[Cross posted at Birmingham "On War"]
Andrew Wiest, The Boys of ’67: Charlie Company’s War in Vietnam. Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2012. 376pp. Index. Bibliography. Glossary. Maps.
Andrew Wiest is Professor of History at the University of Southern Mississippi (USM) and a founding director of its Centre for the Study of War and Society that contains a thriving community of military historians within its ranks. Wiest has previously written widely on the history of the First World War with his most notable work being his acclaimed study Passchendaele and the Royal Navy (1995). That Wiest turned his attention to the Vietnam War is hardly surprising given the undercurrent of tragedy and futility that pervades the cultural memory of both wars and much of the writing on them. Before The Boys of ’67, Wiest published several notable studies on the Vietnam War including his study of the army of the Republic of Vietnam, Vietnam’s Forgotten Army: Heroism and Betrayal in the ARVN (2009). This current volume builds upon several themes seen in these previous woks.
The Vietnam War remains a contentious area for historians. This is partly due to its intimacy to the present and the difficulty of separating memory from history. It also struggles to shed the view of being a war lost by the politicians. Indeed the recent rhetoric of linking the counterinsurgency campaign in Iraq to the experience of Vietnam has made the process of converting memory into history a much more complicated one, and the idea of a failed and futile war has been a difficult one for historians of the Vietnam War to move past. As Robert McMahon noted in his 2001 Presidential Address to the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations, American culture and society has struggled to come to terms with the reasons for, and impact of, the Vietnam War both at the time and into the present.
Wiest confronts this cultural neurosis in the books preface (pp. 7-16) when you are struck by the powerful story that he is attempting to convey and how it emerged. How better to start a book on the Vietnam War than by describing an epiphany reached after reading Ron Kovic’s autobiography, Born on the Fourth of July (1976). Wiest’s description of his decision to approach his local Veterans Affairs Health Care Center in 1997 with the hope of taking some of his USM students to meet veterans is visceral. This decision eventually had a an unintended consequence that brought home to Wiest and his students the implications of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and the very real impact of the Vietnam War on American society. An unnamed veteran offered to come and sit in on Wiest’s next Vietnam class; Wiest then congenially offered for him to co-teach it with him. A year later during this class the unnamed veteran suffered a ‘total flashback’ due to the pressure of offering to attend the class and the images he was shown. Nonetheless, the veteran returned and a story began to emerge. The unnamed veteran had been a member of Charlie Company, 4th Battalion of the 47th Infantry Regiment in the 9th Infantry Division between 1966 and 1968. It is their story Wiest expertly conveys in this book.
The context for this book is the decision taken in February 1966 to reactivate the 9th Infantry Division as part of the reinforcements needed for the war in Vietnam (pp. 17-23). At this point, the Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV) was concerned about a resurgence of Viet Cong activity in the Mekong Delta. The strategy devised involved combining army infantry with mobile naval riverine units into a force known initially as the Mobile Afloat Force, later the Mobile Riverine Force (MRF). The MRF was tasked with conducting operations against the Viet Cong in the Mekong Delta. As Wiest notes it was no coincidence that it was the 9th Division was the one reactivated given that it was in this unit that the commander of MACV, General William Westmorland, had served in it during the Second World War (p. 23). In order to bring the 9th Division up to strength in received a draft of men in May 1966. It was largely from this draft that the men of Charlie Company came from. They were not a homogenous group but had dissimilar background that represented the pluralistic composition of American society at the time (pp. 31-49). For example, they included men from all over the country such as Stan Cockerell from Hollywood, California and Joe Marr from Warrensburg, Missouri. It was also ethnically diverse with a lone Navajo Native American, Charlie Nelson, in their ranks. Additionally, while many were part of the draft system there were a number of regular officers in its ranks, several of whom, such as Fred Bertolino, were graduates of the United States Military Academy at West Point.
The book covers a number of key themes relating to the experience of the Vietnam War, such as training in America, their experience of battle and their post-war reintegration into society once they returned from the war. Wiest has utilised a wide range of sources to construct the narrative of Charlie Company’s experience of service around Saigon and in the Mekong Delta in 1967. These sources include a large number of oral interviews that Wiest conducted with the veterans of Charlie Company who let him into their inner circle. Additionally, these interviews are backed up, and integrated with, archival sources and personal papers on the unit. This rich tapestry of sources brings home the bottom-up experience of war that confronted the men of Charlie Company. Wiest shows that the experience of battle brought the men of Charlie Company to together into the bonds of unity that is often representative of small units in war. Wiest highlights the shared experience that typifies these men. It is clear that they shared in the trials, suffering and tribulations of active service. However, more importantly this bond continued as they re-entered society as civilians. It is here that Wiest brings to light the real impact of the Vietnam War on American society. Here we see the story of alcoholism, broken marriages and ultimately PTSD. It is clear that some of the men of Charlie Company struggled to adjust to civilian life. However, what else becomes clear is that these men do largely cope with the help of group such as Veterans Affairs and perhaps most importantly their own company association that has organised reunions from July 1989 onwards. This important development had originated in discussions between two veterans, Jim Dennison and John Bauler in the 1980s. The importance of this organisation for the unit is best represented by an incident at their first reunion in Las Vegas. Without realising it their meeting was being held next door to the wedding of Sam Thompson’s daughter (pp. 331-340). Thompson had commanded the 1st and 3rd Platoons in Charlie Company and had developed a reputation for taking needless risks with his men’s lives. As Wiest’s notes, he ‘was out to prove something’ (p. 128). Thompson’s poor attitude towards his men’s lives came to fruition during the Battle of May 15 1967 when two battalions of the 47th Infantry Regiment, including Charlie Company, attacked the Cam Son Secret Zone (pp. 127-157). Having landed on the north shore of the My Tho River, the company moved forward and came across open ground that was perfect for an ambush. Despite protestations, 1st Platoon was ordered to move forward with the obvious result being that men of the platoon were cut down by the Viet Cong. Additionally, in August 1967, Thompson marched the men of 3rd Platoon into a minefield. The shared reaction of the men to Thompson at their reunion highlights their disdain for a man that had needlessly caused the death of their comrades and it also shows the strength that an organisation such as theirs gives to men seeking to cope with the problems of their past. As Wiest succinctly and poignantly notes, ‘the reunions were cathartic, and for some they were and are life-saving’ (p. 338).
The Boys of ’67 is a powerful book that combines an emotional narrative with coherent analysis of the themes that it explores. Wiest expertly highlights the transformative effect that the Vietnam War had on these individuals’ lives, as these men were last of America’s citizen soldiers. It brings home the true impact of the Vietnam War shorn of its political and cultural rhetoric that has exemplified past works. Ultimately, it is a story of resilience in the face of the problems, both military and cultural, that shaped the lives of the men of Charlie Company both in and out of combat, and in war and peace. It is about the bonds of comradeship that were forged in battle and have been maintained in peace, as the only strand that linked these men was their experience in Vietnam. This book should be read by anyone with an interest Vietnam War and by those with an interest in veteran’s affairs and the psychological impact of war on both its combatants and their families.