Monday, December 2, 2013


I wasn't sure if this belongs on my book blog or over on the political blog. I decided it belongs here. Over the past few weeks I read three books about three very different wars. I generally shy away from such books, but a new friend of mine gave me a copy of a book he wrote in 1985. He thought it would have meaning for me. It did, but maybe not in the way he intended.

...And a Hard Rain Fell: A GI's True Story of the War in Vietnam  by John Ketwig is still in print. It's a hard book to read if you were in Vietnam or if you were on the home front, protesting or not, waiting for a loved one to come home or not. The back cover likens this to Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo, a great anti-war novel. I read it years ago during a sit-in. I read it again before I plunged into Ketwig's story. Different, but so much the same.

Ketwig was a kid when he went to Vietnam. Late teens. He was there near Dak To and through the Tet Offensive. His book, divided into three sections, is stream of consciousness for the first half. His fear, his anger, come through in long run-on sentences where his emotions pour out onto the page. His second section, his healing year in Thailand before he returned to The World, is less frenetic. As he feels he's safe, his language is less powerful. The return to The World in section three is the weakest and shortest. But what he writes in the first section overrides the weakness of the last section.

The third book, No Way Out: A Story of Valor in the Mountains of Afghanistan, by Mitch Weiss and Kevin Maurer, is measured in tone, reportorial in its presentation. A story of one Special Forces team and its Afghan commando counterparts are airlifted into a valley to capture or kill a high-value target. The problem is the valley is surrounded by the enemy on cliffs surrounding the landing zone. Caught by automatic weapon fire and rocket-propelled grenades, the teams are asked to scale the cliffs and bring down the target. The fear and anger come through without run-on sentences. Still, it's a very powerful narrative.

Three different books. Each worth reading. Each made me ask tough questions.

  • Have we learned nothing about war? We still send out boys, girls, men and women into harm's way, sometimes with little foreknowledge of what they will face.
  • Do we not know that you can't expect troops to seize hills under withering fire? In Afghanistan, military intelligence said the ridge tops were heavily fortified.
  • Have we not learned from Gallipoli? From Balls Bluff, VA. Normandy. Dak To? Numerous valleys in Afghanistan? We must not, because we keep doing the same thing over and over. Thank you, Einstein. Yes, doing the same thing over and over and hoping for a different outcome is insanity.
Each book ground into my psyche. I hated all three. I couldn't put all three down. I wondered if we'd ever figure it out.An earworm about drove me nuts. Thanks, Country Joe, for these lines: "And it's 1,2,3 what are we fightin for? Don't ask me I don't give a damn, the next stop if Vietnam."

I'll probably get slammed for this post, but I don't give a damn. Slam away. 


  1. Love this post, and I'm with you all the way.

  2. One of my cousins was Vietnam and came back physically disabled (though I don't think from a wound--Agent Orange maybe?) and I don't think ever had much happiness again. He died in the last year or so.
    Another cousin's daughter was in Afghanistan, I think as a journalist for one of the Armed Services. I've never met her, but from what my mother told me some years ago, she had a nervous breakdown sometime after she was discharged (I think), even though she wasn't a soldier, strictly speaking.
    I am also of the opinion that wars we've been in since World War 2 have become increasingly difficult to believe in. I think most soldiers have to feel they're fighting for something worthwhile, and if they don't, they're more likely to come home damaged.

  3. As a veteran and amateur military historian, Betsy, I concur with much of what you've written here. My two favorite novels on war are The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer and HMS Ulysses by Alistair MacLean. While I realize you're context here leans toward non-fiction, there are novels that have a lot to tell us, too. Just a thought!