Mark Rubinstein served in the U. S. Army in South Vietnam as a field medic tending to paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne Division. After his discharge he went to medical school, took a psychiatric residency, and became a forensic psychiatrist. He is now a professor of psychiatry at Cornell University Medical School. The Foot Soldier (Thunder Lake Press, 58 pp., $3.99, paper; $.99, Kindle) is his third work of fiction.
This novella features blurbs that give an accurate picture of the book. Warren Glaser, who served as a Marine Corps surgeon in Korea, says: “It brings you to the hell of wartime combat. It’s a compelling story.” Martin Isler says the book “is every bit as compelling as The Things They Carried.” High praise, indeed, although a bit overreaching.
When the main character, Costa, arrives in South Vietnam, the heat hits him “like a blast furnace” as he and the other new arrivals are “herded like cattle into a replacement depot.”
I wasn’t thrilled to encounter those Vietnam War fiction clichés on the very first page of the book. They would be fine In dialogue, but not in Costa’s internal thoughts. They set my teeth on edge, to not coin a phrase. Furthermore, the heat there was not like a blast furnace. It was too humid for that.
Costa is assigned to Second Battalion, Bravo Company, Third Platoon, under the command of a Lt. Johnson, a stereotype of the redneck southern officer: fat, piggy -eyed, and prejudiced against northerners. His first communication with Costa consists of asking him if he is “a guinea, a spic or wetback?”
I never heard that sort of talk in the Army. And I thought that a “spic” and a “wetback” were the same. Johnson is said to be a “ninety-day wonder right out of OCS.”
Costa’s first assignment is to “empty fifty-gallon drums of excrement from the company latrines.” No mention is made of burning the stuff. Soon, Costa is on a search and destroy mission in Quang Ngai Province. A free-fire zone in VC country.
Costa is assigned to walk point by the lieutenant, against the wishes of First Sergeant Davis,an old Asian hand who knows the score. Davis is also the designated tunnel-rat and is said to not have looked for a “rear flank assignment.” At one point Lt. Johnson threatens Sgt. Davis with a “Section Eight.” Not likely.
Things don’t go well, and Costa finds himself at the point of Lt. Johnson’s .45 being ordered to kill a harmless old man in a village. Johnson already has shot several village pigs and demonstrated a “penchant for violence and sadism” as he “descended into some beastly valley of mindless hatred.” The lieutenant ends up dead; Costa is medevaced with a foot shot off. His tour of duty is over.
This novella is packed with grunt action and is well-written once it gets going. That said, it contains a few clinkers. Early on, the narrator tells us that a grunt spends a year in the boonies and then is reassigned to one year in the rear. That simply didn’t happen. After a year a grunt would be going home, if he were still alive.
I also would have liked to have been told straight out what happened to that excrement. I have fretted about its destination.
This novella is a good place for a reader to start with a brief entrance into literature about grunts in the Vietnam War, what the author calls a “war measured in clicks.”
The next stop should be Tim O’Brien’s classic The Things They Carried.
The author’s website is http://mark.markrubinstein-author.com