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Page 17
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By rg cantalupo (reviewer)

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by Bruce Hanson
(self-published, 2019)

Over the years, I have read many Vietnam memoirs or creative non-fiction novels written by some of the best authors of our time: Michael Herr's Dispatches, Philip Caputo's A Rumor of War, Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carry, John Ketwig's ...and a hard rain fell, W.D. Ehrhart's Passing Time. Whether personal memoirs, creative nonfiction, fiction, personal essays, or some other genre, these books have in common the veracity and truth that they were written by someone who participated in or witnessed being in the war. For me, that is essential.

Because the Vietnam War narrative has been so often co-opted by the US Government, historians, propagandists, war hawks, and others to sell a story about how we could've "won," or how brave we were, or how we were naïve and didn't know any better, these stories gravitate toward a narrative "where boy meets Vietnam, Vietnam is ugly, it stinks, the people he came to save don't like him, and he goes home disillusioned, etc. etc." The true horror of war is often expressed in the context of a large battle: Khe San, Tet, etc., and not about the reality (for most of us) of surviving firefight by firefight, day by day until our tour was up, and we could go back to "The World" where we would face our PTSD and drug addiction, or alcoholism alone, and with little hope.

Nam, using the slang name combat veterans often use when referring to the Vietnam War, with front and back covers framed with photos of gritty combat veterans, is none of that. It is not sympathetic to VVAW members who came back angry and ashamed and were the vanguard of the anti-war movement. Those of us who burned our uniforms and threw our medals back at military installations were motivated by the anger we felt about what the military did in our name. (And, when I hear someone use "Nam" to refer to our Vietnam experience, I want to scream because I feel that using our combat-adopted slang in titles should be reserved for real combat veterans)

This is a harsh and perhaps unwarranted criticism. However, it's the result of our "true" narrative being co-opted and twisted by so many authors and governmental voices since the war (to make it less horrific and acceptable than it was.) And, unfortunately, this Nam is seemingly written by another armchair warrior who apparently "heard" stories by veterans about the war. It's an "unbelievable" novel about imagined characters—college students who enlisted to go to war or were drafted, not the heartbreaking reality of what it was like to be 18 or 19 between 1967 and 1971.

So many details make it a false narrative, and I don't know where to begin. First, all combatants wore jungle boots, not black leather boots from circa 1966. Combat soldiers didn't eat in "mess halls" or live in "barracks" unless they were on R&R, at Ton Son Khut Airbase, or some large base camp far from the war. And no three-day passes were given after a few months in the field. Not in the 25th Infantry Division anyway, and not given to anyone I knew.

Granted, most of Hanson's Vietnam is in the Mekong Delta, an area I was unfamiliar with. But the many conversations between the soldiers didn't ring true for me. When you read a book like Dispatches or The Things They Carry, there's a sense of urgency and a nervous hypersensitivity about the danger around you. The fear of getting wasted is pervasive and ominous. At any moment, a firefight may consume you. Nam (the Nam I knew) was a brutal, grave place where, at any moment, you might die or be wounded by a sniper, a mortar, a rocket, an RPG, or some other nefarious weapon. We lived in bunkers, not barracks, when we were back in a firebase. And we were only in the firebase for a week before we went out in the bush for three weeks or more at a time, on search and destroy patrols or on some larger mission among companies or battalions.

The other thing about the novel that bothers me is that it is not really about Nam. About two-thirds of the novel is about protests and being a college student in the late sixties. There are some good descriptions of the Democratic Convention in 1968 and the various protest marches and how most young people felt during that time—albeit from the upper-middle class, not from the "draftee class"—and a fair telling of the differences between young people and their parents and the generational gap about the war.

Again, none of these are very enlightening or "radical." It's what we all know and experienced. True, sad, deeply concerning, but not revelatory. Simply a retelling of our history and experiences. Conversations debating the rightness or wrongness of the American War in Vietnam, but nothing new, just a retelling of the conversations we all remember.

Hanson seems to want to give us a cross section of the time, with characters of different ethnicities and class or social strata. But he forgot that the war was fought mainly by the young men from the lower strata of society, young people who enlisted because they didn't have many economic or social opportunities or merely got drafted. And the lack of choices made a lot of us desperate, crazy, and scared. Hanson's narrative doesn't portray or describe that desperation.

On the first page, we learn that Tom, one of the main protagonists, is trying to figure out where to go to college: "For Tom, the choice of a college was pretty easy." I can't say that was where my head was at in 1968. My best friend Wayne was drafted four months before me and was already in Vietnam by the time I got drafted. I was married and in college full-time, but my 2-S deferment didn't get processed till I was already humping up and down Highway 1. Such was the demand for recruits after Tet, 1968.

Reading Nam sparked all my negative feelings about how the war has often been portrayed. At 75, I feel many of the same feelings I did when I read W. D. Ehrhart's What We Can and Can't Afford; we're too old, and there are too few of us to change much. Narratives about us and our war are generally false and perpetuate more lies or justifications to invoke military interventions. We should've learned, but we didn't, and it's so much easier to justify our actions—past and present—with ignorance.

rg cantalupo (Ross Canton) was an RTO (Radio Operator) for an infantry company in the 25th Infantry Division, 1968-69. He was awarded three Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star with a Combat V for Valor for courage under fire.

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