In 1967-68, Richard Alexander served with the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment in Vietnam. Memories of what he did and saw have stuck with him ever since. As a result, after nearly half a century, he wrote My Other Life: A Combat Soldier in Vietnam (Darwin Press, 266 pp.; $34.95).
Upon opening his book, I thought, “What makes his story different from others who shared similar experiences?” I must admit to one fault: I usually bypass prefaces, forwards, acknowledgements, and anything else that delays the opening of a memoir. I want the story first.
Nevertheless, for no particular reason, I read Alexander’s preface. In it, he projects a why-the-fuck-not-talk-about-everything style that immediately had me nodding and laughing in sync with his tirade of honesty. The preface says it all. Yet, at the same time, it makes the reader feel as if some heavy stuff will follow. And it does.
Alexander jumps into the Vietnam War through a series of flashbacks. After bombing out of college, he volunteered for the draft. Alexander says he felt obligated to help to prevent the Domino Theory from becoming a reality. Or did he, he wondered.
In Vietnam Alexander manned a gun on an armored personnel carrier, got promoted to track commander, and then demoted back to gunner after complaining about the progress of the war within hearing range of his commander. His regiment worked near Xuan Loc in the south and on the Batangan Peninsula in the north.
The story line sounds familiar, but Alexander’s irreverent presentation knocks it beyond ordinary memoir boundaries. He hopscotches from scene to scene with prose overflowing with doubt, sarcasm, fear, love, hate, cynicism, and exaggeration. He raises questions about most phases of the war while producing laughs and anger. His amped-up writing style seldom wavers in its intensity portraying war as a menace to mankind.
At times he displays near-psychopathic rushes of ambivalence, hating the war but hating with equal ferocity those who protested against it. As a corollary to that hate, he constantly wanted to go home despite knowing that Americans no longer loved warriors.
“The first patrol I went out on,” Alexander writes, “set the tone for my whole tour.” Much of what he saw on that patrol, such as the murder of a prisoner, might be familiar to readers of Vietnam War memoirs, but the trauma Alexander felt further verifies the horrors of war.
Descriptions of his eight months in the field are what you expect to read—days of intense heat or rain in overgrown jungle or on dusty or muddy terrain, with interruptions of death and destruction from unseen forces until helicopter gunfire and Phantom napalm blasts incinerate everything in his unit’s path, soon followed by another similar day. Alexander, though, describes the routine in a spellbinding manner.
Shortly after Alexander survived a case of malaria and got out of the hospital with three months left in his tour and was assigned to rear-echelon duty, he agreed to a one-time courier trip to his former unit on the Cambodian border near Loc Ninh. He arrived on the day the Tet Offensive kicked off and once more became an APC gunner (until six days before rotating home), continually wondering “why” as mines and rockets destroyed men and tracks around him.
Alexander remembers a lot of guys he enjoyed knowing in Vietnam but never saw again. For a long time, he refused to search for their names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial so that he could continue to hope they survived the fighting. He still feels guilty for being “spared,” as he calls his it.
“We were nothing but bait, going out each day,” he says. He developed a phobia of being ambushed and overrun, a situation American tactics set the stage for eventually encountering, he believes.
He rails against the enthusiasm of young people enticed by military propaganda that glorifies war”It’s a good thing we don’t know what awaits us, isn’t it?,” he writes. “What’s in store for us?”
Alexander repeatedly addresses the emotional toll that his war service took on his closely knit family, particularly on his parents. He examines every angle regarding his younger brother’s decision to move to Europe to avoid the draft, giving his brother a voice in the argument.
I found many similarities between Alexander’s My Other Life and Bruce McDaniel’s recently-published Walk Through the Valley: The Spiritual Journey of a Vietnam War Medic. The war significantly disillusioned both authors. Alexander’s book also made me dig Brian Esher’s Rolling Coffins: Experiences of a Mechanical Infantry Soldier in the Bloodiest Year of the Vietnam War, 1968 from my bookshelf. Combined, Alexander and Esher present a full-scale picture of life among APC crewmen.
Esher, too, found disenchantment with his nation but pride in his service. As he put it: “I was a simple soldier who did his duty when called upon by his country.”
To me, these three authors speak for the masses.