Baptism, A Vietnam Memoir

Article excerpt

By Larry Gwin. New York: Ivy Books, 1999. 353 pages. $6.99 (paper).

Larry Gwin has written a stark and lucid account of close combat in Vietnam--and more. His memoir also provides a between-the-lines text that seems to say: even the best among us will suffer deep and permanent psychological damage if subjected to sustained fear, gore, loss of respected comrades, and frequent barely tolerable shocks. The implication is that American military leaders must think through better psychological preparation of our soldiers for war and for the repair of damaged goods before returning combat veterans to society.

Gwin should have been the Recruiting Command's poster boy. He was Hollywood handsome; a super-jock who played football, hockey, and lacrosse; an A-student in high school, before he discovered an inclination to boozing and wenching while attending Yale, where he also served as battalion commander of his Army ROTC detachment. He had vague memories of VJ-Day, and keener memories of shooting his BB gun at little lead soldiers arrayed on a battlefield, watching Victory at Sea "religiously," and playing soldier "decked out in army surplus."

The Gwin men served in America's wars: his father in World War II, his grandfather in the Spanish-American War. His great-grandfather was seriously wounded fighting for the Confederacy, and his great-great grandfather, James Gwin, died at the Alamo. It was Larry's turn. He writes:

 
   I was intrigued by [the war in Vietnam's] potential for challenge, 
   the unaddressed question of how I'd measure up in combat--a question 
   that would not have concerned me, I'm sure, if I hadn't been aware 
   of my father's proud service in the "Good War." We are, after all, 
   who we are. So, I signed up. 

The gung ho Yale senior signed up in the fall of 1962. On the Officers' Preference Statement he listed the 10th Special Forces Group, the 82d Airborne Division, with Vietnam being his overseas duty of choice. In 1963, after infantry, airborne, and ranger training, Lieutenant Gwin began a two-year stint with the 82d. He made over 40 parachute jumps while serving as a rifle platoon leader, battalion adjutant, and commander of a raider platoon. "I was prepared to jump into the jaws of doom on a moment's notice," he said. When he got his orders for Vietnam, he writes, "I was, believe it or not, quite thrilled."

After the Military Assistance and Training course at Fort Bragg, he studied Vietnamese and fell in love while at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California. Later, he caroused in San Francisco before boarding the aircraft that would take him to Vietnam. He listened to Beethoven's Fifth Symphony through the plane's plastic earphones, observing, "What a way to go to war!"

He was US Grade-A prime beef: 23, great bloodlines, a sense of tradition and duty, solid education, and a strong desire to serve. When he landed in Vietnam in July 1965, he was as well prepared as any young man going into battle for the first time. But all that was barely enough to get him through his year in Vietnam. It would not be enough to prepare him to later cope with a sense of being damaged goods, a profoundly confused man for many years after what he was about to experience. …