4 out of 4 stars
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Randy Miller’s historical novel Deadly Waters: The Vietnam Naval War and its Aftermath shines a light on the US Navy men who served during this conflict. It follows Zachariah “Zach” Martin, aged 17 when he enlisted, from the moment he boards the destroyer USS Hawke, his first assignment.
Zach has dropped out of school to serve his country, leaving behind his family and his childhood sweetheart Tally. The Hawke steams out to Vietnam, during which Zach and the reader learn about life aboard a naval vessel. The destroyer protects aircraft carriers, assists landings of ground troops and inspects small boats to find Viet Cong smugglers. In between the battles are short rest and recovery stops in the port of Subic Bay in The Philippines – where the navy men let their hair down, drinking and fighting. The novel also follows a few minor characters, such as Viet Cong sergeant Trinh Huu Dai and Marine Lance Corporal Marvin Boudreau.
Hanging over Zach’s time in Vietnam is the knowledge that the Hawke’s and other naval ships’ desalinated water stores contained Agent Orange, the herbicide dropped from the sky to clear Vietnamese forest and which we now know leads to awful diseases from cancer to Parkinson’s. These water stores were for drinking, cooking and cleaning.
Though he doesn’t give a lot of detail about his naval career, the author bases the first two sections of the book on his own experience. This gives Zack’s story a level of detail and depth that makes it strikingly realistic. Zach, a teenager when he signs up to “see the world”, matures throughout the novel, in response to the realities of war. His questioning of America’s role in Vietnam and the war protestors’ treatment of soldiers are some of the novel’s most rewarding passages.
Deadly Waters’ pace picks up as Zach is posted on a second ship, the USS Providence. Considering the ground the novel covered, this was understandable – though as a reader I would have liked to have seen Zach’s reaction to related events such as the My Lai massacre when the story broke in 1969 and the fall of Saigon in 1975. Even when the book jumps ahead in time, it doesn’t always make it clear exactly when events are taking place, so readers will need to pay attention in the later sections of the novel.
The third section focuses on Veteran Affairs’ decision to remove health care from some Navy vets on the mistaken basis that men on oceanic vessels off Vietnam weren’t exposed to Agent Orange and the impact this choice had on ill vets and their families. It’s powerful, galling and infuriating, especially when you know it’s based on real-life events.
For the insight it gives into war and peace-time events, I rate the novel four out of four stars. While those who don’t like a lot of detailed violence (from bombings to bar brawls) in the books they read may think twice, I recommend it to anyone interested in the Vietnam War. The novel is professionally edited to a very high standard.
Deadly Waters: The Vietnam Naval War And Its Aftermath
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