"Just below the grim tranquillity Mellas had learned to display, he cursed with boiling intensity the ambitious men who used him and his troops to further their careers. He cursed the air wing for not trying to get any choppers in through the clouds. He cursed the diplomats arguing about round and square tables. He cursed the South Vietnamese making money off the black market. He cursed the people back home gorging themselves in front of their televisions. Then he cursed God. Then there was no one else to blame and he cursed himself for thinking God would give a shit".
2nd Lieutenant Mellas, an Ivy League graduate, finds himself in Vietnam commanding a platoon. The officers have been thinned out so severely that the Company Commander is a 1st Lieutenant and the Executive Officer is a 2nd Lieutenant. Both positions are normally held by much more senior officers. He has Corporals that have survived a couple of tours in the jungle and at the tender age of 19 are now crusty veterans. He is 22 and being asked to fight a war with babies in fatigues. He worships bush Marines decked out with non-regulation mustaches, dreadlocks, and boots so scuffed they are white. His head is spinning with desires for medals and proving his courage under fire. He is beset by doubts about his abilities, and yet wants to do more than just survive. He wants to be successful. The Author receiving his Bronze Star
As the chapters flip by we really get to see Mellas evolve as a person. As he sheds his state side training and becomes a real marine leader I actually started to like him. More important his men started to respect him. As he experiences more combat and loses men he starts to understand the politics of the war. That change from being concerned about his own future to understanding the futility of the circumstances in Vietnam is a shattering experience for him. Colonel Mulvaney his Regimental Commander expresses his own jaded views about the war."America uses us like whores. When it wants a good fuck it pours in the money and we give it a moment of glory. Then when it's over, it sneaks out the back door and pretends it doesn't know who we are. Yeah we are whores, he continued, almost to himself now. I admit it. But we're good ones. We're good at fucking. We like our work. So the customer gets ashamed afterward. So hypocrisy's always been part of the profession. We know that. But this time the customer doesn't want to fuck. He wants to play horsy and come in through the back door. And he's riding us around the room with a fucking bridle and whip and spurs. Mulvaney shook his head. We ain't good at that. It turns our stomach. And it's destroying us."
The cynicism was certainly understandable when success is measured in body counts, blood trails, and probable kills. They would capture ground and then pull out to let the NVA move back in just so they would have a chance to kill more enemy combatants. It was really a fucked up way to run a war. 'Just tell me where the gold is.'
'Yes, the gold, the fucking gold, or the oil, or uranium. Something Jesus Christ, something out there for us to be here. Just anything, then I'd understand it. Just some fucking gold so it all makes sense.'Marine 1967 running under enemy fire.
The tension between the splibs (black combatants) and the chucks (white combatants)usually became a bigger issue during down times between combat missions. Marlantes, I felt, told both sides of the race issue with an even hand. He even took us into the decision making sessions of the officers further up the chain, giving the reader a view of the pressures they were receiving and the unorthodox ways they were forced to measure success. Objectives were not clear even higher up the chain of command. The pain, the misery, the waste that are endemic in all wars was even harder to withstand in Vietnam.
Helicopters were the life blood of this war and when they couldn't fly for several days food, water, and ammunition became scarce and boys were left to die. It was hard at times for me to read about the circumstances and the unrealistic expectations we had for combat troops in Vietnam coupled with the haphazard supply lines we had in place to give them the basics of what they needed to even do their job. At one point in time the troops go eight days without food and are expected to withstand an enemy assault.
Redefining victory in Vietnam was a theme of this novel. The men who fought in this war deserve our gratitude and our apology. They were not treated with the honor and the dignity befitting warriors returning from a war that many worked very hard to avoid and were frankly smart to do so. The combat soldiers in Vietnam could not win the war. They could not win battles like the Battle of Normandy or the Battle of the Bulge. They did not return to America knowing that they made the world a safer place. They took the same risks as the soldiers of world war two with so much less to be gained. "Victory in combat is like sex with a prostitute. For a moment you forget everything in the sudden physical rush, but then you have to pay your money to the woman showing you the door. You see the dirt on the walls and your sorry image in the mirror."
Marlantes took thirty years to write this novel. He was awarded the Navy Cross, the Bronze Star, two Navy Commendation Medals for valor, two Purple Hearts, and ten air medals, so he wasn't in the rear somewhere as part of the supply train. I feel like I know much, much more about the Vietnam war than what I have gleaned from other novels or histories. Marlantes takes you into the elephant grass, with leeches hanging from your legs, and jungle rot oozing pus from the cuts on your hands. If you didn't question our objectives in Vietnam and more recently our objectives in Afghanistan and Iraq you will after reading this book. We have to know that when we are sacrificing our kids that it is for the right reasons. They are not and never should be just numbers on a board. Highly Recommended! The Author in Vietnam