It should come as no surprise that a graduate of Claremont McKenna College with a BA in Comparative Literature and who eventually made a career in publishing should write a well-written and deeply researched memoir of his six-year military career. Nor should it be a surprise—except to some of the clannish West Pointers with whom he went through Ft. Benning Jump School and Basic Officer Infantry Course—that Robin Bartlett, an ROTC liberal arts major, was an effective, brave, and committed infantry platoon leader who saw substantial combat in the Vietnam War.
Bartlett’s Vietnam Combat: Firefights and Writing History (Casemate, 299 pp. $37.95, hardcover; $15.99, Kindle) includes photographs and drawings, a military glossary, a personal timeline, a bibliography, an index, and a list of veterans organizations—although I wish he had included the Jewish War Veterans of the USA, America’s oldest active VSO. Also, Bartlett includes to great effect many of the alternative-reality letters he wrote home from Vietnam to family and friends.
Bartlett made the drastic change from being a party planner at Ft. Bragg to being an infantry platoon leader in 1968 when he joined the 1st Battalion, 5th Regiment of the First Cavalry Division in I Corps. When he did, he recognized that his expected life span was less than 90 days.
Of the five new platoon leaders introduced to the battalion commander to replace five who had been killed in action, Bartlett was the only one who survived his tour of duty. He writes about the fatigue, intense heat, rain, mud, death, blood, firefights, deprivation, sweat, heat stroke, dehydration, and despair that he and his men experienced during frequent four-to-six-week forays into the boonies. Some humorous events, including an exploding shit barrel and the misadventures of a hard-luck private, and some positive things, such as a Christmas party at a Catholic orphanage, lighten the book’s tone.
Bartlett completed his time in the war with five months in II Corps working in the little-known Military History Detachment at Division HQ (“You fight it, We write it”). One of his main tasks was to write a history of a particular battalion engagement that had gone wrong. That was no easy task as the battalion commander and the S-3 refused to speak to him.
Without casting blame, his draft report criticized certain operation events at command level. But Bartlett’s superior made him change the report’s title (“Battle of Parrot’s Beak”), as well as his conclusion so as to blame the heroic on-the-ground company commander who was clearly not at fault. The brass protects its own when the losers get to rewrite history.
Bartlett is frank in his assessment of the Vietnam War (“brave solders and bad politics”) and his resulting PTSD. He says writing this book was cathartic. Although he writes that his Vietnam War service was meaningless and a waste, the reader may conclude otherwise.
Robin Bartlett exhibited courage, performed his jobs well, cared for those who served under him, and developed leadership and organizational skills. His brother, father, and grandfather, all of whom graduated from West Point, should be proud of him.
When greeting Vietnam War veterans, “Welcome home” is the Bartlett phrase uses. I have decided to do the same rather than the trite, “Thank you for your service.”
Bartlett’s website is robinbartlettauthor.com
— Harvey Weiner