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....