Newcomer Campbell, a Marine veteran of 29 years and several tours in Vietnam, joins company with Robert Olen Butler by stepping into the shoes of North Vietnamese soldiersin this harrowing tale of a porter caravan on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Campbell begins with a prologue describing the events that led up to that world-famous footage of a fatigueclad Vietnamese officer executing an apparently innocent man in plaid shirt and black shorts in the middle of the street. The executed man, Campbell tells us, was Loc, a far-from-innocent Vietcong officer who'd just killed and mutilated over 40 civilians in an effort to draw supporters during the Tet Offensive. Under Loc's command that day was Duan, a veteran Vietminh and Vietcong cadre who, surviving the brutal Tet day in Saigon, here leads a porter platoon of 60 teenagers, and more than a ton of equipment, on foot down the torturous 650-mile trail network known as the Old Man's Trail. Duan, who never agreed to join the party and despises speeches and sloganeering, puts smarts and survival before politics on the trail. He rigorously trains his platoon, teaching them to melt into the mud and the jungle in order to avoid the ever-present US planes. Despite this training, the trail claims 25 of the boys through disease, raging rivers, snakes, and snares. The convoy's several months of movement are recounted nearly day by day in Campbell's flat, detailed prose. Although the novel sometimes reads like a nonfiction account just a few words removed from military double-talk, Campbell successfully evokes life under duress, producing an emotional tale that has us rooting for the boys to survive each new hardship the jungle heaves at them. If not great literature, an accurate and moving account of a terrible human sacrifice.
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