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Reviewed by Michael Oppenheim
By Joseph W. Callaway Jr.
Presidio/Ballantine, New York, 2004

The author of one of the latest Vietnam combat memoirs believes the whole war was a mistake. While this is not an original opinion, readers will blink to see it stated so strongly here. Not generally a deeply introspective group, war memoirists do admit that sickening things happen in war. Most tend to agree that the Vietnam War was a strategic disaster, but they blame the political leaders for handcuffing the soldiers, or the antiwar movement for sapping popular support. However, in Mekong First Light: An Infantry Platoon Leader in Vietnam Tells It Like It Was (Presidio/Ballantine, New York, 2004, paperback $6.99), author Joseph W. Callaway Jr. will have none of that. His view is that, spurred by its anticommunist obsession, the U.S. government chose the weaker side in a nasty Asian civil war. The Americans’ enormous firepower kept the South Vietnamese government from collapsing and inflicted huge losses on the enemy, but it also inflicted terrible destruction on the country. Sadly, the war failed to deliver the satisfaction Americans remembered from World War II, with courageous allies fighting by their side and civilians worshipful of those serving in uniform. The nation quickly grew sick of the Vietnam War.

We learn that the author passed a misspent youth, being expelled from schools, dropping out of college and narrowly escaping arrest. He joined the U.S. Army in 1965 with no goal in mind, but quickly discovered a talent for leading men. The Army agreed, approving his application for Officer Candidate School. Assigned to lead an infantry platoon, he arrived in Vietnam in 1967.

As in all war memoirs, Callaway’s subsequent miseries intermixed with battles are the meat of the book. With 35 years of hindsight, the author concludes that he did just about everything right. As proof he offers the fact that he was the only officer in his company who survived the year, during which the company went through a half-dozen commanders. Only one soldier in Callaway’s platoon was killed in action.

Callaway maintains that tactical brilliance was not necessarily a requirement for junior officers in Vietnam. Dash and offensive spirit were positively suicidal. Good lieutenants, among which he numbers himself, took care of their men. That was not necessarily a recipe for popularity. Good officers often forced their men to do things they hated. On search-and-destroy sweeps, for example, he routinely made sure his platoon advanced through the most difficult, overgrown, hilly routes. The exhausted men preferred clear areas and trails, but the VC knew that only too well and concentrated their booby traps and ambushes in those areas. Unfortunately, gung-ho superiors often ordered troops onto faster routes, with disastrous consequences.

In his narrative Callaway pauses frequently to profile a bad officer and describe the consequences of his blindness. All too often that officer was killed. Callaway also includes profiles of good officers, including his friends. But many of them were killed as well. For a soldier to survive, skill is important but luck is essential.
Most of the book describes the nuts and bolts of small-unit actions. There are no surprises: The VC are hard to find, but occasionally turn up. Mostly the American GI fights well. Everyone despises the ARVN. American soldiers dislike civilians, whom they suspect — sometimes rightly — of sympathizing with the enemy. Callaway maintains that he worked hard but not always successfully to prevent war crimes.

At the end of his year in Vietnam, Callaway was sent to Thailand to help train the first Thai unit sent there. Callaway maintains that the Thai government received a huge bribe to commit the regiment. To Callaway’s frustration, the Thai troops didn’t take their training seriously, but the propaganda value of the unit was so high that U.S. command never risked it in serious combat.

Despite Callaway’s hatred of the war, military life appealed to him. Joining Special Forces, he did another six months in Vietnam. He still looks on that experience with pride, but he ultimately declined an opportunity for a Regular Army commission. Returning to civilian life, he married and enrolled in Boston University, where his newly acquired sense of focus and discipline helped him succeed. Callaway also gravitated toward the antiwar movement along with another Massachusetts veteran, John Kerry, who did not impress him.

Callaway’s antiwar stance colors his writing, but the book remains a mainline war memoir. There are enough descriptions of fighting, and of the camaraderie and horseplay, to satisfy the most critical military buff. Virtually all Vietnam memoirists denounce the civilian leaders in Washington and their inept decisions, so Callaway merely represents the far end of that spectrum.