My daughter Charlotte sent me three war books at the same time, soon after my daughter Anne Marie had given me the Navy Seal book "No Easy Day." The three books deal separately with Europe during WWII (where I fought), Vietnam, and Afghanistan. I spent time skimming them collaterally before reading them sequentially.
By the time I finished, I was bored with battle. I found myself comparing the experience with listening to an album of operatic arias. They all begin to sound alike, not at all as enjoyable as when shuffled with other albums.
If You Survive (WW II)
by George Wilson
The Killing Zone (Vietnam)
by Frederick Downs
Outlaw Platoon (Afghanistan)
by Sean Parnell with John R. Bruning
First impressions: Generation after generation, ground combat is the same. Stated simplistically," If you've been in one firefight, you've been in them all." Corollary: "Combat is like sex: It cannot be experienced vicariously." Weapons change, the enemy is different, and geography varies, but decisions must always be based on "the situation and the terrain" and life or injury or death is as much dependent on luck as on skill. It is impossible for one who has experienced combat to read these books without comparing the descriptions of firefights with one's own. I have been moderately successful in switching mental/emotional gears and re-reading some chapters with a detached "civilian" mindset.
The generational gap emerges in trivial and serious matters. Trivial: Skimming "Survive" I found not one use of the f-word, although I remember it being there once or twice. In "Killing," it appeared in all its derivatives, including mf, in I think every chapter. The writer of "Platoon" preferred the 'ing" form. Serious: In Europe, during WWII, few of us hated the Germans. Admittedly, and with reason at the time, in the Pacific theater the "Japs" were seen as barbarians. Both the Vietnam and Afghanistan books demonstrate hate for the enemy.
Much has been spoken and written about the reluctance of most combat veterans to discus their experiences. I was uneasy, for example, including "where I fought," above, but it was necessary to provide credibility for what I am writing here. What possesses a man, therefore, to write a book? Memories of fallen comrades? A sermon for peace? Straightforward braggadocio? Whatever the reason, I tend to resent those who dramatize battle in their books. I complained to my daughters about the 'novelization" of battle. Perhaps such works are the equivalent of unrealistic reality television.
One reviewer of "Platoon" wrote, "At times, I forgot I was reading about a war and was drawn up in the drama . . . " In truth, that was the easiest book to read with a civilian mindset. One clue: The excessive use of reconstructed conversations. Some pages in the Afghanistan book read like the script for a play, full of short quotations. In contrast, "Survive" is written journalistically. Then there are those effusive description of one's feelings -- also reconstructed, because there couldn't have been time to recognize those feelings during the actual combat.
- "We had barely started our foxholes when, to my disgust, the enemy artillery plastered our gully, one terrible shell after another. I immediately stood and flattened myself against the thick trunk of a big beech tree and yelled at the men to get up and find trees. A few of them had time, but many were hit before they could move." -- WWII
- "Hesitantly, they turned and crept back to their foxhole. I lay along the side, talking to them until they finally calmed down. The screaming had stopped, which helped settle their nerves. After a few minutes I felt I could leave them, but I explained that I had to check the other positions, and that I would be back. All of the men were nervous, undone by the sudden terrible screaming. After speaking to all the men, I retuned to my foxhole to find Mann quietly crying in the bottom, huddled up in a ball. 'Mann, Mann, what's the matter?' I whispered as I crouched on the edge of the foxhole." -- Vietnam
- Excerpt from page 49 (quotation marks are the author's):
"Looks like we're at the gates of Mordor out there," I said, half to myself.
"Why's it always a (f-ing) Lord of the Rings thing with you, sir," Sabatke growled.
Greeson chortled at that. "Better than that Harry Potter (crap) you're always trying to get us to read, sir."
I ignored them both, though I was going to say that the cloud-borne shadows moving cross the trees looked like Dementors. But I figured if I did say it out loud, I'd get teased mercilessly, and I couldn't make it too easy on my NCOs.
Instead, I said, "It's too quiet. Here's what we're going to do: Sergeant Greeson, you stay here while I take some of our dismounts forward and set up an ambush on one of the slopes overlooking the road."
"Roger that, sir," Greeson said. -- Afghanistan
"Platoon" was co-written. I suspect that the excessive and unrealistic dialogue was written by Parnell's co-writer.
Wilson's largely journalistic approach in "If You Survive" doesn't let writing style get in the way of reality. At the other end, Parnell's "Outlaw Platoon" reads well as a novel, but leaves a bad taste which isn't overcome at the end of the book with reading the names of others who served with the writer and may have been wounded or killed.
Downs's emotionalism in "The Killing Zone" is easier to understand and accept primarily because of the ill-treatment Vietnam vets received. His Preface establishes the context.
"In the fall of 1968, as I stopped at a traffic light on my walk to class across the campus of the University of Denver, a man stepped up to me and said, 'Hi."
"Without waiting for my reply to his greeting, he pointed to the hook sticking out of my left sleeve "Get that in Vietnam?'
"I said, 'Yeah, up near Tam Ky in I Corps.'
"'Serves you right.'
"As the man walked away, I stood rooted, too confused with hurt, shame, and anger to react.
"Ten years have passed. The hurt, shame, and anger still flood over me with the memory. But of one thing I am certain -- none of the men I knew who served in Vietnam deserved to die or to be maimed, either physically or mentally.
"I think it is necessary now to give another view of Vietnam, that of the day-to-day life of an infantryman on the ground.
"I have always been asked what I thought about Vietnam, but never what it was like to fight in Vietnam.
"This is the way it was for us, the platoon of Delta One-six"
Back I go to another volume of Agatha Christie.
Frank Versagi is the editor of Versagi Voice.