Thomas L. Trumble served in Vietnam in 1970 as a cavalry adviser with the Vietnamese Armor School. I am guessing that his rank and duties were very close to those of John Bernard Rowe, the hero of his book, Time to Go Home (Acorn Book Services, 274 pp., $14.99, paper). Rowe is a captain, and works closely with the Vietnamese and their armored units.
Trumble does not say straight out whether this book is fiction or nonfiction. Right before Chapter One there is a quotation from John Bernard Rowe: “I’m giving you a war story and they’re always true and false at the same time.” The reader is also told that the book “is based in part on actual events, persons, and companies. However, numerous of the characters, incidents, and companies portrayed and the names used herein are fictitious.”
While I was reading the book, it seemed like a novel written in a traditional diary format, a format that I am over-familiar with. The book begins on November 5, 1982, at 2000 hours in Washington, D. C., at the Vietnam Veteran’ Memorial, The Wall. Ghosts are gathering and conversing in an old Army tent. Before long, the author has presented ghost characters who refer to The Wall as “the black gash, ” and name-check several familiar Vietnam War icons: REMFs, Rambo, and John Wayne.
The movie, Sands of Iwo Jima , gets a mention, which warmed my heart as it is one of only three movies that I saw in a theater with my father. The other two were High Noon and Bridge on the River Quai . Two out of three are war movies, which makes sense considering my father was a Marine veteran of World War II who fought at Iwo.
Holden Caulfield, Bridgett Bardot, and Ozzie and Harriet pop up on one page early on in the book. Jackie Kennedy and Joan Baez appear on the next page. This is a rich, popular culture text, laden with icons.
The book is organized in short sections and chapters, which are dated and which go back and forth in time and space. Two examples: chapters titled “Paris, France, 16 December 1969, 1800 hours, page 49, ” and “Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial, Washington D.C. 6 November 1982, 0300 hours.” This reader got into the rhythm of it soon enough, although at first it was a challenge, especially when I realized that the entries pertaining to the time Captain Rowe spent in Vietnam are scrambled chronologically.
The result of this literary choice is that we read about Rowe’s broken ankle long before we read about the helicopter crash and the night he spent in a ditch full of cold water that resulted in the death of his comrades and his serious injuries. I get that the author made a conscious choice to do this, so as to juxtapose events artificially and also to keep the reader guessing about what had happened and when. But I admit that I would have preferred an old-fashioned, straight-ahead calendar order. Or maybe not.
I did love this book, and it held my interest throughout. Captain Rowe is the novel’s main character and hero of the book, if the novel has one. His point-of-view dominates and he steers the stories, which come thick and fast: Army personnel killed by snapped rusty cables, jeep accidents resulting in broken necks, and of course, the helicopter that was shot down.
The first two deaths mentioned happen in Germany and Korea. The point is clearly made that plenty of deaths took place during the Vietnam War period that did not happen in Vietnam.
Time To Go Home has great stuff about tanks in the Vietnam War. My favorite scene involves the driving of a thirty ton M-41 tank across a bridge “that swayed back and forth like a porch swing in a thunderstorm.” Which reminds me—the writing is colorful and vigorous throughout the book.
I caution the prospective reader, though, to pay careful attention to the dates and places in the headings. If you do that, you’ll understand and enjoy this complex book about tanks and men in the Vietnam War.
I encountered a couple of things I have not spotted in any of the other hundreds of Vietnam War books I have read. There is a detailed mention of the C-ration combo of lima beans and ham, with a nice recipe given, but there is no mention of the C-Rat’s folksy nickname. I was surprised. Also at one point a character is referred to as a “John Wayne REMF” and the tag is not a complimentary one.
McNamara’s Project 100, 000 produces a minor character in the novel, a ghost who dies soon after arriving in Vietnam. The historian Bernard Fall is included in a complimentary way, and John Kerry is included in a negative way. The novelists Graham Green and Andre Malraux also make appearances.
We see a braless hippy girl spit on our hero when he returns home, and a minor character is heard to say, “We were winning when I left” Vietnam. The only mention of Jane Fonda is a positive one.
The goal of winning the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese is mentioned repeatedly in the novel, and the point-of-view of the book is that if that was the goal—along with nation building—we went about it all wrong. The point is made more than once that our strategy was more likely to turn the peasants into VC than into folks yearning to be American-style citizens.
I’ve read a half dozen Vietnam War books that feature tanks and the men who were responsible for them, and this is by far my favorite. I highly recommend it to those with an interest in that subject. It’s also that rare Vietnam War book that makes a serious effort to present Vietnamese characters individually and to humanize them. Captain Rowe comments that without knowing Vietnamese, that goal was a hopeless one. But the author does try to do that.