Shrapnel Wounds by Tom Crowley

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Tom Crowley’s Shrapnel Wounds: An Infantry Lieutenant’s Vietnam War Memoir (Pacifica Military History, 198 pp. $24.95, paper; $7.99, Kindle) is a how-to book on leading men in combat, circa 1966, although the author sees the same thoughts and ideas as still valid today.

Crowley presents two themes. Mainly, he discusses the traits of a good combat leader, particularly at the platoon level. Secondly, he analyzes the Army’s promotion and rank structures.

The book’s strength is Crowley’s account of combat as a platoon leader in the 25th Infantry Division at Cu Chi. He deals with battle in a vivid and straightforward manner. He says that he worked hard to become a competent and respected officer who cared for his men. Often he proves a point by referring to an encounter. For example, in speaking of fear, Crowly describes a prolonged shootout that occurred after his platoon unexpectedly found a large number of VC in a supposedly abandoned village.

He believes that the best leaders make both physical and emotional commitments to their men. Crowley felt this type of involvement to a high degree in Vietnam, and it took a tremendous psychological toll. After receiving two dozen shrapnel wounds in one battle, despite doctors’ objections and still-open wounds, he returned to his platoon after only a week in hospital.

Crowley once considered a career as an Army officer. A college dropout facing the Vietnam War draft, he instead enlisted and earned a commission through OCS. Watching the contrivances of his peers and superiors with career development convinced him to leave the military at the end of his enlistment because, he says, “I just saw no future in it.”

He determined that an officer’s position in the Army pecking order depended on the source of his commission (West Point at the top, then ROTC, and OCS last) and type of commission (regular Army above reservist). Within that framework, officers maneuvered to complete a combat assignment, earn an efficiency report that reflected great leadership in battle, and win medals, Crowley says. Favoritism based on these many factors determined promotions and assignments. He cites instances in which field activities to achieve such ends cost enlisted men’s lives.

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Based on the self-centered behavior of his contemporaries, Crowley lost faith in the military structure. He believes that Vietnam was a “squad leader’s and platoon leader’s war” and higher levels of command made plans and decisions based on outdated experience, namely set piece battles. He says that reality for “virtually all of the military’s top officers wasn’t the Vietnam War, it was the war for promotion.”

Tom Crowley’s story contains twists and turns that I have not mentioned. That surprised me and gave greater meaning to his leadership qualities. Fundamentally, he has cared about people and has led a meaningful and productive life both in the Army and as a civilian.

The author’s website is www.tomcrowleybooks.com

—Henry Zeybel

Year of the Rooster by Ben Wanderin

Larry D. Goodson served two years in the U. S. Army and then returned to his home in the Pacific Northwest in 1970. The cover blurb of Year of the Rooster (CreateSpace, 250 pp., $15.95, paper) tells us that it is “mostly a short story collection from the memories of a combat veteran of the Vietnam War mingled with present day thoughts and actions ”  This book—written under the pseudonym “Ben Wanderin”—didn’t read like any short story collection I have in my collection.

In 1969 the main character is nineteen years old and is from the Pacific Northwest—somewhere near Seattle, perhaps, which is where I was living when I was drafted into the Army and where I returned when my war was over. I feel a kinship with this author for that reason and quite a few others.

I part company with the main character when he says, “the last thing he wanted was to feel like he had avoided the draft.”  I would have been okay with that.

Goodson uses a progression of emotion-distancing names for his main character. He starts as Cherry Boy. Next he is called Rifleman. Soon he is Gunner. Eventually he becomes Survivor. And also REMF.

Our hero describes his arrival in Vietnam in familiar terms. As he “stepped from the air-conditioned freedom bird into the blast furnace of the dry season, the stench had hit his nose like a fist.” Soon after that he gets a detail during which he burns shit in a steel drum. He says, “If you’ve never stirred burning shit with a stick…”  Thank you, I have done that.

At Cu Chi, our hero joins his unit, then heads for Trang Bang, then Fire Base Pershing, and then Firebase Stuart or Stewart. Both spellings are used.  “Cherry Boy would come to believe that the squad he joined was made of the greatest guys in Viet Nam, maybe in the world.”

As Rifleman, his main assignment is to be part of a squad that clears mines. “The idea was to find the mines in the road and keep the convoy from being ambushed while bringing supplies to the little sandbag fortress called home to some 105 howitzers, plus 4.2 and 81 MM mortars.”  With less than three months in the field, our hero becomes the machine gunner and senior man of his squad.

He becomes disillusioned and thinks that perhaps he wasn’t in Vietnam to “protect the people of South Vietnam from those evil communists he had been hearing about since the day he could hear anything at all.”  It seemed likely that we were, instead, “creating enemies every day out of neutral or friendly people.”

The Gunner is transferred to Cu Chi where he has a better chance to survive. This is when his name is changed to Survivor. And then he becomes a REMF.

“They were a part of the ten to one ratio of people in support of the one to ten outside the wire being referred to as combatants.” He becomes a combat correspondent.  For “a healthy person with all his marbles the job would have been a dream come true.”  He wasn’t that person.

Our hero’s time in Vietnam hits him hard.  “By now about the only things he really felt were fear or rage and most of the time he couldn’t tell the difference.”  He goes on to say, “Killing people is a fucked-up business to be in, but if it’s the job you’ve got, you’d better pay attention or you’ll be the one not telling your friends anything.”  I appreciated that piece of wisdom.

On the plane home, the so-called Freedom Bird, Survivor thinks, “people would respect him for what he had survived.” Think again, Survivor.

This novel reads like an elegy—an elegy for lost innocence, lost youth, and lost lives—both American and Vietnamese. While reading this book, I kept thinking of The Red Badge of Courage. Year of the Rooster has more in common with that classic than with any Vietnam War book I’ve read—both in tone and in distance.

Year of the Rooster is well-written and accessible. I would like it to be required reading in high schools, especially by those who think that joining the Army will result in a happier life.

—David Willson