The best parts of war memoirs tell naked truths that leave historical perspective aside and entirely reflect the emotions of the author. Former infantryman Peter Langlois perfectly fills that bill with Combat and Campus: Writing through War (Elm Grove Press, 180 pp. $18.95, paper), particularly when he says, “The enemy was almost god-like. He was everywhere and anticipated our every move.”
The book—put together and written with his sister Annette Langlois Grunseth—contains letters written when Langlois served in Vietnam with Alpha Company, 2/22, of the 25th Infantry Division in 1968-69. His unfiltered descriptions of the carnage his unit endured is as graphic as those in any book I have read. He and his fellow grunts—most of whom were draftees—endured unrelenting combat complicated by poor leadership and inadequate supplies. In operation after operation, the 2nd of the 22nd’s casualties were inordinately high.
Drafted at 23, Peter Langlois had just graduated form the University of Wisconsin with a journalism degree. He wrote letters from Vietnam with a reporter’s point of view, mainly informing his family and friends about events that he experienced during four months of nearly constant exposure to the enemy. His hometown newspaper—the Wausau Daily Record Herald—published a series of his letters.
Although he was challenged emotionally, Langlois maintained his psychological balance while writing home. “I can’t see how I can keep my sanity,” he wrote, for example, “unless I lose my conscience and sense of justice.” Despite the fact that he did not want to be in Vietnam, Langlois became a squad leader and did everything expected of him.
In 2004 Peter Langlois died at 59 from Agent Orange-induced cancer. Annette Grunseth, an accomplished writer and poet who is married to a disabled Vietnam War veteran, collected and arranged her brother’s letters into this memoir. She had attended the University of Wisconsin during Langlois’ tour, and provides a first-person look at student antiwar demonstrations on campus.
Throughout the book, her powerful affinity for her brother recollects his entire life with thoughtful prose and poetry. Although I am not a fan of the latter, one of Grunseth’s poems brought tears to my eyes. Still grieving over her brother’s post-Vietnam War PTSD, she reveals a deep understanding of the mental and physical effects of war and its aftermath.
Combat and Campus fulfils several tasks in remembering the Vietnam War, its causes, and its participants. The book should jar the memories of old timers (especially those of us who were there) while showing younger readers the toll taken by war on both individuals and nations.
Summarizing why America took part in the war, Peter Langlois wrote: “Basically the major powers in this world haven’t matured enough to realize the virtue of love and compassion.”
Annette’s Grunseth’s website is www.annettegrunseth.com