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Book Review June 28, 2002
 
Books That Was in Nam
By John Dolan Browse author Email
 
Page 2 of 3
 
In strictly literary terms, this great lie was of some benefit, because there are few genres as rich as the war memoir. Virtually anyone who saw combat and has a decent memory can write a decent book about it -- and Vietnam, a war characterized by thousands of small skirmishes, was richer in incident and gore than an inner-city basketball tournament. When next you hear that rough voice asking, "War -- what is it good for?", you tell it: "First-person memoirs, that's what!"

Everything We Had
ed. by Al Santoli
Random House 1981

By 1981, the memoirs were coming fast. The first and in some ways still the best was Everything We Had, a collection of oral reminiscences by 33 vets who'd done everything from nursing the wounded to slitting throats with Bob Kerrey and his pals. I'd still recommend this book as a starter-kit for the prospective Nam fan, because the 33 voices offer something for virtually everyone. Parts of the book are very funny, as when Gayle, the cute li'l nurse, recalls her answer when asked if she'd serve on a ward for Vietnamese casualties: "And I said, 'No, I would probably kill them.' and she said, 'Well, maybe we won't transfer you there.'" And they say the Army has no heart!

By the early 80s, it was not just cool to've served in Nam; it was glorious. It was, in fact, the only sort of martial glory available (Grenada didn't quite carry the same "cachet," as they said in the Reagan era.) Every Vet still alive and compos mentis -- and some who weren't -- headed for that early-model KayPro or Northstar keyboard to turn his ranting into cash. They were a little confused at first, having been shunned and pitied as they dragged their way from halfway house to detox to medium-security institution...but slowly a canny ambition shouted down the voices babbling in their addled heads with the news that the war stories which had driven the wife and kids to move out with no forwarding address were now box-office boffo.

And damned if many of them, fingers trembling on the keyboard, one hand on the Jack Daniels or rolled-up twenty, didn't hunt-and-peck out some quite good books.

This high literary output was a delayed gift of the utter lack of strategy which doomed the American enterprise in Vietnam: a war which consisted largely of sending small contingents of infantry out into the jungle to find the enemy, usually by getting ambushed, is bound to be a military disaster -- but equally bound to produce an extraordinary number of fantastic combat tales. As Walter puts it in Big Lebowski: "Me and Charlie, eyeball to eyeball." Throw in the treachery of the South Vietnamese, the social and racial bombs going off non-stop back home, the feeling of abandonment, the music -- greatest soundtrack of any war ever -- and you had the elements of better stories than more intelligently-conducted wars could ever yield. (If there were any true aesthetes worthy of Oscar Wilde's mantle, they'd've agitated for the continuation of the war at all costs. Alas, dreary Utilitarian ethics have conquered us so thoroughly that not a single voice urged the continuation of the war as the greatest performance art of the century.)

I've read a dozen of these memoirs, and enjoyed almost all of them. They come in all flavors. There's the raunchy defeatism of F. N. G., which describes a "fuckin' new guy" entering an infantry squad after Tet, when the Americans had pretty much given up trying to win and were fighting a strange, highly mobile but essentially defensive war. Then there's Once A Warrior King, describing one very conservative Virginian's relatively straightforward war, working with a fiercely anti-VC village in the Delta. This is Greene's Quiet American told by the quiet A. himself, as it were -- and he tells a good story. It's the food I remember best, in that one: the long descriptions of roasted rat with fish-sauce. That's one of the delights of war and prison memoirs: you can count, in these solidly grounded stories, on some excellent descriptions of meals good and bad. (The POW memoir, combining the genres, often yields the most mouth-watering descriptions of all; if you want a book full of the delight of eating, read Brendan Behan's one good book, Borstal Boy.)

Chickenhawk
by Robert Mason
Penguin 1983


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