Montoya served two tours in Vietnam aboard the USS Trippe (DE 1075) and the USS Truxton (DLGN 35). In his creatively written memoir, Vietnam Body Count (CreateSpace, 370 pp., $17, paper), Montoya tells us that after killing soldiers, women, and children in Vietnam, he circumnavigated the globe.
Montoya’s worked in “R” (Repair) gangs on board his Navy ships. He fixed things such as broken plumbing. His job was to keep a ship from sinking and he also fought shipboard fires. They called him a snipe.
This memoir, which reads very much like a novel, pays homage to Herman Wouk’s classic shipboard novel, The Caine Mutiny. The main plot is the tension between Chief Jaffe and Mushroom Montoya, whom Jaffe decides is a “peacenik” and must be gotten off his ship by any means possible.
Jaffe tries again and again to frame Montoya as a drug user, which he is not. Mushroom is a guy who showed up for this stint in the Navy, his second, with hair down to his shoulders. He burns up his rage at the killing by running around and around the ship’s smokestack screaming. He also meditates, which seems suspicious to the chief. Montoya, who is from California, even has a mantra.
The captain of the ship, as we are alerted by the title, is obsessed with getting a positive body count. He is a Commander, not a Captain, and also is obsessed with making Captain. Unfortunately, his ship has killed friendly villagers and American and South Vietnamese soldiers, which has given the ship a negative body count.
To get the body count up, the captain decides to bomb a Catholic church during Sunday morning mass. Intel indicates that the VC are hiding ammo under the floor of the church. Montoya and friends decide to alert the priest that the attack is coming so that the church will be empty when the bombs hit. Montoya is told that it would be tantamount to treason to give this information to the priest.
Montoya’s efforts to thwart his captain’s goals are fueled by letters from his friend Kathy, who asks him if he is the sort of guy who took part in the My Lai Massacre and the napalming of Vietnamese children. She says that she hopes “he is not involved in stuff like that.”
Of course, the purpose of war is to kill, so he is involved in stuff like that. All of us who were there were involved.
Montoya holds forth about the purpose of the Vietnam War. He says we were not there to stop the spread of communism, but “we’re pouring [money] into the pockets of the cigar smoking fatties at Dow Chemical.” He goes on to say: “We’re killing the Vietnamese so that American business can thrive.”
I was pleased when Jane Fonda was addressed as a subject in this philosophical war memoir. Mushroom says he was proud of her when she was in Hanoi trying to stop the war. Montoya agrees with Fonda, and praises her and her film Barbarella.
Chief Jaffe, on the other hand says, “She’s a fucking traitor. I hope they shoot the bitch.” Montoya replies, “She has big balls.”
For readers who enjoyed The Caine Mutiny and want to read a book similar to it in many ways—but which takes part in the Vietnam War—this is the book for you. I found it a refreshing contrast so many Vietnam War memoirs that laud the American war in Vietnam, but forget about all the innocent villagers who died from being shelled, and the many American soldiers who died as a result of indiscriminate friendly fire.
Blasting a Roman Catholic Church off the face of the earth on Sunday morning was not an effective way to win hearts and minds or defeat the spread of communism.
The author’s website is http://vietnambodycount.blogspot.com