Napalm’s Embrace by W. Thomas Leonard

I read W. Thomas Leonard’s Napalm’s Embrace  (BookBaby, 456 pp., $1.99, e book) on my Kindle. It is well worth reading, and it is very cheap.

This is not the usual Marine Corps novel as it is based on the author’s 1968-69  tour of duty in the Vietnam War as a Civil Affairs officer. Leonard calls it a “non-infantry centric novel set in South Vietnam in 1968, at the height of the Vietnam War.”  Maybe so, but there is a lot of combat in it; much blood is spilled.

There also is a big love affair between the main character, USMC 2nd Lt. Jack Brady, and his translator, Tran Thi Sam. It won’t surprise you that that affair is fraught with cultural communication problems and ends badly, as does Brady’s engagement with his love back home. That young woman gets caught up in the antiwar movement and falls for a draft dodger. Some of those draft dodgers were charismatic and charming—although unwashed, of course.

One of our hero’s closest friends, Mike Donnelly, is in Vietnam primarily to try to find his missing brother. He and Brady enlist Sam as a helper in this quest. Dire consequences ensue.

I enjoyed reading about Brady’s futile efforts to win the hearts and minds of the villagers while his fellow Marines were doing their best to kill them. He was often told that he should have joined the Peace Corps if he wanted to do that sort of work. I agree.

The most interesting part of this novel was the stuff about the Marine Corps brig where malcontents, many of them African-American, were imprisoned. The death of Martin Luther King caused the inmates to riot; that riot is well presented.

Leonard captures what it was like to be in a military prison in Vietnam during the war. I never was in that Marine Corps brig, but I did enter Long Binh Jail several times, and Leonard summons up what it must have been like to be housed in those oven-like Conex containers.

Much time is given to presenting the African-American prisoners and their gripes and grievances, as Brady has to (at different times) defend and prosecute prisoners.The sentences handed out are draconian, but realistic given that the Marines were at war, and orders are given to be followed.

At first I had little sympathy for the African American prisoners and their problems. But then it occurred to be that the idea that the Marines were an all-volunteer force was a fiction and that many of those prisoners had no doubt been drafted into the Corps.

They did not like being Marines “fighting a White Man’s War,” as Brady says. “He knew blacks didn’t stand a chance in the military system.” That was my impression, too, when I was interviewing prisoners at LBJ.

The book is not especially well-edited; it could use a few thousand commas. Also, Leonard calls into doubt the credibility of his book as a historical novel when he has a main character indulge in a clichéd rant about Jane Fonda.

Anachronisms that addle history are an annoyance, especially when they are easily prevented by minimal research. Jane Fonda’s trips to Hanoi took place in the 1970s, so no Marine Corps lieutenant would be toasting “Hanoi Jane, one of our most ardent and vocal supporters” in 1968.

The novel looks at a Marine Corps Civic Affairs officer in the Vietnam War

The novel touches bases with the usual issues that Vietnam War fiction deals with: baby killing, Indian country, John Wayne, and “the frustrations about finding an enemy who wouldn’t fight, only snipe at you and lace the entire area with deadly booby traps.”

The great strength of this novel is that it deals with the Peace Corps-like aspect of what it was like for a Marine lieutenant to be trained as an infantryman, but then have to work as a Civil Affairs officer. The frustrating task of winning hearts and minds by building wells in villages while being hampered by South Vietnamese corruption and VC interference (not to mention Marine Corps chicken shit) makes for an interesting read.

This is another Marine Corps book that made me glad I chose to serve in Vietnam in the Army.

—David Willson

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