Everything Happened in Vietnam by Robert Peter Thompson

Robert Peter Thompson served in the U. S. Marine Corps from 1967-69.  In Vietnam, he was in Headquarters Battery of the 1st Battalion, 13th Marines.   In his book Everything Happened in Vietnam: The Year of the Rat  (Blue Moon Publishing, 234 pp., $11.95, paper) Thompson makes it clear that he was not a grunt, and that he was a clerk corporal who went along “as a warm body and a worker bee” on patrols. He also notes that he got jungle rot on his whole body, including on his lips. 

This is a phantasmagorical book, and often takes the form of a meditation on the deaths of his friends Tater, Johnny the New Guy, and Sandy. I’ve read a lot of Marine Corps memoirs, and this is an unusual one, and one that is very readable on every page.

It’s hard to explain why I find this book so singular. The author gives us some clues on the title page. “This is not a work of fiction,” he says, “although I have written it more like a novel than a narrative.”

He goes on to call the book, “true fiction,” and warns the reader that the final chapter contains an event that isn’t  “digestible as literal truth.” Thompson is right about that, but the book is filled with these kinds of events and is the better for it.

Some scholars of literature call this sort of writing magical realism. It works well with the material in this Marine Corps memoir.

Often there are passages and pages that remind me of Ernest Spencer’s great Marine Corps memoir Welcome to Vietnam, Macho Man, and sometimes of the poetry of Bill Shields, who served as a Navy SEAL in Vietnam and wrote a great book of poetry called Drinking Gasoline in Hell.

The language of the book is a mytho-poetic style that is often more poetry than prose, and the book is arranged in short, powerful chapters. It is very novelistic, as Thompson warns us early on.

Many of his phrases were so memorable that I found myself jotting them down. That includes this one, describing the view from a helicopter: as “the emerald embrace of the vegetal world.”

My favorite chapter is “The Letter.” It packs such a powerful punch in three and one half pages that I recommend buying the book just for that chapter alone. It is worth it.

His chapter “Mamason” contains the best description I have read about experiencing Agent Orange spraying on the ground. To wit: “I was walking through some bush that was black and withered and the only way that I can describe it is that it was slimy, like a million snails had oozed across every leaf of every bush and turned them black and shriveled in their wake and the slime was getting all over me.”

A bit later Thompson says, “This must be Agent Orange.” He goes on to offer a defense of the use of the stuff, as the defoliation aspect of it enabled him to see a landmine before he stepped on it. Agent Orange saved his legs and his life.

Some of the iconic recurring motifs of Marine Corps books appear in this book—in powerful guise. One of the VC sappers found dead in the camp wires, for example, is the Vietnamese barber who cut the author’s hair. At one point Thompson asks, “What would John Wayne have done?”  He says that it wasn’t like a movie in Vietnam, but more like a dream. Probably a bad dream.

The author keeps a “short time dream girl calendar” that he consults only when alone, and says is almost a “sacred object.” He heats C-Rats with C4. And survives doing it.

This fine book is dedicated to the author’s friend, Sandy, who died in Vietnam, leaving a beautiful “18 year old fiancée.”  Thompson shows us Sandy as a wraith at the end of the book. But our author is one of the lucky ones who goes home as living flesh and blood.  As he tells us, he “snuck back into the world. Like a thief.”

If you are up for reading another Marine Corps Vietnam War memoir, this is a fine one. It is short and sweet and can be read in one or, at most, two sittings. I read it in a great rush, eager for what was coming next.  You will too.

—David Willson