Saturday, April 27, 2013

Roger H. C. Donlon and Warren Rogers, Outpost of Freedom


Opening Passage:

The President of the United States put the MEdal fo Honor around my neck, snapped the pale-blue ribbon into place, smiled, shook my hand, and said, "Congratulations, Captain." I stood there, eyes fixed in a thousand-yard stare. My new gree n uniform felt as if it didn't fit. My feet felt out of line and I eased my heels together. My hands were all right, and I must have had the right arch in my back because the sweat came down and hit me in the waist where it's supposed to. I noticed that the President was sweating, too.

Summary: Roger Donlon was a Catholic boy from New York state, a bit overly fond of practical jokes and horseplay, who went on to lead a Special Forces Detachment in Vietnam. He and his team were military advisers, so in practice most of their work consisted of 'civic action', helping the locals out with anything that needed to be done, especially medical. Nam Dong, however, was located with reach of the Viet Cong, so there was an ever-present danger of attack. One of the difficulties of the situation was that Nam Dong was already a place filled with tensions; in addition to the local South Vietnamese and the South Vietnamese units stationed there, there were refugees from mountain villages who had been pushed out by the VC. In addition, there turned out to be a certain amount of tension between the South Vietnamese and the Nung mercenaries with whom Donlon and his team directly worked. This came to a head when a fight broke out between the Nungs and the South Vietnamese over a local woman. An ordinary enough occurrence, but it quickly grew out of hand, leading to extensive violence that Donlon had difficulty quelling. There were signs that this spiral out of control was due to Viet Cong infiltration. And in this state of tension the Viet Cong did, in fact, attack one night.

The book does a very good job at conveying the confusion of the battlefield -- soldiers stumbling out of bed trying to figure out what is going on, difficulty in determining where the enemy are, mistakenly hearing "Can't see!" when people were shouting "VC!", and so forth. Some of the examples I thought most interesting were the difficulties of dealing with equipment failure: the time wasted trying to use a gun that turned out to have a bent barrel, using timed illumination rounds without immediately remembering that the timer needed to be set with a timing wrench, having to improvise a way to fix weapons jams when none of the safety procedures could be followed, the constant need to fumble around for the next weapon to use, and so forth. There are other, more human sides, though: having to deal with someone's death in the midst of fighting for your own life, the difficulty of avoiding friendly fire when you are literally surrounded and the enemy is encroaching, the effort to push yourself when you are dog-tired and in pain. Then there are the small touches where humanity intrudes: the Vietnamese nurse who instead of hunkering down or running grabbed a rifle and started shooting at the Viet Cong, the fact that in the middle of battle Donlon gets hit in the face (fortunately for him, he was just far enough back not to have his skull broken) by the recoil of a gun because he is thinking about where he might be able to get different shoes so he can get to where he needs to be, the aching irony that the only men on Donlon's team who died were those who had wives back home who were pregnant.

For all this, the book, while not long, moves quite slowly. We don't get full background on everyone, only little touches, but a great deal of the space is devoted to showing the reader enough to remember that the people on the field aren't machines, but ordinary people with lives going well beyond their military service.

Favorite Passage: After an injury, the young Donlon files the paperwork according to a traditional military protocol:

The day I was discharged from teh hospital they gave me a "physical profile" classifying me as a "permanent three." This meant that the ankle was permanently flawed and I would have to have limited duty for the rest of my career. I argued with the personnel sergeant that I was perfectly all right for full duty. I requested assignment to a regular platoon, pending transfer to advanced infantry training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, and action on the request I had submitted for officer training. He finally agreed to send me to the platoon, but he insisted the limited-duty profile had to go into my records.

"All right," I said. "I'll take it over there myself."

He gave me a fishy look. After a moment's hesitation he handed over the piece of paper.

It was a windy day, as I recall. Somehow, on the way to company headquarters where my records were, the paper slipped out of my hand. I don't know where it went. At headquarters nobody asked about it, and I never mentioned it. As far as I know, nothing about limited duty was ever put in my records. (p. 69)

Whatever its differences, military is a government occupation; and the two primary purposes of government paperwork are to get lost before it is filed and to get lost after it is filed.

Recommendation: It's pretty much what you'd expect from an autobiographical "as told to" book, but the description of the battle of Nam Dong is vivid and gripping, and worth reading if you want a sense of how things work in the midst of battle -- or don't work, which is perhaps even more often the case.

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