Throughout his life Charles W. Newhall, III has engaged the world with ferocious intensity. The son of a World War II Army Air Corps colonel, Newhall was raised to uphold his family’s military tradition, which extends back to the Civil War. That guidance and his reading as a student at military schools instilled an ethos encompassed by warriors from all of history.
Before reading his book—Fearful Odds: A Memoir of Vietnam and Its Aftermath (Bibliotheca Brightside, 260 pp.; $34.95, hardcover; $17.95, paper; $6.99, Kindle)—I studied its nineteen pages of photographs. They provided background that better prepared me to understand commitments far deeper than the accommodations that have guided me from day to day. The book is complex because Chuck Newhall continually poses provocative questions about values and leadership in war and peace.
As a platoon leader with 1/327 of the 101st Airborne Division, Newhall spent six month patrolling the ridge lines of the A Shau Valley in 1968-69. His normal order of march was “point man first, slack man (M-60 machine gun), me.” That was Newhall’s way of setting an example as a leader.
Helping to fulfill their part of America’s search and destroy strategy, his men were minnows on a fishhook to attract NVA forces camped in Laos. They often came under fire from, Newhall says, “Russian artillery guided by Russian and Chinese advisers located a mile away.”
When they did engage the NVA in South Vietnam, his platoon did not always get the firepower they needed to complete the destroy part. Instead, they shared air support with Marines at Khe Sanh. “The net result is that whoever is losing the most men gets air support,” Newhall says. The Americans were always outnumbered due to the proximity of NVA camps to the border. Air power, Newhall concludes, “is great when you have it.”
Despite Chuck Newhall’s superior military education and his strong desire to engage the enemy, twice within a week his platoon was decimated. The first time came on his third day as a leader. His Prologue describes this action, a lifetime worth of death and destruction. But Newhall seeks no solace and accepts responsibility for all that befell his men and himself.
Newhall does not filter what he saw and did. He admits that his men paid back for what they suffered. He speaks of mutilating, scalping, eating flesh, and bowling with a heads of the NVA dead. He himself cut the throat of a wounded enemy soldier.
The author candidly discourses on good and bad relations with superiors and subordinates. In the field, he learned and he taught. He recalled feats of historic figures such as Hannibal and Crazy Horse to guide his behavior. Like King Henry V, he strove to form a band of brothers within his undermanned platoon.
He overcame wounds and other hardships and rhapsodizes over love for battle: “Whoever has lived the life of a warrior can love no other; war becomes the incomparable mistress of your heart, an addiction of unimaginable intensity.”
During the last half of his one-year tour Newhall served as a staff officer. His highly personalized value system created difficulties in civilian life, including in his marriage. That dilemma is the crux of book’s last section.
Newhall earned an MBA from Harvard and attacked the world of venture capital as zealously as he entered combat. Living in Boston amid beautiful gardens, artfully decorated mansions, and upper-crust friends, Newhall’s nights were haunted by ghosts from the A Shau Valley. He enjoyed big business success, but it soon was negated by the transformation of his wife’s personality, the collapse of their marriage, her suicide, and the unraveling of his psyche.
Newhall has spent thirty years fighting PTSD. His closing chapters aim at helping others with the disorder. He emphasizes the necessity of having expert guidance—in his case, a noted psychiatrist. Most touching, he includes passages from his wife’s diary and her final note, which deal with his failures as a husband and father.
Beyond all else, sharing those stunning revelations shows the depth of Chuck Newhall’s courage as a man devoted to improving the lives of others.
The author’s website is www.fearfulodds.com