Leonard Scott's "Charlie Mike" is a vivid, compelling story about U.S. Army Ranger operations in Vietnam in the period surrounding the American invasion of Cambodia. It is also one of the finest novels yet written about the war in Vietnam.
Although their combat mission and organization have changed periodically since they were organized in 1756 by Maj. Robert Rogers (who distilled ranger operating procedures into 19 "Standing Orders" that remain models of brevity and clarity; example: "Don't forget nothing"), the rangers have established and maintained a reputation as the Army's elite infantrymen.
The novel centers on the men of Sierra Company, 75th Rangers, six-man teams skilled in reconnaissance and ambushes, which are deployed against North Vietnamese Army (NVA) units operating in the II Corps region of Vietnam. Author Scott, a career Army officer who served as a ranger platoon leader in Vietnam, takes the reader along with Sgt. David Grady, an experienced ranger team leader in the final months of his one-year Vietnam tour, and the five members of Grady's Team 2-2 as they carry out reconnaissance and ambush missions in Vietnam and Cambodia. It's a harrowing existence of "klicks," "slicks," "lurps," "LZs" and bad odds, where professionalism is a prerequisite for survival (but no guarantee), stealth is the watchword, and "mistakes are forever."
Survival turns on the tiniest of details. A ranger sergeant recalls watching helplessly, powerless to evacuate his wounded radio operator for want of a forgotten ax needed to clear away a small tree obstructing a landing zone so a Medevac helicopter can take him to a field hospital One of Grady's team members forgets to follow standard search procedure in the aftermath of a successful ambush; a corps staff officer diverts helicopters that have been earmarked to extract ranger units but forgets to notify the ranger company, leaving the lightly armed rangers to fend for themselves in the midst of NVA units alerted to their presence -- the omissions are costly. ("Don't forget nothing.")
Scott captures the war in a graphic style that leaves little to the imagination. ("The first bomb hit two hundred meters east of the rock formation, the second, four hundred meters. Their craters dug out red gashes in the earth. Everyone and everything living within fifty meters was killed, maimed, or dying. Clouds of debris hung thick in the air.") In describing a U.S. rocket and bomb attack on the North Vietnamese base camp or rangers caught in the killing zone of a flawlessly executed NVA ambush, Scott puts the reader in the middle of the violence and confusion, the pain, the horror. He is also adept at capturing snapshots of a country transformed by war, as in a newcomer's initial impression of a Vietnamese "town" on the outskirts of a U.S. base -- "a cardboard and tin hodgepodge of makeshift bars, sleazy bars, sleazy brothels, and cheap tailors."
One of the most significant and salutary aspects of this novel is what Scott has omitted. He eschews political and philosophical assessments of the war. Absent, too, are the stereotypical martinets, miscreants and Romboids who are standard fixtures in so much of the literature about Vietnam. Scott focuses instead on war at the small-unit level as seen through the eyes of combatants. The result is credible and convincing.
The only significant exception is the precipitous and unconvincing love affair between Grady and Sarah Boyce, Radcliffe graduate and Fortune 500 heiress who has said goodbye to all of that for a stint with the Red Cross in Vietnam ladling up Kool-Aid to the troops. This unlikely scenario, which lacks the conviction and concreteness of the rest of the novel, is a minor annoyance in an otherwise skillfully crafted story and is eclipsed by the riveting concluding chapters: Rangers execute missions against NVA targets in Cambodia as a prelude to the American invasion, scramble for their pickup zones and the helicopters that are supposed to extract them to safety, signals get crossed, and a dicey operation unravels into grimness.
In the opening chapter, the ranger company commander briefs the new men. "We're Rangers," he tells them, "and we're special because we're damned good." The same can be said of this book.