The Body Burning Detail by Bill Jones

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During his Vietnam War induction process, Bill Jones joined the Marine Corps by voluntarily filling one of its draftee quota slots. A moment after raising his hand, he thought: “Nobody is more surprised than me.”

That decision began a love-hate relationship with the Corps, which Jones spells out in his memoir, The Body Burning Detail: Memoir of a Marine Artilleryman in Vietnam (McFarland, 202 pp. $29.95, paper; $9.99 Kindle).

Bill Jones describes that relationship with contemplative stories and poems that both challenge and entertain the reader. He proposes questions and makes pronouncements based on lessons he learned firsthand.

He does not shy away from showing the downside of military life—and of warfare. His negativity contains reasoning and wonderment that often remains unresolved, and it provokes questions. “War damages everyone in one way or another,” Jones concludes. “Even the ones who do not go. The extent of the damage is simply a matter of degrees.”

Jones experienced his share of combat drama, fear, and trauma in I Corps Fire Direction Centers with the 3rd Battalion, 12th Marine Regiment, 3rd Marine Division during his 1968-69 Vietnam War tour of duty. Many of the men he served with were killed or wounded in action.

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At Alpine, his first Fire Support Base, he received invaluable advice from an old timer his own age: “This is Vietnam,” the guy said. “Just remember, nobody gives a fuck.”

Days and nights in the FDC bunker, Jones writes, “run together. There are no days off, no holidays, very little free time. The battery is firing or available to fire twenty-four hours a day. We sleep when we can.”

At Neville FSB, he lived in (and hid from mortar rounds in) mud-filled bunkers that he shared with rats. Nearly a month of incessant rain deterred helicopters from supplying food, ammunition, and mail.  His unit targeted artillery from Vandegrift Combat Base in support of the Marines at Khe Sanh. At LZ Argonne, he survived a ten-day battle before the base was abandoned.

Jones finished his year at thinly manned Alpha-2 FSB, the U.S. position closest to the demilitarized zone. “I am just a lowly lance corporal, two stripes above a private, but I have the authority to fire tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of artillery at any real or imagined targets I so choose,” he writes. That paradoxical situation disturbed him.

By then Bill Jones had learned to understand that in war “people are killed or simply die for no apparent reason,” he says, and he managed to contend with discomfort and ever-increasing danger. He detested anyone who justified his importance by lording over people and making them appear worthless. That included officers looking to get their combat tickets punched at the expense of grunts who merely wanted to survive.

In this regard, Jones eliminates the intervening years between the war and now to remember rear echelon bullies, such as “Sergeant Pipsqueak” and his “pogue rodent face” that “smirks like an egg-sucking mongrel dog.” On the other hand, he glorifies purposeful extremist behavior by men such as a third-tour artillery forward observer named Hutch, who became his role model.

Jones’ exposure to combat validated the advice he received at the start of his tour. “The war is lost,” he decided. “The United States will never prevail in this part of Southeast Asia and it is foolish to even consider otherwise.”

Jones’ words aspire to solve the riddle of his existence as a twenty-year-old, as well as fifty years thereafter. He presents seven poems that recall concise slices of life-altering events. For example, he depicts a crash he witnessed as:

A fighter plane

Follows tracer round

Into a red hillside.

Although Jones admits that The Body Burning Detail is not a “tell-all confessional,” he presents an informative and thought-provoking account about war’s effect on his generation.

—Henry Zeybel