Susan S. Rosvall’s Silence is Broken (Dog Ear Publishing, 284 pp., $16.95, paper) is a work of fiction, but is based on Rosvall’s brother’s life story. Rosvall’s brother was deployed to Vietnam in 1966 as a 1st Infantry artillery specialist.
The author has done thorough research to provide an accurate historical context for her story. There is a long historical section in the back of the book, as well as a lengthy bibliography. There also is a section on Agent Orange, which makes the point that 100 million pounds of that extremely toxic herbicide was sprayed over millions of acres of South Vietnam.
“All names have been invented, ” Rosvall writes, “and exact interactions are incidental.” The unit that the book’s main character, William Scofield, is assigned to, Battery X, is fictional.
Rosvall says early on that those who served in the Vietnam War were men “who couldn’t make it in school” and those who had no family influence or the money to escape the war by going to Canada. There’s plenty of truth in that. However, it also is a generalization that makes me uncomfortable. That’s because there were plenty of us who served in Vietnam who had done just fine in school. I get that William Scofield is an undiagnosed dyslexic and that his struggles with reading got him in this pickle.
William Scofield arrives in Vietnam in late December 1965. In a letter dated January 10, 1966, he tells us that Phu Loi is his base camp. He is assigned to the 8th Battalion, a group of about 500 men– “the division’s only 155 millimeter towed-howitzer battalion.”
John Wayne gets plenty of mentions in the book, as does Bob Hope. We are informed that Bill is assigned latrine cleaning due to the antipathy of a sergeant who is southern to the core and who hates “college boys” and Californians. Bill never did well at the community college, so the irony of being singled out for ill-treatment for being a “college boy” is not lost on him.
The characterization of the southern soldiers in this novel is very brutal. Most of my best friends when I was in Vietnam were southerners. None of them were the unlettered, racist brutes that figure prominently in this story. I am not doubting the reality of their existence in Bill’s Army experience. All I can say is I’m glad that my Army time was not like Bill’s.
I have encountered no book that better describes the daily life of an enlisted artilleryman. The pages of detailed explanations of what Bill and his cohorts had to do to keep the big guns firing into the wilderness, the free fire zone, are graphic and powerful. I can think of no better novel on the use of howitzers in Vietnam.
The section dealing with the battalion’s encroachment on the famed Michelin rubber plantation that paid protection money to the VC and gets money from the U. S. government for each young rubber tree that is uprooted, brings home how hopeless this war was. Bill ends up with a $2, 000 VC bounty on his head for his exploits with the howitzer, and is awarded a Bronze Star.
The book has several small but annoying glitches of that kind that often creep into a Vietnam War novel written by someone who did not serve in the military or been in the military in Vietnam. The frequent references to sergeants and corporals as “officers” got under my skin. The description of An Loc as having “the pungent odor of rotting fish and botulism” displeased me. You can’t see, smell, or taste botulism. When “H & I” is referred to as “harassment and irritation” I ground my teeth. “Interdiction” was the word the author was searching for. Consulting The Webster’s New World Dictionary of the Vietnam War would have prevented that confusion.
These are small cavils, however. They are more than balanced out by the author’s gift with narrative and story-telling which she uses to fine effect in the book. She shows how the “thrilling sense of American invincibility” that “kept spirits high” turns into a world-weary acceptance that the war is not going as well as men in the trenches are led to believe.
We are shown that the Iron Triangle in III Corps that the 1st Infantry entered in early June of 1966 deserved the name. The sense of American invincibility died there for Bill and his fellow soldiers.
The author’s website is www.silenceisbrokenthenovel.com