The title of Vietnam Revisited: A Memoir of the Vietnam War (CreateSpace, 298 pp., $12.08, paper) tells the story: Patrick O’Regan reflects on journal entries he made as an infantryman in 1969-70. The book recreates his war experience while superimposing (in italics) his current thinking on that experience.
I try to read Vietnam War memoirs as if I’d never read another one on the subject. In that way, every book builds a distinct personality. Pat O’Regan owns the agenda: He picks his topics and tells me as much or as little as he wants me to know about them. O’Regan had both eyes wide open and his brain in overdrive as he strove to record everything he saw while writing his war journal entries. Based on his depth of thought, a more appropriate title for the book might be “The Nature of Mankind.”
“Innocence” and “inexperience” best describe O’Regan’s mentality as a twenty-two year old draftee, a state of mind that he deconstructs by using what he has learned since the war. He puts this new knowledge to work to re-evaluate himself, people, and situations he encountered in the Army. In his journal, he frequently gets into dialogues with himself, going so far as to label his younger persona as a “whiner.”
The book has dual themes. The most pronounced is O’Regan’s soul searching about the damage inflicted on him by a loveless relationship with his parents. Interactions with his superiors frequently trigger traumatic recollections of childhood, plunging him into self-analysis.
The second theme concerns military operations, emphasizing strategy, leadership, courage, fear, and luck. O’Regan’s discontent with leaders at high levels goes far beyond ever being assuaged. Nevertheless, in many ways, Army life provided the first “family” that cared about him.
Initially assigned to mortars with the “Old Guard,” the 199th Light Infantry Brigade, and living on fire bases, he decided that war was “a bore,” and “a lot like being in jail” because he “moped around all day long,” lonely and depressed. He thought: “If I’m to be here, I want to be a real soldier.”
O’Regan repeatedly requested, but was denied, reassignment to the field. Months of complaining wore down his commander, who moved him to a Recon platoon. O’Regan served eight months with that unit and experienced ambushes, counter-ambushes, fear, greater fear, hunger, endless rain, dehydrating heat, sores, cuts, leeches, and every other agony natural to infantrymen. He complained, but did it primarily in his journal.
In describing the rigors of war, O’Regan emphasized the interdependency between men. He participated in his share of firefights and saw two of his best friends killed in action. Later, he advanced to E-5 and became a squad leader, proud to realize forty-four years later that he never lost a man in combat.
Seventeen pages of photographs show the men of the 199th. His skinny T-shirted and bare-chested friends look like warriors from another planet compared to today’s bulked-up and heavily armored infantrymen. Their expressions reveal none of the hardships that they had to endure.
At times, Vietnam Revisited was a difficult book to read because O’Regan is too honest about his feelings. His approach to then-and-now triggered me to recall much of my misbehavior during twenty years of military service in the Air Force. For example, his conclusion that exposure to combat does not justify “a callous disregard for the feelings of others” struck a personal note: I share the eternal stain of such ill behavior.
Being shot at and blowing up trucks in Laos did not turn my crewmates or me into superior beings, but avoiding the first and accomplishing the second boosted our egos. Now I wonder what we accomplished. I have not seen my fellow fliers since retiring and likely never will, which deepens the mystery of our accomplishments.
Near the end of the book, the debate between the O’Regan’s personalities of yesterday and today reaches several climaxes. “The mind determines the toughness of the experience more than the actual incidents one encounters,” he writes. On the topic of courage, he says: “Trauma in battle is often no different than what happens to people in civilian life.” His follow-on argument dims the luster of warfare.
Pat O’Regan writes that war is extraordinary and never-to-be-forgotten. Yet, he writes: “There is no more reason to dwell on war than a thousand other, perhaps less captivating, incidents of life.” That sentiment might serve as O’Regan’s legacy to all.
I admire authors who bare their souls when recalling war experiences. Their stories ring with authenticity. Other recent books of that caliber include Calm Frenzy by Loring Bailey, Jr.; Fearful Odds by Charles Newhall III; Memoir of Vietnam by William Fee; and—not so recent but perhaps the ultimate—Think Snow by Kenneth Kinsler. I recommend them.