Dead on a High Hill by W.D. Ehrhart

W. D. Ehrhart served as a U. S. Marine in Vietnam with the First Marine Battalion, First Marine Regiment in 1967, first as an intelligence assistant, and later as an assistant intelligence chief. He took part in his share of combat operations, including at Con Thien and Hue City, and received the Purple Heart after he was wounded at Hue City.

Ehrhart’s new book, Dead on a Hill: Essays on War, Literature and Living, 2002-2011 (McFarland, 204 pp., $38, paper) proves once again that he is the finest poet/memoirist/essayist of the Vietnam Generation. The truths that  Ehrhart—who received the VVA Excellence in the Arts Award in 2008—tells in these essays are often sad and always powerful.

The book is a classy production, well-edited, and contains more than two dozen excellent essays. The cover alone is worth the price of admission. It shows the author and a buddy, Corporal Takenaga, filling sandbags near Quang Tri in October 1967.

My favorite among the uniformly superb essays in the book is “Carrying the Ghost of Ray Cantina.”  Ray Cantina is really Alan Catlin, who was anthologized as “Ray Cantina” in Ehrhart’s book Carrying the Darkness.

The first thing I did after reading this essay was to dig out Carrying the Darkness to read the two poems by one more guy who pretended to be a Vietnam veteran for obscure reasons of his own. I didn’t remember the poems from a few months ago when I most recently reread this anthology when I was searching for the best overlooked poets of the Vietnam War.

Did I like the poems?  Does it matter that he is a fake and phony?  The proof of the pudding is in the eating, my grandpa always told me. So I read the poems again. They are not gems, but perhaps my appreciation of them was colored by my knowing the poet faked his Vietnam War service. The poems are good enough and specific enough that when I read them without inside information, no red flags went up.

What this fine little essay brings up for the reader is the question: What constitutes a Vietnam veteran? There is a great debate about that. Some folks believe that a Marine Corps combat veteran is the ultimate Vietnam veteran. Others make the case that the common experience for most Vietnam veterans was in the rear with the beer and gear, so that means that REMFs are the ultimate Vietnam veterans.

W.D. Ehrhart

Most folks seem to agree that if a poet was never in Vietnam in any capacity at all, he or she is stretching the truth to claim to be a Vietnam veteran. But I read somewhere in a classic Vietnam War book that “Vietnam, Vietnam, Vietnam…we’ve all been there.”

So where does that leave us?  One of the great beauties of Ehrhart’s book is that it provokes the reader to think, to contemplate, to re-examine long-held beliefs and prejudices.

My second favorite essay  is “Good Fences Make Good Neighbors,” which I wish every American man, woman, and child would read. This piece was delivered as a speech at Clarion College. I have no idea how it was received, but I know that if Ehrhart delivered it at our local community college near Maple Valley, Washington, he would be lucky not to be tarred, feathered, and ridden out of town on a rail. This speech argues that historical facts are more important than patriotic myth, superstition, and legend.

The third essay I recommend highly is “They Want Enough Rice.”  This is the essay that, if read, should shut up every die-hard Vietnam veteran I’ve ever argued with when I’ve heard him claim, “I don’t know what happened in Vietnam after I left. When I came home we were winning that war. The media and Jane Fonda sold us down the river.”  Ehrhart explains what really went wrong with that dirty little war and why.

Buy and read this book if you are up for being provoked to think, and perhaps abandon, some of your closely held preconceptions.

—David Willson