Ray Pezzoli, Jr., the author of A Year in Hell: A Memoir of an Army Foot Soldier Turned Reporter in Vietnam: 1965-1966 (McFarland, 263 pp., $19.99, paper), spent his time as a reporter trying, he tells us, to take “the Great Vietnamese War Photo” with the wrong camera and the wrong film—and with no training as a photographer. He also spent that time participating in as many 1st Infantry Division combat activities as he could.
The title tells us how Pezzoli–who died in 2014—served in Vietnam and when. In his Preface he defends President George W. Bush’s National Guard service, and when Pezzoli uses the word “liberal,” he uses it with disdain.
“Contrary to popular thought, America won,” he writes in his memoir, which was published originally in 2006, “losing only one half of one percent of their soldiers, stimulating the demise of communism throughout the world and devising the best Army in the world through its expertise there.” He refers to Vietnamese prostitutes as “strumpets” and labels the way he held his cigarettes in photos from that time as “fruity.” He was smoking up to four packs a day.
Aside from “strumpets” and “fruity,” Pezzoli uses plenty of references found in most American Vietnam War memoirs: John Wayne, body counts, “Oriental” rather than “Asian,” Good Morning, Vietnam, Jane Fonda, Bob Hope, cowboys and Indians, friendly fire, antiwar protesters, being short, C-rats. And how the media never showed Americans all the good things the infantry did in Vietnam such as feeding orphans.
Pezzoli blames Oliver Stone and his films for giving the general public the notion that the troops in Vietnam talked dirty. He says that he only heard “foul language” in Vietnam once.
He offers old rants about Jane Fonda, but his are even more anachronistic than most. Her antiwar activism, including the visit to Hanoi, took place in the early seventies. But somehow Pezzoli channels her into his mid-sixties tour of duty when she was a sexpot alien in the movie Barbarella and a popular pin-up in Vietnam.
Pezzoli calls into question his invented quotations and conversations with his characters when he quotes a Maj. Weeks as saying in 1966: “Brigade was afraid Jane Fonda would complain if we don’t warn the enemy that we’re going to pay him a visit.” At no time was Jane Fonda running the Vietnam War, especially not then.
So what is Pezzoli’s intent? Is his book factual? Or is it a fantasy narrative of his faulty memories of the war? My conclusion is that his narrative is not to be trusted.
When he has a beautifully described incident of friendly fire, can I trust that? And his countless visits to whorehouses, and all his scenes of religious worship? And his story of his buddy dying in his poncho and bleeding out in it so that Pezzoli becomes soaked in the blood and suffers from hypothermia? What is truth? What is fiction?
I could go on, but I’ve given the prospective reader plenty to allow an intelligent decision about this detailed but sketchy book.