Peter Clark decided to enlist right at the time of the massive escalation of US involvement in Vietnam for reasons, he writes, that were “complicated”. Like most from his suburban high school, he was at college, but as an only child, and perhaps influenced more than most by the older men of his father’s and teachers’ generation who had fought in World War II, the lure of adventure, patriotic duty, and becoming a soldier were stronger than the desire to continue his studies, at least for the time being.
Having joined the Regular Army, during his basic training he found himself in the company of young men who were mostly from poorer backgrounds and with lower educational attainments, something that he had to adjust to, socially. However, as he would find several times during his army career, his ability to learn quickly was an advantage, if not necessarily something that he would always be comfortable to take advantage of.
After almost a year he was happy to be deployed to Vietnam:
“I was wearing khaki summer Class As, my private first class stripe carefully sewn on, and lugging a duffel bag filled with fatigues, combat boots, and other army junk, including a couple of civilian knives which were permitted. Drinking Coke, smoking Marlboros, and going to Vietnam. Right then there was no place I would rather be.”
Immediately on arrival his test scores and college record are noted, but he turns down the opportunity of a tour of duty as an Army bureaucrat, such is his focus on a ground combat role. He therefore made it to Lai Khe as that day’s single replacement for Alpha Company, while the company was out in the field. At first feeling totally out of his depth, and in awe of the first GIs that he watches filing down the path “like a mortal watching the gods coming down from Asgaard”, he pretty quickly gets used to the idea that they’re just regular guys, some good, some not so much. Over the course of his deployment he will become a part of his unit, and will develop an emotional attachment to it that lasts right through to the present day.
Peter Clark’s memoir of his experience is rich in the details of the infantryman’s life in Vietnam, digging foxholes, sleeping in the rain, walking through dense jungle looking out for booby trap wires in the foliage, riding in helicopters, and learning always to fire low, and remember your entrenching tool when you go for a shit. For much of his tour he was an RTO, lugging a radio set, which sounds like it had its good and bad sides, since for one thing it meant having to stick close to his commanding officer. That meant that he was trusted, getting to find out more about what was going on than most others, but at the same time always being under the gaze of the old man could clearly be quite stressful. The climax of this book sees Clark involved in heavy fighting during the battle near Chi Linh in June 1967 when his company are engaged by the 271st Viet Cong Regiment.
Clark’s descriptions of encounters with Vietnamese people are limited and brief. A young woman he tries to persuade to take shelter during a mortar bombardment refuses, giving him look of disdain and hatred. A dead girl lying a few feet away from a foxhole he spent the night in causes confusion at first, but then he accepts she is dead and “can’t recall anything that approached a feeling”. While on a pass in Saigon he hooks up with a woman who seems self-contained and educated, but we find out little more than that about her, and no more about her impact on him.
The book contains a number of photographs and drawings, which being from Clark’s private collection will not (I believe) have appeared elsewhere, and which certainly add immediacy and, often, poignancy as there are some photos of friends taken only a short time before, and a small distance away, from when and where they would lose their lives. The book is of course written as a memoir which narrows down the focus to the level of personal experience, and there are only a few reflections on the wider context of the war. It did occur to him while there that at least some of the conduct of both individuals and the US military was not helpful in winning the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people, something that it was clear to him was necessary if the US and its allies were to prevail.
Clark seems lucky in a way – for one thing he didn’t get killed or disabled, which clearly he quite easily could have been. But it also appears that while there, and ever since, he has been able to maintain a certain detachment, and more or less clearly states that he hasn’t suffered from any kind of PTSD, unlike his father had experienced since fighting in Europe in WW2. After his Army service, he completed his studies, attended Yale Law School and qualified for the Bar in Massachusetts. Perhaps it is the combination of his trained analytical mind and the apparent lack of any lasting trauma that has resulted in this particularly well-written, detailed and engaging piece of writing.
Highs: Very well written, giving detailed insight into the practicalities and experiences of everyday life for the infantryman in Vietnam.Lows: Not too much, though I wasn't always sure what Clark actually felt about it all.Verdict: A very readable and well written memoir.
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About Matthew Lenton (firstcircle) FROM: ENGLAND - SOUTH EAST, UNITED KINGDOM
Earliest model memory is a Super Sabre my grandmother bought for me around 1972. Have always dabbled in painting and making things, and rediscovered doing that with plastic in 2008. Vowed then to complete the 30 year old stash, and have made some progress. Hobby goes hand in hand with BBC Radio 3...