Late Thoughts On An Old War

Jul 12, 2004

This is not a day-to-day memoir or a volume of military overview or strategy. Philip Beidler has written a series of essays on discrete topics. Each essay is a piece of the puzzle he is putting together for us. The result is a picture of his war.

July 12, 2004 – During 1969 and 1970 Philip Beidler was a lieutenant in the United States Army in Vietnam, an armored cavalry platoon leader, often in combat, in III Corps, in the Delta. After returning, physically unscathed, Beidler took a PhD in English, commenced his teaching career at the University of Alabama, and wrote often about American literature, both the fiction and nonfiction that had been written about Vietnam, and also about the literature of World War II.

There was no doubt about it: war was on his mind, but he did not often speak about Vietnam or write in the first person. Now he has, and this book, Late Thoughts on an Old War, is the finest work he has ever done, and the bravest. Beidler writes from the vantage point of thirty-five years of digesting, recovering, contemplating, taking in other people?s accounts, in short, coming to terms with what he did, what happened to him there, and what it might mean for America today.

The prose is smooth, as readable as a fine mystery novel, and it is important. He starts by teaching us, reminding us really, of ?the language of the Nam.? During wartime, the American population learns a lot of world geography, and some jargon. Those old enough to remember, whether in person or from the evening news, will suffer a frisson at VC, LZ, DMZ, dust-off, body bag, body count, ARVN, REMF, short time, Search and Destroy, Click, KIA, LRRPs and Seals, Five O?Clock Follies, and Gook. Beidler spends a few pages reminding us of how to speak the language and then tells us the story.

This is not a day-to-day memoir or a volume of military overview or strategy. Beidler has written a series of essays on more or less discrete topics, although, of course, each essay is a piece of the puzzle he is putting together for us, with the result being a picture of his war.

A fine essay of movie analysis, for example, explains why Platoon, directed by Oliver Stone, gets it all about right, while Apocalypse Now or The Deer Hunter doesn?t. The devil and the deep truths are in the details. There is a heartbreaking essay on Solatium, the U.S. Army practice of giving Vietnamese civilians a cash payment of $35, or, in the case of a child under 15, $14.40 for grief suffered from the accidental loss of a loved one. Apparently, it is possible to put a price tag of a sort on human life. Beidler observed this perverse awards ceremony and has obviously never gotten over it.

A pair of essays designed to vent and create outrage are perfectly successful, to my way of thinking. In ?Just Like in the Movies,? Beidler writes of President Nixon?s obsession with the movie Patton, how he watched it and showed it to others over and over and, perhaps, in a bizarre misidentification with Patton, was inspired by it to invade Cambodia, thus enlarging the war, lengthening it and costing thousands more lives.

The other, ?Sorry, Mr. McNamara,? is a rant, a scream. Robert McNamara has now written that he and the others in the White House in the middle sixties knew the war could not be won, but just kept on, and on, out of stupid pride. Beidler makes the connections to the present, but hardly needs to. It is here for all to see.

On the lighter side, Beidler writes of the all-pervasive music of the Nam and the Vietnam era, ?65-?74, and, as with all such, it takes you back. It?s just as they said in The Big Chill: ?There is no music since sixties music.? Think about it.

I hope this volume finds a wide readership. It deserves one. It is distressing, provocative. Why did we have to lose 58,000 Americans and kill approximately three million Asians? No one seems now to know. Bob McNamara doesn?t know. Lt. William Calley certainly cannot tell us.