James P. Brinker’s West of Hue: Down the Yellow Brick Road (BookSurge, 354 pp., $20.99 paper, $2.99, Kindle) is a Vietnam War memoir that centers on the author’s tour of duty with a recon platoon in the 101st Airborne Division’s 2/502 Infantry Regiment “Strike Force” Battalion. Brinker went to Vietnam in December 1969 and put in eleven months in Vietnam, eight of them in the jungle.
Brinker spent his last three months as a mail clerk, bartender, and training sergeant. It was hard for him to adjust to being a REMF, but he coped. It took some digging to find out, as Brinker is modest about medals he received, but he was awarded a chest full of them, including three Bronze stars with “V” device.
The men in his recon platoon were the only troops in his battalion who wore full woodland camouflage. Serving as the eyes and ears of the battalion, the platoon searched out the enemy, then let the line companies do the hard work—at least in theory. In practice, it seldom worked out that way.
Brinker was allergic to bamboo, so he should not even have been in Vietnam. He developed a serious rash from the bamboo he encountered daily until his unit moved West of Hue into the bamboo-less high mountains. Of course, there were worse things than bamboo there: plenty of the enemy, along with snakes, leeches, centipedes, crocodiles, and tigers.
Brinker tries hard to describe what it was like to be in combat. He “was too busy to actually react except in the basic human instinct to stay alive, ” he writes, as he tried to strike “a balance between excessive fear and over-zealous bravery.”
In the recon platoon Brinker was often both the forward observer and radio operator. It didn’t take him long before he was “no longer a nice innocent farm boy from the Heartland.” Brinker tells us that he “started to get bloodthirsty and totally fearless, which had never been in my character before. Now it remained embedded in me like a huge war scar.”
He explains that the mission of the military is to close with and kill the enemy. At one point he says they were shooting away like “the team of John Wayne and Audie Murphy.” Later he pooh-poohs somebody who tries “shooting from the hip, John Wayne style.” At one point, he notes that the combat he experienced “was just like the movies starring John Wayne.”
Brinker deals with many of the same subjects that Vietnam War infantry memoirs tend to focus on: the black syph; Agent Orange; what he calls “grunt mode” or numbness from the war; the song, “We Gotta Get Out of This Place;” the My Lai Massacre; and how those events colored the hometown reaction to Vietnam veterans.
Brinker says that by going back home to Iowa, he “would be back at the bottom of the heap again as an unwanted Vietnam veteran.”
I totally get that, as I felt that in Seattle when I returned. He says it became “fashionable” to spit on Vietnam veterans upon their return, but then notes that he “never personally saw spitting or heard any negative comments at the airports.” I thank him for that honesty.
Brinker criticizes John Kerry “and the leftist establishment” who started to “negatively stereotype Vietnam vets.” Brinker ends with a statement “We fought a good fight then and won from a military perspective.”
What military perspective was that? I have read that before in Vietnam War memoirs, but I have not seen any research to support that point of view. It seems more a feeling than a fact.
The book could have used an editor and proofreader. Often sentences end without a period. Words that need capital letters don’t get them, and two words sometimes run together.
Still, Brinker has written a worthy memoir that I enjoyed reading. I recommend it to anyone who is curious about the life in Vietnam of a recon team and has thick skin about the finer points of punctuation.