When one reads a book about a war, traditionally one looks forward to a fairly high level view of it. You read about the armies and their maneuvers. Where individual decisions come into play, you might focus on the generals. Perhaps, more rarely, the performance of lower-ranked soldiers, where it might have turned the course of a battle, might be explained. While books written about and from the perspective of the common soldier are probably more popular now, it seems to me that the majority of war non-fiction is about leaders. Of course, one obvious exception is the memoir that focuses on the experience of the individual soldier, whether biographical or fictional.
The author of The Boys of ’67: Charlie Company’s War in Vietnam, Andrew Wiest, begins his preface by noting that one of the inspirations for his book was having read Ron Kovic’s Born on the Fourth of July. The other major inspiration was his personal relationship with a veteran of C Company (of the 4th Battalion, 47th Infantry Regiment, 9th Infantry Division), which prompted him into writing a book about this unit’s original deployment to Vietnam. The book focuses mostly on the experience of the individual rifleman up through their squad leaders rather than the officers and the grand strategy.
Another motivation for this books comes from the unique identity of the 9th Infantry as perhaps the last of its kind.
One upon a time, in Merry Olde England, regiments were raised for King and Country by local lords. The components of an army tended to be geographically based and brothers-in-arms might truly be brothers or, at the very least, neighbors. The American army inherited English traditions and up-to-and-into the First World War, there remained a regional component to American units. Look no further than the regimental designations in the Civil War for a clear example.
The First World War, for the most part, saw the last of geographically-based regular army units. Obviously, National Guard activation remains an exception to this day, but for the regular army, the location of a unit’s base while stationed at home is probably not a good indicator of the origin of the men that make up that unit. The Second World War saw the end of another trend. Up through WWII, the transition from peace to war meant the raising of new military units to fight that war. Contrast that to the post-War era, where the United States had endeavored to maintain sufficient forces to meet whatever challenges it may face. For the individual soldier, the difference is being recruited or drafted and then trained as part of their deployed unit version being assigned into an already-existing unit after training. In this last respect, the 9th Infantry, itself, marked the end of its own era.
The 9th Infantry was deactivated at the end of WWII. Despite being reactivated for the Korean War, it did not have a combat role and was deactivated again in 1962. In early 1966, the U.S. sought to extend their influence in the Mekong Delta. The 9th Infantry would fulfill this mission and three of its battalions would be organized as “Riverine” forces; using watercraft and waterways rather than helicopters to move to and from battlefields. The 4th Battalion of the 47th Infantry Regiment* was one such riverine unit.
As a newly-activated unit, the men of C Company were, by and large, draftees who all received their notices at the same time. The arrived for induction together, trained together, and when their training was complete, they deployed to Vietnam together. A rather horrific voyage carried them from California to Vietnam, incidents from which are related to the reader of the book.
Inevitably, the unit began to suffer attrition. This took the form both of soldiers killed as well as injuries that were serious enough to remove them from duty. As the original cadre was whittled away, C/4/47 became more like any other unit in Vietnam, filling up with replacements having no connection to the originally-deployed unit. While some of the replacements’ stories feature in the book, the narrative, for the most part, focuses on that original core and how a year’s worth of duty in Vietnam affected them. Inducted in May, the unit deployed to Vietnam in December 1966. Any soldier who remained in their unit until the end returned to the United States around New Years’ Day of 1968.
In this, the the book sheds some light on the failure of “the numbers” to capture the impact of Vietnam on soldiers’ morale. For this unit, the numbers looked good. Combat deaths were 10% or lower over the course of their tour while losses inflicted upon the enemy where considerably higher. Their missions were successful. On the ground, however, it felt different. Missions often felt like, if not quite a failure, perhaps a waste. Men were as apt to fight booby traps or maybe just weather and rough terrain as enemy soldiers. When they did fight the enemy, it was often in the form of an ambush, where they were at an initial disadvantage that had to be overcome. That, in the end, said battle was deemed a victory was small consolation to the American unit that lost many good men in the opening moments of the fight.
While combat deaths were relatively low, by the time the company returned to the United States, most of the original members were gone. In addition to the deaths, there were injuries, many of them severe and permanent. There were also those who just transferred to other units and other locations. The net result of seeing the vast majority of your brothers-in-arms having gone had its psychological effect, independent of how the unit’s performance fit into the strategic picture. It is also important that losses, for the individual, weren’t balanced by gains on the individual level. When men died, either in an ambush or by faceless traps, there would be no counter-punch. While men had a natural instinct to get “payback,” it was unlikely that they would actual be able to again catch and fight the very enemies that had bloodied them in an earlier battle. There were no front lines to overrun or strongholds to capture and hold. In this, the war would seem to just meander on and on with no measure of progress except the loss of your best friends.
As depressing as that assessment sounds, the book does manage to avoid politics. The men themselves, even the draftees, largely entered the Army as patriots ready to fulfill their duty. In May of 1966, even the country at large was mostly supportive of the war. The men were shocked to return** to a country that, in 1968, was wracked by anti-war protests. While the narrative seems free from anti-war bias, the author does not hesitate to identify incompetence, either in overall policy or in the individual commander. It’s one thing to lose a friend to the fortunes of war but it is so much worse when it was you’re own side that caused the loss.
Bottom line, this book is a compelling read. It provides a picture of the Vietnam War, not as it looked to us as a nation or the military, but to the individuals who were called upon by their country to serve and so did their duty as best they could.
*Fictional character Forrest Gump served in the 2nd Battalion of the 47th, which was not one of the Riverine units.
**This book, unique to those I’ve read so far, spend the final chapter or two discussing the return of the men to the U.S. This includes how Vietnam dominated their lives in the decades after the war and the impact upon them of the internet and the reunions that began to take place in the years before the book was published.