I’ve got a long shelf of books about my generation’s war, but none of them presents it as I experienced it. I served in the Army from 1966 to 1968, but I never left the U.S., so my war was very different from the one recounted in those books. Following the basic officer’s course and an advanced course in “open mess management,” both at Ft. Lee, Va., I wound up running an officers club–or trying to–at Aberdeen Proving Ground (APG), north of Baltimore, one of only two lieutenants in my class–out of 28, I think–who did not go to Nam upon graduation. And, for the last six of my eighteen months at APG, I moved to a contract procurement job in the (mostly civilian) post quartermaster’s office.
The “highlights” of my Vietnam War? The post commander threatened to send me to Vietnam because he did not like the arrangement of a cigar case in the club I ran—and, to be fair, because he believed I was flippant in responding to his critique–which I was.
The club’s retired Army cook made wonderful chili, but seasoned it according to how cold it was outside. This meant that on really cold days (of which we had a few along the shores of the Chesapeake Bay), I saw sweating, red-faced diners fleeing after only a couple of tastes of chili, because our cook had made it way too spicy for their liking–but just right for his. And, yes, they complained, which meant that I had to summon all of my diplomatic skills in dealing with our proud cook, who did not suffer fools–or lieutenants–gladly.
I’ll never forget the night I discovered that the morose senior officer hanging over the end of the club bar was a one-star general who had made the mistake of taking a reporter along with him when he went up in a helicopter for some target practice—and using a Vietnamese peasant and his water buffalo as targets. His next stop: APG.
I also should mention the day I visited the club’s “annex” in the Bachelor Officers Quarters (think of a McDonald’s, with beer) at lunchtime and witnessed a roomful of angry lieutenants screaming and cursing at the television screen as President Lyndon Johnson announced yet another increase in American troop strength in Vietnam. These youngsters, as well as some older officers I encountered at the club, were convinced that LBJ was not doing nearly enough to ensure that we would “win” in Nam.
The most worthwhile thing I did during my time on active duty was serve as “Survivor Assistance Officer” to a local family, one of whose members had been killed by a sniper in Saigon during the Tet Offensive. I arranged for his military funeral at Arlington, escorted the family there, and spent the last six months of my tour making sure that his widow and six year-old son received government benefits to which they were entitled because of his sacrifice—and helping fend off con-men trying to take financial advantage of their loss.
Finally, there was the unforgettable night a sergeant and I sat in the post headquarters waiting for a phone call that might send our “headquarters company” to Baltimore for “riot control,” in the wake of the assassination of The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
In some ways, I viewed the real war–you know, the one in Southeast Asia–through the lens of TV news, like other Americans who did not travel to Nam to fight, but my job required long hours, so I didn’t have much time to ponder the conflict and its impact.
There were few “heroes” on my post, at least among the officers. We did what we were expected to do, while trying to hold bureaucratic excesses at bay as best we could. I am grateful for all that I learned while on active duty–lessons in “leadership” that I was later able to apply in a “real world” setting; and the sure and certain knowledge that my future career would not include being an Army officer, restaurant manager, or government bureaucrat. Once again, negative lessons were at least as powerful as positive ones.
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Short, by James H. Krefft
Centennial, Colorado: Military Writers Press, 2014
In 1966-1968, when I was stationed there, APG was the home of the Army’s Ordnance Center and School, where new weapons were developed, and young soldiers taught to repair and maintain them. I could not help but be struck by the influence of officers and enlisted men who had already been to Vietnam and were now training recruits. These experienced soldiers were either waiting for their next overseas postings (another tour in Nam for many) or counting down the days until their active duty was over and they could rejoin “the world.” Soldiers in this latter category were referred to as “short-timers,” or, simply as “short,” the title of a new novel by James Krefft.
In Krefft’s pages, I finally recognized my war. His re-creation of life at “Ft. Pershing” in the early 1970s, where recruits just out of basic training were schooled in various “combat support” specialties, then sent to Vietnam, is pitch-perfect in most respects, as, for example, when he examines the layers of military bureaucracy, and the reams of procedures–and accompanying jargon–used to ensure a constant supply of troops for duty in Vietnam. Trust me, he’s right on—you had to be there!
The relationship Krefft sketches between the main characters, Lieutenants Dan Waytes and Mike Stvrski, and their non-commissioned officers (NCOs) is exactly right, at least in my recollection. One of the first lessons we future officers learned was that, while a second lieutenant “outranked” even a first sergeant, the lieutenant had better stay on his sergeant’s good side, because NCOs ran the Army on a daily basis, “knew where all the bodies were buried,” and could make life miserable for officers they did not respect.
As Krefft’s sergeants say numerous times in the novel, NCOs really did want to “make officers out of” their young, inexperienced “superiors.” And most of us were grateful they did. Moreover, as First Sergeant Dave Roy’s mantra had it, “Paperwork don’t get young soldiers ready for war,” another lesson NCOs were determined to teach lieutenants, who initially were hung up on the Army’s awesome–and befuddling–bureaucratic “paper trail,” no matter how long training took or how little sense rules sometimes made.
Several sections in Short are just laugh-out-loud funny: when Lt. Dan accompanies a supply sergeant on a “scrounging” mission, trying to fill, by hook or by crook, gaps in the supplies they were issued (been there, done that, got the t-shirt!); and, especially, when Lt. Dan is forced to attend a course he should have ‘checked off” a year earlier and decides, for his required “project,” to give a lecture on the dangers posed to the Army by defecating pigeons.
Although Krefft seems to want Short to be an anti-war novel, there is one big hurdle: It is set for the most part in the good old USA, where the only “combat” was in “war games,” the only deaths in training accidents. The few out-of-country scenes are in Bolivia, not Vietnam. There are some stark flashback scenes of World War II combat that could be taken as anti-war, yet that conflict is still considered by many as perhaps the last “good” American war.
James Krefft is on to something in Short, though it might not be obvious to someone who did not spend a long stretch in a stateside military setting during the Vietnam War, when “thank you for your service” was seldom heard but “Catch-22” was always in season. The “anti-war” stuff in the novel grows out of the impersonal, almost soulless process created to train soldiers for Nam, a system sometimes fueled by corruption (as a major sub-plot eventually reveals), and run, in part anyway, by ambitious officers who just wanted to have their “tickets punched” so they could avoid being “riffed” (essentially, shown the door once the war wound down).
Krefft gets this, and he shows it throughout the novel, but there aren’t a lot of “blood-and- guts” episodes to drive the point home, because of the stateside setting. Again, it resonated with me–Krefft could be describing APG during my time there a few years earlier. But, I wonder whether those unfamiliar with the Vietnam War era–or military service in general–will catch on. This is not Krefft’s fault, except that it took him so long to publish the book.
Short is well-plotted, though not deftly so. Eventually, the significance of several episodes that occurred earlier becomes clear, thanks to a raucous visit to New Orleans and a momentous temporary duty trip by the young lieutenants to Bolivia.
The strongest character in this hefty novel is probably First Sergeant (AKA, “top”) Dave Roy. I knew several NCOs just like him–OK, perhaps not quite as “country,” but still. . . . As the novel evolves, “top” comes to play an increasingly important role. In fact, he’s so strongly portrayed in the second half of the book that, when it appears Krefft has dropped the ball by not explicitly resolving Lt. Dan’s relationship with “leggy librarian” Faye McBride, we find that “top” has been working his magic on her. So, for those who want more of a resolution to that sub-plot, it seems clear that Faye will probably “see the light” and marry Dan. Why? Because that’s what “top” wants her to do—and no one in his–or her–right mind messes with a “top sergeant” on a mission!
Short, a labor of love, is at least a hundred pages too long, featuring a lot of repetition that Krefft uses to suggest how boring daily life at Ft. Pershing could be. If Krefft had asked me, I could have contributed several additional examples from my time at APG, but I still think he doth protest too much.
The language Krefft employs for his characters seems much too mild, at least if my Army experience was typical. Lt. Dan’s strongest expletive is “criminy.” Instead of using the real f-word, even irate characters tend to say “frickin’.” Believe me, at Ft. Lee and at APG both officers and enlisted men frequently explored their inner Anglo-Saxon in much more profane depth than Krefft does at Ft. Pershing.
Finally, Krefft portrays his major characters as patriotic “nice guys.” I certainly believe that was true of most of the men I knew at Ft. Lee and APG, yet my experience also suggests that at least some were willing to do anything to rise in the ranks and ensure their futures in the Army, or, if they failed–and wound up at a post like APG– take their frustrations out on their subordinates.
Short, is a credible effort to describe an aspect of the nation’s Vietnam experience often overlooked in the search for “heroes” on the battlefield and villains in the realm of policy: the grindingly bureaucratic system devised to ensure that what some have called the “Vietnam Death Machine” had enough cogs–and sufficient “raw materials”–to continue operating. Today, when the mandatory military draft is a thing of the distant past, and “volunteers” have the unenviable “opportunity” to visit—and revisit–exotic battlefields in pursuit of unclear, sometimes non-existent American foreign policy goals, Short offers a perspective worth pondering.
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For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject:
Rancorous Enmities and Blind Partialities: Parties and Factions in Georgia, 1807-1845 (University Press of America, 2015)
In Pursuit of Dead Georgians: One Historian’s Excursions into the History of His Adopted State (iUniverse, 2015)
Politics on the Periphery: Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1783-1806 (University of Delaware Press, 1986)
Just read your new post about your “war” at APG. Interesting in the sense that it seems to verify what we’ve seen in the movies (emphasizing the mundane life without all the comic gags). Thanks for sharing.
You’re welcome, Glen; glad you found it interesting.
I enjoyed your personal account. Your anecdotes about cigars and the general in the helicopter give us good reason to oppose war, carnage aside, simply because we see the nature of the bureaucracy behind the carnage. Would you say that it’s like Adam Smith’s invisible hand? A few hundred thousand individuals engaged in Defense, acting for their own self-preservation and self-advancement, will muck things up for everyone. That view doesn’t recognize stories such as your involvement with the bereaved family. Well, great post.
As usual, Scott, you’ve hit a few nails on their heads! The key thing, which I did not make clear in the post, was that the way the system worked (the mandatory draft being the centerpiece), a male trying to plan for the future had only a few choices: go quietly, as we members of the “Silent Generation” had been taught, because we had an obligation to our country, which had given us so much; secure a deferment to attend college or professional school (which was good so long as you kept your grades up–and you still supposedly owed military service at the end of it, as in the case of all of us ROTC cadets); have an “in” that would relieve you of the obligation altogether (see Clinton, Bill; Cheney, Richard) or allow you to spend your military service in a National Guard unit in the U.S. (see Quayle, Dan; Bush, George W.); go to jail; or go into exile to Canada or Scandinavia. And the ones you really feel sorry for were the poor, who had no chance for educational deferments, an educational background that did not fit them for technical training, and, thus, when they were drafted, were perfect candidates for combat training, rice paddies, and, for all too many, body bags.
Interesting. Over the years you related much of this to me, but I see your reflections on the meaning of “your war” in a slightly different light. After all, you endured the frustrations of bad judgement by superior officers that brought harm to civilians in Nam. You survived the “fragging” of the unpopular with over-heated chile. You witnessed the pain of those who lost someone at the center of their family, and you watched the inexperienced and uniformed hold forth at great length about how to “win” it all. You lived and survived the war in your own way. I merely pontificated and complained about it.
I’ve never thought about my stint on active duty in quite the way you describe, but, nearly a half-century on (!!), I think your “take” on it makes sense. Funny, I’ve “pontificated and complained about” the war many times, as some of the posts on this blog attest, but I didn’t do a lot of either while I wore the uniform–most of the time I was too busy just trying to do my job(s); and, for obvious reasons, it also would have been difficult to find a sympathetic audience, given my situation, even if I’d wanted to vent. . . .