3 out of 4 stars
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I grew up knowing about the war in Vietnam, because my father was there. In the years since he came home, he has never once discussed his time there. It wasn't that he was evasive, just that we never talked about it. It was understood. So, when I chose A Different Face of War by James G. Van Straten, I was interested to read about the memories of someone my father's age who had been there, too. I was not disappointed.
James Van Straten tells about his time of service in the most deadly area of Vietnam during the war: the region between the border with North Vietnam and the center of the country, called I Corps. He served as an advisor in the Medical Service Corps from 1966 to 1967, with the responsibility of advising and coordinating with the Vietnamese medical professionals and hospitals. During those early years of the conflict, the United States was not officially an active combatant but instead was focused on advising the Regional Forces and offering support only. That changed in early 1967 when the U.S. military began to wage what Major Van Straten refers to as a "war of attrition" instead. As someone who had spent most of his deployment getting to know, and respect, the people and culture of South Vietnam, the author states unequivocally that he felt this was a grave mistake. His experiences gave him the insight that many in the government and military failed to see until it was too late.
Arriving in Da Nang in the summer of 1966, Van Straten is tasked with coordinating medical services between the U. S. Naval Hospital and the local Vietnamese hospital in Da Nang, as well as regional hospitals throughout the sector. His responsibilities took him all over the northern half of the country, where he gives first-hand accounts of the devastation of war on the people and the country. His heart goes out especially to the children. He describes the poor children, naked in the streets, fighting with rats for food buried in mountains of garbage. He talks about a child shot through the head who doctors were unable to save. And he speaks in glowing terms of the work he helped facilitate to provide surgeries to the civilians of Da Nang to fix harelips in children, remove tumors, and give much-needed vaccinations and medications. He also gives great insight into the cultural differences between the American advisors and the people of Vietnam. For example, after a particularly deadly attack, the Vietnamese medics were more intent on removing the dead than helping the living. Their religious beliefs demanded that the families be allowed to bury their own dead. Even though evacuating the wounded to better facilities would have saved more lives, the soldiers were kept near family so that the family members would take care of the nursing responsibilities.
Van Straten gives the reader a deep look into the lives of the people of South Vietnam, especially the children, and the effects of the war on them. His descriptions of the sights, smells, and sounds of Da Nang, Saigon, and other areas in I Corps are at the same time beautiful and shocking. When he is describing the living conditions of the children, he truly pulls at the heartstrings. It is ironic that, when describing his own personal danger, he is very matter-of-fact. He describes in detail the wounds of children on a medevac flight: "A little girl, about six years old, was taken off the helicopter with a gaping hole in her belly and a piece of intestine hanging out." However, when his own life was in danger, he dismissed it quickly. It's as if he wants the reader to know that his primary concern is not himself. He includes a number of photographs that helped make the story even more real to the reader. Van Straten gives a human face to a very unpopular war. I also liked the fact that he included a glossary of military abbreviations at the beginning of the book to help the reader understand the military jargon.
Van Straten's memories are based on daily letters he sent to his wife during his year in Vietnam, as well as supporting pictures and documents. It is written much like a diary, giving a daily chronology of his life. As such, he sometimes falls into what I call the "and then" trap of a personal narrative. While many of the details are interesting, it begins to read as "and then I...and then we..." and takes on the tone of a military report instead of a fluid story. The reader should expect a series of vignettes instead of a typical memoir. There were also times when the author would begin telling about an important meeting or plan, then end the narrative without telling the reader what the final result was. On one occasion he talks about a series of pictures he sent to his wife but did not include the pictures in the book. He describes the shelling of the Da Nang airstrip almost dispassionately even though he was less than a half-mile away.
While there were some errors in the book, it was for the most part very well edited. The title of the book, "A Different Face of War," is very appropriate. The purpose of the author is to allow the reader to see another side of the Vietnam War. Americans are so used to the Rambo style of action story that not much time has been devoted to the civilian casualties of that war. Anyone who likes to read war histories, especially about Vietnam, should read this book. Because of the poor flow of the story, I have rated this book 3 out of 4 stars. However, I definitely think it is worth the time to read it.
A Different Face of War
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