A Bill Mauldin Second World War cartoon has Willie telling Joe: “You’ll get over it, Joe. Oncet I was gonna write a book exposin’ the army after th’ war myself.”
Retired Army Master Sergeant Gregory H. Murry must have recognized a challenge, along with the humor, in the cartoon because he includes it in Content With My Wages: A Sergeant’s Story: Book I—Vietnam (No End to Publishing, 355 pp.; $20, paper; $15.00 Kindle), his memoir and cleverly constructed analysis of military leaders of the 1960s.
A 1st Infantry Division grunt during his 1966-67 Vietnam War tour of duty, Murry intersperses his life story with history lessons. Having served in Germany prior to going to Vietnam, he is worldly to military ways, but also is honest enough to reveal his moments of naivety. Although parts of the book sound familiar, Murry delivers something original even in oft-told tales such as the rigors of being an FNG.
The Big Red One’s basic assignment was road clearance, but its commanders preferred search and destroy missions. They aimed to win a war of attrition through the use of superior firepower. To them, American soldiers basically were bait to attract large numbers of VC into range to be shelled and bombed.
“We made a company sized combat air-assault and walked around through the bush looking for Charlie, ” Murry says, a sentence that perfectly summarizes his first three months with the division. “I spent the night of my 21st birthday on ambush patrol, and I remember being pretty proud of myself for living so long.”
Basically, Murry’s company of the Big Red One’s 1st Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment searched until they were ambushed. Taking part in a continuous string of operations—Attleboro, Healdsburg, Santa Cruz, and others—he describes near misses and many casualties from booby traps and friendly fire. Mainly the infantrymen found and destroyed tons of rice and other VC supplies. After seven months, Murry fought in his “first serious combat” at the Battle of Ap Gu, which he describes as “one of the most lopsided victories” of the war.
After living in the bush for more than two months, Murry’s battalion received its commander’s praise for breaking “the USARV record for continuous time in the field, ” a commendation received with muttered curses from the men. The next time he spoke to his men, the commander told them of another record: “This battalion has the highest venereal disease rate in the entire 1st Infantry Division.”
After a moment of dead quiet, the men broke out in cheers and laughter. This time the colonel ended up cursing them out. Dichotomies such as these typify relationships between enlisted men and officers throughout the book.
Murry’s accounts of two battles should be mandatory reading for all infantrymen. The first—the Battle of Bong Trang—took place shortly before he arrived in-country. He explains that by discouraging candor, commanders turned a loss into a media victory. Murry compares what had been accepted as the final word at the time with the latest information based on new interviews, previously overlooked after action reports, and additional information he uncovered.
Murry took part in the second battle—Xom Bo II during Operation Billings. From a forty-two man platoon, he was one of only eight fit for duty after the fight. He analytically reconstructs the battle and determines that, despite heavy losses, commanders ignored findings that dictated changes in tactics.
Confession in the form of telling the truth is the bedrock of Murry’s intellect. He concludes that the military leaders in Vietnam were hampered by Second World War thinking because the highest-ranking officers had gained their combat or staff experience in that war. They expected prolonged battles, whereas NVA leaders chose to hit and run.
Murry cites a post-war confession from Big Red One commander, Gen. William E. DePuy: “I was surprised about the difficulty we had in finding the VC.” And: “They controlled the battle better.” And: “They were the ones who usually decided whether or not there would be a fight.”
DuPuy’ successor Gen. John H. Hay, Jr. worried that “as our leaders rotate, our battle-won wisdom shrinks.” He solved the problem by simply re-emphasizing search and destroy tactics.
A long Appendix titled “Stilwell, DePuy, and the Vietnam War” closes the book. In it, Murry traces the career intersections of Richard Stilwell and DePuy with that of William Westmoreland. The facts are fascinating. The three generals strongly advocated attrition strategy and search and destroy tactics.
DePuy in particular must “take as much responsibility for losing the war as anyone, ” Murry says. After the war, under the aegis of Army Chief of Staff Westmoreland, the careers of Stilwell and DuPuy flourished. While reading all of this, one can almost hear Murry scratching his head in wonderment.
Content With My Wages is a young grunt’s view of the Vietnam War as refracted years later through the eyes of a scholar with deep-seated morality.Greg Murry provides hundreds of end notes, an extensive bibliography, and ten pages of photographs.
This is the first of a project trilogy. Book II will cover his role in the war on drugs. Book III will deal with his military activities in Afghanistan.