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Brothers in arms: a journey from war to peace.

Brothers in Arms: A Journey from War to Peace.

William Broyles Jr. Knopf, $17.95. Approximately ten years passed between the end of the Civil War and the first construction of statues honoring the heroes, memorials commemorating the slaughters. Artistic and intellectual contemplation observed a period of mourning as well: The Red Badge of Courage, for instance, was published in 1895, the work of an author not yet born when stillness fell at Appomattox. In the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, people simply didn't want to think about what had happened; they were numbed.

Roughly the same sequence applied to America's other unhappy war, Vietnam. Ground fighting by U.S. forces in Southeast Asia ended in 1972; the Vietnam veterans' memorial was dedicated in 1982. American involvement closed with the final battle for Saigon in 1975; in 1985, Vietnam reminiscence became a central topic, with many fine works of fact and fiction joining, to general acclaim, those published to politely averted glances in the 1970s.

The postwar life of William Broyles Jr. also seems to have followed a ten-year cycle. Late in the 1960s, Broyles--a gifted, handsome, and unusually charming young Texan--became one of the few Americans to do what many from the sanctuary of retrospect have said they wished they had done. Broyles served. Though positioned in the fast lane to upper-class success, attending Rice and then Oxford, and though opposed to the war, he knew that expecting the poor to carry the burden of fighting was no answer. Broyles became a Marine lieutenant and spent one tour in Vietnam, with six months of active combat.

Following his return in 1971, Broyles helped found Texas Monthly, which under his guidance became the country's best regional publication. He seldom thought of the war, never contacted his old platoon mates. Accolades were many, and the passage of a decade found Broyles catapulted to the editorship of Newsweek: a young darling of Manhattan chic society, a focus of media attention himself. He was close to fame.

Just as that golden light shone around him, Broyles lost interest. He basically blew off the editorship of one of the country's most important publications and was gone within a year, the "chance of a lifetime' squandered. Supporters who had helped him advance were mortified; backstabbers in the Post-Newsweek gossip circuit were delirious. And shortly thereafter, Broyles was back in Vietnam.

Anyone who reads Brothers in Arms--an account of Broyles's travels through Vietnam north and south as, it is believed, the first American combat veteran to return there--will know immediately why career advancement had ceased to carry meaning for him. After all, it might easily never have occurred. Broyles could have died a young unknown, fighting a war not even its sponsors understood. He had to see for himself why, and record his conclusions. Broyles would find his second trip to Vietnam snickered about in the smart set as his first had been. First, he was a sucker not to while away the war in grad school like everybody else with money or IQ. Now he was giving up a corporate throne and a life of careerist ego strokes to write a book that even with excellent luck might be read by 1 percent of the number of people who read Newsweek.

Certain things, however, have to be done. And just as Broyles observed an inner sense of honor when he went to serve in a mad war, he answered his own call by giving us Brothers in Arms.

Almost every page is fascinating. There are his conversations with Viet Cong and North Vietnamese veterans, revealing, first, that they were far more scared of us than we thought; and second, that they were utterly resolved never to give up, even at stupendous sacrifice, so determined were they to have foreigners --any foreigners--off their soil. "We did not have to defeat you, we only had to avoid losing,' Nguyen Xeng Hoang, a North Vietnamese general, told Broyles. Though our enemy knew we would prevail in nearly every battle, they also knew that if they held out long enough we would become discouraged and leave. Which we did.

One officer tells Broyles of his initial despair at contesting a military with such firepower and mobility. ""It came to us,'' Broyles writes, ""[that] the way to fight an American was to grab him by his belt'--at which point General Tuan, by way of illustration, reached out and grabbed my belt-- "to get so close that your artilery and air power were useless. The result was interesting. Our logistical forces, which were farther from the Americans, took greater losses than our combat units.'' Perhaps the book's most remarked upon section will be the one in which Broyles discovers the remains of an underground Viet Cong field hospital within view of the large fire base he once defended: millions of dollars of the world's finest technology, and perhaps hundreds of high-ranking desk officers and analysts, missing what was directly in front of their noses.

Broyles describes the North as a puritanical society stagnated by bureaucracy and lack of production; the South, as a land where swingers and closet capitalists continue to operate, tolerated by communist managers in need of dollars. American culture still pervades, with rock music, especially Springsteen, blaring from every spare loudspeaker. Though there is economic futility everywhere, bridges half-built and highways cracking--running a war, one former officer says, is far easier than running a country--Broyles tries in vain to find any significant damage left by the B-52 raids against Hanoi. It seems U.S. pilots really did apply all-out concentration to avoid civilian targets, which the left at home refused to believe even when huge bomb tonnages caused only relatively minor casualties. In fact, Broyles finds himself well-received, except when he is mistaken for a Russian or East German, "allies' who apparently, make the Vietnamese's flesh crawl. Vietnamese seemed to regard him as representing a decent people caught up in a wrong cause, as fair a judgment as could be asked.

Brothers in Arms has some flaws. It relies too much on a standard "then I went there' narrative format, and at times the writing quality is so-so. But these flaws pale beside its achievements, not the least of which is that Broyles went on his own, without connections or money, which allowed him to interview many average Vietnamese in unhurried circumstances. (Had he gone as editor-in-chief of Newsweek, it's a sure bet he would have produced nothing of interest other than descriptions of motorcade rides to formula sessions with big-deal diplomats.) Brothers in Arms may ultimately take a place alongside the historically significant reflections on war, such as Graves's Goodbye to All That and Gray's The Warriors. Rich with passion, insight, and wit bulwarked by enforced detachment, it is among the finest books of the decade.

During the period when "textural' writing about Vietnam was predominant--eerie vignettes of insanity and purposelessness presented without context, an approach best exemplified by Michael Herr and Tim O'Brien--it was said there was no point in trying to explain the Vietnam war, because how could you explain something that makes no sense? Brothers in Arms shows differently. And now everything about Bill Broyles makes sense as well.
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Author:Easterbrook, Gregg
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:May 1, 1986
Words:1206
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