14 July 2010


The tapestry of life is interwoven with experiences that are joyful, puzzling, challenging, painful. To understand the whole, it is necessary to understand its components, even the unpleasant ones. This is why I try to learn all I can about relationships, politics, the environment, human and natural history, cosmology, the arts, racism. And war.

As a Vietnam veteran, my interest in how we wage war (and why) comes naturally. But one does not have to be a veteran to realize how important wars, past and present, are to humans. War is one of the signal events which define our lives -- as individuals and as a species.

My library includes a fair number of books on World War II, Vietnam, and Iraq/Afghanistan. Some are fiction, some are memoirs, but all draw upon the authors' particular experiences during their time in country. All offer a different window onto that paradoxical landscape where long periods of boredom are interrupted by moments of chaos and terror. Every individual's experience is different -- the memories of an infantryman differ from those of a fighter pilot, an artillery gunner, a medic, a SEAL, a radio operator, a rear-echelon clerk, or a LURP . There are over two million stories from Vietnam alone, and that doesn't include the stories of families and loved ones left at home. It also doesn't include the stories of North and South Vietnamese soldiers and civilians.

In recent weeks I finished three exceptional books about war. In the order in which I read them, they are:

Matterhorn, a novel by Karl Marlantes. 598 pages. The story centers on Marine lieutenant Waino Mellas, who is in charge of a rifle platoon near the DMZ in South Vietnam. Historically the Marine Corps has had to do more with less, being the last to receive new weapons, transport and survival gear. Just so in Marlantes' narrative. Heat, filth, illness, torturous patrols through mountainous jungle, monsoon rains, and the seeming capricious whims of superior officers coalesce to complicate their primary mission -- to seek out and destroy NVA infiltrators, while trying to survive attacks from those same NVA. Personalities mesh and clash as the 1960s politics of race, class and ambition find a microcosm in the platoon. Of all the Marine stories from this era, this may be the best.

Crossing the Rubicon, a novel by Patrick Wageman. 741 pages. A very different Vietnam story, in both setting and tone. The reader follows a helicopter crew chief through his entire year's deployment with the 1st Air Cavalry Division. The pace is less relentless, with attention paid to character development and the inner thoughts of Robert Quint as he gradually gains both experience and perspective during his missions -- which include airborne assaults (transport of troops to a designated area of insertion), log runs (resupply and replacement of troops), and ferrying choppers between bases for repair or reassignment. A crew chief is an enlisted man who not only performs preventive maintenance on his bird, but also acts as one of two door gunners during missions. Quint's responsibilities are formidable, yet the story does not bog down in mechanical detail. I found myself settling into the narrative with ease, almost as though I were one of the crew.

Note: I've known Pat Wageman since 1970, when we met in Houston. We've been good friends over the years. He devoted much of that time to the writing and polishing of his novel. The finished product was well worth the blood, sweat and tears, Slick.

War, a memoir by Sebastian Junger. Fast-forward to the present. The author of The Perfect Storm is a journalist with a flair for language and the indelible image. Junger spent portions of fifteen months embedded with an Army infantry platoon based at Korengal, possibly the most remote and forboding outpost in eastern Afghanistan. The landscape is dry, rocky and vertical. Advanced weapons and support technology such as reconnaissance drones and satellite communications are nearly negated by terrain, and by the ingenious adaptability of Taliban insurgents. As was true during the American Revolution, and again during the Vietnam War, a guerrilla force enjoys unique advantages against a larger, more cumbersome invading force. Evasion, ambush, and the ability to blend into the local population create an elusive and formidable enemy. For me, the most striking aspect of Junger's book is the insight which he provides into the emotional and psychological affects of war on the human psyche, both during combat and afterward. Junger researched his subject well. He describes in vivid detail behavior among US troops which would be bizarre, even barbaric under any other circumstances. But he also explains how that behavior evolved, giving us an understanding which has been lacking for many years. On the individual level, war is not fought over ideology or resources. Politics and patriotism take a distant second seat to the intense bonding among one's warrior brothers -- a bond so strong that what civilians may regard as heroism is, for the troops, simply doing whatever it takes to keep fellow soldiers safe, even at the risk of one's own life. Anything less is regarded as cowardice. Along with John del Vecchio's For the Sake of All Living Things, Junger's book is a vivid and penetrating glimpse into the mentality of the warrior.

A footnote: on this day in 1789 French Revolutionaries stormed the Bastille, the Parisian fortress and prison which represented the oppression of the monarchy. The fall of the Bastille marked the true outbreak of the French Revolution, and the occasion is still celebrated as a public holiday. Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite !


  1. I just got done with my uncle Pat Wageman's book. My mom and grandma would rib him for as long as I could remember, usually at Holiday dinners, about if he was ever going to finish it. Well, I and my uncle Kenny are the last two vets alive in the family to be able to enjoy his recently finished novel.
    Thanks for advertising it for him, I know this book has been the marquis piece of his life's work, and I'm sure he appreciates it. I, too, found myself revelling in reading the day-to-day activities of Quint.
    Fair Winds, Pat O'Dell, USN Vet, Desert Storm

  2. Thanks for posting this, Pat. I very much appreciate your thoughts. And thank you for your service. Welcome home !