Richard E. Baker served with the 4th Infantry Division Band in the Vietnam War. According to his novel, Incoming: The Piteous Recognition of Slaughter (Stephen Banks, 214 pp., $12, paper) the author “has suffered a lifelong battle with PTSD and his devoted his life to researching the illness.” Baker has written other Vietnam-War related books, most notably Shellburst Pond.
Pete, the main character of this novel, is a trumpet player who made the mistake of enlisting in an Army infantry band. He could play “Chet Baker riffs,” but he would not get a chance to do that during his tour of duty in Vietnam.
He is eighteen years old and has a dark shadow he calls Clifton. Clifton is with Pete nearly all the time, but nobody else can see Clifton. Pete thinks he will be safe from the killing part of the war as his MOS is O2B2O, trumpet/coronet player. He is said to be “a hell of a horn player.” But as Pete says, “things have not gone as planned.”
There is a lot of understatement in this book. I also see great kinship between Incoming and Louis Ferdinand Celine’s Death on the Installment Plan. The main difference is that this book is punctuated traditionally—no dashes.
Pete and Clifton leave for Vietnam, along with the rest of the band, from a dock in Tacoma, Washington, on the U.S.S. John Pope. The first one hundred pages of the book are powerful and take place entirely aboard this small ship. The men stop briefly in Okinawa, and then arrive at the coastal South Vietnamese city of Qui Nhon. Around this point we get a reference to an American icon as Baker writes that a character “was calm as John Wayne even though he never went to war.”
The band ends up stationed at Dragon Mountain Base Camp near Pleiku. They are forced to break into a supply depot to steal training manuals to learn how to be solders. They set up their Claymores backwards at first because they had received no specialized infantry training. Their sergeant, SGT Bigglio, is an incompetent martinet.
With their band instruments in storage, they become infantrymen, slowly and with great sacrifice of lives. They are tossed into the burning barrel of war, fuel for the fire. They do the best they can. They serve the needs of the Army and the Army does not need band members, so the promise is broken—the promise the recruiter made back in the States.
It is familiar story, but also an uncommon one: pimple-faced teenagers transform themselves into killers. They will never be musicians again.
There is a powerful set piece in which a tank slowly runs over a protesting Buddhist monk that is as chilling as anything I have ever read in Vietnam War literature. Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and the Rolling Stones get mentioned. Sonny and Cher appear briefly.
At one point we are told by a Vietnamese: “No Americans, no war. There was nothing complicated about it.” We meet characters who wear necklaces of dried VC testicles and worse.
I recommend this book to anyone who intends to see an Army recruiter. Read this book first. It is a powerful corrective to the optimism of any teenager who thinks that joining the Army during time of war is a good idea—even if he can play the trumpet like Cat Anderson.