REMFs, Pogues, and Housecats:
BY DAVID WILLSON
I began reading serious Vietnam War literature in the 1970s. Because I’d served in the U.S. Army in Vietnam from 1966-67 as a REMF (a stenographer for the Inspector General), I paid special attention to how REMFs were characterized. I realized REMFs were seldom represented as main characters. I knew that, depending on the time in our long war, 80-90 percent of the troops in Vietnam served in the rear, but all the books I read were combat books. Nine serious, well-written booksall classics or classics-to-beare examined here.
Heinemann uses the expression “housecats” for REMFs in his Army novel. I never heard this expression in Vietnam. (For that matter, I never heard “REMF” in Vietnam, either.) When I spoke with Heinemann about this years ago, he said that is what they called rear-echelon personnel. He also said that he tried to become one of them. He once volunteered to lay bricks in the HQ area, but his work did not measure up to the general’s high standards. He told me that many who served in combat wanted jobs in the rear but could not get them.
Heinemann’s first mention of “housecats” lists “the vehicle mechanics, and radio mechanics and cooks and clerks.” His next reference has Dosier, the main character, being offered a housecat job. “How’d ya like a nice housecat job? Ya cook? Ah’ll trade with ya. I fucken hate it. Cookin jus’ plain sucks.” Dosier considers it, does not take the job, and spends his entire tour of duty driving an armored personnel carrier.
When Dosier tries to get emergency leave to visit his brother, he spends two and a half days at Tan Son Nhut Air Base dealing with a “running variety of housecats behind the ticket counter.” Housecats often stand between a grunt and his goal.
He goes on to describe housecat ARVNs, Red Cross housecats, housecat hooches, housecat haircuts, dingleberry housecats, horny-headed housecats, housecat captains, and 20,000 housecats. This novel is lousy with housecats. There is a long, funny scene late in the book where housecats are imagined talking about how “stone bored” they are: “Hot and cold running water, real toilets, everybody has a jeep, eight kinds of eggs for breakfast.” Funny stuff, except that it sort of isn’t. It’s sort of true.
Near the end of the book we get the trope about rear-echelon personnel wanting to go home and convince folks they were combat heroes. “But the shakedown NCOs looked for live ammo and grenades and such that crazy housecats wanted to sneak home and show around, along with scraps of Chicom mortar shrapnel and knife-fight scars.”
The reader gets a lot of information about “the rear” early in Going After Cacciato. PFC Paul Berlin learns about the Americal Division’s immense Chu Lai complex with its PX, mini golf course, USO, stockade, broad beach with lifeguards, and twelve Donut Dollies. He also gets a proposition similar to Dosier’s in Close Quarters. An E-8 takes him aside: “How’d you go for a rear job? I can fix it for you, get you a job painting fence. Sound good?” This offer is a mean E-8 joke; there was no job in the rear for Paul.
The reader learns that “the ratio of support to combat personnel was twelve to one.” Paul Berlin “counted it as bad luck, a statistically improbable outcome, to be assigned to the 5th Battalion, 46th Infantry, 198th Infantry Brigade.” Paul was right, but most folks who did not serve in Vietnam or in the military during that period believe that the ratio was the other way around. This seeming imbalance caused some bitterness on the part of those who were the sharp endthe infantry.
We get a mail clerka typically insensitive REMFwho “cackles” at Paul. Late in the book there’s a small lecture from the lieutenant that “Garrison troops are what make a wartime army.” Maybe so, but he does not explain what they make it. Much is unknowable in Going After Cacciato.
The main character of this book, Private Joker, occupies a sort of a grey area in the Marine Corps. After basic training, he is sent to Military Journalism School at Fort Benjamin Harrison, the same place I was taught how to be an Army stenographer. When his D.I. learns that is where Joker is headed, he is disgusted. “He calls me a poge, an office pinky. He says that shitbirds get all the slack.”
Later in the novel, some “zoomie poges” narrowly miss getting seriously abused by Animal Mother at a performance of John Wayne’s The Green Berets because they show disrespect for grunts in the theater. “Fucking grunts, they’re nothing but animals.” The dichotomy of poge versus “field Marine” is made clear in this scene and others.
During the famous scene where the question is asked, “Is that you John Wayne? Is this me?” Joker encounters a poge colonel with the classic granite jaw who dresses him down for wearing a peace button. Joker thinks: “In battles there are no poges. Poges try to kill you on the inside.” The scene becomes surrealistic when the colonel bares vampire fangs and Joker wards him off with his wooden bayonet.
After this encounter, Joker leaves his grey-area Marine Corps career and becomes a pure field Marine, running his own rifle squad. That is where we leave him at the end of the book. It looks like he is in for the duration.
In this bleakest of Vietnam War novels, we meet helicopter pilots who brave death on a daily basis. Capt. Martin has chosen this life, leaving behind his staff job. “Life at the staff level bored Martin and angered him. Papers bred like rabbits in his desk at night.” No Vietnam War novel I’ve read better delineates the daily horror of paperwork. “When he was appointed files control officer for the Group, he knew it was time to get out.’’ Of course, his friends thought he’d gone mad. “You’ll only get a platoon in the boonies somewhere.”
Tennis at noon, Sunday at the beach, and dinners at French restaurants were killing him. “It was not the way to run a war.” Capt. Martin told a colonel how to win the war: “Put every man in the Army, from Westmoreland on down, in a tent, and tell him he’s going to stay there until it’s all over. Close all the PXs and the clubs.” The colonel was not happy.
The title of this book, and the cover, which depicts an empty, abandoned helmet in a swamp with a helicopter overhead, signals that the people we love in this book do not serve out the war safely behind desks. Nor do they survive to go back to The World.
Flowers uses the language of slavery and hoodoo to explore the impact of the Vietnam War on African Americans. In a pivotal scene, Mike informs his brothers he has been transferred to the rear:
It’s made clear later in the book that the only other hope for getting to the rear for the brothers rested in getting wounded and ending up in a hospital. It is also made clear that most African Americans of low rank who served in Vietnam served in combat “in the boonies.”
This is a novel of Donut Dolliesthe Red Cross unit at Cu Chi. These young women are not in the military, but they wear uniforms and are stationed in the rear. After reading this book, my one big thought was: Why did anyone think it was a good idea to send barely trained and ill-prepared young women to the Vietnam War to be flown out to firebases to play games with teenaged grunts? My next thought was: Why did anyone think it was a good idea to send those grunts to Vietnam?
This is a serious book that is also likely the saddest book I’ve ever read about the Vietnam War. Tears on every page. The back and forth between the Donut Dollies and the grunts who keep dying emphasizes the gulf between life in the rear and death in the field.
“Red Cross girls were noncombatants protected in a sandbagged hooch.” But the protection is physical only and barely that. The girls know nothing about the war, the military, or what is going on. They find out as the grunts tell them. The letters back and forth between Diana, the heroine from Denton, Texas, and Big Foot, the tall, skinny grunt from Boston, are heart breaking and hammer home the differences between the so-called rear area and the boonies. We are shown how a general and his staff live, with their air-conditioned trailers and dinner parties. We also see others in the rear, like the Army nurses, who work sixteen hours a day.
When a JAG clerk is mentioned, we are told that he “finagled a good job.” I agree. I did the same thing when I got to Vietnam. Reading this book, I am once again glad I did.
Most of the conflict in the first part of this giant book relates to the tension between being a “bush Marine” and being in the rear. Immediately, we are confronted by a Marine who has “headaches” and wants to be in the rear. Is he a “malingering fucking coward” or are the headaches real? Even if they are not caused by something physiological, is it right to despise him for having them and wanting out of the bush?
Early on it’s said: “There’s two hundred good Marines on this hill [who] want to go to the rear.” Lt. Mellas, the main character, muses: “If he could get into Hawke’s position as executive officer, then he’d be safe inside the perimeter. There’d be no more patrols; he’d handle admin and be next in line for company commander.”
We read about Marines trying to “wrangle a job in the rear,” “rear-area chickenshit,” and Marines saying, “I just want out of the bush.” We are told of “the generators that ran the air-conditioners and electric lights” and of “rear-area rangers who flitted back and forth with briefcases.”
Nothing is worse than being called out for the above. “Goddamn you, Williams, you fat poag.” A gunny rants about “sending us out into the bush while the fat-asses and fucking shirkers can refuse to go out into the bush any time they want.” The book brings home the difference between the bush and the rear by alternating scenes of the bush Marines struggling up hills using ropes, “and it had been three days since anyone had eaten even a half ration,” while the officers in the rear are sitting at dinner tables, served by enlisted waiters.
“Staff personnel hidden in their bunkers” are cursed, but when a bush Marine leaves the field in dishonor, it is referred to as being “shit canned to the rear.” The bush Marines are conflicted about it. Well, some of them are. Marlantes’s definition of a poaggiven in his large and useful glossary at the end of his bookis “an overweight rear-area do-nothing.”
The glossary in Lliteras’s novel defines pogue as a “pejorative for rear echelon support personnel, a Marine not of the combat arms.” Early in the book, the main character comments on corpsmen who had “maneuvered themselves into a cushy rear echelon job after one or two patrolssomething wasn’t right.”
On the next page we get, “many of these guys operating in the Recon teams really wanted to be in this war. They were warriors; they didn’t want an office-pogue’s job.” But respect is shown later in the book for two corporals who worked in the armory. “The professional behavior of these support Marines reflected their desire to provide us with safe and reliable ordnance.” High praise from a recon Marine.
A rear-echelon Marine, a cook, Tim Waller, left his job behind, went to the bush, and got wasted. “That dumb shit,” said one character. “He should have stayed in the mess hall where he belonged.” Waller, it seemed, was concerned that if his kids asked him, “What did you do in the war, Daddy?” he’d have to say, “I was a cook.” He couldn’t live with that. So he didn’t. The final ironyhe was killed by friendly fire.
The Sympathizer is the most widely reviewed Vietnam War novel since Matterhorn. This fine book by a Vietnamese American discusses the difference between REMFs and grunts in a unique way. “I was venturing into a wilderness many had explored before me, crossing the threshold separating those who had killed from those who had not.”
Viet Thanh Nguyen says straight out what others dodge saying. REMFs haven’t killed. Grunts have; they have blood on their hands. A REMF can say that his typed memos resulted in deaths. Robert S. McNamara, the ultimate REMF, has been labeled a murderer. But he didn’t get his soft white hands bloody.
When the Sympathizer is asked by a budding journalist, “What did you do?” the Sympathizer says, “I was a quartermaster, a boring job. Tracking supplies and rations, making sure the troops had uniforms and boots.”
“So you never killed anyone?”
“Never,” he responds.
It was certainly a lie that he was a quartermastera REMF. But this may be the only instance in Vietnam War fiction in which a soldier claims that he served in a rear-echelon capacity when he did not.
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