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Good, but a bit heavy on the evangelism
on 5 August 2014
In most capacities, this is an insightful and fascinating memoir of a "grunt" marine and his experiences in the A Shau Valley and An Hoa campaigns after the 1968 Tet Offensive. What makes the account especially compelling is Clark's unflinching description of the brutality and chaos of jungle combat, and the slow, agonizing attrition of his platoon-mates as the days and weeks wear on. It really brings home how the US lost 58,000 men, one man at a time. The Vietnamese, both military and civilian, as is usually the case in these memoirs, vary from prostitutes to cowards to stone-age villagers to faceless killers. But the author, even if the book was written in 1984, can't be faulted more for this than the authors of countless war memoirs that have done this before to Germans, Koreans, and even, on rare occasions, Americans. Rare indeed is the war autobiography that sees the enemy as human, which is part of the reason we keep fighting wars.
What is a bit harder to handle, however, and what makes "Guns Up!" for all it's insight, a lesser book than "Chickenhawk," is that the evangelical Christian message is laid on with a trowel. The author, through his own musings and conversations with his closest friend, quotes long bible passages, and descriptions of how the two, working in tandem, tried to comfort their fellow-soldiers by bringing them to Jesus are frequent. If that's the way it happened, so be it, and the author has every right to emphasize the religious aspect of his experience, but readers should be prepared.
The only time it goes over the top and becomes disturbing is when the two compare Vietnam to the old testament stories of David and Goliath, which implies that the war itself was a religious crusade. Frankly, that view should have gone out the window once we realized, as a country, that we were repeating the arrogance of the British, the French, and other would-be imperial conquerors with is idea. Equally disturbing is their discussion how a young, female NVA soldier was somehow less of a person because she wasn't Christian and that this, rather than dying slowly after her stomach was blown away by fragmentation grenades, is the true tragedy.
On the other hand, the discussion does illustrate, as well as any I've read in memoirs or novels about war, how good people can commit acts of unspeakable brutality again and again by repeatedly telling themselves they are serving a higher purpose. I've yet to read a war book that offers a solution to this vicious cycle.