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.
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.