DEROS Vietnam by Doug Bradley

When I scanned the table of contents on Doug Bradley’s DEROS Vietnam: Dispatches from the Air-Conditioned Jungle (Warriors Publishing, 216 pp., $14.95, paper) and saw the chapter headings, I knew in my heart I’d love this book.

The author of these short stories served in Vietnam after being drafted into the Army in March 1970. He worked as an information specialist (aka journalist) in Long Binh, near Saigon, in the Information Office at USARFV headquarters. Bradley, who also is the author (with Craig Werner) of the forthcoming book, We Gotta Get Out of This Place: Music and the Vietnam Experience, has a Masters in English from Washington State University.

Full disclosure: I also was an English major at WSU and I also served in Vietnam behind a desk at Long Binh in the air-conditioned USARV HQ building. So you could say that I was predisposed to find these thirty-two stories dealing with the rear echelon (REMF) experience interesting—even fascinating.

The cover alone was a major grabber for this ex-Army stenographer: two pale hands poised on the keyboard of an ancient manual typewriter. There’s a great quote from Karl Marlantes just above the keyboard: “Doug Bradley’s stories explore the Vietnam War as experienced by the majority of its veterans. These stories are not about battle, but like all great stories are about the battle for the human soul.”

Marlantes, one of the great novelists and deep thinkers of the Vietnam War, has said a mouthful. Every word is true.

But back to my original thought: the chapter headings. They include  “Dog Tags,” “The Beast in the Jungle,” “The Gospel According to Shortimer Sam,” “Delta Lady,” ”Malaria,” “Postcard from Hell,” “Confessions of a REMF,” and “Moron Corps.”

After reading the chapter headings, I broke a personal rule and went to the chapter “Moron Corps” near the end of the book. I read it first, ignoring the order chosen by the author. Bradley, by the way, has organized the book as an alternating mixture of long and short pieces as an homage to Ernest Hemingway’s World War I book, In Our Time.

“Moron Corps” is a two-and-one-half page story of heartbreak. It deals with McNamara’s Project 100,000. That was the misguided plan dreamed up by Robert S. McNamara to produce cannon fodder for the Vietnam War decked out in camouflage as a program to provide job experience and education to those in America who had been marginalized.

My favorite part of this little story is when the character Lanny refers to McNamara’s Project as his ticket out of the Cabrini-Green Projects and joblessness. Little does Lanny know it is a ticket to Vietnam and possible serious adventure, with little or no opportunity for education or future employment.  But he is very hopeful after listening to the promises of the Army recruiter. Bradley has packed this short story with maximum despair and doom, but all of that is between the lines for the careful reader to notice.

After reading that story, I went back to the beginning and read the book straight through the way it was intended to be read. I won’t spoil the other stories like I did “Moron Corps,” but the variety is stunning.

These stories take place in a Vietnam War that I did not recognize, a war that was years later than mine. In the time I was gone, drugs became a big thing. Most of the stories involve smoking marijuana, something I never witnessed in Vietnam. I’d heard that Binh Hoa was the marijuana capital of Vietnam and it was right next door to Long Binh where the USARV Headquarters was located, but I never saw that side of it. Tennis courts and basketball courts also get a mention. Those also came after my time.

Doug BradleySomething I did see during my time in Vietnam was the “LBJ,” the Long Binh Jail. The best short piece of writing I’ve encountered on the LBJ is Bradley’s “Confessions of a REMF,” which tells quite a bit about the LBJ riots, one in particular.

Everything the author says is confirmed by my time there in the role of stenographer to an Inspector General major who investigated the complaint by an African American private about the ill treatment he was receiving there. I saw up close the Conex containers the prisoners were housed in, and could feel the Dutch oven-like heat that they held on hot days.

Bradley’s stories name check John Wayne many times, and even Audie Murphy. Aldo Ray gets a mention. Graham Greene gets a lot of coverage in one story. Bradley also covers racial disharmony and fragging, as well as efforts to win the hearts and minds of the people of South Vietnam. It doesn’t give anything away to report that those efforts end badly.

I find it heartening that fine literary works about the Vietnam War continue to appear in 2012, all these decades after the end of the fighting. This work of Bradley’s ranks up there with other latecomers such as Karl Marlantes’ Matterhorn and Robert McGowan’s Nam: Things That Weren’t True and Other Stories.

Some of Bradley’s stories are funny and some are sad, but all reach deep into the human soul.

The author’s website is www.doug-bradley.com

—David Willson

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