if the only real men were those who faced death directly.” In fact, “those who faced death immediately and directly are the most distraught and disordered.”

But as Pouncey reminded me, there’s an English expression, “I had a bloody good war,” and that’s probably the war noncombatants pine for, a war that sends a soldier back into the world sound of mind and body, conscience clear and all tests passed. The war itself wasn’t necessarily good–though of course that helps. But the war experience was good, and in later life modesty becomes it. I’m guessing that when visitors remarked on the Medals of Honor Judge O’Brien liked to display in his chambers, he said he was just in the right place at the right time.

A GOOD QUESTION for Ellis would have been whether he was trying to impress others or himself. For how much does being a so-called war hero in America really mean to anyone who isn’t? In how many diners does it earn you a free cup of coffee? We call our soldiers “heroes” and honor them in beer commercials where civilians applaud returning GIs in uniform as they pass humbly through airports. But it’s implicit in those commercials that they’ve had a good war–that, in fact, the nation is having a good war. When that pretty idea turns sour things don’t go as well for the veterans.

Vets who run for office often discover that a military record is like a Senate record–so full of shadows and compromises it’s an albatross. When Georgia ran off Max Cleland, war hero, in 2002, Ann Coulter mocked him for getting blown up by his own grenade (it wasn’t). Two years ago some Americans happily believed anything they heard about John Kerry and his Swift boats, while others insisted George W. Bush should be despised for skipping reserve meetings–as if any reservist with half an excuse doesn’t skip meetings–rather than respected for learning to fly jet planes. And if Bob Kerrey, Medal of Honor winner, still held any ambitions for national office, those disappeared in 2001 with the New York Times account of a slaughter of peasants in the village of Thanh Phong in 1969 by a raiding party he led.

In 1992 America hooted at James Bond Stockdale, a Medal of Honor winner and former university president, when he seemed disoriented during the vice presidential debate. As Ross Perot’s running mate, Stockdale was marginalized to begin with, but if he’d been a contender his own memoir would have destroyed him politically. In Love and War he explained why he couldn’t afford to let his captors break him in the Hanoi Hilton (he attempted suicide to keep from talking): they mustn’t discover his secret. Having been in the air on patrol on August 4, 1964, he knew that the supposed enemy attack on the destroyers Maddox and Turner Joy that night was a fiction–thanks to freakish weather conditions, the destroyers had fired at an enemy that wasn’t there. That “attack” led to the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, the legal justification for nine years of war.

In the 13 months before Stockdale was shot down and captured, why hadn’t he told anyone? Yes, he was debriefed after he landed that night, so President Johnson knew the truth. But the people didn’t. I corresponded a little with Stockdale because I’d been a sailor on his carrier, and he wrote me long after the war, “Suppose somebody said to me (which they have never done) ‘If you were loyal to your country you would have sacrificed their position of leadership, bowed out of the scrap and become an (ineffectual I’m sure) protestor.’ Well, what about loyalty to my pilots…? ‘Loyalty’ is not served by saying ‘I quit–you’re on your own, gang.'”

I’m guessing here, but my guess is that some impostors pretend to have fought battles to appear not simply brave but also substantial. Perhaps they want others to see them as they want to see themselves–as morally complex, subtle, up to life’s hardest choices. They may be wasting their energy: the public seems much less impressed by the lessons of battle than by the bellicosity of arrogant noncombatants. Colin Powell, who knew war, gave his name to a doctrine preaching caution above all and overwhelming force when force is necessary. But when the Bush administration proposed invading Iraq, the public showed no more regard for the secretary of state’s reservations than those around him in government did, and eventually Powell fell into line. Ellis, Pouncey, and Tick could wrap up their panel on the seductive power of the idea of war by trying to explain to us why it is that when war is in the air, the wise old warrior becomes last year’s man.