In William Watson’s Bravo Troop: A Forward Observer’s Vietnam Memoir (McFarland, 278 pp. $29.95, paper; $13.49, Kindle), actions explode out of nowhere without a visible enemy as vehicles and men detonate mines; RPGs blast tanks and APCs; napalm and flame baths obliterate the landscape; and Lt. Watson is in the midst of it all.
Watson served as an artillery forward observer with armored Bravo Troop of the 3rd Squadron, 4th Cavalry in the U.S. Army’s 25th Infantry Division from January 10 to July 18, 1969. The book deals with his six months in Vietnam without referencing the rest of his life, although Watson tells us he received a commission through ROTC at Princeton and earned a law degree from Harvard prior to going on active duty.
Bravo Troop primarily conducted road sweeps of highways used by convoys that hauled supplies from Cu Chi near Saigon north to Tay Ninh City and points between. That task included finding mines and protecting trucks from ambushes by NVA and VC troops. Bravo also searched out enemy soldiers and bunkers in surrounding forests and inserted and extracted LRRP teams.
In recounting what he saw and did, Watson tells enlightening stories about large battles. He writes in a style that coolly reports vivid actions with minimal emotion. In describing his first full-scale firefight, for example, he says, “It was a noise that I had never imagined.”
At times, the narrative held my attention because Watson used an authoritarian voice that said, “Here is what we did and what you should know. Take it or leave it.” Units Bravo operated with suffered heavy casualties and were grossly undermanned. The NVA usually set the pace for encounters.
Watson’s recalling of events from each and every day of his tour of duty risks boring a reader with details of unproductive exercises and mundane activities. As he puts it: “The real ratio of routine to excitement involved much more routine than I have reported.”
But those short descriptions create a strong feeling for his overall adventure—good and bad. For example, he says, “At the morning briefing Headley said today would be a lot like yesterday, and it was,” and later admits that it “is clear now that I was often unaware of much that was going on around me.”
Personal notes, maps, and cassette tapes from back in the day combined with newly found copies of the Squadron Duty Officer’s Log from the National Archives provided the material for the day-by-day accounts. Although Watson received a Purple Heart and eight Bronze Stars (five for valor), he downplays his heroics.
I don’t know how much information about the Army has slipped my mind during the past fifty years, but Watson taught me more than I thought I knew about being a soldier in the Vietnam War. His recollection of an in-country 25th Infantry new-guy course is eye-opening and excellent. His flowing accounts of maneuvers in the field taught me new knowledge. I frequently referred to the book’s excellent map of Bravo’s operating area.
The young lieutenant’s behavior and subtle reactions to war in general emphasize the shortcomings of the entire Vietnam War effort without a word of preaching.