Think Snow by Kenneth Kinsler

Vietnam War memoirs tell us that decades of learning about life were compacted into a year, or a month, or a week, or a day of combat–maybe  even a few hours.

Kenneth Kinsler learned his life’s lesson in his first firefight. After the NVA killed his squad’s point man and Kinsler dragged the body out of the line of fire, he reached his decision time: Kill anything that moved. His mind grew blind to everything except survival.

Kinsler needed the next forty years to understand that a man could live by a calmer philosophy, a learning process that he describes in his Vietnam War memoir, Think Snow (CreateSpace, 304 pp., $14.99, paper).

An unwilling 1967 draftee at the age of twenty-six, Kinsler did basic and AIT, then he sold his car and “gave everything else away.” Been there, done that—subliminal death wish. Kinsler made it to Vietnam in time for the 1968 Tet Offensive.

His favorite topic—which Kinsler usually approaches head-on but sometimes meanders around—is the many aspects of killing. Discourses on death complement that theme.

Kinsler views the subjects from the highly personalized perspective of a foot soldier not in charge of anything other than saving his own ass. He also lauds the NVA’s leadership at the expense of American officers, mainly by comparing the actual battlefield to West Point classroom training.

Occasionally, the book’s narrative borders on schizophrenia. At one point, in the space of four pages, Kinsler talks about kicking in doors, an unwinnable war, tank support, Charles de Gaulle, the NVA’s killing of civilians, finding a “good old fashioned liquor store,” and a fellow soldier who was a virgin. On his first sexual encounter, the virgin caught something that had not yet been given a name.  “They shipped him to the Philippines and [he] was not allowed to return home for the rest of his life,” Kinsler writes, repeating the well-known Vietnam War venereal disease urban legend.

Two paragraphs later, Kinsler says, “A good joint made life easier to understand.” He goes on to say that he stopped smoking dope immediately after failing to find his M16 during a firefight.

The guy tells stories on himself and you have to admire him for it.

Passages in which his mentality reverts to that of a man under extreme stress are revelatory. In therapy-like, stream-of-consciousness outbursts, fact and fiction (such as the virgin’s fate) blur and show a mind in utter turmoil.

Then, almost out of nowhere, Kinsler tells a complex story such as the one in a chapter called “Captain Napoleon,” and puts the entire world into perfect focus. The shrink that helped Kinsler whip his PTSD deserves a medal.

During his recovery Kenneth Kinsler developed a wide-angle philosophy of life. He includes quotations ranging from Socrates to Cool Hand Luke, including words from Cicero, Robert Frost, and Simon and Garfunkel, among others. His writing style is conversational, stretching the parameters of similes and metaphors. He speaks clearly enough on his own, so skip the Forward and Preface or read them last if you must.

Kinsler never exactly spells out details about where he served in Vietnam or his unit. But , along the way he does mention Pleiku and the 4th Infantry Division. He also talks about Hill 684, Kontum, and spending much time in the northern part of II Corps near Cambodia.

I’m not saying anything more about Think Snow because it is a roller-coaster ride that readers should experience for themselves. The ride is worth the price of the ticket. Kinsler has poured whatever remained of his post-Vietnam War soul into his writing.

The author’s website is www.thinksnowthebook.com

—Henry Zeybel

Napalm and Filet Mignon by John Jennings  

John Jennings’ ambitious memoir, Napalm and Filet Mignon (War Writers’ Campaign, 174 pp., $19.99, paper; $9.99, Kindle), loosely ties his experiences in Vietnam in 1969-70 to world events that took place simultaneously. Clippings from news stories, along with letters he wrote to his mother and sister, guide the reader through the book.

Jennings tells us how he went from patrolling the hills and rice patties ten miles south of Pleiku with an Army infantry company that often got lost, to duty in the opulence of the Fourth Infantry Division Commanding General’s Mess.

Along the way, the war profoundly affected him. The book’s stories illustrate many transformations that his service in Vietnam made in his life.

Jennings approached the Vietnam War with little outward emotion. He remembers the names of a few fellow soldiers, but mainly he was a loner who did not develop friendships because of the constant turnover of personnel. He was in-country to serve his 365 days—period.

Yet Jennings admits he did “just about anything for the guys [he] served with.” His performance under fire resulted in a promotion from rifleman to machine gunner in a matter of weeks. Being shot at scared the hell out of him, Jennings says, but  it also brought him to a stage of rage he had never experienced.

“I was completely astonished at this violent and uncontrolled anger that I felt,” he writes. “It would come upon me so quickly that all I wanted to do was strike back and waste the gook.” The M60 machine gun was the perfect weapon to vent that anger.

Unexpectedly, Jennings’ company commander selected him to compete for a Fourth Division Soldier of the Month award. Jennings faced off against two other finalists but did not win. Nevertheless, that experience led to the job of waiting on tables and tending bar in the Commanding General’s Mess.

The comfort of the job was paradise after five months in the field. Gourmet food and wine was the order of the day for the General, his officers, and guests such as Miss America and several pro football players. Although he shared in the goodies, Jennings felt “something didn’t seem right or fair” because “everyone in the field had been betrayed by this life of opulence by the officers, which now included [him].”

After five months, Jennings grew “tired of playing servant.” He wrote home: “I get so mad, especially when the lifer officers tell me that the General doesn’t want any special privileges. He wants anything available to him to be available to all the troops. Bullshit! I don’t remember having red wine with my c-rations when I was in the field.”

25th Infantry Division troops in Vietnam in 1969

Guilt gnawed at him when his former company invaded Cambodia and he remained safely behind.

Jennings grew up in Chicago in a strong Irish Catholic family. Letters from his large extended family and many friends provided a support system in Vietnam. “I wouldn’t say I got the most mail,” he says, “but I came close.”

The majority of the letters went to his 71-year-old mother for whom he soft-sold the war to ease her worries. Letters to his sister were more insightful. For example, on the same day that he wrote to his mother about a broken camera and the rain, in a letter to his sister, Jennings described a point man that a sniper shot in the head.

“He died almost immediately,” Jennings wrote. “It happened so suddenly. Then with all the confusion and the screaming by guys crying for help, it shook me up a little.” The point man was the first American that Jennings had seen killed. That image has never left him.

One of his letters about a sweep through a suspected VC village is a masterpiece of evoking the emotions and tension of soldiers and civilians during the operation. To me, those pages alone were worth the price of the book.

Jennings also touches on some of the usual Vietnam War memoir topics: marijuana, Agent Orange, fragging, war protestors, My Lai, and falling in lust on R&Rs. He does not moralize. He does, however, puzzle over the frequent “wasteful loss of life,” which made him question his Catholicism and all other beliefs.

After his discharge, psychologically burdened by the “graphic memories” of what he saw in the field and the guilt of working in the rear, Jennings drank his way through most of thirty-five years before he found help for his PTSD.

—Henry Zeybel