I wrote this book after conversations with many Vietnam veteran officers and enlisted men. From these conversations I learned that I had experienced several events that they had not. Each of the chapters in my book describes one of these stories. Each chapter exists independently without chronology. Some stories are humorous, some horrific.
It took me 12 years to write Vietnam Combat: Firefights and Writing History. I had a job that took me on long coast-to-coast flights, and I worked on a chapter both going and coming – as long as it was not too bumpy. I was amazed to see how my brain retained the events from so many years ago. My favorite author, Stephen King, talks about “falling into the typewriter” in his book On Writing (a marvelous reference for anyone who enjoys writing regardless of the objective.) There were times during these flights that I became so absorbed in writing my story that I literally blocked out all that was going on around me and “fell” into my laptop. In amazing detail, I saw the jungle; I smelled the smells; I felt the same anxiety and terror as when the event first happened; and I often came away with sweat on my face and underarms.
After finishing the manuscript, I asked several close friends to read it. Two of them responded asking if my audience was strictly military people. I said “No, I want this book to be read by general readers as well.” These reviewers told me that I needed to “demilitarize” the text and add more personal feelings and reaction to the stories if I wanted the book to appeal to a wider audience.
I spent the next two years rewriting the book, clarifying military jargon, simplifying military operations, and trying to add more personal feelings about the events. This was an extremely difficult task because I had worked very hard to block the feelings and emotions that accompanied the traumatic situations. On several occasions I became very upset remembering and trying to record how I felt when I lost a soldier, wounded or killed, or what it was like to come down from an adrenalin high after a horrific night firefight.
Eventually I remembered that my mother had saved all the 100 plus letters I wrote home from Vietnam. She may have had a premonition that I would someday write a book. I kept the letters in a large envelope in my filing cabinet. I hauled them out, put them in chronological order and reread what I had written. I then grabbed snippets from these letters and integrated them into the appropriate chapters. Writing a chapter allowed me to tell the details of the event as it happened and including a snippet from one of the letters allowed me to show the juxtaposition of what I wrote home…sometimes two very different stories.
One of my other objectives in writing this book was to show the transition of my feelings and beliefs about the war. The transition started with a gung-ho, ROTC Distinguished Military Graduate receiving the finest and most grueling training that the Army had to offer, then jumping out of airplanes with the 82d Airborne Division and ended with the harsh realities of leading men in combat. Coping with our daily mission of searching for enemy soldiers and killing them had a dramatic impact on me. As the division historical officer, I had to come to grips with the larger issue of dealing with senior officers who measured career success by fabricated body counts and lied about the success we were having in winning the war. Years later, after becoming more knowledgeable about the facts of the war and the actions of our political leaders, I realized that our political leaders had extended the conflict needlessly, killing, bombing, and losing more American, South and North Vietnamese lives – despite knowing full well that this was a war that America could never win.
Unfortunately, this seems to be a historical lesson we are doomed to repeat.
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