The literature of war is mostly a literature of the men who fight it. Perhaps because it takes far more riflemen, deck-swabbies, tankers and pilots to win battles than it does generals and admirals to plan them, most of the fiction and poetry with war as their subject is written by the men who've experienced or seen it firsthand. The Hemingways, Mailers and Wouks have been there.
A second, smaller body of war writing comes from a higher, less bloody level, however. Most historians see war from the vantage point of its great commanders, and their accounts, whether for good or ill, take the reader to the heights where even the most trivial decision affects the lives of thousands.
Jerome Doolittle's first novel belongs to this rarer second class. Formerly a speechwriter for President Jimmy Carter and a newspaper columnist, Doolittle served in the United States Information Agency in Morocco and Laos, and it is from his experience in the latter that he takes his tale, which sees the air war in Laos--an illegal war that was nonetheless an open secret--from the unusual point of view of a young Foreign Service officer whose unhappy task it is to approve Air Force bombing targets.
Fred Upson, the central character whose assignment gives the novel its title, is at 29 as naive about American actions in Indochina as most of us were until the late 1960s. Posted to the embassy in Vientiane, he is given the job of approving or rejecting all Air Force requests to bomb targets in Laos. It is all wholly illegal, as everyone in Laos and elsewhere knows, but American officials rationalize their dirty work with euphemisms such as the "rules of engagement," which presumably define the nature and limits to which bombing may go. "Under the rules of engagement," Upson is told, "Laos is carved up into little patchwork pieces. Here you can bomb, here you can't. Here you can bomb sometimes with some kinds of bombs, but not other times. Over here you can dump your bombs in this patch of empty jungle, if you weren't able to drop them on your target."
Where the two dominant strains of war-writing unite, of course, is that both come eventually to their inevitable theme, which is that of disillusionment -- and so it is with Doolittle's Upson, who finds that the "rules of engagement" exist primarily to conceal the lies of the American role there. Mission pilots and bombardiers routinely drop their bombs carelessly, indiscriminately, regardless of which targets Upson has approved. Follow-up surveys routinely misrepresent the nature and extent of the damage to unauthorized targets, mostly officially neutral civilians and villages. Virtually all official reports lie about the extent of the bombing. Worse for Upson, he is expected to "approve" whatever targets the Air Force picks, regardless of his judgment to the contrary, not to mention the fact that his professional duty is to use it.
The large lie in which the air war is encased necessitates a thousand subsequent lies, and though that is scarcely a fresh discovery in the fiction and nonfiction of any war, it is the discovery Upson makes. And when his own good conscience impels him to "go public" about the lies his country tells, he ends by destroying his lover and his career. Being "on the team" is everything.
It is a familiar theme, yet Doolittle's experience of it in Laos makes it fresh in "The Bombing Officer," for Laos is a part of our Vietnam nightmare that fiction has badly neglected. Doolittle's knowledge of the details of life at the command level greatly deepen the impact of his story too, for he knows what the duties of embassy officials are, how their offices work, what they wear, how they live. The problem with novels that straddle the unmarked border between journalism and fiction, though, is that a detailed concern for particulars often overwhelms fiction's essential demand for poetic invention; that sometimes weakens Doolittle's. Too often he uses dialogue to accomplish lengthy exposition, leaving behind great gobs of fact but little character.
What matters most about "The Bombing Officer" is that it gives us a rare look at war from the place where the crucial decisions are made. It is not a pretty look, but it is to Doolittle's credit that he insists we take it.