Charles Hensler’s There It Is…It Don’t Mean Nothin‘: A Vietnam War Memoir (289 pp. $9.95, paper; $3.99, Kindle) is a gripping account of Hensler’s tour of duty in Vietnam from April 1968 to May 1969. This unique memoir is written as a long letter to Hensler’s family. This creates an intimacy between the author and readers. In addition to his wartime experiences, Hensler provides a timeline of the war’s key events and the changing political landscape at home.
Hensler’s dual approach is compelling. With sober clarity he illustrates the growing number of American casualties and the dwindling support for the war. At the beginning of his tour nearly 14,000 American troops had died in Vietnam. One year later that number more than doubled.
After recounting his childhood in rural Pennsylvania, Hensler describes his decision to enlist in the U.S. Army in 1967, his training at Fort Polk, and arriving in Vietnam in the spring of 1968. He notes that during the Tet Offensive the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army had proved their resolve to win at any cost. Despite huge losses, they staged uprisings all over South Vietnam, shocking the American public.
Hensler served with the 199th Light Infantry Brigade northeast of Saigon. His descriptions of his first days, then months, in country are vivid. As a new mortarman, he carried heavy loads of equipment and ammunition on long patrols.
In addition to the risks of tripping mines and booby traps and being ambushed, there was the hostility of the environment itself. The triple canopy jungle was rife with leeches and red ants, forcing men to continually check for the first, and often strip naked to free themselves from the second. Staying dry was impossible in the heat, humidity, and constant rain.
Because wet underwear caused chafing, men rarely wore any. Even writing letters home was challenging. Trying not to drip sweat on the pages, Hensler says that he wrote in pencil because ink would quickly wash away.
In addition to the constant tension and fatigue from the long patrols and nights on guard duty, he and his buddies felt that they were there in Vietnam for nothing–a point perfectly summarized by the often-said G.I. phrases in the book’s title.
“Most GI’s in Vietnam,” Hensler writes, “felt they were getting screwed over by being there, at least in the post-Tet Offensive years when the country turned the corner on the war. It became apparent, even to the lowest private, that with the way things were run we were never going to win.”
With his engaging, unsettling, often haunting style, Hensler imbues in readers a sharp sense of the conditions American infantrymen endured: Their exhaustion. Their loneliness. Their doubts, even despair. Their cautious anticipation of the end of their tours. Their dream of the Freedom Bird, the plane that would take them home.
A magnificent book, There It Is…It Don’t Mean Nothin’ will linger in my mind for a long time.