War in Aquarius by Dennis Kitchin

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When first published in 1994, Dennis Kitchin’s War in Aquarius (McFarland, 216 pp.; $19.99, paper) carried the subtitle Memoir of an American Infantryman in Action along the Cambodian Border during the Vietnam War, which perfectly describes the book’s content. During 1968-69, Kitchen served with the 25th Infantry Division’s 27th Infantry Regiment—the Wolfhounds—headquartered at Cu Chi. He spent all of his year in the field.

The book was republished in 2015, which is a good thing because it rings true. Kitchin examines the Vietnam War through the lens of a man who hates war but accepts the obligation of serving his country. Classified 1A, he volunteered for the draft after graduating from college. Kitchin’s attitude is not unique, but the way he expresses his thoughts in this book stands above the norm.

He often internalizes his perspective to the point that what goes on in his head transcends what occurs around him. Yet he physically performs all that is demanded. This sense of detachment helps Kitchin  maintain his rationality, especially as the months unfold and he grows more convinced that the war is wrong. He particularly deplores the injuries—both accidental and deliberate—inflicted on civilians.

As his tour unfolds, Kitchen morphs from being a babe in the woods into a hardened combat veteran. His depictions of helicopter and World War II landing craft river assaults; of enemy ambushes and booby traps; unproductive patrols; and U.S. casualty numbers greater than those of the V.C. create a mood of dejection throughout the book. As he remains unhurt while friends die alongside him, Kitchin deeply contemplates death and serious injury. He blames most of his unit’s losses on bad decisions made by incompetent leaders. At one point, his platoon’s strength was reduced to fourteen.

Kitchen writes with clarity and purpose. He finds relationships between events and more than once turns a creative phrase. For example, on patrol in “rugged, uninhabited terrain,” he describes the locale as “enough woods to excite John Muir.” The story line never lags.

27th-infantry-regiment-insignia-wolfhounds“Pseudonyms have been used for all persons named in this account, excepting the author himself,” Kitchin writes. Considering the high degree to which he praises and criticizes leaders and peers, I understand why he chose this style. I used a similar approach in my 1987 Vietnam War memoir, Gunship: Spectre of Death, because I did not want to intrude on anyone’s life.

Now, however, I feel otherwise. Using fictitious names diminished the historical value of my work; I feel the same about Kitchin’s book.

More recently, Kitchin has published humor-laced books about his Philadelphia childhood and travels to New Zealand and Ireland.

—Henry Zeybel

 

 

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Behind the Wire by James Stoup

 

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The word “paradoxical” perfectly describes the thoughts and actions of James Stoup as related in his “nonfiction novel,” Behind the Wire: A Story about Life in the Rear during the Vietnam War (Page Publishing, 318 pp., $17.95, paper: $9.99, Kindle). A member of the 25th Infantry and 1st Air Cavalry divisions in 1970-71, he gained the credentials of an Army war correspondent without covering combat. Furthermore, he called himself a war protester, but excelled as a reporter for the military establishment. While reading the book, I occasionally wondered if any of us fully understood what was going on back in the day.

Stoup, a member of Vietnam Veterans of America,  wrote a first draft of this book in 1994 and rewrote it in 2014. Surprisingly, his youthful emotions and opinions prevail, which makes the book valuable because it shows the contradictions felt by young men who supported the Vietnam antiwar movement. Stoup provides a wealth of stories about constructive and destructive behavior among rear echelon personnel, also known as REMFs.

Mainly, Stoup relies on personal observations and opinions to prove his points and seldom offers references to authoritative sources. His arguments usually rest on generalizations such as his friends’ estimate that sixty-five percent of enlisted men in Vietnam used drugs.

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Jim Stoup

 

His favorite topics are marijuana, marijuana, marijuana, and other drugs; incompetent lifers;  fragging; the quest for medals; and profiting from the war.

This paragraph perfectly reflects the heart of his REMF sentiments about the Army:

“There was still the occasional Army bullshit to put up with, like formations, police calls, inspections, starched fatigues, and polished boots. But those of us who escaped the stress and danger of combat figured we were lucky to be where we were, so we just put up with the lifers and the bullshit. And after the recent series of fraggings and tear gas incidents, the ‘off-the-record’ protocol that had been observed between the lifers and the EMs had now become more like a truce. After hours, they didn’t bother us and we didn’t bother them. They didn’t come into our living areas, unless necessary, and we stayed out of theirs. In other words, the troops could drink their beer, smoke their pot, and do their drugs in their haunts without fear of harassment or being busted. And the lifers could get falling-down drunk in their clubs without our snickering at them as they tripped and fell on their way back to their quarters.”

Frequent observations such as this show that for Stoup and his friends, protest against the war manifested itself as a schism between the ranks. In other words, protest among REMFs focused on daily living conditions.

In 1968 Jim Stroup brought Abbie Hoffman to lecture at Saint Joseph’s College. Stoup was president of the student body, and the FBI interviewed him about his intentions. He says, “Even though I never looked into it, I’m sure the FBI had a file on me.”

Stoup graduated from college in 1969. Certain to be drafted and fearing a sure trip to Vietnam as an infantryman, he enlisted in the Army as an officer candidate, even though commissioning required an additional year of service. Assigned as an infantry officer trainee, he resigned from OCS because he did not want responsibility for “the lives of young men drafted into the Army.”

From that point, he found other detours that bypassed the battlefield. Yet he grooved on meeting “seasoned-looking” soldiers who fought the war. He draws colorful pictures of men he admired for their courage. I especially liked Stoup’s description of one such group displaying “a blatant aberration of military discipline.”

Upon arriving at the 25th Division at Cu Chi, he sold his college education, writing skills, and ability to type ninety words a minute to an NCO and got a job in the Public Information Office.

Although he avoided combat situations, Stoup did go into the field and got in trouble for reporting exactly what he saw. His desire to tell the truth paralleled an incident described by correspondent Jim Smith in his memoir, Heroes to the End.

For one of his first stories, Jim Smith exposed the incompetence and inadequacies of the Combat Training Center. His editor told him to rewrite it or forget it; otherwise, Smith “would suddenly find [himself] slinging hash in a field kitchen in the Delta—at best.”

When Stoup wrote the truth about building a new bridge and its dedication ceremony, his commander told him: “I want you to cut the peace shit out of this story and rewrite it the Army way. And this better be the last time this happens, or you’re going to be spending a lot more time in the field.”

From then on, Stoup followed the party line and received commendations for his writing, along with increased responsibility. True to his contradictory nature, however, he simultaneously became a member of Vietnam Veterans Against the War.

Because his editor restricted him from writing about problems such as poor leadership and drug use, Stoup secretly passed privileged information to television network correspondents. Often, it is difficult to understand Stoup’s motivation for his actions, which requires separating his hatred for the war from his hatred for his military superiors.

When the 25th Division rotated home in 1970, Stoup transferred to the 1st Cav at Phuoc Vinh, which was a total contrast to Cu Chi. For example, the Phuoc Vinh division information officer wore shorts and flip-flops to work. Stoup used his “portfolio of writing samples and press clippings” to secure an information specialist MOS.

In that job, his writing earned him a “direct field promotion to Specialist 5th Class (E-5),” and he became honorary editor of the division newspaper. Talent and a cooperative spirit made him a valued member of the Army establishment, although I doubt that he viewed himself in those terms.

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25th Infantry Division HQ at Cu Chi

Throughout his time at Cu Chi and Phuoc Vinh, Stoup and his friends used drugs—mostly pot—practically every night. Stoup describes how other men frequently overdosed on harder drugs. At that stage of the war, the problem was not a “problem” because nobody seemed to care.

A confessed member of the counterculture, Stoup nevertheless accepted two Army Commendation Medals, and on one occasion, filled a foursome for bridge at the Officers’ Club. Furthermore, he credits his leaders with teaching him everything he knew about journalism, which helped him in his post-military career. Most surprising of all, he turned down a forty-one-day drop during a force reduction.

His finest anti-war action took place during his last month in-country at Bien Hoa: he initiated Article 138, UCMJ action that brought positive changes of unexpected magnitudes to REMFs. In the midst of this activity, he questioned his behavior and attitude for the first time: “Was I out of my fucking mind? After all, without proceeding with this action, I’d be on my way home in less than ten days, with little chance of anything happening to me from the dangers of the war to, well, anything else. Was I out of my fucking mind!”

Although Jim Stoup might not agree, I believe he used the military system to benefit himself equally as much as the lifers he detested, which was, of course, justifiable behavior for anyone who did not want to be there in the first place and who was determined to avoid combat.

It takes great strength to row against a ceaseless tide. I admire those who do so. Therefore, I enjoyed Stoup’s story and classify him as a clandestine fighter.

By the way, James, here’s the deal regarding medals: You don’t have to accept them. That type of rejection is a protest. At the end of my twenty years, my boss offered me a Meritorious Service Medal. I wrote to him: “Don’t bother. I’ve already been compensated for my work.”

Or should you and I have said, “I don’t need no stinking medal for doing my everyday job”? Oh well, I must confess that insubordination had already wrecked my “lifer” career.

The author’s website is www.behindthewire-vietnam.com/home.html 

—Henry Zeybel

 

 

 

Rolling Coffins by Brian Richard Esher

The title and subtitle tell it all: Rolling Coffins: Experiences of a Mechanical Infantry Soldier in the Bloodiest Year of the Vietnam War, 1968 (Page Publishing, 442 pp., $19.50 paper; $9.99, Kindle) by Brian Richard Esher.

As an 11 Bravo light weapons infantryman, Esher spent six months in the Vietnam War in the field around Tay Ninh with 4/23 of the 25th Infantry Division. His company engaged the enemy practically every day in sweeps on foot, aboard APCs, and by helicopter. The men were continually undermanned, outnumbered, and inadequately supplied.

Esher’s pragmatic approach to training and combat made me admire him. He believed, he writes, that “the Army didn’t really care about draftees one way or another.” Therefore, he fought his superiors—mentally and physically—almost as vigorously as he fought the North Vietnamese. On both fronts, he employed tactics that drastically varied from normal behavior.

“I just didn’t like being pulled out of civilian life to be basically a slave to the Army,” Esher writes, “being constantly harassed and taking orders from everyone above me, which was basically everyone in the military. Some of them dumb as dirt!” His stories justify this attitude and frequent disobedience.

Rebel or not, when engaging the enemy, Esher performed courageously. Along with the CIB, his awards included the Distinguished Service Cross, the Bronze Star, and three Purple Hearts.

The 25th Infantry Division had the highest number of casualties among U.S. Army divisions in Vietnam. The six months Esher spent in the field were the 25th’s bloodiest. His accounts of 4/23’s actions in the ten-day Battle of Tay Ninh during the Third Offensive and in a massive ambush the following month are spellbinding. By then, the casualty count had reduced squads to five or six men with Spec4s as squad leaders.   In the book’s Epilogue, Esher spells out what he believes were the Army’s failures in the Vietnam War. Although his views are familiar, his battlefield credentials validate them perfectly. His primary concerns are non-existent leadership, lack of comradeship, and inflexible tactics. “Before the Army, I was more independent than most, relying primarily on myself. After Vietnam, I was more independent than ever,” he says.

A voracious reader, Esher presents short history lessons on topics such as Robert S. McNamara’s Project 100,000 (aka U.S. Army Moron Corps), the fate of the USS Pueblo, the odds of becoming a casualty in the Vietnam War, and the reason Friday the 13th is considered unlucky.

Today, Esher is a successful, self-made businessman whose only war-related emotional problem is a recurring nightmare of being recalled and again going through basic training, destined for Vietnam.

—Henry Zeybel