Novelist and short-story writer Barnes (English/College of Southern Nevada; Minimal Damage: Stories of Veterans, 2007, etc.) offers a moving memoir of his time at war in Vietnam.
As a young man in 1963, the author was adrift, doing OK in college but without real purpose, emerging from a troubled childhood that left him confused and insecure. A letter from his Draft Board and subsequent enlistment in the Army quickly changed all that. He became, perhaps much to his own surprise, a member of the elite Green Berets, and soon enough found himself in Vietnam. Stationed at Tra Bong, a remote Army outpost surrounded on three sides by forested mountains, Barnes’ life was at first boring and routine, and he captures expertly the humdrum nature of war: beer and bad coffee, rats and diarrhea, darts and cards, heat and insects, dumb officers and flawed but brave comrades. Then, on a routine patrol gone wrong, four of his own and a large number of Vietnamese and Montagnard tribesmen were killed. As he lifted a buddy’s decomposed body off the ground, both a hatred for the enemy and the stupidity of the war emerged. He began his own patrols and learned he could do what few Americans in his outfit could: aptly climb the treacherous mountains and survive in the unforgiving jungle as well as the natives. He learned to trust the jungle, and despite the heat and leeches and danger that seemed omnipresent, he felt more alive than he had before or since. Nearly 50 years later, Barnes writes that “Vietnam is the only thing in my life that isn’t fiction.” In the grand scheme of things, not much happened at Tra Bong; “the life of a trooper out here meant little, except to those who were out here.” But with sharp and unsentimental prose, Barnes makes it matter a great deal.
A war remembrance of beauty and unadorned brutality.