Life and Death in the Central Highlands by James T. Gillam | Books in Review

James T. Gillam is a Vietnam veteran who today is a history professor at Spelman College. GIllam’s book, Life and Death in the Central Highlands: An American Sergeant in the Vietnam War, 1968-1970 (University of North Texas, 295 pp., $27.95), is primarily a Vietnam War memoir, but it also contains a good deal of the history of the American war in Vietnam.

As Gillam explains in his preface, the book “is a product of all the pieces of the puzzle that I call my identity. I am a veteran of the Vietnam War, and I am also an Associate Professor of Chinese History. This book is the product of my military experiences, academic training, and the four decades I have lived as a veteran with a story to tell.”

Gillam tells his story well in this readable book. He was drafted into the Army in August of 1968 after he was, as he puts it, “dismissed” from Ohio University because of his “indifferent performance in classes.” Gillam had Basic at Fort Knox and Infantry AIT at  Fort Polk, where he thrived. He was chosen to go to the NCO Academy at Fort Benning, sometimes known as “Shake ‘n Bake School” because it turned out staff sergeants in twenty-four weeks. He arrived in Vietnam in September of 1969, and put in nine tough months with the 1st of the 22nd of the 4th Infantry Division before coming home in June of 1970.

Gillam puts most of the historical background material in the opening sections of the book. Once he gets to Vietnam, the story concentrates on what happened on the ground. Much of it deals with life and death, and most of it makes for intriguing reading. After getting out the Army, Gillam got back on track academically, earning his B.A. from Ohio University, M.A. from Case Western Reserve University, and a Ph.D. in Chinese history from Ohio State University.

—Marc Leepson

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