By Mark Berent
Putnam. 399 pp. $19.95
TWENTY ODD years ago, I served in Vietnam as an American soldier. While there were moments when I was terrified, the feelings I recall most strongly from that period are, first, sheer boredom, and second, confusion about any larger picture of the war other than the immediacy of the zone in which my unit fought.
In particular, the interplay between air and ground forces was little understood by most Americanns at the time, even by those soldiers directly benefiting from it. Then, a year ago, having consumed much of the Vietnam literature, I read Mark Berent's first novel, Rolling Thunder. There are quite a few Vietnam novels, and I had expected Berent's work, quite frankly, to be just "more of the same," in large part another "I was there, too" testimonial. But I was refreshed to learn otherwise. Rather than sticking to the necessarily limited experiences of any specific individual in the war, Berent uses the freedom of fiction to paint much wider and more dramatic pictures, as seen through the measured eyes of a wide array of differently situated players.
Rolling Thunder dealt with air power in support of the ground war as it was fought in South Vietnam in 1965-66, and it was a zinger. Now, with Steel Tiger, Berent takes us forward into 1967, where we see raids on the Ho Chi Minh Trail through Laos, aerial combat over North Vietnam and more.
The principal characters first appeared in Rolling Thunder: Court Bannister, fighter pilot extraordinaire; Toby Parker, who flies the small, slow, propeller-driven plane of a forward air controller and acts as the interface between ground and air force, putting bolts of lightning in where required; and Wolf Lochert, the Special Forces commander (and ruthless killer) on the ground. But there are more: Gen. Whitey Whisenand, an old fighter pilot sent to Vietnam by President Johnson for a personal analysis of what was really going on; Shawn Bannister, an anti-war journalist whose political orientation balances that of his half-brother; and Vladimir Chernov, the Soviet fighter pilot through whom we get a most compelling view of the war as seen from North Vietnam.
Most gratifying of all, these figures retain their human flaws: Toby is brave, but he drinks too much; Wolf is ferocious, but blinded by arrogance; Court is noble, but quixotic. And the author's well-researched and meticulously detailed descriptions ring true, whether in the cockpit, on the dirt of the jungle floor or in the bars and hotel rooms of downtown Saigon.
As good as his first book was, I find Steel Tiger to be far better. While I might quibble with the actions of some of his Army figures under stress, the characterizations are certainly within a novelist's license, and such a critique could only detract from a masterful product. Indeed, Berent's ability to put this reader, who doesn't know airplane instrument displays from video games, inside the fighter pilot's helmet and so allow him to fully experience the rush and excitement of an aerial dogfight is simply breathtaking.
Berent seems to be that rare amalgam, an experienced warrior who can artfully spin gripping, compelling and historically accurate tales of his craft. This book is a real tour de force, as good as anything I have seen in the genre, and I eagerly await the third volume of the trilogy.
Tom Carhart, who was awarded two Purple Hearts in Vietnam, is the author of a Vietnam memoir, "The Offering."