A poultry specialist recalls a two-year tour in Vietnam in this unassuming memoir of a noncombatant who, in his own way, worked to win the hearts and minds of the people.
Debut author Hargreaves arrived in Vietnam in 1965 as a fresh-out-of college member of the International Voluntary Services, a precursor of the Peace Corps. “I didn’t come to Vietnam to fight a war,” he says. Instead, he used what he learned about avoiding the Ku Klux Klan as a voter registration volunteer in Mississippi a year earlier to avoid the Viet Cong in sometimes-dicey situations. Posted to Phan Rang, a provincial capital of 18,000 on the central coast, he witnessed over the next two years a massive buildup of American combat troops there and elsewhere that transformed cities and villages and turned too many children and their adult handlers into crafty beggars. He stayed as far away as he could from the war, which, to his regret, gradually undermined American aid and education programs of the preceding 12 years, preferring instead to talk about chickens with peasants over green coconut milk, help arrange pickups of military garbage for pig feed, or cultivate grapes. Villagers scoured military dumps for salvageable wood from napalm crates for building chicken houses. He describes this endeavor without so much as a whiff of irony or any words about the horrors of this flesh-burning, defoliating petroleum jelly. This is in keeping with a nonjudgmental narrative that frequently comes across like offhanded recollections told around a campfire. The flat tone and the triviality of some anecdotes tend to deprive the storytelling of deeper meaning. But Hargreaves is not without opinions or a sense of history. He notes that the United States might have done better in Vietnam by listening to and understanding its people, just as a good veterinarian learns to listen to the chickens. The author’s deep affection for Vietnam, and for its cuisine, reveals itself in his several aid-oriented visits to the country in the years since his tour.
An alternate view of America’s Vietnam experience from a worthy participant who left behind not bomb craters but chickens, pigs and grapes.