Kent Hinckley served in Army Intelligence in Vietnam. His novel, Hearts, Minds, and Coffee: A Vietnam Peace Odyssey (Reyall, 282 pp., $14.95, paper), begins in January of 1970. The author informs us that “the time period corresponds to my tour in Nha Trang as a lieutenant.”
Hinckley was against the war, but served anyhow—like many of us. He salutes all the men and women who answered their country’s call.
The novel’s protagonist, Slater Marshall, is an officer who participated in ROTC purely as a way to pay for his college education. “After being in Vietnam for forty minutes, he concluded he should have escaped to Canada as many draft-dodgers had done.”
Slater is targeted as a dissident during his advanced infantry training. When he arrives in Vietnam, he and four others of his sort are made Special Forces, according “to the needs of the service,” and placed in the middle of “Indian Country” to keep their ears open. Nothing they learn, however, is ever listened to.
They are given M-14s with only blanks to shoot, no live ammunition. But they make do and forge powerful bonds with each other and with the inhabitants of the village of Phan Loc.
You may have already discerned that this is not a typical Vietnam War infantry novel. It is a fable, a satire, and a dark comedy. Often it evoked for me Asa Baber’s classic Vietnam War-themed novel, Land of a Million Elephants, and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22.
Slater’s hero is anti-Nazi German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Slater adopts Bonfoeffer’s philosophy that when you are thrust into adversity, you accept it and take action—even if it places your life in jeopardy.
The coffee of the title relates to a coffee plantation that is the dream of the local VC leader. Slater and his men make it possible for him and the community to realize that dream.That is one way they wage peace—through economic development.
This satire touches virtually all the bases that we expect to be touched in such a novel, and it is the stronger for it. We hear the Animals sing “We Gotta Get Out of This Place.” We learn that the ARVN are not well-trained or well-equipped to fight. We find out about hearts and minds that must be won; shit is burned; and the heat and stink of Vietnam is evoked.
Agent Orange and napalm rain down. John Wayne is mentioned,. and the men are told to “saddle up and move out.” Ham and lima beans are eaten, with gusto.
When they rotate out of Vietnam, they are called “baby-killers” in the airports—in this case at Sea-Tac, the very airport I flew into when I returned home. The soldiers are described honestly. To wit: “They believed in their government, Jesus, and apple pie. They thought they made America free.” I remember being one of those soldiers.
Hinckley has written a great Vietnam War novel. I salute him and the characters of his book who jumped off the page and into my mind. I wish I had encountered them when I was in Vietnam, but my tour was real life, not a fantasy.
The author’s website is www.kenthinckley.com