A focused Vietnam War–era history of the “wives and families…left behind for war.”
The Boys of ’67, the author’s intimate history of an infantry company in Vietnam, was well-received when it was published in 2012, and it became the basis for the National Geographic special Brothers in War. Here, Wiest (History/Univ. of Southern Mississippi; Vietnam: A View from the Front Lines, 2013, etc.) revisits the material, adding interviews and covering similar ground, this time from the perspectives of the soldiers’ wives and families. The result is a moving work as stirring as its predecessor. The format jumps back and forth among two dozen wives across seven chapters; the recollections begin with their childhoods and continue through their present lives. The 1966 draft took men, married or not, soon after they reached 18. Men in college were exempt, so the resulting Army was not a cross-section of the population, and readers will be unnerved at the impoverished backgrounds of so many. A private’s pay gave many their first taste of financial security. Women married younger in those days, and many couples were courting when the draft notice arrived. Consequently, there were hasty marriages, and a surprising number of men left for Vietnam with their wives pregnant or with small children. The women had a miserable time. Often fresh out of high school, they struggled alone but with remarkable success to make a home, earn a living, and care for an infant, always aware that their husbands were in mortal danger. Normal life sometimes resumed after their service, but more often than not, the men were emotionally damaged, withdrawn, or abusive. Some marriages recovered, but others didn’t, and it’s quite possible that the author has omitted the worst cases.
A painful yet impressive account of the effects of war on the families left behind.