Book Review: Readings
Reviewed by Tom Doyal, Fri., April 27, 2001
Fort Benning BluesA Novel
by Mark Busby
TCU Press, 207 pp., $24.50
DesertionIn the Time of Vietnam
by Jack Todd
Houghton Mifflin, 397 pp., $24
Vietnam is a place-name steeped in the brine of loss and sorrow, evocative of thousands of stories, and the designation for an unsettling (and still unsettled) time in U.S. history. For many young people today, Vietnam merely evokes lazy Saturday afternoon movies on cable television in which Chuck Norris or Sly Stallone win the war single-handedly by freeing U.S. soldiers from the oppressive control of an Asian sadist in charge of a jungle prison, in a narrative punctuated by dozens of commercials for miracle car wax, tub cleaner, or weight loss products. Vietnam is the war we lost and cannot accommodate in our minds or popular culture.
Everyone who lived in that time, "the time of Vietnam," as Canadian journalist Jack Todd calls it, has a story. Who did not go to war and how and why? Who went? Who did not return? What was your number in the draft lottery? These were the times when scholastic probation was not merely cause for embarrassment; the loss of a student deferment might be a ticket to a jungle war in which people were dying. Vietnam has also become a subgenre of the publishing industry with overall mixed results. Fortunately, we are blessed with two new offerings that tackle the era with vigor, specificity, and humanity.
Mark Busby -- the author of books about Larry McMurtry and Ralph Ellison, among others -- is the director of the Center for the Study of the Southwest and professor of English at Southwest Texas State University (and a Chronicle contributor). Fort Benning Blues, his first novel, chronicles the trials of three young men who are in officer candidate training school at Fort Benning, Ga., during the Vietnam War. Busby perfectly captures the ambivalence of the middle-class American youth who came to political consciousness about the war just as they were enlisted to fight in it. Busby's protagonist Jeff Adams is drafted in 1969 and expects to do his duty to his country as the men in his family always have. The young man especially cares what his grandfather thinks of him and wants to acquit himself honorably in the eyes of the old man.
Ultimately, the army and the times make it impossible for Jeff to serve with anything resembling honor. Near the end of his training, he and two buddies choose what they believe to be a more honorable course of action: They desert at the same time as the Kent State murders finally crystallize for each of them the wrong-headedness of the war. In a surreal, somewhat mechanical artifice, the three meet 25 years later at the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Busby is a fiction writer of great promise. His ability to convey the mindless tedium of military training without giving the reader a tedious experience is absolutely masterful. (The protagonist's officer candidate training was not all that different from my basic training at Ft. Polk, La., in November of 1965.) The winds of social change infected even the military leadership right down to the squad level. All the news blackouts in the world could not, ultimately, keep the fledgling soldiers in the dark about the unfolding tragedy of Vietnam. Busby's book is a tale well told and a superb contribution to the literature of the Vietnam era.
Jack Todd is one of the leading journalists in Canada today, but he was once a young man of the American Midwest (Nebraska) until he deserted from the U.S. Army at Fort Lewis, Wash., by crossing into Canada in January 1970. His memoir, Desertion: In the Time of Vietnam, is a powerful record of the price many young men paid in rebuking the policy of a national government bogged down in a distant post-colonial, misguided military operation.
In many ways, Todd's memoir is a hymn of praise to America -- the pre-Nixon, pre-Vietnam America that valued freedom, truth, and democracy without any need for the protective coloration of irony.
The suffering of deserters has not been well reported heretofore. Todd fills in the gaps. The treatment of deserters has been dreadful, and since Vietnam, draft evaders have been much better treated in policies relating to pardons. In Desertion, we see in detail the price these young men paid in order to serve their own conscience. The entire book is a firm rebuke to the notion that desertion from the military was an act of cowardice.
If you read only one Vietnam-era history, make it Jack Todd's memoir. It is powerful, thoughtful, and very human. Todd writes well, remembers clearly, and forgives his country with a grace it has not yet earned.