The book title’s question recurs throughout Robert O. Babcock’s What Now, Lieutenant? An Infantryman in Vietnam (Deeds, 422 pp., $19,95, paper; $4.99, Kindle), an incident-jammed memoir that links a stream of anecdotes—some gruesome, some humorous—that highlight the kaleidoscopic tour of a young, proud, and impressionable Army infantry officer in the early days of the Vietnam War.
Bob Babcock’s memory swarms with “alarms and diversions” as the old officer’s training manual put it. He presents these through excerpts from his letters home and adds extended commentary on the day-to-day operations while he served as leader of Bravo Company of the 1st Battalion/22nd Infantry Regiment in the 4th Infantry Division.
What is striking about this memoir is the degree to which—despite his experiences with friendly fire, obtuse and careless orders from the higher ups, and even a bout of malaria— Babcock “keeps the faith,” maintaining his respect for his fellow company officers, his troops, and the overall mission.
This is a record of the early days (1966-67) when the Vietnam War was being fought as crisis management and the main goal of the generals seemed to be publicizing (and often exaggerating) the daily enemy body count. Though Babcock and his men see little evidence of progress toward achieving any strategic goal, they continue to follow orders with courage and honor—though, of course, not always without grumbling.
Endemic command SNAFUs notwithstanding, the author repeatedly asserts he was proud to have served and, most importantly, to have won the respect of the men of Bravo Company. During his tour, the company lost only three (two to friendly fire) of the 180 who served in the unit.
Babcock quotes, apparently without irony, Gen. William Westmoreland’s Thanksgiving Day message from the back of the 1966 holiday menu sent to the troops in the field: “May we each pray for continued blessings and guidance upon our endeavors to assist the Vietnamese people in their struggle to attain an everlasting peace within a free society.”
These words may have rung stirringly back at headquarters. But Bancock records his unit’s day-to-day operations in the field as a kind of endless rushing about to suppress enemy brushfires.
The memoir also reminds us that the war tactically changed year-by-year. For instance, the men of Bravo Company, serving in the Central Highlands in 1966, viewed the impoverished indigenous Montagnards with a mixture of pity and contempt. On the other hand, the increasingly guerrilla-savvy Army Special Forces at the same time were beginning to employ these very pro-American natives as trusted warrior-guides.
Aside from offering insights into the daily grind of a field unit in an early phase of the Vietnam War, the author describes what it was like to arrive back in The World after this tour of duty. Babcock recalls that in 1967 there were neither welcome home celebrations nor antiwar protests. His discomforting conclusion at the time was that most Americans just didn’t care much one way or the other about the war that had drastically altered his life and the lives of his fellow Bravo Company infantrymen.
Babcock supplements his memoir with mini-bios of many of those men, tracing the survivors’ post-war careers and current status in civilian life. He also includes a chapter titled “Advice for Today’s Lieutenants.”
— Paul Kaser
Note: Babcock’s memoir—first published in 2008 and re-issued in 2014—should not be confused with Marine Corps Gen. Richard Neal’s 2017 Vietnam War memoir of the same title.