The Funny Thing About War by Al Campo

Al Campo is a Vietnam veteran who served aboard the USS Lawrence from 1972-74 as a boatswains mate and operations specialist. The Funny Thing About War (Hellgate, 428 pp., $21.95, paper: $4.99, Kindle) is his first novel. The book, he says, “was a labor of love that took four decades to formulate and complete.”

A small number of books, Campo says, “exist regarding the Blue Water Navy’s activities in the conduct of the war.”  He is right about that. There aren’t many, and this is one of the most thorough and well-researched.

The novel is told through the eyes of an enlisted sailor, Chris Columbo. He was once in college on an ROTC scholarship, but left that behind due to a cataclysm in his love life. Now he’s in the Navy as an enlisted man to honor his ROTC obligation.

The Lawrence, a guided missile destroyer, takes part in Operations Lam Son and Linebacker off the coasts of North and South Vietnam. The ship is part of the effort to try to take Quang Tri Province back from the North Vietnamese Army.

We hear the Chi Lites singing “Oh Girl,” and we get a worm’s eye view of what liberty in Olongapo was like during the end of the American war in Vietnam when only about 15,000 troops were left in country. We witness the outbreak of crab lice aboard the ship due to the confiscation of bags of rice from the enemy, and hear a lot about movies that the sailors watch to stave off boredom, including Soldier Blue. As I read descriptions of meal after meal, I realized those sailors got fed about as well as we soldiers did at USARV headquarters at Long Binh where I was much earlier in the war.

This is late in the war, so there is a lot of racial stuff going on. Campo does a good job of showing us what that looked like.

No book about the Navy’s role in the Vietnam War is likely ever to give a reader a better idea of what the monotonous weeks on board ship were like.  “Re-arming, re-fueling, vert repping of food stores, helo details, motor whaleboat launches, firing missions, pot washing, deck mopping, pot scrubbing, toilet cleaning, mail calls, sweeper details, GQ drills, steering and casualty drills.”  We learn enough about those chores that we could all but step in and do them ourselves.

Al Campo

This book is especially concerned with getting things right, and the author does a fine job with that. Unlike countless other writers, Campo is the only Vietnam War novelist or memoirist who deals with Jane Fonda appropriately to the time and place. When he describes going to yet another movie, he writes, “They got some popcorn, grabbed a table, and spent the next hour and sixteen minutes ogling Jane Fonda playing a prostitute in the movie ‘Klute.’”

Campo has written a book that is 100 percent trustworthy in the details—and that is where truth resides. When he talks about “three square meals each day” and that the men could enjoy “the occasional hot shower,” you can trust that Campo got it right.

I highly recommend this novel to those who want to know what it was like to serve in the Navy off the cost of Vietnam during the dying days of the war. Have faith that no other veteran has taken the care that Campo has to get it right.

—David Willson

Invasion of Laos 1971 by Robert D. Sander

In 1971, the war in Vietnam was slowly drawing to an end for the U.S. and Richard Nixon was very keen on Vietnamization. An invasion of Laos to close off the Ho Chi Minh Trail was to be crucial in ending the war with what Nixon called “honor.”

In Invasion of Laos 1971: Lam Son 719 (University of Oklahoma Press, 304 pp., $29.95) Robert D. Sander, a helicopter pilot who took part in the invasion of Laos, offers his thoughts on why this operation was an epic failure. He has researched his subject diligently and presents it well in this book. Sander finds no end to those who contributed to the lack of success of the operation known as Lam Son 719.

An earlier plan to invade Laos, Operation El Paso, was devised by Gen. William Westmoreland to try to stop the flow of North Vietnamese Army troops and equipment through Laos and Cambodia into South Vietnam. El Paso was never carried out after Gen. Creighton Abrams assumed command of the troops in Vietnam.

When President Nixon took office the idea of invading Laos came up again. Because of an act of Congress forbidding American military involvement on the ground in Laos, the South Vietnamese military
would be the invading force.They would receive air support from units of the U.S. Army, as well as the Air Force and Marines.

The reason for the operation in 1971 was to prevent the North Vietnamese from mounting a dry-season offensive in the South. While America still had military advisors attached to the South Vietnamese military, they did not join the South Vietnamese Army during the invasion. This created serious communication problems with air and artillery support during the invasion.

This problem was one of many that Sander’s explains in the book. The timing of the invasion also was a serious concern. The rainy season had not quite ended, and fog and morning rain greatly effected the planning and execution of the operation.

This is a serious review of the events and it is a well-documented work. There are copious amounts of footnotes and quotes by those involved, as well as references to voices in Washington at the time.

After reading his book, it is apparent to me that the Greeks may have had the answer to going to war. First you abolish the standing government and create a dictator to rule until the end of the war. Then you let the military do its job. But that may not even had been enough in Lam Son 719 as there were several occasions when staff officers dropped the ball on the field of battle.

There is truly enough blame to go around for the failure of Lam Son 719.

—John Lavelle