If you have a hundred different people witnessing and experiencing the same dramatic action, they'll come up with a hundred different eye views. Unaccountably, we all see events from different perspectives, and it is for this reason the Vietnam War has spawned so many different versions of what actually happened there.
This is told from the "grunts-eye" view of a line soldier who not only endured the terrible ordeal of Parris Island boot camp, but was little more than in a cog in the not-terribly-organized machine that was the Vietnam-era U.S. Marines. He speaks from the heart, pulls no punches, and takes us into the trenches to suffer the seemingly impossible task of dodging enemy fire, and at the same time make sense of the sometimes capricious-sounding orders handed down from above.
This reads like a personal diary, thoughts and emotions printed on paper with no sense of self-editing. The early chapters all end with a letter written to family back home, and through this device we're able to see straight into the heart of the man. The opening paragraph contains the self-realization: "I think I really screwed up this time!" From the outset, there is no confusion concerning the way this soldier feels; he is there, he doesn't want to be there, but he will do the best he can while he is there.
He survives the 1968 Tet Offensive, watches his best friends succumb to NVA incoming fire, and is ultimately himself wounded. But the most astounding element is the way he must learn how to survive all on his own. Only through repeated humps and ambush setups is he prepared to defend himself against a very cagey and ferocious enemy. There is never anyone there to tell him what to do or where to go or how to deliver return gunfire. It is being tossed in a river and told you better make it to the bank or die. And you don't even know how to swim.
From these tales, we come to realize how inept and blind the brass was in making decisions. They'd oftentimes send a squad into an area where another squad was already residing, resulting in two friendly forces firing on each other. Or the multitude of times air strikes were called in on American locations. The grunt had to fight the enemy and his own government.
But the most incisive way Helms described his gruelling experience was in a sort of Jack Kerouac, free-form, let-it-all-spill-out tirade. For instance, at the moment he was seriously wounded, he wrote: "Oh god, god I'm scared never been so scared and I want to burrow deep into the sand like a gopher and hibernate until this awful blizzard of hot steel and death and madness is over but I can't I can't I can't let my buddies down gotta get up I gotta get up and go with 'em get up get up goddammit get up!" The man has been shot, knows he will die and pours the words out in the same manner his internal organs are being poured out onto the ground beside him. You are there, locked in this mortal mantra. It is a unique way to deliver thoughts that are essentially impossibly to relay at that precise moment, but this internalized stream of consciousness works perfectly.
The language is raw and visceral, the vocabulary of the grunt, the human beast of burden plucked from a safe haven and thrust into a situation most people could never handle. Helms made known his thoughts and inner secrets and managed to put them into a form that is both moving and memorable. Still, writer/soldier Tim O'Brien's remain as the high watermark for all Vietnam-related parables, but this is certainly worth a glance.