As it does every few years, or as often as we need to try to grapple again with our unresolved national conflicts on the subject, the Vietnam War has become a hot topic and big business, both in the film and fiction worlds.
The release of the latest Mel Gibson film, “We Were Soldiers“ has prompted the paperback release of Colonel Harold Moore‘s autobiographical tale of the same name about the first major battle in Vietnam. And an excellent and moving novel, “An American Sin,“ unique in that it is written from the perspective of an Asian American who needed to prove he was American by fighting in Vietnam, was published in late 2001 to critical acclaim.
Each has a candor, eye for detail, and a poignancy not often found in books about war, and if there is a common theme between them, it is that in war, more than perhaps any other theater of life, the issues of right and wrong are great, usually fairly obvious, and long-lasting.
An American Sin: A Novel About an Asian American and Vietnam by Frederic Su
Su is an ex-Marine from the Vietnam era who has been published in magazines, newspapers, and websites, and has written his first novel with “An American Sin.“ It is a well-crafted story with memorable characters and a great deal of suspense, as he demonstrates in the opening pages of the book, where he plunges the reader into the heart of midnight combat:
“The night air carried with it the scent of danger in Wong‘s mind. It hung like fruit, redolent with the implied carnage that could come. Whenever he thought he heard something, he would grip his M-16 tighter to him, wrapping his right hand tightly around the stock. But it was always innocent night sounds such as the wind rustling the trees and brush or some animal snorting about. In the distance, every once in a while, he heard the sharp yapping of the village dogs. He strained to see down the path, using only the starlight, for the moon had long since set...He could not see his comrades, nor could he hear them. It was like an ethereal dream, and he was the only one in it. The hours passed...He closed his tired eyes. He let his ears play sentry. The world awoke with a huge explosion. Sarge‘s claymore had been tripped. Then the sound and sight of AK-47s and M-16s filled the night air. Then more explosions, grenades thrown by Sarge, then by Smitty and Gonzales. Screams rang out. And yelling, Vietnamese and American...Black shadows raced toward them. Wong let loose...More screams. Wolchak was firing again. Then, both their magazines spent, reaching for more, they suddenly heard only silence. Their ears rang. Slowly, the moans of the wounded filtered through. The smell of cordite hung heavily in the air. Their hearts raced madly. Their eyes held the bloodlust. The silence reigned for what seemed like hours... But Wong, coming down from the adrenalin rush, was shaking now. It finally hit him. This was no longer a game. It was a life where death was a way of living. It was reality more real than he had ever imagined or experienced. He looked at his hands and willed them to stop shaking.“
Su‘s protagonist, Wong, is no stranger to either racism or violence, and from growing up with prejudice in Nevada to the sin of murder he commits in Vietnam - the knifing death of an old Mama-san and her granddaughter while on long-range patrol - he is a haunted man, one whose demons lurk deep within his own beating heart.
Healing will come in the form of a psychiatrist, and two women, one Chinese and one Caucasian, but they have journeys of their own to explore as they attempt to help Wong. By the time the major characters converge at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, honor, duty, and sacrifice take on new meaning and dare the reader to be unmoved.
We Were Soldiers Once... and Young: Ia Drang--The Battle That Changed the War in Vietnam by Harold G. Moore and Joseph L. Galloway
In November 1965, some 450 men of the 1st Battalion, 7th cavalry, under the command of Lt. Col. Hal Moore, were dropped into a small clearing in the la Drang Valley and immediately surrounded by 2,000 North Vietnamese soldiers. Just a few days later and only two and a half miles away, a sister battalion was brutally assaulted. The two combined events made for the first most significant battle of Vietnam, and the price was high, as Moore writes:
“The small bloody hole in the ground that was Captain Bob Edwards‘s Charlie Company command post was crowded with men...Captain Edwards had a bullet hole in his left shoulder and armpit, and was slumped in a contorted sitting position, unable to move and losing blood. He was holding his radio handset to his ear with his one good arm. A North Vietnamese machine gunner atop a huge termite hill no more than thirty feet away had them all in his sights...The furious assault by more than five hundred North Vietnamese regulars had slammed directly into two of Captain Edwards‘s platoons, a thin line of fifty Cavalry troopers who were all that stood between the enemy and my battalion command post, situated in a clump of trees in Landing Zone X-Ray, la Drang Valley, in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam, early on November 15, 1965.
America had drifted slowly but inexorably into war in this far-off place. Until now the dying, on our side at least, had been by ones and twos during the “adviser era“ just ended, then by fours and fives as the U.S. Marines took the field earlier this year. Now the dying had begun in earnest, in wholesale lots, here in this eerie forested valley beneath the 2,401-foot-high crest of the Chu Pong massif, which wandered ten miles back into Cambodia.“
The amazing story of Moore and his men is told first-hand by the commander and the only journalist on the ground through the fighting. It is a tale of leadership, dedication, and a sort of courage most of us will never have to exhibit. It never glorifies war, and doesn‘t shy away from the grim realities of its destructive powers. There‘s also a respect for the strength of the enemy, as was the case in Mark Bowden‘s “Black Hawk Down,“ that one has to admire. And much like that film, by all means go see this one on the big screen, but indulge yourself in the book for the perspective of the men who lived to tell about it.