I believe that Americans are obligated to learn about and understand wars that our soldiers have fought in. I have read about both World Wars and about our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but I admit I know little about the Korean War and Vietnam. I hoped to change at least half of that with Charlie Company: What Vietnam Did to Us. And while I now have a better understanding of what our soldiers went through in Nam, I still don’t understand what the hell we were doing over there, what kind of war we were supposedly fighting, and why the hell over 58,000 American soldiers had to die defending a country that didn’t want us over there to begin with.
This book is basically three sections: Charlie Company in Vietnam in the last years of the American participation, what the men of Charlie Company encountered coming home from the war and what their lives were like for the next 12 years, and finally the Company’s first reunion.
For me, this was a very eye-opening book. I had no idea that we had such stupid rules of engagement in this war. We weren’t allowed to attack Hanoi, which would have been an almost instant victory. Our soldiers went on the offensive during the day, but not at night when it was the North Vietnamese’s turn to be aggressive. We fought over patches of land, won them, then abandoned them for the enemy to retake at their leisure. The only indication of success was the body count of the enemy dead. It all boiled down to pointlessness. The war seemingly had no purpose, and so the only purpose of our soldiers became staying alive for the mandatory year of combat the draft required of them. No wonder so many of them questioned what they were doing over there. By the end of the first section, I had to agree with the soldiers who thought they were only over there to make the rubber and munitions companies rich.
But the hardest part of the book to read for me was the terrible homecoming that these men had. They’d gone away to war as boys, answering the call of their government, doing their duty as patriotic Americans. The war made them men. They watched friends blown to bits, killed the enemy with their bare hands to survive one more day of hell. They were pawns in the indifferent hands of stupid politicians, just doing what they were told. Instead of the respect that American soldiers deserve, they came home to complete indifference or outright contempt. Called murderers, psychos, and baby killers, our Vietnam veterans felt isolated and cut off from their own generation. They were made to feel ashamed of their service and denied the pride and gratitude that should come with serving one’s country. Denied accurate diagnoses and proper health care, many veterans suffered for years from PTSD, nightmares, and other symptoms of combat fatigue. Some turned to drugs and alcohol. Many couldn’t hold a job and watched marriages dissolve when they couldn’t or wouldn’t speak about the war that haunted them. For years, they suffered in silence. Twelve years after the war when Newsweek came to interview them, many were still suffering.
Charlie Company is a valuable, insightful read. While I certainly plan to read more on the subject, I’m glad I started with this book. It’s raw, both in its descriptions of combat and in the voices of the 65 Charlie Company veterans who contributed their stories to it. It gives a powerful and unforgiving look into the effects of war on young men.