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SUICIDE CHARLIE by Norman L. Russell


A Vietnam War Story

by Norman L. Russell

Pub Date: May 1st, 1993
ISBN: 0-275-94521-9
Publisher: Praeger

An ex-grunt's probing, painful account of coming of age in the hellfire of Vietnam. When he was drafted in 1968, Russell was more boy than man, and a fatherless boy to boot—his dad had killed himself years before. How the author amended the ``incompleteness of being that comes from growing up in a fatherless home'' is, though rarely stated, the theme of this brutal yet considered account, which spans his weeks in basic training through his year in Vietnam and his return home. The heart of Russell's story lies in his experiences with ``Suicide Charlie,'' a front-line unit that gained its nickname from its steady decimation by enemy fire. Russell writes of his trials in two ways: straight reportage that stares down suffering with cool, precise prose (``Cooked bodies do strange things. Rip open, split at the seams, detach at the joints'') and, interspersed throughout, more impressionistic, italicized passages that sometimes veer into purple (``Overhead, the surface of Mole City [an outpost of trenches dug deep in-country] is alive with devils. Flashes of light dance along...creating ghostly images that flail as if in the throes of death, or labor''). The narrative climaxes twice: on the terrible night that Mole City is overrun by NVA forces, and on the day that Russell locks eyes with a Vietnamese boy—Vietcong?—and sees their common humanity. From these tests of will and compassion, the author learns to respect his NVA enemies (``the toughest little soldiers that God ever created'') and to realize that his real job isn't to win the war but to survive. Yet when offered a transfer, Russell sticks with Suicide Charlie, recognizing that loyalty is one value that makes life worth living. And so he grows to be a man and, later, to be a father to his own son, Shannon. Among the more memorable of Vietnam reminiscences, at times as piercing as a splinter in the soul.