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Book Review June 28, 2002
 
Books That Was in Nam
By John Dolan Browse author Email
 
Page 3 of 3
 

The best of all these might be Chickenhawk, the story of a helicopter pilot who was, as Martin Sheen says of "Chef" in Apocalypse Now, "...wound up a little too tight for Vietnam." Robert Mason, the pilot-narrator, takes the reader in and out of so many LZs, hot, cold and medium, that you develop a veteran's wince everytime his slick starts descending toward the purple smoke.

One of the many delights of Mason's book is that it describes the battles for the Ia Drang -- the same campaign glamorized in We Were Soldiers Once...and Young, the book Gibson filmed. The campaign, which is depicted as a noble, though doomed, strike for freedom in We Were Soldiers.... doesn't come off so well in Mason's memoir. In fact, he and his fellow pilots seem to have done something the generals in charge of the operation didn't do: read the books about earlier French campaigns against the Viet Minh in that same valley. Mason and his drunken buddies end up predicting the failure of the campaign while their superiors are still sending home the sort of communiques which did so much to cement the American Army's reputation for...er, "emphasizing the positive," let's say.

We Were Soldiers Once...And Young
by Lt. Gen. Harold G. Moore (ret.) and Joseph L. Galloway
Harper Perennial 1992

But Mason's topper, his most brilliant passage, comes at the very end, in the epilogue summarizing his messed-up return to civilian life. Here's the superb two-paragraph conclusion, describing his next move after the early drafts of his Nam memoir had been rejected and he'd failed in everything he tried since getting back to The World:

"What did the desperate man do? I can tell you that I was arrested in January, 1981, charged with smuggling marijuana into the country. In August 1981, I was found guilty of possession and sentence to five years at a minimum-security prison. I am currently free as of February 1983, appealing the conviction.

No one is more shocked than I."

Just roll that last sentence over on your tongue. "No one is more shocked than I." Now there is a meal. Even the fussily correct grammar, that annoying "...than I" rather than the colloquial "than me" or "...than I am"; so perfectly droll, such a change from the Nam dialogue in which every other word is "fuckin'". And the grand historical irony, that the junked helicopter jock should become desperate enough to sell his one skill to the only people who wanted it, the drug dealers, designated New Enemy of the Reaganites. And the timing! Mason's manuscript got four rejections in the years leading up to 1981, when the memoirs started appearing. A little later, and he'd've been cool. But that would have been disastrous. To go to prison for piloting a helicopter full of drugs, albeit unworthy boring drugs like marijuana, even as that great war-dodging hypocrite Reagan shoved his leathery grin in front of the flag -- ah, It's a fate better than death.

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