Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Boys of '67: Charlie Company's War in Vietnam, by Andrew Wiest

Osprey Publishing, 2012
376 pp

(ARC from the publisher -- Thank you!!!)

I have been forever fascinated  with the Vietnam War -- most especially with the politics and behind-the-scene machinations behind America's involvement, but also with the growth and outright explosion of US opposition to the war, and the aftermath, as the soldiers came home, or did not.  But what really gets to me are the compelling stories of the people who were actually there.  The Boys of '67 briefly but powerfully examines the lives of a group of men from Charlie Company in the US Army's 9th Infantry Division -- from the time they received their greetings from Uncle Sam through their individual returns home and beyond.  It is a fine addition to the already-existing collection of personal histories of the war, focusing largely on the special bonds forged between these former strangers throughout their year in Vietnam.

The book is the result of  author interviews with several surviving members of Charlie Company, as well as their families and the families of some of those who went to Vietnam and never returned.   Wiest begins with the men themselves, talking about the lives they led prior to their time in the army, so that by the time these boys go off to boot camp, the reader is already somewhat familiar with them as real people.  Basic training at Fort Riley brought these men from different backgrounds together, and they were kept together by a decision  made by the powers that be.  Rather than taking the normal route, where the men went through basic training and then specialized advanced individual training (AIT) and afterwards were sent off to different units, the officers in charge realized that in keeping these men together, 
"They would know the men intimately—understanding their strengths, weaknesses, and foibles. Not only would the experience weld those men into a cohesive group of soldiers but also it would form a strong bond between the units’ officers, non-commissioned officers, and the ranks, forging a common brotherhood of war unique in the Vietnam era."
Arriving in Vietnam, the men of Charlie Company went on to prove command's assumptions to be correct.  They became a first-class fighting force, proving their mettle when caught up in horrifying and often surreal situations in the Mekong jungles, and they also became a very tight-knit group of friends bordering on family. They also showed concern for the welfare of the locals, especially the children.  But during their missions, documented by the author,, the inevitable casualties began to take their toll on the group. In the field, they would lose friends; as time went by and  the situation got worse, they would begin to question why they were even there.  As one soldier wrote to his parents, 
"My radioman died of the head wound he got on the 29th of July (he was shot by a sniper as I stood about 18 inches from him), another friend of mine lost one leg below the knee to a booby trap, and one of my men, who his from Minneapolis, lost an eye.  Every time one of our men gets hurt or killed I wonder a little more whether or not this country is worth it. Being in the infantry is the best way to become a pacifist.  I suppose that if I were not so close, so personally involved in the war, I would have no doubts about it all; but from where I stand the view is a little different. Men I have lived with for a year and a quarter are not easy to lose. It is difficult to keep working when a friend dies. I've been on the line since 18 January, and I've seen enough..."
As more men died, replacements would be rotated in, but as the author notes, it was tough for these new guys to fit in well with Charlie Company.  Emotionally, the boys of '67 couldn't take getting close to them because of the losses they'd already suffered, and they found that they couldn't talk about losing their friends to relative strangers.

As the men began to return home, they discovered that the America they left wasn't the same America to which they were returning.  They were shocked and stymied by the protestors at the airports and adjusting to life after what they'd been through in Vietnam was proving more difficult than they realized.  One man wrote to his wife while recuperating from wounds in Japan that she should "see all the scars I am going to have," referring to the ones from the battlefield and subsequent operations, but as it turns out, their experiences left scars on the soldiers' psyches as well. While the men went through their own postwar hells, the wives and girls left behind also suffered as their men dealt with their post-traumatic stress, unable to put into words exactly what they were feeling.  As some of the remaining Company members began to make contact with others, they realized that their experiences could only be understood and shared with each other because they were there and knew what they had all gone through.

The personal accounts of these men or their surviving families  -- the letters, the interviews, etc., -- are what make this book.  The author presents these people not only as the fine soldiers they were, but also as human beings who suffered from serious psychological trauma both in Vietnam and afterwards. While highly personal, there is also insight into just what types of situations these men faced there via several accounts of the battles they fought, complete with tactical maps that give the reader a harrowing visual perspective on what these soldiers faced during their missions.

The Boys of '67 is emotionally powerful and if you're at all interested in the Vietnam war and its personal aftermath  from the points of view of the soldiers who were there, this would be a great reading choice.  Definitely recommended.

-- I purchased a regular copy of this book for my library;  if you would like this ARC, and you live in the US, I'll be happy to pass this one along and I'll pay postage.  Just be the first to leave a comment that you'd like the book.