Brothers in the Mekong Delta by Godfrey Garner

Godfrey Garner possesses exceptional storytelling skills. Along with that talent, he has definitive psychological insights about life and about war. He puts that all together in Brothers in the Mekong Delta: A Memoir of PBR Section 513 in The Vietnam War (McFarland, 192 pp. $29.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle), a memoir of his 1967-68 tour of duty.

 “Following a lengthy break in service,” Garner writes early in the book, “I reentered the U.S. Army Special Forces and fought in Afghanistan where missions were planned and often rehearsed for at least a week.” In his book Garner briefly compares that experience to his Vietnam War tour as a naïve young man.

“Vietnam wasn’t a clean war,” Garner says. “Missions in Vietnam were conceived in the morning and carried out in the evening. Though we were all trained pretty well before deploying to Vietnam, once in the country, we realized that there were no training protocols that could have equipped us for what we encountered. It became more and more unconventional on a daily basis.” Later, he adds, “We never planned ahead. We reacted.”

Garner crewed on—and then captained—a 30-foot Riverine Patrol Boat based at the Sadec River Division 513 compound. Navy PBR crews were the cops of the Mekong Delta waterways. They also provided transportation and fire support for SEAL team operations.

He tells his story through the eyes of a twenty-year-old who is still a teenager at heart, as were the men with whom he crewed and spent most of his free time. Befriended for life by Jack Anderson, David Taylor, and Billy Moore, Garner recollects the “new normal” education of them all. “In many ways,” he says, “Vietnam served as a sort of ramped-up kindergarten of life. Our average age was 19.”

Between nearly daily patrols, while lounging and sharing two-dollar PX quarts of Jack Daniels, they discussed survival and death. “We spent a lot of time talking about inane things,” Garner says. “It was our way of seeking balance at times when we didn’t even realize we had lost it.”

Garner also includes accounts of combat. He reports on good results and bad ones, including watching an explosion and fire consume two close friends. Stories about combat during the 1968 Tet Offensive are his best reporting.

His voice projects adult certainties fogged at times by childlike awe in response to the extraordinary. His ability to drag forth memories from fifty years ago amazes me. His descriptions of interactions between friends and foes repeatedly delighted me.

As much as it is a war memoir, Brothers in the Mekong Delta also resembles a textbook on finding direction for the future. The book should be mandatory reading for high school students.

Finding design within a kaleidoscope of emotions, Garner wraps up his observations with a mini-sermon that serves as a grisly reminder of the “strange maturity” brought on by war and the difference between “good” and “right” in combat. Both ideas translate to everyday living. He suggests that understanding the difference of the latter borders on a sacred miracle.

Garner in Afghanistan

In opposition to such absolute certainty, Garner cites a remark by David Taylor that concluded a deep philosophical discussion:

“Course, you realize how seriously fucked up that actually is.”

Garner is his own best example of applying method toward outcome. Today, he is a professor at Mississippi College, as well as an adjunct at Tulane University and Belhaven University in Homeland Security and Counterterrorism. In addition to his doctorate in counseling psychology, he is working on a second PhD at the University of Southern Mississippi.

Godfrey Graner retired from the Army in 2006. He wound up serving two military and six civilian government-related tours in Afghanistan as an intelligence analyst. He has written several books and more than fifty magazine articles on counterinsurgency.

—Henry Zeybel