Thursday, 20 December 2012

Nam by Mark Baker, a review.

I bought Nam second hand when I was in Australia and had not got around to reading it until now. I would by no means call myself any sort of expert on the Vietnam War. I know a bit about it through my reading, but I know that there are a lot of people who read this who know far far more than I do. But yet, I am compelled to comment on this book. I finished up reading this book a couple of days ago, and after a few days of stewing about it, I was prompted to write about what I thought.

The book Nam by Mark Baker has been around for quite some time, published first in the 1980s this book is a collection of stories from people who were in Vietnam, soldiers, marines, nurses and others who told of their experiences through the conflict. Baker took the interviews and chronicled them together based on a series of titles, the start of the conflict, boot experiences etc, through to combat and finally coming back stateside.

The book is told from the first hand perspective of individual soldiers, and paints a pretty bad picture of them as a whole. The soldiers are portrayed through their words as being perpetually stoned, not giving a damn about their job, totally disbelieving about their purpose and totally immune to the horror of the lives that they take. Drugs are talked about at length, stupidity of senior officers (even from boot Lieutenants) is constantly talked about. Most of the book is following this track, it is almost horror writing. Americans (through their words) are seen as murderers, massacres are commonplace and sought after to perpetuate "kill-counts".

And that bothered me.

I have had the privilege of meeting servicemen, some of whom have served in different conflicts, including Vietnam. I know that I have a boyhood idealism when it comes to war, I grew up reading Kipling and the concept of the great adventure of war has stuck with me. Equally, I can comprehend the horror that was the Vietnam War through what I have read. Could I really understand what it was to go to war there? No, and I won't pretend I can.

But this book bothered me.

I am not so naive to believe that there weren't drugs in Vietnam. Equally, I know the war was not the heroic Americans saving the Vietnamese from the bad bad communists. But to portray every single character in a book as being that baby-killing stoner really bothered me. I can accept the fact that they existed. That war was frustrating militarily, fighting an enemy who refused to fight on equal terms, an enemy which held complete command of the local populace, who could melt into their surroundings.

How could you combat that? Collateral damage was tragically inevitable.

But I fail to believe that all of the soldiers who served in Vietnam were the stereotype presented in the book, and that is what bothers me. I know that the war was horrible. But perhaps I choose to believe that it did not destroy everyone like those who were portrayed in the book. I think there were heroes from that conflict, people who sought to help the Vietnamese, rather than simply racking up a kill-count.

And if I am wrong, so be it. Leave me to my delusions.

The saving grace of the book, was the concluding chapter. The plight of Veterans when they get home is something which the western world struggles with. We ask soldiers to do so much, but do we give them enough in return? I don't think so. I am sure statistics exist about suicides of servicemen, of them being incarcerated, of their inability to reform to civilian life. Is that so hard to understand? I think it isn't, they have gone through something unimaginable and unthinkable for society as a whole, broken rules which are socially taboo and have been kept isolated from society for the last however many years. And we expect them to reform right back in to line.

And that bothers me.

To all the veterans who read this, thank you for your service. I hope that you have found whatever form of peace which you need to be yourself. As for the book, well, I urge you to take it with a grain of salt. But there is a kernel of truth to the stories told, but I fail to believe that this was standard operating procedure for the conflict.

Please comment if you agree or disagree, correct me if I am wrong please.

Tonight, the painting challenge starts....



  1. It sounds like it suffers from being written too soon after the war ended with the consequent political baggage that that entails. Only focussing on the memories of those who were at the pointy end of the war also limits the perspective of it as a history of the conflict too.

    The only history of that war I have read was Vietnam: The Australian Experience by Paul Ham. It's a very well written book that focusses on the individual soldier's experience as well as the international and domestic political scene, which makes for a much more balanced account, by the sound of it.

    1. I think you are right- this was more of a political statement that echoed the feeling at the time.

      I have skimmed Ham's book, regrettably I have not had the chance to look through it properly. From your description I think I had better look for it to have a read.

  2. over 3 million americans served in the vietnam war in one way or another and nam by mark baker represents a very small percentage of those people.horrific as it is the stories in it are true but there were many other people serving who were just as mortified as we are today at the atrocities being perpatrated by thier commrades.look up the story of the mi lai massacre where a small amount of soilders from charlie company murdered women,children and farmers as the majority watched on in disbelief,thier own air support were even landing and rescuing the vietnamese from them. after the mission the perpatrators were all reported but little or no action was taken against was the same with the special forces "tiger team" who were formed to hunt down the viet cong they notoriously wiped out villages killed babies and collected the ears of their victims to wear round their necks yet there were no war crimes convictions resulting from the vietnam war,that ultimatly must lie with the american government,basically the book nam and the two above mentioned stories probaly involved less than 500 people a small minority out 3 million americans who proudly served their country to the best of their abilities in a war that was thrust upon them,was rejected by the american people and swept under the carpet by the powers that be.if you had a batch of 3 million eggs they'd be a few bad ones but the majority would be hearty and wholesome.

  3. I've just read the book and having been subject to the Vietnam era draft and just a bit too young to have had to go -- I had rather mixed feelings about Baker's effort.

    First, it suffers from the anonymity of all the subjects. Aside from the occasional female nurse and obvious black men, we don't always have a clear idea of the backgrounds of those testifying. We also aren't given a clear picture of the time frames involved. Some are from around '66 and some much later.

    Also, since Baker was an anti-war, non-participant, you have to wonder how representative his sample is. He was dependent on those ex-combatants who agreed to be interviewed. I wonder how many refused and who they were and if their accounts may have differed.

    Still parts of it were quite moving.

  4. Currently reading through it and although you could say that Baker has sited the worst or most extreme cases in his book to push his anti-war position, these stories a true and no amount of "good soliders" change that.

    The stark reality is men and women lost their humanity in that conflict, the natives were massacred and all for the political benefit of the government and the businesses ossociated with the arms manufacturers. The same sickening facist acts that have happened in all wars happened there and our own men and women took part in it.

    The Vietnamese were de-humanised which made it open season as far as the darker nature of humanity was concerned. The free fire zone story was deeply disturbing.

    I think everyone should regard this book their own personal journey through nam because it would be what you would have had to experience, all the other angles on the is conflict mean nothing when it's you in the red dirt.