THE KILLING ZONE: My Life in the Vietnam War by Frederick Downs

THE KILLING ZONE: My Life in the Vietnam War

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We have become accustomed to a chronicle of individual transformation by fear and fatigue--and futility--in the jungles of Vietnam. But in Downs' case, the picture gets confused. He arrived in Vietnam on September 8, 1967, as an enlistee and graduate of the Army's OCS, and, beginning his story on that day, he tells us about his excited expectations of war. But we learn nothing about his life before except that he was 23, married with two children, and from the farming country of southern Indiana; we never know why he enlisted. He speaks often of his fears, but they center on his ability as an officer rather than on his safety. His first encounter with death--viewing a dead guerrilla--makes little impression on him. He informs us that his unit eschews the more common racial epithet ""gook"" in favor of ""dink,"" and he applies the term to Vietnamese throughout. The few references to the meaninglessness of war are short on meaning: describing the wailing of several women--one of whom ""was good-looking for a Vietnamese""--when GIs looking for weapons dug up a Vietnamese grave, he remarks, ""I thought afterwards that we were all becoming pretty callous to life. The thought was a small one and soon left me."" Downs had then been in combat for less than two months. He describes an endless series of skirmishes and killings. He shoots a dog for target practice; a common event. His platoon kills six women, children, and older men carrying ammunition for the enemy; they fire into a village wounding a young girl; prisoners are brutalized. Downs feels little about any of it. He chose to remain in Vietnam when he could have left (following his fourth wound) because his men, he believes, ""needed"" him to ""keep them alive."" By the time he gets to the details of being blown apart by a land mine a bare four months after his arrival, they are lost in a stream of blood. Downs' assertion that he ""grew"" in Vietnam is a mystery; like all of his ""small thoughts,"" it never rises above clichÉ.

Pub Date: Oct. 23rd, 1978
Publisher: Norton