Review – Charlie Company
There were no homecoming parades for the million men and women who served in combat at the longest war America has ever fought, the only war it has ever lost. There were no brass bands or crowd cheering at the dock or celebratory speeches floating across the village greens. The veterans of the failed United States mission in Vietnam returned instead to a kind of embarrassed silence, as if, one of them thought, everybody was ashamed of us. They were obliged to bear an inordinate share of the blame for having fought at all and for not having won. Some paid a terrible further cost in stunted careers, shattered marriages and disfigured lives. Most have endured with the same stubborn will to survive they brought to the least popular war in our history – a war that has never really ended for them or for their countrymen.
This is a book about sixty-five of those nearly forgotten men who soldiered in the late 1960s in a gook-hunting, dirt-eating, dog-soldiering combat infantry unit called Charlie Company. They were boys then, nineteen or twenty years old on the average. The army had snatched them up out of towns named Ottumwa and Puxico and San Prairie, suited them up as soldiers and sent them off to a place they could not locate on a globe to fight a war they could not understand. They served a year apiece there, those who survived, and then came back to fight a second war, this one waged at home and in the mind. They waged it alone for the most part, their stories and their scar tissue unknown even to their wives and parents. It was, one of them thought, as if they were the bearers of some unspeakable disease. Until a team of Newsweek correspondents sought them out between the late summer of 1981 and the spring of 1982, some of them had never been asked what they had experienced in the war, or back home in what the grunts in the bunkers of ‘Nam thought of wistfully as The World.
Their story is not military history in any formal sense; it is not the record of great battles won or lost. Vietnam was not that sort of war, and Charlie Company’s piece of it was fought over bloodied patches of ground that nobody really wanted anyway. Neither is this book a moral commentary on the war, or an analysis of its geopolitical origins and consequences, or an account of the travail of the Vietnamese people, or an attempt to assess the relative virtue and valor of those Americans who served as against those who chose not to. It is instead the chess game viewed – or, more accurately, remembered – by the pawns. It is a collective memoir of the war and the homecoming, filtered through layers of time and pain, anger and guilt, bitterness and forgetfulness.
Like the Library of Congress’s Veterans History Project, Charlie Company is a blend of voices and experiences about the war which shaped, or mutated, my generation. As the child of a man who served two terms in Vietnam, I still remember the phone calls claiming that my dad was a baby killer. I still remember the police who came to help when we were threatened by local teenagers who protested the war and we were the closest link to the war they could find. I will always bless the postal worker who discovered a letter from my dad after he'd been MIA for months and brought it to my mother as soon as he found it. I still remember seeing my father dressed in civies step off a plane; he had been warned to change out of his military uniform before he landed in Florida. It was OK for him to wear an officer’s uniform in a war zone, but too dangerous for him to wear it in the country that he served.
Charlie Company – What Vietnam Did to Us tells this story well. If you never read the words, you can see this story in the pictures; the faces of the kids that were sent to win the war, and how they changed over the years. Haunting. Devastating. So real.
I received a copy of this book from my friend Mike McDonald who himself was a member of Charlie Company. It is out of print now, but new or used copies can be purchased through a major on-line bookseller with prices ranging between two dollars and forty-six dollars, average about twenty dollars. This surprised me in that not too many years ago, this book was on the required reading list for my county’s high schools.
Charlie Company – What Vietnam Did to Us by Peter Goldman and Tony Fuller is a Newsweek Book published by William Morrow and Company, Inc. 105 Madison Avenue New York, NY 10016
Read this book. Vietnam touched us all in ways that changed the world forever. Whether Vietnam fell in your generation, your parents’ generation, or your children’s generation, it changed us all. History books track this change. Political science books analyze this change. Charlie Company lived this change.
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