Vietnam. The word, for many Americans, conjures up images of the war everyone
wanted to forget - teenage sons sent off to die in a land their parents hadn't
even heard of; napalm-scorched earth; deadly ambushes by an irregular enemy in
the dense jungles of Southeast Asia; psychedelic rock, Motown, and marijuana
palliatives to blunt the horrors of a combat like they'd never imagined;
soldiers coming home not to adulation and hero-worship like their compatriots
of earlier, more "noble" wars, but to unease and avoidance.
someone who actually did a tour of duty in Vietnam can know what the experience
was like, so far is it beyond the ken of those who weren't there. Michael
Shapiro, author of the semi-autobiographical novel Fields of Fire: A Rock 'n' Roll Tour of Duty in Vietnam was there,
and it shows in the details. Grunts just hoping to make it home alive -- even if
that means not coming home in one piece -- fill the pages, young men unfortunate
enough not to have had a better choice than answering the call to duty, and
young men like the story's narrator, Paul Gebhart, who had a choice but made the
Twenty-year old New Jersey native Paul -- "Cloud Six" over military
radio -- quits college to volunteer for the
Army. As he says on a night train to Kansas at the end of his basic training stint in Colorado
in the summer of 1967,
I was an idiot. I had volunteered for the draft to prove my manhood to the guys in the neighborhood. It was a stupid thing to do, but I couldn't help it. I was raised on war movies; God, Glory and Victory at Sea. My friends warned me I was headed for trouble. They told me that the army was a miserable place and that I should stay in college. They were right. I should have.
Somewhat aimless and with a yen for partying, he marries his pregnant
girlfriend in a quickie ceremony just before he ships out. In San Francisco, he
and a buddy sneak off base for a trip to Haight-Ashbury. Paul gets a taste of
the real dropout life but resists its temptation after a surreal little
drug-induced episode with a group of California hippies.
Once he's in country, Paul fits in fairly quickly with the help of the experienced soldiers nearing the end of their tour with Bravo Company of the First Infantry Division. Within weeks of his arrival and to his shocked horror, a sniper attack snuffs the life of a pacifist medic. But the incident is also his first real exposure to the acts of adrenaline-fueled bravery and
high moral ground that his brothers in arms are capable of, as another soldier exposes himself by going forward to
protect his fallen comrades and take out the sniper. Later, when riflemen from another platoon
place playing cards in the mouths of dead Viet Cong soldiers hanging on the rolls of barbed wire ringing the encampment, the same soldier demands that they stop disrespecting their fallen enemies: "They're men," he says. "Leave them alone."
As the harrowing aspects of combat life in Vietnam intensify, Paul learns to
damp the stress regularly with marijuana, and with the occasional morphine
syrette. He bonds with the men whose lives depend on him and vice-versa, but has
regular run-ins with ROTC officers and their often foolish orders. He's a
natural-born smartass, and isn't afraid to speak his mind when his life and his
friends' are recklessly endangered.
Even though it's thousands of miles away, home -- the States -- is always on
the soldiers' minds. Not only do they desperately miss their families, friends,
and the safety of normalcy; they find themselves challenged by the specter of
racism as it seeps into their ranks from the powderkeg of activism brewing in
the US. When Martin Luther King, Jr., is assassinated, it sparks a heightening
of separatism between whites and blacks, threatening the brotherhood forged
between soldiers of all colors across the great racial and cultural divide.
Platoon this ain't, with that acclaimed motion picture's dramatic enhancement of rival officers in deadly competition. Fields of Fire is a plainly told tale of life during the Vietnam War
(the "first rock 'n' roll war," Shapiro names it) as it was lived by those who fought it. A first-person narrative of a life-altering experience, its epilogue postscripts the
aftereffects of an impossibly difficult conflict on its survivors.