The late Joe Lerner was assigned to the American embassy in Laos in an undercover espionage posting before his return home from the Vietnam War. Later, while attending college, he wrote extensively on his readjustment to civilian life. Herman “Kid” Kaufman was posted to the American embassy in Laos as a communications technician. He knew Joe Lerner there, and mentored him during his college career. Kaufman completed Lerner’s memoirs with his own recollections, and the result is Back in the World: A Composite Novel: Returning to the World Can Be So Much Harder than Leaving (Booklocker.com, 264 pp. $21.95, paper; $2.99, Kindle).
The characters in Lerner and Kaufman’s book are entirely fictional. The events may be real happenings that have been fantasized into fiction, but are not intended to portray historic events. Readers who know some Vietnam War history may object to the authors’ twisting of the war’s timing, but this is done out of dramatic necessity. The public’s ill treatment of Vietnam veterans is true in many cases.
The authors compare the Vietnam War with World War II by noting that the killing of evil Nazis and treacherous “Japs” was easily justified. “I grew up with John Wayne telling me so,” they write. The so-called Big War, the Real War, and the Good War was a morality melodrama, an all-star production. As the authors put it: “Our righteous chevaliers sallied forth to vanquish the evil hoards.”
They characterize the American military in Vietnam as ten percent defective. “No matter how fucking clear you make anything to the troops, ten percent of them never get the word. They’re fucking clueless.”
They go on to state the military’s raison d’être: “Everyone who joins the service helps to kill people. It’s the purpose of the military. What does it matter who actually pulls the trigger or drops the bomb?”
When Joe, the book’s hero, arrives back home in the World, he discovers that a myth has preceded him. “You dudes got the black syph and I don’t know what all. Hey, I’m clean. I ain’t taking no chances. They’re keeping some of you guys over there on an island ‘cause they can’t cure you. Don’t tell me you believe that old sea story?”
Our hero ends up out in a drizzly street, with seagulls shrieking at him. No love for him, not even a short time.
Homecoming is bleak for Vietnam veterans. What will become of Joe Lerner? Nothing good.