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Books in Review, November/December 2021 -   -  

Getting an Education in Vietnam—and After the War

As he tells it in his revealing new memoir, The Education of Corporal John Musgrave: Vietnam and Its Aftermath (Knopf, 288 pp., $27), former Marine Musgrave’s pre-Vietnam War experiences mirrored those of countless thousands of American men who went on to serve in the war—and his postwar years resembled those of comparatively few who took part in America’s most divisive overseas war.

In both cases, Musgrave charged full-speed ahead, passionately devoting himself to a cause. He was as gung-ho as any guy who ever joined the Marine Corps when he signed up at 17 in 1966. After the war, Musgrave became a passionate antiwar activist and an outspoken leader of Vietnam Veterans Against the War.

The pivotal moment of his life occurred soon after he arrived in Vietnam at 18 and volunteered to walk point on patrols with his MP unit operating out of Da Nang. Not long after that, Musgrave decided he wanted to go north to join a full-fledged Marine infantry outfit.

“I’m a grunt, godammit it,” Musgrave quotes himself as thinking, “and I ought to be out there with the other grunts. Here I’m just pretending like I’m in the infantry. I want to join the varsity team.” The young Marine who grew up in Kansas got his wish, getting assigned to the 1st Battalion, 9th Marines in the Third Marine Division. “Otherwise known,” Musgrave says, “as the Walking Dead.”

That unit operated at the hilly Con Thien combat base, two miles south of the DMZ. It was “one of the most contested mounds of earth in the war,” Musgraves writes. “We called it the Bull’s Eye and the graveyard because so many of us were killed or injured on and around” it.

The most gripping sections in the book—which Musgrave put together with the help of an experienced writer, Bryan Dorries—are the detailed depictions of Marine boot camp, Musgrave’s day-to-day life in country, and the engagement in which he nearly died and its immediate aftermath. In fact, the section on what happened to Cpl. Musgrave on November 6, 1967, stands with the most evocative and riveting first-person accounts of Vietnam War in-the-trenches action I’ve read.

That includes Lew Puller’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning autobiography Fortunate Son (1991), which set the standard for bone-chillingly realistic Vietnam War descriptions of what it was like to get hit so badly that doctors give up hope for the wounded man. Which is what happened to both Puller and Musgrave. Both Marines miraculously survived—in Puller’s case, because a team of Navy corpsmen immediately came to his aid and a medevac with a surgeon onboard whisked him off to a Navy hospital. And in Musgrave’s, because “a redheaded [surgeon] in a bloodstained T-shirt” at Delta Med, the 3rd Marine Division Forward Casualty Receiving Facility at Dong Ha, realized that the other docs and corpsmen there had given up too soon on the badly wounded Marine—and as a chaplain was preparing to give Musgrave his last rites.

In the aptly named chapter, “The Kill Zone,” Musgrave describes what happened after he ran into the teeth of an NVA ambush trying to rescue a fellow Marine. Within seconds after he reached the wounded Marine, Musgrave took a bullet in his check, which broke his jaw and knocked him unconscious. Then, as he was dragged away by another Marine, two rounds slammed into his chest. And then a machine gun burst put more lead in his chest, opening up a hole big enough to put his fist through. Somehow, under intense fire, two Marines (Jim Rye and Dan Cooney) dragged him to safety. When he was medevaced to Dong Ha, the doctors took one look and decided he was not long for this world.

Musgrave goes into detail about what it was like physically and emotionally getting shot, nearly dying, undergoing countless operations, and struggling through a long, difficult recovery. Things hardly improved for him after he was back on his feet and back on duty. A Medical Board “tossed me out of the Marine Corps into the civilian world,” Musgrave says, “like a goldfish into a swimming pool full of piranhas.

“As far as I was concerned, this was the firing squad. For about a year or so after I left the Corps, whenever people asked me about what happened, I’d say, ‘They shit-canned me,’ because that’s how I felt, as if I were a piece of broken equipment and had been tossed in the junk heap.”

At that point, John Musgrave was 20 years old and suffering physically and mentally from survivor’s guilt that turned into full-blown PTSD. Soon after he started college at Baker University in Kansas on 100 percent disability, he began heavily self-medicating. He was an angry young man and an ardent supporter of the war.

But that changed.

“As time went by,” he says, “and more [American] kids and innocent civilians were being killed, I slowly began turning against the war.” Musgrave became a national leader with VVAW, organizing demonstrations and helping make policy. But Musgrave—one of the most eloquent contributors to the Ken Burns PBS Vietnam War documentary series—left the organization in the fall of 1973.

“I burned out,” he says, “and found myself at odds with leadership that didn’t always share my values or sense of mission and were going politically in a direction with which I was no longer comfortable.” He continued speaking out about the war, though, and about veterans’ issues and continues to be a veterans advocate to this day.

John Musgrave had the good sense to collaborate with Bryan Dorries with his first nonfiction book. He recorded hours of his life story and the result is a memoir told in the unmistakable voice of a dedicated Marine before, during, and after his active-duty service. The memoir ends, somewhat abruptly, in 1980, although Musgrave has some things to say about his life since then in the book’s epilogue.

The Education of Corporal Musgrave is a worthy addition to the roster of well-told, well-worth-reading Vietnam War memoirs.


Duty as a military policeman provides a view of Army life that few people see. Working that duty in a war zone distorts its perspective in many ways. In An Unholy Mess (235 pp., $14 paper, $7.99 Kindle), Richard J. Dobbyn III recounts his two-year career as an MP officer, centering around his 1966-67 tour of duty in the Vietnam War.

Dobbyn worked out of Long Binh and in downtown Saigon. He quickly learned to rely on guidance from his senior NCOs. His stories reflect a spirit of seeking fairness in any endeavor. His outspoken manner got him into trouble.

At times, his values quivered when he cut corners and overlooked misbehavior to help others as well as himself, but his better instincts always prevailed. From his position of MP authority, he helped the confused and downtrodden. He made friends with unhappy draftees, homeless children, and disillusioned Vietnamese colleagues. He admits to drinking too much too often.

You can’t help but like the guy and root for him. Dobbyn’s security duties exposed him to his fair share of danger, including escorting truck convoys. “Rule number one,” with that job, he writes, “when getting fired upon, keep moving as fast as you can. That was also rule number two, three, et cetera.” He also worked alongside Explosive Ordnance Disposal troops, lived next to an ammo dump that was blown up by the Viet Cong, and supervised cleaning up dead bodies after attacks and bombings in Saigon.

Offbeat all the way, he took his R&R in Penang, Malaysia—making new friends and doing some leisurely all-night drinking.

Dobbyn capped his Army career commanding an aggression force during summer National Guard training. Being recalled for Guard duty well after his discharge from active duty angered him. On the borderline of insubordination for two weeks, he masterfully outmaneuvered and embarrassed his superiors before again marching out of the Army and back into a happy civilian life with his wife and two sons, never to return.

—Henry Zeybel





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