Ronald B. Fenster and Jerold A. Greenfield’s D.A.S.P.O.: An Unhinged Novel of Vietnam (Creative Book Publishers International, 360 pp., $14.95, paper), we are told, is “the M*A*S*H* if the Vietnam War.” We also are told that the book was “based on the adventurous tour of duty of Lt. Ronald B. Fenster.” D.A.S.P.O. stands for Department of the Army Special Photographic Office.
This is a book of fiction. “The historical facts and dates relating to the events of that war are accurate,” the authors say, “but some characters are compilations of people who served in D.A.S.P.O. units in the time and place described.” So what we have is a historical novel.
It begins on June 17, 1970, in Saigon. The main character is Lt. Leon Foster, a director and film maker. We soon learn a lot about films shot in Vietnam during the war. That includes “Genital Warts and You” and a three-part film about the challenges faced at the largest and biggest mortuary on the planet, at Tan Son Nhut.
I used to eat lunch with the guys who worked there. Due to the aroma that clung to them, there was always space at their lunch table. Less romantic subjects also were filmed, including “The Hazards of Vehicle Operation.”
In the section of the book about the mortuary, we hear the old legend about aluminum coffins full of dope being sent home to America by the crooked folks who had access to them. One of the subplots deals with the attempt of the military to stem the flood of heroin into the country. Another motif that recurs in Vietnam War books—the idea that LSD was used in Vietnam to soften the enemy—shows up when an enemy colonel gets that treatment with the usual results.
For readers interested in helicopter warfare in Vietnam, there is a lot of that in this book, too. The helicopters on the cover made that promise and it was kept by the authors.
The reader encounters references to the song “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” and to Agent Orange, which the troops are told is harmless, “aiding greatly in our war effort.” The cultural differences about public urination are noted. Old John Wayne movies get credit for their importance in American culture.
The main point I got from this phantasmagorical novel is that “maybe half the people in the Army are either doing drugs, selling drugs, recovering from drugs, thinking about drugs, stealing drugs, or some damn thing.”
The novel makes the point that in 1965 (the year I was drafted) “the military didn’t even have a single jail in Vietnam. Nobody was committing crimes and those that did were shipped to Okinawa for court-martial.”
When I got to Vietnam, things had changed, but the war portrayed in this novel—the war of the early ‘70’s—was one I did not see. I highly recommend this novel for its picture of how it was in the American war’s last years for D.A.S.P.O. and other related Army groups, the so-called “other” war in Vietnam.
For more info, go to www.daspothenovel.com