In his memoir, Estes revisits his time in Vietnam and attempts to convey the brutality of war and its effect on young men.
As an 18-year-old with a pregnant girlfriend and few options, Estes decided to enlist in the Marines after high school. The year was 1968, but he says, “When joining I didn’t really think much about Vietnam.” Despite his naïveté, he then had to contend with a ferocious drill sergeant, the impending doom of battles in a country he knew nothing about and his longing for home. He befriended P.J., a crass jokester who claimed to be “a good looker, a lover, a fighter, [and] a wild bull rider.” Together, they went from boot camp to the jungles of Vietnam, from which Estes provides a firsthand account of his experiences with bloody battles that seem pulled from Full Metal Jacket (1987) or Platoon (1986). His attention to the small details of everyday life during war is impressive, and the dialogue he recreates feels authentic and authoritative. However, the narration is a bit uneven. An older, wiser voice often interjects, undercutting the bombastic, vulgar exchanges and halting their momentum. The second half of the memoir, during and after the Tet Offensive of 1969, expands into less familiar territory. Estes writes of his time with soldiers who never entered into the fight, his working alongside Vietnamese citizens and the difficulty of returning home. He packs an enormous amount of horror and violence into short, rough sentences. “We weren’t shocked. We weren’t sad. We were tired,” he says of soldiers in a devastating battle. It’s in this mode of honest, straightforward reporting that his first-person vantage point finds its most affecting moments.
An exciting, personal retelling of time in Vietnam, though a narrative imbalance distracts from reflections on the true effects of war.