When I first came to the US from the UK, where I grew up, in 1966, I was shocked that so many Americans still approved of the Vietnam war, but I was in my very early twenties, and mostly saw the world in black and white terms. In the UK, I was definitely left-leaning, against war, apartheid in South Africa, and nuclear weapons. After moving to the US a few years later, I never met anyone else who felt the same way, except perhaps a few officers who had served in Vietnam, and none of them talked about their experience. It was as if the subject was off-limits. But I have always wanted to know more than I read in Time magazine and newspapers, especially what it was really like for the men on the ground. Paul Clayton’s Carl Melcher Goes to Vietnam does that and more.
From the first page it is clear this novel is more memoir than straight fiction. It is Carl’s story from the moment he begins his twelve months “in country.”
Clayton finished the book in 1987, but nobody wanted to publish anything more on Vietnam. He had missed the wave of interest in the war; Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried and the movies – Full Metal Jacket, Good Morning Vietnam, Platoon, Born on the 4th of July, to name only a few. But Clayton persisted and it was finally published in 2004, after he had written three successful historical novels. He wanted to share what it was like for the men with whom he served, those who died and those who survived.
The protagonist Carl is nervous as he flies out to Vietnam: “I didn’t like not being able to see the ground. A missile could be racing up at us right now.”
Carl is small and skinny, and the book pulls you in as he moves into this new, dangerous, and unfamiliar world, a reluctant soldier, only there because he was drafted. In Carl’s words we get clear snapshots of the men he lives with, goes on patrol with, and depends on whether he likes them, or trusts them or not. While some smoke marijuana, he would rather read or listen to music. He connects with a medic whom he learns is a Conscientious Objector. The writing is spare and simple, but places you so clearly there in the bunker where the men hang out, on patrol or a “hump,” as they called it, in the half-light of the jungle, guarding a bridge across the river, or standing up-wind from the unsavory sump detail of stirring burning sewage from the camp privy in a big oil drum.
Although there have been changes to the military since then, not the least being that it is largely a volunteer force—there is no draft as there was then, although in recent years many have been deployed more times and for longer than they expected or could afford: emotionally, physically, or economically—you know that Carl’s story must resonate with many veterans, both from Vietnam and later wars. And it gives those of us who watch, wait and hope for their safe return a sense of understanding, respect, and admiration for what they endured, whether we abhor the violence or see it as a necessary evil.
But apart from this broad perspective, the book is a tender portrait of young men getting to know each other, the racial tensions and fears, and the love of music that can bind them. There are the connections they make with the locals, including a few children, with capitalist instincts who sell precious Coca Cola, beer and cigarettes to the men, and their shared fear of the enemy Viet Cong, their deadly impact felt more often than they are seen. Through Carl’s eyes we see it all, who is wounded, who dies. Too often it is an accident, someone’s carelessness, or just a bloody awful mistake. Images from the Keystone Cops show up in Carl’s dreams. “One night I sat straight up in my bunk as I suddenly realized why I kept dreaming that stuff. That was us! Things were always backfiring on us, and we were blowing each other up and shooting each other to death, and the comic stupidity of it all made it even more horrible.”
With every page you want to know who lives, who dies, and whether Carl will come through unscathed.
It wasn’t until the 1990s that I met someone, who soon became a very dear friend, who had been there too, like Carl and author Clayton, in 1968. He too lacked the money or connections to avoid combat by joining the reserves or being sent to a non-combat zone. He said little, except that almost treading on a deadly snake, known as a two-stepper (if bitten, you took two steps and dropped dead), was not as bad as some of the other things he saw. He did not elaborate. With him I have been to several veteran reunions, and listened to them talk about what it was like. Sometimes there were jokes, and then there were times when it seemed those of us who were outsiders should withdraw and leave them to it. From Vietnam they came back separately, not as a group that could bond together naturally once stateside again. It was more than a couple of decades before the reunions began. Many of them have told me that when they came home the war was already unpopular and nobody asked them about the year that most had been away. Not even their families. The silence for many of them continued until they came to a reunion. The impact of having somewhere to share stories with those who were there too has been a force for much good for the men themselves and their families. Something I have seen and heard for myself often from the wives or adult children at those reunions.
I understand why Clayton never gave up his quest to get this book published; he saw it as a mission, a tribute to those who also served, to know that they are not forgotten. The emotional if not physical scar tissue remains for many of them. Some of those who seemed to have moved on most successfully in their lives are not always those who have spent hours in grief counseling, but those who have found a way to tell their stories. There is a redemptive power to stories for the ones who tell them and those who hear. Carl Melcher goes to Vietnam is a stellar example of that power, and well worth the read.
Kate Wright is British by birth and American by habit, now living in San Francisco, having spent more than 30 years in Ketchum, Idaho where Ernest Hemingway died. Her agent is seeking a publisher for her second book, a memoir, Bombs, Love and Hemingway’s Shadow, that details her mother’s lifelong friendship with Hemingway’s widow, Mary.