Vietnam Veterans of America
Books in Review, May/June 2019
‘The Volunteer’: A Fanciful, Fast-Moving Vietnam War Novel
Readers of this column (now in its thirty-third year) know that in the last four decades we have seen a large crop of excellent novels and short stories that focus on the Vietnam War and its veterans. Viz: Going After Cacciato, The Things They Carried, Paco’s Story, A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, Matterhorn, Fields of Fire, Fatal Light, and The Short-Timers, to name a few.
The good news is that Salvatore Scibona’s recently published The Volunteer (Penguin Press, 432 pp., $28) stands with the very best in-country Vietnam Wars novels, as well as the best fictional treatments of the war’s psychological aftermath.
The Volunteer is a fast-moving literary novel told in a uniquely baroque style with two main plots that converge near the end. It’s filled with events that are both fanciful and believable. The characters are sharply and realistically drawn. The long in-country scenes are rendered superbly, which is all the more remarkable in that Scibona was born in 1975.
The main plot involves the title character, Vollie Frade, who was born “angry and strong” in 1950 to an Iowa farm couple. “If he were a calf,” Scibona writes in one of his typically lyrical passages, “he would already have been walking” at birth. “But he was more of a vegetable seed, left over in the autumn garden, that survived the snow and sprouted on its own in the spring. They called him the Volunteer. Later, they called him Vollie. His true name they never used.”
Vollie enlists in the Marine Corps almost on a whim at seventeen in 1967. He soon arrives in Vietnam and almost immediately gets enmeshed in the worst that war has to offer—but not as a rifleman. Young Vollie, Scibona tells us, works out of “a supply depot in the rear at Dong Ha,” running conveys “up the dirt roads to the forward combat bases near the DMZ at Camp Carroll, Lang Vei, Quang Tri, something called the Rockpile, and another spot that was just an airstrip really as it turned out—a road, a cliff, and an airstrip on a low plateau outside a village called Khe Sanh.”
Part of the uniqueness of this book is the fact that Scibona makes Vollie a heavy cargo truck driver rather than a typical Vietnam War fictional infantryman, and yet he still conveys brilliantly the horror of war. To wit: “Within a week of his arrival in country, Vollie was picking shards of the head of a lance corporal off his shirt, a boy nearly his same age, and hair attached to the shards that smelled of smoke and Brylcreem.”
Vollie sees plenty of combat at Khe Sanh and elsewhere, comes home adrift, and volunteers for a second tour. After that one, he can’t make himself go home again, and requests a third tour of duty. This time he is wounded, gets taken prisoner, and spends four tortuous months underground in a secret POW camp in Cambodia. After Vollie is freed, things really get crazy.
He comes home from the war for good, and then comes under the spell of a spooky, mysterious, possibly mad CIA agent named Lorch. I pictured the actor Woody Harrelson at his wild-eyed, violent best playing Lorch. Among other things, the powerful Lorch often speaks in elliptical, apocalyptic sentences and paragraphs.
No need to reveal details of what Lorch browbeats Vollie into doing, and what Vollie does in the face of Lorch’s power. Suffice it to say, Vollie goes through another kind of hell on the home front during and after his work for Lorch. Vollie also suffers ghastly nightmares and flashbacks. (Who wouldn’t after what he was forced to go through in Vietnam and after coming home?) For decades he lives a strange, sad, vagabond life.
Then Scibona skillfully brings the story of an abandoned Latvian boy into focus and into Vollie’s life, along with the woman Vollie winds up with and a young man they raise as their son.
No more plot details. I suggest you read this brilliant novel, which may be a tad wordy in some spots, but which contains great writing, a wickedly twisting plot, and quirky, larger-than-life, compelling characters. Scibona creates a fanciful world using all those elements (and more), which is about as much as you can ask of a serious novelist. The Volunteer easily stands with the best fictional treatments of the Vietnam War and its veterans.
The big-selling, popular presidential historian Michael Beschloss’s latest book, Presidents of War (Crown, 739 pp., $35), came out last October. In this massive tome, which Beschloss worked on for more than ten years, the official NBC News Presidential Historian (and author of ten well-received books) bores in on how eight American presidents dealt with momentous decisions about going to war and how they went about prosecuting them.
He begins this “political history,” as he characterizes it, with James Madison and the War of 1812, “the first major test of the constitutional system for waging war,” Beschloss notes. We then get detailed accounts of why and how the nation got involved in that war, as well as the Mexican War, the Civil War, the Philippine War, the Spanish-American War, World Wars I and II, the Korean War and—in the last two meaty chapters—the Vietnam War.
Even though the U.S. had been involved in the effort to help South Vietnam fight the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong since the early 1950s, Beschloss concentrates on President Lyndon Johnson in those detailed, yet readable and revealing, chapters. Why? Because the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which gave LBJ the power to wage war in Vietnam, and the subsequent massive troop escalation came under his watch.
Lyndon Johnson’s Vietnam War has been covered extensively in many worthy books. In this one, Beschloss brings something new to the table. He has unearthed new primary-source documents, for one thing. And he is a terrific storyteller, with an eye for surprising and intriguing details. Just two examples dealing with the Johnson chapters: the Navy officer in charge of the destroyer Maddox was Capt. George Morrison, whose son was the Jim Morrison of The Doors, and LBJ’s great-great grandfather was “a lifelong friend” of Sam Houston.
The picture Beschloss paints of LBJ’s Vietnam War decision-making is not pretty. We get Johnson live and in full color, with many of his own words from the secret White House tapes, along with up-close and personal depictions of him from interviews Beschloss did with Johnson’s wife, daughters, and confidants.
It’s been said before, and this book bears that out, that Lyndon Johnson wanted to fight the war on poverty, not the war in Vietnam. But through his own political ambition, vanity, stubbornness, misreading of history, and willingness to stretch the truth for his own ends, Johnson wound up trying to do both. The result: the Vietnam War all but destroyed him politically and physically.
Of course, LBJ was aided and abetted by many of his advisers, including Secretary of State Dean Rusk and National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy. Not to mention the “high-pressure, self-certain advice” of Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, who pushed LBJ to keep sending troops well after he realized the effort was fruitless, among other unforgivable actions.
“With more than a half century’s hindsight,” Beschloss concludes, “it is clear that whatever Johnson gained for the United States with his war in Vietnam was never worth its ruinous cost in lives, treasure, American self-confidence, or what Thomas Jefferson called ‘the good opinion of mankind.’ ”
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