Last week I covered one of two companion books on the Vietnam War—this week is the male counterpart. I have Thoughts.
The Journal of Patrick Seamus Flaherty, United States Marine Corp, Khe Sanh, Vietnam, 1968, Ellen Emerson White, 2002.
Last week’s Dear America novel, Where Have All The Flowers Gone?is a pretty straight-up diary-style exploration of what it’s like to be a teenager in America in 1968 and having a brother fighting in Vietnam. This one, by necessity, is much more tightly focused and includes boatloads more detail on the war experience. Now, I complain a lot about novels where I feel an author of the same racial background or experience would have brought a better understanding to the book (see Barry Denenberg’s book in the same series on the Japanese interment, or the backlash against Ann Rinaldi’s Dear America book on residential schools compared with the great interest about Ruby Slipperjack’s upcoming Dear Canada novel on residential schools)—but I don’t always feel the same way about men writing about girls or women on boys. Some can be great! Some can be mediocre at best. Does that mean that Ellen Emerson White did a bad job of writing a novel about an eighteen-year-old man?
No, it doesn’t. It’s a good book. It’s an interesting book and the fact that both novels were written by the same author lends it a nice air of similar tone that I think helps the story along. I think the major flaw in it, which is that it doesn’t totally read like something an 18-year-old would write, is more the result of White’s intended audience (boys aged 12-15 or so) not being ready for something written with the verisimilitude of an actual Marine. And that’s my main gripe, but if I’m willing to put that aside, which I am, it’s great. Because really, I’m reading this as a YA novel—if I wanted to read Chickenhawk I would do it, you know?
Patrick’s book takes place over the same period of time that Molly’s does—it starts on Christmas 1967, but while Molly is hanging around at home missing Patrick, Patrick is at Khe Sanh writing about how he’s made an enormous mistake with his life. One of the sadder things about this book is the air of misery and regret that pervades it, which does tend to jibe with the other stuff I’ve read on the war. Anyway, Patrick’s father, a WWII vet, has given him a little journal and asked him to actually write in it, which Patrick thinks is a total joke of an idea. Patrick is lonely, he thinks Vietnam stinks (literally, the stench of the air base is Not Great), and he realizes that he promised his dad he would write his journal like Molly would read it, which means that since “Marines mostly only use one word—and it’s really obscene,” he’s going to have a hard time being realistic. They process him in and ship him out to Dong Ha the next morning, issue him his M-16, and is assigned to one of the hills at Khe Sanh. Where immediately upon arriving, he gets into a fistfight with some other Marine. Excellent.
Mostly what Patrick ends up doing is kind of the classic “hours of boredom punctuated by minutes of extreme terror” (that phrase beloved by soldiers and pilots everywhere), along with the other three guys on his fire team—Hollywood, a “really good-looking blond guy who seems to have about five different girlfriends,” the Professor, who’s “older than everyone else—I think he might be twenty,” (oh my God), and Bebop, “this lean black guy from Detroit, who thinks he’s really smooth.” He and Bebop get into it right away, mostly because Patrick seems to have a plethora of stupid nicknames rather than the cool one he craves (they keep calling him “Mick,” “Boston,” and so on), and Bebop is irritated at having to share his bunny hole.
There’s a commendable amount of detail in this book—about the food, about the weapons, about the specifics of the fighting—and Patrick spends a fair amount of time complaining about the lack of resupplies and the totally disgusting state of his feet. Patrick also gets saddled with the nickname “Mighty Mouse” after stupidly using his catchphrase, and complains about that for a while, and also how much he wishes he had dated this girl he knew in high school, and why nobody has written to him yet when Professor has girls sending him bikini photos.
After a couple of weeks, Patrick gets a whackload of letters (twenty-three!) in one shot, from his family and all kinds of neighbours. He passes them around for the other guys to read, especially the ones who didn’t get any mail. There’s also a brief sidenote on helmet graffiti, which is a particularly interesting bit of ephemera—what soldiers wrote on their helmets to decorate them, like the famous photo of the baby-faced kid with “War Is Hell” on his helmet. Anyway, Patrick draws a little Mighty Mouse doodle, and notes that one of the other guys “had ‘FTC’ written on the front of his, which he said meant ‘Fun, Travel, and Comrades.’” [Note: It does not—as far as I can ascertain, it’s a slang way of writing “fuck the suck,” i.e., “fuck this shit,” which is probably a pretty popular sentiment among soldiers living in literal dirt holes.]
The first time he uses his weapon is on a cobra, of all things, which scares the crap out of him. But a new guy turns up, whom they nickname Pugsley, and Patrick goes into a quite good amount of detail about the geography surrounding their camp. But then, horribly, Hollywood is killed in a horrible mine accident—when he’s digging an addition to the trench line, he hits an old mine, and it blows his legs off right to the hips. Hollywood asks Patrick a couple times if he’s hurt, and if he’s going to be okay, but he dies almost before the medic can even get there. And then Patrick spends the rest of the day filling sandbags with Bebop. They don’t know what to do. But they both get sent down to the main base to get some stitches, and after not even a month in-country Patrick is frustrated and disillusioned with the way no one seems to understand what they’re actually even doing out there.
The whole team gets sent out near the end of the month to engage, and are attacked by group of NVA in a field. They retreat (whatever, “withdraw,”) but Rotgut, their radio operator, is hit in the face with some shrapnel. They regroup and head back to try flanking the NVA, and while they’re just sitting there waiting for artillery to finish their fire mission, Patrick thinks “if I didn’t make it out of this, my niece and nephew were so little that they probably wouldn’t even remember me. I’d just be poor Uncle Patrick, who died in Vietnam.” Harsh. But true. By the time the mission wraps up, they’ve lost six out of their own squad and forty total. Patrick and Bebop don’t even know what to talk about so they talk about home—Bebop thinks his girlfriend is cheating on him, and Patrick talks about how his parents really didn’t like that his older sister got married and started popping out kids right away. It’s a long few days of attack, and they know they’re being targeted, but there’s not too much they can actually do about it since they’ve done what they can with the bunkers already. And when a medevac chopper arrives to take out some of the casualties, it’s hit by a mortar attack and crashes outside the perimeter. In the space of an hour they lose another twenty people.
At Tet, the crazy thing is that they don’t really notice anything different—they’re already being attacked constantly, so what’s the difference? They keep digging in further and further and alerting the lower base if they’re about to be the victims of a rocket attack, and watching the B-52 strikes. “Those bombs land miles away, and the force I still strong enough to bounce us right up off the ground here on the hill. The first time I saw one, the explosions were so massive and bright that I honestly thought President Johnson had lost his mind and decided to use nuclear weapons….I’m glad I’m not NVA; it must be completely terrifying to be on the receiving end of all those air strikes. The truth is, anyone who can fight through that without falling apart is someone whose hand I want to shake. A guy like that is damned tough.” They do lose one of theirs—Mooch, a seventeen-year-old kid who is married, and while he’s lying there waiting for the medevac he asks Patrick to write to his wife for him, and tell her to find someone else and move on. Then he dies. Patrick writes “I don’t want to make any more friends.”
The supply choppers keep dropping their stuff outside the perimeter and they have to blow it up to avoid anything falling into enemy hands—meaning that they have to watch their food and water and letters from home getting blown to smithereens, just on the other side of the fence. By March (and Molly’s birthday), Patrick depresses himself thinking about the great birthday party they’ll be having at home, and he writes Audrey—that girl he thinks is so cool—a letter for lack of anything better to do. A couple weeks after that he gets nailed in the back of the leg with a piece of shrapnel and sent back to medical to get it extracted, and not long after he’s back on the hill he gets a letter back from Audrey, which combined with “C ration stew night,” makes him feel somewhat better. He reflects on how screwed-up it is that he feels like it isn’t that bad of a place to be with his buddies.
Now, in Molly’s book, all they know is that Khe Sanh is under siege and Patrick is in mortal danger. In Patrick’s book, they dick around in between taking fire, and they watch an Army battalion take the north hill and complain that they aren’t involved. But this ends the siege, and Patrick and the rest of his buds are lifted to Quang Tri, a “really safe base” in the rear, after four solid months in the worst of it. Bebop befriends one of the Marine saxophonists and treats them all to a swing rendition of the Marines’ Hymn, so Patrick finally gets to hear what “bebop” is. Only nineteen out of 200 guys from the original company made it back—everyone else being killed or wounded—and Patrick and the rest are actually told to not entrench themselves so as not to screw up their nice tents.
The next entry is at the surgical hospital, after Patrick is one of the wounded in a rocket attack—and badly. Sucking chest wound, his entire left leg mangled, the whole nine yards. “Oh, God, it hurts. It hurts a lot. Where’s that son-of-a-bitch with the morphine?” He doesn’t even realize that the guy in the bed next to him, covered in bandages and missing both legs and blinded—is the Professor, who he just spent four solid months with in a disgusting foxhole. Bebop was killed.
“Why anyone, but why Bebop? Why not me, instead? I wish it had been me. I’m going home. The best friend I’ve ever had isn’t. What else is there to say?”
Rating: A-/B+. Well, this is actually a pretty difficult book to read. My complaints are fairly minor—Patrick’s voice is pretty similar to Molly’s, White skips over the rampant cursing and sexual themes (though I definitely understand why, since this book is targeted at young teens, and I don’t think parents and teachers are keen on teaching fourteen-year-old boys even more creative ways to curse), and it’s a little on the short side. But White definitely does not shy away from the brutality of war and the sheer number of casualties and injuries incurred. The general confusion surrounding, you know, every single aspect of the war is also not glossed over lightly. I might point out that I don’t know how likely it would be for an eighteen-year-old Marine to reflect on how strong and resilient the NVA soldiers were, but it’s a nice way of introducing a little bit of empathy into an otherwise pretty harsh narrative. All in all, it’s really well done.
While I like to complain about the My Name Is America books for being uninteresting, vapid, and not at all entertaining, this one is a cut above the rest. While similar to the Dear America counterpart in being a bit more adult than the rest of the series, it’s a good book even if it’s not totally in sync with the rest of them. Now my biggest complaint is how many of the MNIA series are focused on battles and wars when there’s a few hundred years of American history to cover and boys were actually present for all of it, not just the war part, but this one is a nice example of a well-done entry in the genre.