An extraordinary grunt’s-eye view of the Vietnam War, by a former CBS News correspondent.
Line troops and combat reporters, writes Laurence, are a superstitious lot. As an “edge against the fear,” he himself wore the same set of threadbare fatigues each time out, didn’t polish his boots, and carried “coins, charms, four-leaf clovers, religious medals and all kinds of talismans”—everything, in short, but a weapon, the lack of which, he hoped, would keep him from being killed. He may have been on to something, for, while covering the 1968 siege of Hue (where he encountered the shell-shocked kitten, the cat of the title, that figures in so much of the narrative), Laurence wandered into the sights of a North Vietnamese army soldier who could easily have shot him dead but, inexplicably, did not. He had many other brushes with death covering military operations up and down Vietnam from 1965 to 1970, but he’s careful to keep his focus on the soldiers, civilians, and other participants less willing than he to be caught up in the fire. That focus is close, and it yields affecting views; of a group of young field marines, for instance, he writes, “War seemed to make them more humane, more gentle, at least with each other, as if everybody involved in this violent undertaking was trying to behave his best, not knowing what might be coming next.” Among the many high points here is a long section describing the author’s time with a star-crossed infantry unit during the invasion of Cambodia, a tour that yielded the documentary The World of Charlie Company. Though many of its threads eventually come together, Laurence’s narrative reads less as a coherent story than as a loose, slightly hallucinatory string of anecdotes, which, considering the circumstances, seems altogether appropriate.
The result is on a par with Michael Herr’s Dispatches as literature—but, unlike Herr’s book, scrupulously true, making it a standout in a crowded field.