Reviewed by: Saul David Author: Andrew Wiest Publisher: Osprey Price (RRP): £20
The genesis of this excellent book was unusual. Andrew Wiest, a professor at the University of Southern Mississippi, had invited a Vietnam veteran called John Young to speak to his students. When Young collapsed during the video introduction to the class, Wiest knew he had to tell his story. “What could have happened so long ago – what events were so terribly powerful,” he asks, “that they could reach across the decades and pull the man with the piercing eyes back into their awful embrace?”
This book is Andrew Wiest’s answer. For three years he conducted interviews with more than 60 veterans of Young’s unit, Charlie Company of the 4/47th Infantry (part of the 9th Division that was first deployed in the Mekong Delta in 1967). Their testimony, and the personal papers of other veterans, has enabled Wiest to compile the most complete account yet written of a company-sized unit in Vietnam. It does not make easy reading.
What made the 9th Division unique was that it was raised from scratch in 1966 and therefore contained, at least at the outset, men from all walks of life who had joined up, trained and been deployed together. Charlie Company was typical of this close-knit atmosphere. But for all their effectiveness in battle, these highly motivated soldiers found it hard to deal with the loss of comrades.
One such individual was Don Petersen, a 20-year-old house painter from California, whose wife had found out she was pregnant on the day he received his draft notice. Petersen was killed in a Vietcong ambush as he tried to give the rest of his squad covering fire, and some of his friends never forgave themselves for not getting to him while he was still alive. It even caused one to wonder if “this crappy, smelly country of Vietnam was worth such a price”.
As more members of the company were killed, maimed or posted to other units, the survivors became increasingly disillusioned. “As each mission goes on I become more and more disenchanted with this war and its aims,” wrote one. The final straw was when the handful of originals were greeted by jeering anti-war crowds on their return to the USA in 1968.
Many sought refuge from the horrors they had witnessed in alcohol or drugs; others suffered violent mood swings. All were classic signs of men suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, and the most heart-rending chapters deal with attempts to readjust to civilian life. They have been helped by regular reunions of Charlie Company, as have the families of those killed. Peterson’s son went to the first reunion in 1989, and realised from talking to veterans that his father “had been loved” and was “still loved”. He finally had a father “to look up to,” writes Wiest.
Vietnam has been the subject of countless books: this is one of the best. Exhaustively researched and expertly written, it allows us a glimpse of the intense bonds of comradeship forged by soldiers in the white heat of combat.
Saul David is the author of All the King’s Men: The British Soldier from the Restoration to Waterloo (Viking, 2012)