The purest truths come from personal experiences. Gary Lyles’ My Story: Vietnam 1968, 196th Light Infantry Brigade (E-Book Time, 263 pp., $14.95, paper; $5.95, Kindle.) scores an A-plus for honesty in recollecting his experiences as a United States Army infantryman in Vietnam.
The book came to life from “a barely legible pile” of “random handwritten thoughts” and “a shoe box full of memories,” Lyles says. For decades, he could not write about Vietnam. He believed he needed to incorporate what “he had learned about the war” to give his experience perspective.
But Lyles finally decided, he writes, that that effort would “add little to the personal story.” He realized that what he had done spoke for itself, and that incorporating the history of the war did not relate to his combat life. Consequently, Lyles writes with a candidness that might embarrass lesser men.
From the day he arrived in-country and was assigned to the 196th Light Infantry Brigade, Lyles knew he had entered a nightmare world. Fear was his constant escort. Within a month, he was ordered to kill two prisoners, refused to do so, and watched in stunned horror when two fellow soldiers carry out the murders. Several months later, with great disinterest, he watched an American apply pressure to a VC’s chest wound by standing on it until he died.
Lyles spent most of his tour in the Central Highlands where his unit “stayed in the field continuously.” He took part in many firefights. He learned as much as possible from more-seasoned grunts. Chosen to lead a squad, he mastered the art of directing artillery, as well as setting and avoiding ambushes. Two Bronze Stars, a Purple Heart, and promotions from E-3 to E-6 within a year validate Gary Lyles’ battlefield proficiency.
As much as he learned to hate the enemy Lyles also respected their skills. As he puts it: “I knew that the NVA would be advancing behind the barrage of artillery fire. Years of experience had given the NVA the ability to walk artillery in toward their objective with the ground troops following extraordinarily close behind the exploding shells.”
Lyles’ imagination often became his strongest enemy. What he saw compounded his fear for what might happen next. When his unit deployed to the DMZ, his worst fear materialized during the battle for Nhi Ha village: He and four other men were cut off while manning a listening post.
“As I peered up over the edge of the crater, my heart sank,” he writes of that horrific encounter. “Hundreds of NVA soldiers had just cleared the wood line and were advancing at a slow walk. Artillery flares lit up the night sky. The flares swinging from the falling parachutes made the shadows of the advancing soldiers move in an eerie manner. They were uniformed soldiers camouflaged with leafed branches attached to their helmets, pistol belts, and webbing. They were moving in our direction with bayonets fixed.”
His courage, though, constantly overpowered his fears. Lyles and three of the other men survived being overrun, but in a footnote he says, “The vision is seared into my brain. I had nightmares for years because of it.”
Lyles does not waste words. He describes and gives his opinions about events and people and then moves on without explanations. His just-the-facts accounts of interactions between American soldiers and Vietnamese civilians introduces many questions to ponder. He fully understands—but without specifically saying so—that his knowledge is truth born of battle.
Books such as My Story offer history lessons that subliminally reveal that there is no truth to history beyond what each individual learns on his own.