Roland Menge informs us that Against the War (Amazon Digital Services, $9.99, Kindle) is a historical novel. It examines the response of the Vietnam War generation to the Vietnam War. The novel closely follows the lives of four young men who graduated from college in 1968.Two of them go off to take part in the Vietnam War; one becomes an Air Force pilot and the other an Army medic.
The other two chose to join one of the organizations set up by the government for white middle-class, educated young men to avoid military duty: VISTA. Each has a female companion or wife, all of whom are closely followed throughout this very long novel.
Menge’s novel reminds me of both Theodore Dreiser and John Dos Passos. The almost overwhelming wealth of detail, backed up by hundreds of end notes, is the Dreiser-like aspect. The use of newspapers, speeches, and magazine articles owes a debt to Dos Passos’s great USA trilogy.
Menge has composed a complex pastiche, a novelized history of the years 1968-71. Virtually everything that happened during these years is in this book, either by reference or stage center with one of the main characters in attendance,k Zelig-like. Woodstock, the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, and everything else of that magnitude is in the book. It’s a vast panorama with enormous attention to detail.
The great strength of the book resides in the sections that deal with VISTA. The conscientious objector, Tom Steward, could be the main character in a free-standing novel about him and his life as a CO. As Menge writes: “My life of the time somewhat parallels the life of Tom Steward in the novel.” That novel could be mined from this huge book, leaving out the attempt to tell the stories of Matt Brandt, Jim Morris, and Bill O’Rourke as fully as Menge tells Steward’s story.
Menge does fine with the story of Matt Brandt, the other VISTA worker. But when he turns to the stories of Jim Morris, the Air Force pilot, and O’Rourke, the Army medic, he gets himself and the novel into trouble. I lack the space to detail all anachronisms and wrong notes in the military parts of the novel, so l will just focus on the O’Rourke character and his love interest. I could not figure out why the author did not emphasize the difficulties of their romance, one between an Army Spec4 medic and an Army nurse.
Very late in the book I figured it out. Menge was not ignoring the difficulties such a romance would pose. He was unaware of them. Very late in the story O’Rourke and his love interest, Barbara Carpenter, take R&R together. At last, Menge gives Carpenter’s rank, a Spec3. Menge thinks an Army nurse is an Spec3. For one thing, there was no such rank. For another, all nurses were officers. Menge also shows his ignorance of the vast gap between officer and enlisted when O’Rourke calls his lieutenant “Cubby,” and is similarly familiar with his captain.
I am not saying that officer nurses never fraternized with enlisted men—and sometimes have sex with them and sometimes marry them. And some enlisted men did relate in a familiar manner with officers. But it was unusual enough that it has to be explained and the reader has to be prepared for it. It is jarring for it to be presented as status quo, which it was not.
Because of my personal involvement with Agent Orange (I was heavily exposed to it in Vietnam and am now dealing with Multiple Myeloma), I was bothered by an anachronistic speech given by an NVA major who lectures Major Morris when he is a POW, telling him that AO is causing physical defects in children in Vietnam, and also physical problems “to your own soldiers.”
I can’t swallow that as something that happened. It is excessively didactic, as well as anachronistic.
O’Rourke dies in Vietnam and Major Morris comes home a shell of a man, unable to sexually perform with his loving and beautiful wife who made her living in Las Vegas while he was gone, showing off her body to men professionally while wearing a very brief “costume.”
Morris kills himself. Menge backs up this dire happening with plenty of research and footnotes. Yes, stuff like this happened. But did many POWs come back from the war and eventually manage to have full rich lives, including sexual ones? Yes, they did.
Ellen, the widow of Major James Morris, gives us the agenda of this book. “We made them die for a war we didn’t want to win,” she says. “We made them die for a war we should not have even started, a war that was a mistake from the start.” I’m not arguing with Ellen, but many would.
A lot of folks did want to win that war, whatever winning would have looked like, and many of them helped drop millions of bombs on the people of Vietnam in the effort. They were sincere in their effort.
Did the author “fairly represent the experience of the whole generation in how they responded to the war,” as he claims? I did not recognize myself in the book. I did not share the assumption that if drafted I would go to Vietnam, and if I went to Vietnam, I would be at risk, most likely in the infantry. Or that it was likely I would die there. That simply never occurred to me.
Most of the people I went through Advanced Individual Training with did not go to Vietnam. Most went to Europe or Korea. It was not inevitable that I’d go to Vietnam. I did go, and served with the Inspector General as a stenographer, typing letters and filing. I did not see a character of this ilk in this book.
Another thing that bothered me was the absence of NCOs who would have been between Spec4 O’Rourke and Lt. “Cubby.” And why are C-Rats called “canned food”? Why were they heated up in boiling water and not with a little piece of C-4? Why is wafer spelled “waver?” Why did combat pilots “kink” rather than jink? I think that “kink” is flat out wrong, and so are many other little things in the Vietnam War section of this book.
I could have spent my time rereading Tristram Shandy or any two of James Joyce’s big books, but instead I read this one. For a man with a limited amount of time to live, I am not certain I made a smart choice.
The author’s website is: www.againstthewarnovel.com