Bing West: The Village
This is a wonderful book. It tells the story of 15 marines assigned to defend a hamlet, working with about the same number of Popular Force militiamen. Of that original band, 7 are killed in the first half of the book, most of them in a single firefight when their "fort" is over-run. (The PFs suffer losses at roughly the same rate.) But they love the work, get along fine with the villagers, and exact an even higher toll on the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese units sent against them.
Bing West is a gifted writer. Here he is, describing a marine with a fifty-caliber machine gun: "The drunken soldier was set now, having leaned his body over the rear of the gun and swung the heavy barrel upward. It wavered around the fort and then slowly swung out toward the paddies, like a compass needle coming to rest. Then came the solid, belting jackhammer sound of the weapon firing and the thick incendiary slugs, big as cigars, burned out over the paddies."
He also knows what he's writing about: West was a platoon leader in Vietnam; he visited the village often, and he led some of the patrols he describes, though mostly the book is based on interviews with the men of the combined-action squad.
The first half reads like a novel, but real life seldom follows a plot line. When the marines are withdrawn from Binh Nghia--victims of their own success, for they aren't needed any longer--the village first reverts to Viet Cong control, then is pacified utterly as the war situation changes after the bloody battles of Tet 1968. The impatient reader might lose interest here, but that would be a mistake. West returns to the village again and again, mostly recently in 2002. He ends that visit, and this edition of the book, with a visit to a well and a shrine that the marines had built in 1967, and that incredibly still bore a plaque in their memory. He writes:
"America has generously praised the generation of World War II. But of their Vietnam progeny, of those who returned to jeers rather than parades, the press has projected the face filled with fear, unworthy of praise. It is left to others in unlikely places to trace callused hands over rough cement and to remember the faces which were stalwart.
"The village remembers."
Later, West was an assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration. He wrote the superlative account of the 2003 Iraq War, The March Up, which is what led me to this book. I'm glad I had the chance to discover it, and I recommend it without reservation.