PAYBACK: Five Marines After Vietnam by Joe Klein

PAYBACK: Five Marines After Vietnam

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When a Vietnam vet named Gary Cooper was killed by police in 1981 after going berserk with a gun, Klein (Woody Guthrie) decided to write about Cooper--and about four of the other vets who were in Cooper's Vietnam platoon. Here, then, after reconstructing the platoon's traumatic, grisly involvement in a 1967 Que Son Valley ambush, Klein uses extensive interview-material to fill in each man's life in the 15 years since Vietnam. All were ""grunts, pure and simple,"" no officers. All were white volunteers, all blue-collar Midwesterners (with one exception). And, complicating any potential insights about the scars of Vietnam, most of these men seem to have been seriously troubled before they enlisted. Dale (""Rent-a-Party"") Szuminski comes home from the war seriously injured; recovered, he spends years ""sidestepping the paltry challenges of civilian life""--drinking, womanizing, half-working--before settling down, more or less, in the 1980s. John Wakefield, insecure and regarded by his demanding family as a loser or ""madman,"" finds identity in Marine discipline; coming home to find himself unimportant again, he drifts, drinks, ""intent on debasing himself,"" moving from obsession to obsession. Bill Taylor, from a broken home, has post-Nam problems with sex, marriage, and work, turning to est for help. John Steiner, the one exception from California, brings his Marine discipline home with him--submerging himself in biology studies and environmental work. And Cooper's post-Vietnam story is a grim tale of drug addiction, unemployment, and marital discord. Do the individual profiles add up? Not really. Klein does bring the survivors together to share memories and nightmares, the effects of ""post-trauma syndrome."" But the personalities here are far too complex to be illuminated by mini-case-histories; it's hard to determine what role the combat experience--or the coming-home disillusionment--had on their lives. (To his credit, Klein makes no grand claims, no generalizations.) And the result is a depressing, occasionally powerful, but finally frustrating sampling of post-Vietnam experience--more vivid, in fact, in evoking the whole lower-middle-class Midwestern ambience (bars, TVs, dime-store art, frayed families) than the world of Vietnam veterans.

Pub Date: Oct. 19th, 1984
Publisher: Knopf