In the spring of 1970 a young Army sergeant named David Rioux accidentally engaged the tripwire of a booby trap while on patrol in Vietnam: "There was an explosion of light, white and blinding, and a deafening roar, and Rioux was flying up and backward through a hail of metal and glass, flying with his 60-pound rucksack and twisting to the right in mid-air as if it and he were weightless." When he regained consciousness, he was in the Army hospital at Qui Nhon:
"His right eye had been destroyed. His left was damaged and deteriorating. Both his eardrums had been shattered. Both his arms and both his legs were broken. His right hand and right leg were maimed beyond useful repair. He was lacerated with shrapnel wounds. Both legs and one arm were so brutally burned that merely changing the dressings became a surgical procedure and had to be done in the operating room with anesthesia."
That David Rioux survived is remarkable, a tribute to the skill of the surgeons who operated on him and to his own courage. That he is now a doctoral candidate in philosophy at University Laval in Quebec is extraordinary, considering that he is blind and crippled. But what almost passes understanding, what is genuinely incredible, is that after all of this Rioux has retained his equanimity, his patriotism and his convictions: "We were proud to be there, defending a people who were being oppressed by Marxist Communism. We were doing something that was commendable, in the eyes of God, our country and our family."
Rioux's story is one of striking heroism, but it is scarcely the only such tale in "Charlie Company," a book that expands by several times over a cover story that Newsweek magazine devoted in 1981 to the experiences of a group of Vietnam veterans. It is a painful and illuminating book. None of the points that it makes about the horrors of the war or the callousness of our treatment of those who fought it will come as a surprise to anyone who has paid reasonably close attention to the subject; but by addressing that subject in terms of the individual stories of ordinary soldiers, it gives an intimacy to Vietnam and its legacy that makes much of the rest of the literature on that war seem trivial and evasive by comparison.
Half of the book is devoted to what happened to the 65 men of Charlie Company while they were in Vietnam, half to what happened to them when they came back. They were there in the late '60s and early '70s. Most, whether they had enlisted or been drafted, felt they were doing their duty. Their average age was 19 1/2. Blood and death were the constants of their lives from the hour they arrived until the hour they left. What for some had begun as a war against communism became, for all, a war for individual survival. They could be killed by the Viet Cong or by "friendly fire." They were expected to roll up impressive "body counts" and to maintain a highly favorable "kill ratio." They consumed alcohol and drugs in great quantities, in a desperate effort to immunize themselves from the violence that was their daily lot and from the mounting suspicion that all this terror was absolutely pointless.
It was a suspicion that was confirmed for them--even for those who, like David Rioux, continued to believe that the war had been for a just cause--when they came back home. What one of them sensed was true for them all; he "felt estranged from a generation--his own." Those who went back to campus found themselves tarred with the brush of My Lai and accused, in furies of ignorant righteousness, of being war criminals or spies. Few found good jobs; they had "gone away in flush times and returned to the job market in a pinched economy." Many found the Veterans Administration to be indifferent, or hostile, or tangled in red tape. Terrible nightmares were commonplace. One of the few among them whose return was relatively uncomplicated and untraumatic remarks: "People see me tranquil and normal, and they don't believe I was in the war."
The value of "Charlie Company," as its authors and their many collaborators clearly understand, is that it provides an opportunity for these neglected and rejected men of Vietnam to have their say. "This is their book," Peter Goldman and Tony Fuller write, "and, we hope, their parade, a thank-you for their service to their country and their openness in talking about it." That is an accurate description of this moving book.