Behind the Wire by James Stoup

 

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The word “paradoxical” perfectly describes the thoughts and actions of James Stoup as related in his “nonfiction novel,” Behind the Wire: A Story about Life in the Rear during the Vietnam War (Page Publishing, 318 pp., $17.95, paper: $9.99, Kindle). A member of the 25th Infantry and 1st Air Cavalry divisions in 1970-71, he gained the credentials of an Army war correspondent without covering combat. Furthermore, he called himself a war protester, but excelled as a reporter for the military establishment. While reading the book, I occasionally wondered if any of us fully understood what was going on back in the day.

Stoup, a member of Vietnam Veterans of America,  wrote a first draft of this book in 1994 and rewrote it in 2014. Surprisingly, his youthful emotions and opinions prevail, which makes the book valuable because it shows the contradictions felt by young men who supported the Vietnam antiwar movement. Stoup provides a wealth of stories about constructive and destructive behavior among rear echelon personnel, also known as REMFs.

Mainly, Stoup relies on personal observations and opinions to prove his points and seldom offers references to authoritative sources. His arguments usually rest on generalizations such as his friends’ estimate that sixty-five percent of enlisted men in Vietnam used drugs.

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Jim Stoup

 

His favorite topics are marijuana, marijuana, marijuana, and other drugs; incompetent lifers;  fragging; the quest for medals; and profiting from the war.

This paragraph perfectly reflects the heart of his REMF sentiments about the Army:

“There was still the occasional Army bullshit to put up with, like formations, police calls, inspections, starched fatigues, and polished boots. But those of us who escaped the stress and danger of combat figured we were lucky to be where we were, so we just put up with the lifers and the bullshit. And after the recent series of fraggings and tear gas incidents, the ‘off-the-record’ protocol that had been observed between the lifers and the EMs had now become more like a truce. After hours, they didn’t bother us and we didn’t bother them. They didn’t come into our living areas, unless necessary, and we stayed out of theirs. In other words, the troops could drink their beer, smoke their pot, and do their drugs in their haunts without fear of harassment or being busted. And the lifers could get falling-down drunk in their clubs without our snickering at them as they tripped and fell on their way back to their quarters.”

Frequent observations such as this show that for Stoup and his friends, protest against the war manifested itself as a schism between the ranks. In other words, protest among REMFs focused on daily living conditions.

In 1968 Jim Stroup brought Abbie Hoffman to lecture at Saint Joseph’s College. Stoup was president of the student body, and the FBI interviewed him about his intentions. He says, “Even though I never looked into it, I’m sure the FBI had a file on me.”

Stoup graduated from college in 1969. Certain to be drafted and fearing a sure trip to Vietnam as an infantryman, he enlisted in the Army as an officer candidate, even though commissioning required an additional year of service. Assigned as an infantry officer trainee, he resigned from OCS because he did not want responsibility for “the lives of young men drafted into the Army.”

From that point, he found other detours that bypassed the battlefield. Yet he grooved on meeting “seasoned-looking” soldiers who fought the war. He draws colorful pictures of men he admired for their courage. I especially liked Stoup’s description of one such group displaying “a blatant aberration of military discipline.”

Upon arriving at the 25th Division at Cu Chi, he sold his college education, writing skills, and ability to type ninety words a minute to an NCO and got a job in the Public Information Office.

Although he avoided combat situations, Stoup did go into the field and got in trouble for reporting exactly what he saw. His desire to tell the truth paralleled an incident described by correspondent Jim Smith in his memoir, Heroes to the End.

For one of his first stories, Jim Smith exposed the incompetence and inadequacies of the Combat Training Center. His editor told him to rewrite it or forget it; otherwise, Smith “would suddenly find [himself] slinging hash in a field kitchen in the Delta—at best.”

When Stoup wrote the truth about building a new bridge and its dedication ceremony, his commander told him: “I want you to cut the peace shit out of this story and rewrite it the Army way. And this better be the last time this happens, or you’re going to be spending a lot more time in the field.”

From then on, Stoup followed the party line and received commendations for his writing, along with increased responsibility. True to his contradictory nature, however, he simultaneously became a member of Vietnam Veterans Against the War.

Because his editor restricted him from writing about problems such as poor leadership and drug use, Stoup secretly passed privileged information to television network correspondents. Often, it is difficult to understand Stoup’s motivation for his actions, which requires separating his hatred for the war from his hatred for his military superiors.

When the 25th Division rotated home in 1970, Stoup transferred to the 1st Cav at Phuoc Vinh, which was a total contrast to Cu Chi. For example, the Phuoc Vinh division information officer wore shorts and flip-flops to work. Stoup used his “portfolio of writing samples and press clippings” to secure an information specialist MOS.

In that job, his writing earned him a “direct field promotion to Specialist 5th Class (E-5),” and he became honorary editor of the division newspaper. Talent and a cooperative spirit made him a valued member of the Army establishment, although I doubt that he viewed himself in those terms.

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25th Infantry Division HQ at Cu Chi

Throughout his time at Cu Chi and Phuoc Vinh, Stoup and his friends used drugs—mostly pot—practically every night. Stoup describes how other men frequently overdosed on harder drugs. At that stage of the war, the problem was not a “problem” because nobody seemed to care.

A confessed member of the counterculture, Stoup nevertheless accepted two Army Commendation Medals, and on one occasion, filled a foursome for bridge at the Officers’ Club. Furthermore, he credits his leaders with teaching him everything he knew about journalism, which helped him in his post-military career. Most surprising of all, he turned down a forty-one-day drop during a force reduction.

His finest anti-war action took place during his last month in-country at Bien Hoa: he initiated Article 138, UCMJ action that brought positive changes of unexpected magnitudes to REMFs. In the midst of this activity, he questioned his behavior and attitude for the first time: “Was I out of my fucking mind? After all, without proceeding with this action, I’d be on my way home in less than ten days, with little chance of anything happening to me from the dangers of the war to, well, anything else. Was I out of my fucking mind!”

Although Jim Stoup might not agree, I believe he used the military system to benefit himself equally as much as the lifers he detested, which was, of course, justifiable behavior for anyone who did not want to be there in the first place and who was determined to avoid combat.

It takes great strength to row against a ceaseless tide. I admire those who do so. Therefore, I enjoyed Stoup’s story and classify him as a clandestine fighter.

By the way, James, here’s the deal regarding medals: You don’t have to accept them. That type of rejection is a protest. At the end of my twenty years, my boss offered me a Meritorious Service Medal. I wrote to him: “Don’t bother. I’ve already been compensated for my work.”

Or should you and I have said, “I don’t need no stinking medal for doing my everyday job”? Oh well, I must confess that insubordination had already wrecked my “lifer” career.

The author’s website is www.behindthewire-vietnam.com/home.html 

—Henry Zeybel

 

 

 

Killing for Peace by Garry Farrington

Garry Farrington was a college dropout draftee who went through OCS. Even though he graduated first in his class in Armor School, when Farrington arrived in Vietnam in September 1968, he was assigned an infantry unit, the First Cavalry Division. He had an eventful Vietnam War tour, receiving eleven medals, including the Silver Star, Bronze Star with V, Purple Heart, and the Cross of Gallantry.

In  his memoir, Killing for Peace: Living, Fighting and Dying in Vietnam (Amazon Digital Services, 171 pp., $4.99, Kindle), Farrington says of those medals: “I was just at the wrong place at the wrong time.”

This Army officer memoir is anything but run-of-the-mill. Farrington’s opinions about the Vietnam War count for a lot for me, as he was involved in much combat. He describes that combat with a rare flare for language, and he does not pull any punches. War to him is where “old men send young men off to die in a foreign country because the country needs to be reshaped to match the old men’s dreams of what the world should be.”

Farrington also says that “the war was a crock and that some of them would die for nothing while old men argued about ‘Peace with Honor.’”

I’ve never read a better concise description of infantry life: “Hump the bush all day, dig in at night.” In one month in Vietnam, Farrington began to feel like an infantry officer. First, he and his men built LZ Mustang, occupied it, and then destroyed it, and moved away and built another, LZ Tracy.

“My original premise that we were in Vietnam to help a valiant population fight off the advances of sinister communism had been shelved long ago,” Farrington says. “The Vietnamese people wouldn’t recognize ‘democracy’ if it bit them in the ass.”  He concludes that “the whole reason for us to be out there in the shit was to keep each other alive to go home.” Garry Farrington is the officer I would have wanted if I had been unlucky enough to be in the infantry.

Farrington points out that about one in twelve of us who served in Vietnam were actually “in the shit,” so that REMFs surmised that anyone who had not “weaseled out of it” must be stupid. I admit that I (a former REMF) had that thought at the time. I no longer think that way.

The author mentions Audie Murphy, Gary Cooper, and John Wayne. Ham and lima beans make an appearance. “That shit made me gag,” Farrington says, but he ate it because he had no option. ARVN troops are worthless and not to be trusted. Peace symbols are common and so is marijuana smoking.

Blacks felt they were disproportionately represented in the fighting, and the author agrees. He and his fellow infantrymen got sprayed by Agent Orange and they tried to wash it off, knowing it couldn’t be good for them. They had transistor radios and listened to reports of the Paris Peace Talks.  And they kept on fighting.

I loved reading this book, and was disappointed when it ended. I give it high marks for language and story-telling skills, and for honesty on every page.

If you are hungry for a book about Army infantry action in Vietnam, this is the one for you.

The author’s website is http://garryfarrington.com

—David Willson

Dear Mom and Dad, Love From Vietnam by Joe Abodeely

Every Vietnam War story has value, even the ones you have heard before. Repetition produces truths. Recently, I read three autobiographies by soldiers who experienced combat in Vietnam during the 1968 Tet Offensive. The best book was whichever one I was reading—the most recent being Dear Mom and Dad, Love from Vietnam (282 pp., $20, paper) by Joe Abodeely, a lieutenant back in the day.

Abodeely’s memory relies heavily on daily journal entries he wrote in-country and long letters he sent to his parents at least weekly. In this memoir he reflects on that material.

He led a platoon in the 1st Cav for five-and-a-half month before transferring to a staff job. Abodeely recorded his proudest achievement in his journal: “Well, I did it. I went through my tour in the field and never lost a man. None killed.”

Abodeely and his always-undermanned platoon engaged in air assaults, sweeps, patrols, ambushes, search and destroy, and search and clear missions, and one time escaped after being surrounded. They “walked in on Highway 9, where no one before could travel because of ambushes” as the first replacements for besieged Marines at Khe Sanh. Shortly thereafter, his platoon was airlifted into the A Shau Valley to support Operation Pegasus.

Often in Vietnam War books, the big picture tends to repeat itself; therefore, vignettes and turns of phrase fascinate me. Abodeely nicely filled those squares. For example: “In a firefight, you did not see a person shooting at you—bushes shot at you. It was ominous. It was as if the NVA were ghosts.”

And: “My point man was a guy we called ‘Hippy.’ He was a lanky guy and had a peace symbol on his helmet. He found the machine gun and an NVA helmet and a bag of raw opium. The NVA used opium for medicinal purposes. I told Hippy to take the bag to turn it in. I never checked to see if he did.”

Abodeely watched an operations officers carrying a dead NCO and reported: “Before he set the dead soldier down on the ground, the body started regurgitating—the involuntary action of the body after death. I had never seen that before. That was another reminder of my mortality.”

Regarding prisoners, Abodeely noted: “First and third platoons captured some VC. The interrogators beat the hell out of the VC who confessed.”

Joe Abodeely at the Arizona Military Museum

Yet he also felt compassion. After an ARVN soldier tortured a young mother suspected of being a VC by kicking her in the face, crushing her milk-filled breasts, and rubbing chili peppers into her eyes, Abodeely took control and returned the baby to the woman. “We moved out with 38 refugees interspersed with the troops,” he writes. “The ‘VC’  girl was falling behind, my platoon sergeant yelled to me that she was: I just let it go. I don’t know if she was a Vietcong, but I thought she had suffered enough.”

Life changed significantly for Abodeely after he switched to S-4 Logistics. He describes his job as “requisitioning, scrounging, and stealing” to obtain material for new buildings at Camp Evans in I Corps. He spent his last two months at Quan Loi, a III Corps hot spot near the Cambodian border. Working on S-3 base defense and landing zone duties, he experienced the war from a new perspective. When half of his former company became casualties in one afternoon, he developed a hint of a political conscience.

The other books about 1968 in Vietnam I mentioned are reviewed on these pages: Gray Horse Troop: Forever Soldiers by Charles Baker (a major) and My Story: Vietnam 1968, 196th Light Infantry Brigade by Gary Lyles (a sergeant).

–Henry Zeybel