COMPASS AND A CAMERA by Steven Burchik


A Year in Vietnam
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First-time author Burchik recounts his 1968-1969 tour of duty during the Vietnam War—service he documented exhaustively with his photography talents.

Many Vietnam War books, particularly memoirs, can be bitterly agenda-driven, determined to take an edgy political position while offering emotional catharsis of the Born on the Fourth of July (1976) kind. Veteran-turned-author Burchik’s plainly told ’Nam flashback is a breath of fresh air (as opposed to “the smell of Napalm in the morning”). Only in the epilogue do readers get an understanding of how this narrative came to be: Burchik, an avid photographer, made thousands of images on black-and-white and color film during his 12-month tour of duty, material he only recently finessed into slide-show presentations. The book’s easy-flowing, natural structure came out of his penning detailed, chronological captions for what his impassive lens captured, complemented by the regular letters he wrote home to his future wife. The book, though illustrated with Burchik’s snaps, is not a picture album but rather a solid record of the New Yorker’s volunteering for the military (growing up in a milieu of Catholic Eastern European refugees, he was strictly anti-Communist) and arriving in Vietnam in the summer of 1968 to find U.S. forces embroiled in a frustrating war of attrition. No ground was gained as Viet Cong and Americans nibbled away at each other in furtive ambushes and mortar attacks. The corruption of South Vietnamese forces led to regular looting of the villages they were supposed to be protecting, turning the countryside’s sympathies to the enemy. Meanwhile, the American public’s support was flagging (the author welcomed Nixon’s election, feeling that Tricky Dick had a plan). Burchik writes warmly of the Vietnamese people although sparingly about their history that led to this war. The most action Burchik saw seems to have come in the early months of 1969, as a VC-inflicted injury on the platoon leader got the author promoted to acting sergeant; his biggest kill was dropping an angry water buffalo. Although complimented by a superior and offered, in desultory fashion, a chance to “re-up” and become a career officer, Burchik was glad to get out of Vietnam on schedule, feeling as though it was only through luck that his 12 months in country ended without injury. Some readers may wish for the Sturm und Drang that other war memoirs have made of death and battle, while others might appreciate the unfiltered, reasoned point of view of a humble foot soldier in an unpopular conflict.

An evenhanded, tasteful, just-the-facts time capsule of one American soldier’s Vietnam experience.

Pub Date: Nov. 7th, 2014
ISBN: 978-0692276297
Page count: 286pp
Publisher: Sharlin-K Press
Program: Kirkus Indie
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15th, 2015


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