Vietnam War veterans have entered the twilight of their lives and many of us have yet to tell our stories, which have much to say about a controversial war and about ourselves during that time. The distance between that war and most of us is now a half century and the time remaining to capture the experience of being in the Vietnam War is growing shorter.
Two U.S. Army 1st Infantry Division veterans have reached back many years, collected their memories, produced books about their very personal experiences. The books are Charles Smith’s Body Count Soldiers: Vietnam through the Eyes of a Draftee (117 pp., $15.99, paper; $9.99, Kindle) and Edmond Cubbage’s Just a Kid from Swampoodle to Vietnam, (173 pp., $19.99, paper and Kindle). They are welcome additions to the Vietnam Ware memoir genre.
Charles Smith, a member of Vietnam Veterans of America, presents his one-year odyssey as a young infantryman as a collection of day-to-day vignettes and observations. Because Smith was a draftee, he naturally addresses the unfairness of the Selective Service System and how privileged young men benefitted with exemptions, allowing them to avoid being drafted and serving in the war.
I was able, as one of many young enlistees who came from the underclass, to appreciate his thoughts. His comments about the distance he experienced between draftees and soldiers who enlisted brought back memories. I remember sitting around a campfire as the two groups jokingly commented on how each guy found himself in Vietnam by referring to each other by their serial number prefixes, “US” for draftees and “RA” for those who enlisted. The gist was that the RA’s were fools because they had joined the Army, while the US’s were there only because they were forced to be—as if it made any difference.
Many of Smith’s memories of being in the field are unembellished and low key. He describes what thousands of us faced: mosquito bites, dirt clinging to sweat-covered bodies, enemy fire, friendships, and sometimes tension between soldiers. And exposure to Agent Orange.
He also recalls a question put to him and heard by too many of us when came home: “How many people did you kill? When hearing that mindless question there is no way that I know to bridge the gap between those who fought in a war and those at home asking the question. After returning home, as Smith did, I became totally opposed to our involvement in the war and also angry about how the My Lai incident made all of us who served in Vietnam suspect in the eyes of many.
Body Count Soldiers was easy to read, enjoyable, and filled with shared experiences.
Edmond Cubbage’s Just a Kid from Swampoodle to Vietnam is similar to Body Count Soldiers, yet has significant differences. Once again, it was interesting to read about another Vietnam War veteran’s experiences and realize how much they were like my own. Like Cubbage, I had gone through airborne training before serving in Vietnam.
However, I was taken aback when, as an aside, Cuggage inexplicably offers an unfounded explanation about why so many paratroopers were killed during World War II’s D-Day’s assault. Perhaps he did it to make sure the reader was paying attention.
What’s more, when discussing the destructive consequences of Agent Orange, Cubbage cites a statistic that is inconsistent with the available data. Perhaps, when someone is trying to grasp the magnitude of that toxic chemical’s impact he can be forgiven for exaggerating to make a point.
The book is more rewarding when Cubbage focuses on his personal, down-to-earth experiences. He took me right back to ‘Nam the moment he brought up C-rations and mentioned ham and limas. “We all hated ham and lima beans; they were the worst,” Cabbage writes. As someone else once said, a can of ham and limas is “deadlier than a landmine.”
It is Cubbage’s remembrances of the small things like the rations and the long nights in the jungle waiting and waiting for something to happen that capture so well the experiences many of us had in Vietnam. His descriptions of up-close combat will be familiar to war veterans.
Cubbage’s memoir reads as if it is a series of passages excerpted from a young man’s journal, written as he is passing through an unfamiliar world shaped by the Army and combat in Vietnam.
Both memoirs are honest reflections of what the war was really like for those who carried the burden of the conflict on their shoulders.