Robert P. Miller served in Vietnam during the later stages of the war as a combat engineer officer. Before his time in the Army, he’d graduated from the University of Wisconsin. His novel, Warrior, Wayfarer (CreateSpace, 362 pp., $11.95, paper) follows a member of the Combat Engineers, Lieutenant Press Patrick, who’d entered the Army as a draftee, but who chose to become an officer by going through Officer Candidate School.
I found this novel totally engrossing from the first chapter. Even the discussions of Beethoven and Seneca held my interest. Press Patrick’s journey as a draftee into the Army leads to his tour of duty in Vietnam at Ben Than Combat Base, the home of the 101st Airborne Division and Echo Company of the 99th Engineer Battalion.
The Army puts this political science graduate into an engineering job. That’s how the Army often works. Patrick is charged with road building. His commanding officer warns him, “You can get it from a mine, booby trap, ambush or mortar.” Not to mention multitudes of poisonous snakes.
Miller is both a gifted storyteller and a fine writer. So this reader was held rapt as Lt. Patrick transforms himself into a combat engineer. His girlfriend’s brother had died at Khe Sanh in 1968, so it is only fitting that he ends up with the assignment to build a road through the jungles up the hills and across streams to Khe Sanh. Much is made of the red laterite soil that permeates Patrick’s pores. They seep out blood red when he showers in Hawaii with his girlfriend. She isn’t stupid and figures out that he is not stationed in a safe base camp as he has told her.
I was totally engrossed by the story of Press Patrick transforming himself into a more-than-competent road engineer. Miller works his writerly magic to make every page of this book compelling reading, even though I knew from the beginning that the Army would abandon the road once it was built.
How could I know that? Because I am a Vietnam veteran, and that’s what we did in Vietnam. Too often, we expended huge resources of men and equipment to build a road or take a hill. Then, once men had suffered and died to accomplish the task set for them by the leadership on high, we walked away.
This fine book reminded me of two classic novels of men and machines, or at least of men and construction: The Sand Pebbles by Richard McKenna and The Bridge on the River Kwai by Pierre Boule. Both were bestsellers and were made into classic movies. That hasn’t happened with Warrior, Wayfarer, and probably won’t.
Why not? It’s not because Warrior, Wayfarer is inferior in any way. It’s because publishers don’t believe there is a mass audience interested in reading about an Army engineer accomplishing heroic things building a road in 1970’s Vietnam when the war was winding down, and so-called Vietnamization was at full throttle.
It’s not right and it is not fair, as a movie made from Warrior, Wayfarer with Ryan Gosling in the starring role as Lieutenant Press Patrick would be one hell of an interesting and entertaining flick.
I recommend that you buy and read this novel if you are hungry for the sort of book that used to be written and published by major publishers, but is no longer. It’s filled with strong, interesting characters and it hits many of the usual hot spots of the Vietnam War: Bob Hope, Bernard Fall, baby killer epithets, Agent Orange, C-rats, you name it.
You won’t be disappointed if you spend a few hours with this book.