Andrew Atherton tells us that his book, Drafted: The Mostly True Tales of a Rear Echelon Mother Fu**er (Treehouse Publishing, 294 pp., $14.95, paper; $4.39, Kindle), is a novel. The pseudonymous Atherton was drafted and served in Vietnam in 1969-70 with the 554th Engineer Battalion at Cu Chi and Lai Khe. Any details of his tour of duty in Vietnam must be extrapolated from this novel in which the main character shares the author’s name as well as personal details such as the name of his wife and education.
We have encountered novels of this sort before in the small literature of REMF service in the Vietnam War. I wrote three of them—including REMF Diary —myself. So I am not casting stones, simply describing what a reader will encounter in this book.
Atherton trains as an 11-Bravo, an infantryman, but when he gets to Vietnam is luckily assigned to the 182nd Engineer Battalion at Cu Chi, the place that was built on ground honeycombed by miles of VC tunnels. Atherton ends up pushing paper as an office clerk at battalion headquarters.
How did that happen? Atherton had a college degree, for one thing, as well as typing and writing skills. Plus, the colonel had recently lost his awards clerk and needed a new one ASAP. Atherton filled that bill.
The book begins in basic training, proceeds to AIT, and then to Vietnam. Our hero’s basic training was worlds different from what I underwent at Fort Ord. At the time, I wished I had been sent from my home in Seattle to nearby Fort Lewis to be basically trained. After reading this book, I no longer wish that. The narrative is composed of lightly edited letters Atherton wrote home to his wife and commentary that is almost like a series of essays.
Atherton has a philosophy degree from a small Christian college, and is further set apart from the others around him by his serious reading material. I won’t list the books; if I did, it would be daunting. During basic training and AIT Atherton is with mostly marginal people—guys more or less drafted as cannon fodder. Their fates are clear from the get-go—carrying a weapon and humping the boonies as infantrymen in Vietnam.
Andrew Atherton’s job in Vietnam is quite different. It consists of typing condolence letters to family members of men who died in action, many of them due to friendly fire. He also processes awards for Purple Hearts and recommendations for Bronze Stars and Army Commendation Medals.
The essays on how and why medals are awarded are fascinating and smart. He was often given the job of writing letters of recommendation for those men who were being put up for awards. This often involved going out to the field to find the men nominated and interviewing them so he could write up the kinds of letters most likely to be accepted. Atherton’s disdain for the process and for most of the awards comes through loud and clear.
Atherton also makes it clear more than once his “low opinion of this ridiculous war.” This opinion does not evolve only from his being tied to a desk. Atherton’s duties as a writer and reporter for “The Road Paver” get him into the field where he sees some action.
He also reports on MEDCAP missions in villages. There is lots of great stuff about asphalt, paving, and road building while the builders are under the threat of taking fire, and facing the ever-present chance of running over a booby trap that could blow them sky high.
Atherton also acted as a courier, taking documents from one base camp to another, which involved many helicopter flights. On one he saves an arrogant newby officer who would not fasten his seat belt from falling to his death.
This book deals with subjects we find in many Vietnam War novels and memoirs: The Bob Hope Christmas show, shit burning, John Wayne, IG inspections, corrupt South Vietnamese government officials, ARVN troops with no stomach for war, and throwing suspected VC from helicopters. But the book is totally free of the clichés that tarnish so many other books. It also contains a long, detailed, and useful glossary.
I highly recommend Drafted for those who wish to learn what the majority of us did in Vietnam, the 80 to 90 percent who were in the rear with the beer and the gear.
Drafted is one of the best of the small heap of REMF books that have been written about that part of the Vietnam War.