There is a moment in Tom Wolfe’s masterpiece of journalism The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test when Ken Kesey and his crew of Pranksters are discussing the US war in Vietnam. Like most people of that time, they all had an opinion. However, Ken Babbs was the only one among them who had actually been there. After graduating from college and from Navy ROTC, he was shipped off to helicopter school and then to Vietnam. This fact came up in a conversation between Wolfe and Babbs another time during Wolfe’s tale when Babbs showed Wolfe the rough draft of this novel. At the time, the manuscript sat in a warehouse where the Pranksters played; always present and rarely mentioned. It was the proverbial elephant in the room. Like the war itself, it sat there, coloring everything that happened in the United States and the psyches of every person who fought in it or conspired to avoid fighting in it..
That novel is now in bookstores. It was worth the wait. Yes, it is a war novel, but it is a war novel that has aged like good moonshine forgotten in a jug out in grandpa’s barn. Not necessarily smooth, but much easier to swallow now than when it first came out of the still. Much of this could be related to the stretch of time between the distillation fifty years ago and its consumption now. After all, perspective often takes away those sharp, biting edges that framed our perception back then. Yet, like good moonshine no matter how ancient, Babbs’ story still occasionally bites and stings as its going down. Time hasn’t made the war he writes about any less horrific. It’s only made the telling of it easier.
The novel, titled Who Shot the Water Buffalo?, takes place in the year 1962. This was well after the United States had replaced the French in their colonial role but well before the rapid escalation of the war after 1965. The reference to water buffaloes is of dual meaning. Apparently, the soldiers’ name for the water tanks containing fresh water on the makeshift bases were known as water buffaloes. There is a scene in the novel where one of those gets shot up. The second meaning is more ominous, at least for the US troops engaged in their “advisory” role. Guerrilla fighters would hide behind water buffalo in the fields and shoot at South Vietnamese and US troops. This created a scenario where US troops would wantonly shoot water buffalo. In one instance, an old farmer is killed without any indication that he was shooting anything at anyone. As any student of or participant in that war (and most other subsequent wars) the practice of shooting unarmed civilians was an all too common occurrence.
The story itself is a story about men at war. Drinking and bravado. Fear and just plain idiocy. Comradeship and testosterone-fueled brawls. The arrogance of imperialism and the embarrassment of men who question the propriety of their task. Babbs writing is rhythmically attuned to the lives of men who wonder as to the rationale of their being sent to a foreign land to kill some of its inhabitants in the name of the others. Like Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 or the writing of John Sack on Vietnam, Who Shot the Water Buffalo? illustrates the brutal futility of America’s recent wars and hints at the damage these wars have done not only to the nations where they occur but to the psyches of the US troops who fought them and the nation they served. Babbs characters share the cynicism of the invader in that they know their mission is most likely a losing cause. At the same time, they are unable to understand the commitment of the forces they oppose.
Who Shot the Water Buffalo? opens with an innocence tinged with a cynicism that grows ever more pervasive as it goes on. In Babbs’ telling, the pointlessness of the operation is already apparent to the men involved. So is the brutality. So is how it will end. The lies of America’s wars are all here. The lies the invaders tell themselves about the honor of their mission and the lies the locals live pretending they appreciate that effort. The lies that politicians and generals use to keep the gravy train and the war going. And of course the ultimate lie that war makes things better.
Ron Jacobs is the author of The Way the Wind Blew: a History of the Weather Underground and Short Order Frame Up. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His collection of essays and other musings titled Tripping Through the American Night is now available in print and his new novel is The Co-Conspirator’s Tale. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org