La vida es corta, pero amplia. Life is short but wide.
– Spanish Proverb
In writing about my own experience in Vietnam, and reading about that of others, I have become aware that intensity of experience expands laterally in memory. The more lethal the experience, the more this is true. In the eighty-nine pages of Nothing Left to Drag Home, The Siege of Lao Bao During Operation Dewey Canyon II, as Written by an Artilleryman Who Survived It, by Garry Rafferty, I came away with the feeling that I’ve read a much larger book.
In 1971 Rafferty was assigned to a remote firebase along the Laotian border. His unit experienced a daily artillery duel with the enemy’s 152 mm guns that blew huge holes in their defenses and inflicted heavy casualties. Every battle was begun with the gut certainty of death. Their perimeter was constantly probed and resupply convoys were constantly ambushed. There is one episode of a literal wrestling match in a perimeter bunker between two NVA and American soldiers over a fifty caliber machine gun that had just been mounted there.
Along the Laotian border and in the DMZ US troops had to endure being pummeled by much larger weapons than further south, and the enemy had tanks. The medical results of this fighting were not pretty. There was one medic for a unit of eighty men and Rafferty finds himself often “helping doc.” Rafferty writes with a searing anger and devastating attention to detail. He recounts a Boschian scene during which someone’s pet dog runs by carrying a human arm in its teeth. He kills the dog in a rage. The next day the men get online to “police the area” which amounts to picking up pieces of people in empty sandbags.
One of the common themes of writing by Vietnam combat vets is distrust of the command structure that continually put them in absurd situations. In Vietnam, captain was usually the highest rank leading actual combat troops in the field. Majors and above were staff officers and in most cases did not see ground action, but worked from maps in the rear areas. As Neil Sheehan would report in A Bright and Shining Lie, staff officers were not above doctoring field reports to make themselves look better for promotion. The men on the ground easily noticed the discrepancies between what appeared in press accounts sent to them from home and what they’d actually experienced. Further, World War II and Korea were very conventional wars by comparison, and the officers and senior NCOs left over from those wars, who’d not led patrols on the ground in Vietnam, were quite often clueless about what was happening to the men at the sharp end of the fighting. Their most obvious misperception was the gross underestimation of a formidable and committed enemy. Rafferty recounts several command failures that cost lives. He writes, “No initiative of that deceit-drenched conflict was more shot through with mendacity than Operation Lam Son 719.”
In Vietnam, US troops daily improvised their way out of disasters created from above. Rafferty recounts one instance where a lieutenant shouted at them to climb aboard a burning truck and remove the black powder cannisters before the flames got to them. The men refused. They concluded correctly that if they refused the lieutenant’s direct order, said order would be evaluated further up the chain of command against the reality of the situation. The lieutenant demurred. They won. Command failures exerted pressure downward and created alienation among the men. Rafferty finds himself tight with three other men but distrustful of the unit as a whole. The war took a toll on the mental and spiritual health of those fighting it.
There is a telling digression in the book where Rafferty goes on R & R in Thailand. Enough to send present day moralizers into paroxysms of righteous indignation, there was a huge prostitution industry in Vietnam and surrounding countries. Soldiers were supplied with a hotel room that included a young woman. This is what they thought of us: give us beer and pussy and we’ll fight like Hell. Rafferty writes, “I was there and not there. Someone must have had a good time on my R & R. It wasn’t me.” He was going through the motions, stepping into the role created for him by the imaginers of red-blooded American boy fun.
He experiences yet more cluelessness during his homecoming. The unemployment office stupidly gives him a job in a coffin factory and he rebels. He enters the everyday unreality of the country that sent him to war and would misunderstand or reject him when he returned. Rafferty and the men he served with exposed themselves to fire daily; there is a kind of heroism in taking care of each other in war that doesn’t make it to the movies and has nothing to do with flags. It is no accident that the author would finally choose to become a fireman, perhaps to preserve an innate goodness a mindless war sought to beat out of him.
Rafferty is an excellent writer capable of precision and nuance in evoking the unspeakable. This book deserves wide circulation and a permanent place on college syllabi. It will leave you changed.