Michael Lund published parts of How to Not Tell a War Story (BeachHouse Books, 300 pp., $16.95, paper; Milspeak Books, $4.99, e book) in an august literary journal, War, Literature and the Arts: An International Journal of the Humanities, earlier this year. Lund is a Vietnam veteran, having spent two years in the U. S. Army. He served in Vietnam as a correspondent in 1969-70.
Lund’s book consists of fifteen short stories, many of which deal with the impact of military service in Vietnam on a veterans’ post-war life. For instance, in “The Clean Plate Club” the main character, Lester Sole, has a traumatic experience in the ward of the 125th U. S. Air Force Combat Staging Hospital in Vietnam.
Sole was trained by the Army to be a radio reporter after being drafted. His job: to interview “the patients for hometown news releases.” Sole is stationed at Cam Rahn Bay and never leaves “the safety of the giant American base on the coast of the South China Sea.” One day, though, he makes the mistake of walking through the wrong door of hospital at the wrong time.
The beauty and utility of these stories in this unique book is that Lund explores the non-combat side of the Vietnam War. He clearly shows that even that aspect of the war—the so-called REMF side—can be fraught with risk and horror.
In this volume we encounter many of the same subjects we have become familiar with in much Vietnam War fiction that centers on combat action: PTSD, Agent Orange, spitting on veterans, veterans being called Baby Killers, booby traps, R&R, Chris Noel, DEROS, “gooks and slant eyes,” Freedom Birds, and so on. That said, I saw no mention of ham and mother fuckers— not even by their tamer and proper name, ham and lima beans. I sort of missed them.
A reader of Vietnam War fiction builds up certain expectations. On the other hand, no mention of ham and limas was a relief as I never heard of that loathsome C ration concoction during my more than thirteen months in-country as a REMF working for the Inspector General.
Lund’s story “Exchange” delineates the fairly typical life story of one Kurt Marlowe, a clarinetist in an Army band in Vietnam. Marlowe spends much of his tour of duty playing in the band, playing poker, watching movies, eating barbecued chicken at the beach, dancing to Filippino bands, playing volleyball, throwing Frisbees, and drinking beer for fifteen cents a can. All REMF’s didn’t have it that good—certainly not all the time—but many did. But this fine story reminds us that it was not all like that. Not when “rockets landed in the compound.”
Kurt Marlowe plays his clarinet in a band that featured the Beatles’ hit, “Get Back,” Joe South’s “Walk a Mile in My Shoes,” and the Animals’ classic “We Gotta Get Out of this Place” in their repertoire. But while riding in a convoy with his band on the way to a gig to brighten some soldiers’ day, the Americans are ambushed, and Marlowe sees a lot of action and witnesses casualties. Lund shows us clearly that even the members of an Army band are not protected from the bloody aspects of the war in Vietnam.
Lund gives us the details of the daily life of the REMF. Hundreds of books do the same for infantrymen, but few have been published that do what Lund does well in this book. He also manages to make these stories interesting.
He has a rare gift as a story teller. Many of the stories are written in a point-counterpoint method, alternating passages set in Vietnam with passages set back home after the war. This technique shows how inextricably linked the past is to the present and how a soldier’s war experiences permeate an ex-soldier’s later life.
These elegantly and formally written stories are in a very traditional form and I enjoyed them. They were full of surprises and introduced me to Vietnam veterans who served as medical supply specialists, personnel specialists, information specialists, and mortuary affairs specialists. And the stories showed me what these rear-echelon personnel contributed to our war.
Thanks to Michael Lund for bravely going with his short stories where no other Vietnam War author has gone before.