Seventeen year old Richard Perry signed up for the military for the same reasons that many young men have over time. Perry had grown up poor, had struggled to finish high school and could not afford to go to university or to any other form of higher education that wasn’t already paid for. The military promised room, board, training and some security. It was the late 1960s and by then patriotic fervor had nothing to do with it.
Perry had expected to be posted to Germany, for easy duty with NATO forces. He had a bad knee which the doctors told him would keep him out of combat zones. But the paperwork got fouled up and he found himself in Anchorage, on a plane bound for Viet Nam. He had to hope that nothing too bad happened to him before the brass figured out he’d been put in the wrong place.
Naturally enough, things don’t work out that simply for Perry. He experiences the deadly boredom that fills much of military life, mixed in with the sheer panic that makes up the rest of it. We meet his close comrades, an mismatched mixture of serious soldiers and egotistical showoffs, intellectuals and ignoramuses, noble souls and racist fools. Sometimes these combinations of personality traits occupy the same body and Perry finds that quite confusing.
He would like to look up to the men in charge of him, but he soon realizes that some are barely competent, and that others are quite prepared to spend the lives of the men under their commands in order to further their careers.
Perry and his comrades are sent out of pacification missions to distribute aid and generate good will. Later they have to go back to some of the same villages to track down Viet Cong soldiers and it turns out that all their earlier efforts were for nothing.
They go on sorties and forays into the bush and are ambushed. In fact, they are “in country” just in time to meet the brunt of the Viet Cong’s Tet Offensive in 1968, the very first clear sign that the American high command had seriously underestimated the capabilities of the enemy.
As with many war stories of this type there is humour and tension, banter and horror. Myers, who wrote the book 20 years ago, is reflected in several of the characters. He says of himself that he was an eager recruit at 17, but that his thinking about the war began to change when his brother, who followed him into the service, was killed in Viet Nam.
“It was a rude awakening. War had suddenly became personal. I needed to write about it in a way that countered the romantic ideas.”
He did that. The soldiers in this book have no idea why they are there. While there is some individual nobility, there is none in the enterprise itself, no sense of fighting for some great ideal. They can’t tell friend from foe and get caught by surprise more than once, though it seems that still more often their leaders know even less about the situation than they do. They rise above their petty prejudices only to protect each other, and their greatest hope is to survive the odds against them long enough to be discharged.
Myers has returned to similar themes in a more recent book, Sunrise Over Fallujah, which follows the life of Perry’s nephew a generation later in the current conflict. Scholastic has released the two books as companion novels.