John Jennings’ ambitious memoir, Napalm and Filet Mignon (War Writers’ Campaign , 174 pp., $19.99, paper; $9.99, Kindle), loosely ties his experiences in Vietnam in 1969-70 to world events that took place simultaneously. Clippings from news stories, along with letters he wrote to his mother and sister, guide the reader through the book.
Jennings tells us how he went from patrolling the hills and rice patties ten miles south of Pleiku with an Army infantry company that often got lost, to duty in the opulence of the Fourth Infantry Division Commanding General’s Mess.
Along the way, the war profoundly affected him. The book’s stories illustrate many transformations that his service in Vietnam made in his life.
Jennings approached the Vietnam War with little outward emotion. He remembers the names of a few fellow soldiers, but mainly he was a loner who did not develop friendships because of the constant turnover of personnel. He was in-country to serve his 365 days—period.
Yet Jennings admits he did “just about anything for the guys [he] served with.” His performance under fire resulted in a promotion from rifleman to machine gunner in a matter of weeks. Being shot at scared the hell out of him, Jennings says, but it also brought him to a stage of rage he had never experienced.
“I was completely astonished at this violent and uncontrolled anger that I felt, ” he writes. “It would come upon me so quickly that all I wanted to do was strike back and waste the gook.” The M60 machine gun was the perfect weapon to vent that anger.
Unexpectedly, Jennings’ company commander selected him to compete for a Fourth Division Soldier of the Month award. Jennings faced off against two other finalists but did not win. Nevertheless, that experience led to the job of waiting on tables and tending bar in the Commanding General’s Mess.
The comfort of the job was paradise after five months in the field. Gourmet food and wine was the order of the day for the General, his officers, and guests such as Miss America and several pro football players. Although he shared in the goodies, Jennings felt “something didn’t seem right or fair” because “everyone in the field had been betrayed by this life of opulence by the officers, which now included [him].”
After five months, Jennings grew “tired of playing servant.” He wrote home: “I get so mad, especially when the lifer officers tell me that the General doesn’t want any special privileges. He wants anything available to him to be available to all the troops. Bullshit! I don’t remember having red wine with my c-rations when I was in the field.”
Guilt gnawed at him when his former company invaded Cambodia and he remained safely behind.
Jennings grew up in Chicago in a strong Irish Catholic family. Letters from his large extended family and many friends provided a support system in Vietnam. “I wouldn’t say I got the most mail, ” he says, “but I came close.”
The majority of the letters went to his 71-year-old mother for whom he soft-sold the war to ease her worries. Letters to his sister were more insightful. For example, on the same day that he wrote to his mother about a broken camera and the rain, in a letter to his sister, Jennings described a point man that a sniper shot in the head.
“He died almost immediately, ” Jennings wrote. “It happened so suddenly. Then with all the confusion and the screaming by guys crying for help, it shook me up a little.” The point man was the first American that Jennings had seen killed. That image has never left him.
One of his letters about a sweep through a suspected VC village is a masterpiece of evoking the emotions and tension of soldiers and civilians during the operation. To me, those pages alone were worth the price of the book.
Jennings also touches on some of the usual Vietnam War memoir topics: marijuana, Agent Orange, fragging, war protestors, My Lai, and falling in lust on R&Rs. He does not moralize. He does, however, puzzle over the frequent “wasteful loss of life, ” which made him question his Catholicism and all other beliefs.
After his discharge, psychologically burdened by the “graphic memories” of what he saw in the field and the guilt of working in the rear, Jennings drank his way through most of thirty-five years before he found help for his PTSD.