E. E. “Doc” Murdock tells us in the first sentence of My Vietnam War (H.O.T. Press, 329 pp., $12.95, paper; $3.99, Kindle) that the book is a novel and that he wants to make us understand “what it was like over there.” He also tells us this book takes place in 1967, “the deadliest of the Vietnam War.”
The handling of military information in the book suggests that Murdock—an Emeritus Professor of Educational Psychology, Administration, and Counseling at California State University, Long Beach—was not in Vietnam as a soldier. Perhaps he was not there at all, in any role.
The novel begins with a quote from Descartes: “How can you prove we are not sleeping and this is not just a dream?” The author says this is from his Philosophy 112 textbook, which becomes a major character in the book. It is often quoted from and referred to, and the main character’s reliance on the book gains him the nickname “the philosopher.”
Our hero calls himself the Watcher (we find out much later that his name is Scotty). He works all day in “the warehouse,” the Army’s Central Saigon food supply and shipping facility, along with his boyhood friend, Brent. Scotty says that he and Brent are “part of the Army’s hoard of behind-the-lines manual laborers who help keep the war going.” There is little information about what the warehouse job consisted of, which leads me to believe that Murdock knows nothing about any such job.
Scotty and Brent joined the Army to avoid the draft. They grew up in Mesa, Arizona, where they worked in Brent’s father’s auto wrecking yard. They had a small-time marijuana-dealing business, and get heavily involved in that business in Saigon. By the way, both men arrive in Vietnam without having had AIT or any other kind of training after basic.
They spend their nights in Wong’s Bar in the saddest part of downtown Saigon where “Purple Haze” and “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” play on the jukebox.
This is that rarity, a Vietnam War REMF novel, at least in the beginning, that is written in a very literate style. After taking his time getting to the warehouse job, Murdock skitters away from it like a water bug on LSD. The narrator, Scotty, spends a lot of time stoned, in a dreamlike state, mulling over the past and fantasizing his present in very long internal monologues—long and tedious internal monologues.
Scotty questions the authority of his fat, disgusting sergeant (Sgt. Fartass Farkas). He soon finds himself in the jungle, first as a grunt, and then as an assistant medic or corpsman. The author uses those Army and Marine terms interchangeably.
Scotty has a spiritual experience with a young naked Vietnamese woman in the back room of Wong’s. She tells him dream-tales, one involving a turtle, which emphasize the sacred nature of animal life. Scotty often mulls over this memory. He puts it to practice when on road-guard duty. This ends badly when his partner getting killed and his head cut off and put on a spike after Scotty leaves his post to return a small green turtle to a body of water.
When the company medic dies in an ambush, Scotty is assigned his job without any training, and is given what Murdock calls a “field promotion” to specialist, even though he has not specialized in anything. This is one of many jarring notes in this novel that caused me to think that Murdock never walked this walk, which is why he struggles to talk the talk.
There is action in this novel, but it is leavened by the almost endless internal maundering of the narrator. This is as far from a stripped-down action/adventure novel as a writer can get. That’s fine with me, but I crave the flavor of authenticity and did not find it in this book
There is a long, long hospital sequence during which Scotty is recovering from wounds. There also is a dramatic ending involving the Tet Offensive in Saigon. Spoiler alert: A character turns out to be a VC officer who protects Scotty during the fighting. None of this rings true. And many other things did not resonate with truth.
This novel did not make me understand what it was like “over there.” Not even close. I don’t recommend it to anyone who spent time in Vietnam in any capacity whatsoever.
If you were there, I believe that by the third page you’d be throwing the book against the wall, hollering “Bullshit!” as you do.