An Honorable Illusion by Kurt Chismark

Kurt Chismark graduated from Cornell University, enlisted in the Army in 1968, went to OCS, then served with the 6th Special Forces Group (Airborne), and as a rifle platoon leader in Vietnam with the 173rd Airborne Brigade. He received three Bronze stars, the Air Medal, and attained the rank of Captain. Chismark, a VVA member, belongs to Chapter 535 in Nevada County, California.

While in Vietnam, Chismark led search and destroy missions. In Honorable Illusion:  A Memoir (AuthorHouse, 112 pp., $14.95, paper) he writes vividly of this experience of plodding through Vietnam’s jungles, villages, and rice paddies with the 173rd.

This slender book is organized into fifteen short chapters with titles such as “Only in the Movies,” “A Total SNAFU,” “The Frag,” and “R & R.”  Chismark gives the reader a good sense of what his tour of duty was like, both in his six months in the field and the six months he spent in the rear—and he does it without using any swear words worse than “darn.” This narrative definitely is suitable for a young adults interested in reading about the Vietnam War.

Chismark’s strong Christian faith is evident throughout the book. Like many Americans of the Vietnam Generation, Chismark came from a family with a strong history of military service. So he was prepared to go to war in Southeast Asia, and as Chismark says in his preface, he “felt happy, thankful and proud about my new role and opportunity to command troops in combat in Vietnam to prevent the spread of Communism throughout the world, and thus protect our freedom.”  A bit later he says, these causes “may have been based on false assumptions, erroneous information and possibly a bit of hubris.”

By page 33, Chismark describes how the women and children in the villages he and his men tromped through looked at them as “big, armed, alien, storm troopers who couldn’t speak their language or understand their culture or customs.”  Truer words were never spoken.

When Chismark confronts a bound and gagged VC prisoner who is staring into his eyes, he imagines that prisoner thinking, “What in God’s name are you doing here?  You have no business here. You don’t care about anything but going home, and you are despicable. In addition, I have been trained and indoctrinated. I am not afraid to fight to the death. Our side is right and you don’t get it. We are obsessed and we will win!”  For this reader, this is the most powerful point made in this book.

I noticed no mention of John Wayne or ham and mother fuckers or Agent Orange in this infantry memoir, unlike in most others. But the author does include most of the other obligatory details of his genre: sandbags, concertina wire, the smell of burning feces, saddle-up, RTO’s, VC, NVA, ARVN’s, Dear John letters, hard drug use, fragging, spitting on returning soldiers, Kit Carson Scouts, the war as movie (a la Apocalypse Now,) R & R, booby traps, AK-47’s, M-16’s, hammer and anvil, suspicion of draftees and those who served in the rear, Mermite containers, blivits, Vietnamization, pacification, music such as “We Gotta Get Out of This Place”  by Eric Burdon and the Animals, and Freedom Birds.

Even in my Vietnam War tour of duty in the rear, I encountered most of this stuff, directly and indirectly, and I enjoyed reading about all of it in this lively book.

Near the end of this memoir, Chismark is stationed at Fort Benning, where Lt. William Calley was under house-arrest. Chismark says here that “Many Vietnam vets were perceived as baby killers, guilty by association.”  He goes on to say that “Times were tough on returning vets.”

I see this as the second most important point in the book. It bears mentioning, too, that all of us who returned ran the risk of being perceived this way, even if we spent the war typing memos and filing documents. My family and their friends assumed I spent my tour of duty doing the things that Calley was convicted of doing.

There are a couple of unusual things about this slender book that Chismark deserves credit for and which set it apart from the dozens of other infantry memoirs I have read.  He devotes a lot of space to praising his Kit Carson Scout, a VC who left the enemy to join the Americans and who worked with Lt. Chismark and his platoon. The scout, Tran, gets a chapter of his own, “Killer Defector—Enemy Possessed,” and credit for saving Chismark’s life and the lives of his troopers countless times due to his skill at spotting booby traps and navigating trails when he acted as point man, his usual role.

“I can honestly say Tran was the number one reason our platoon experienced the success fighting the VC that we did,” Chismark says.

The other thing that Chismark does that is not typical is that he honestly states near the end of the book what his family went through with him before he came to grips with his PTSD. To wit: “Unpredictable bursts of anger, over imbibing, verbal abuse, catastrophic thinking, ‘bossiness,’ insensitivity, and narcissism.”

Chismark’s memoir is brave and honest. I read it in one sitting. I highly recommend it.

—David Willson