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Keep Your Head Down

by Doug Anderson, Norton, 2009


by Jack McLean, Presidio Press, 2009

In the four decades that have slipped by since the height of the Vietnam War, thousands of veterans have written war memoirs. Most are pedestrian; only a handful stands out as creatively written, memorable works of literature.

That short list includes Philip Caputo’s 1977 A Rumor of War, Tim O’Brien’s If I Die in a Combat Zone (1973), Albert French’s Patches of Fire (1997), Robert Mason’s Chickenhawk (1983), Lew Puller’s Fortunate Son (1991), Fred Downs’ The Killing Zone (1978) and Tobias Wolff’s In Pharaoh’s Army (1994).

So it comes as a bit of a shock that the spring of 2009 brought two Vietnam War memoirs that stand with the best of the genre: one-time Navy Corpsman Doug Anderson’s searing autobiography, Keep Your Head Down, and former Marine Jack McLean’s powerful, perceptive Loon: A Marine Story.

Anderson’s book tops the list. It’s a beautifully written, insightful look at a man who has lived an eventful life—before, during and after his tour of duty in Vietnam with the 1st Marine Division in 1967-68. Anderson, who today teaches poetry at the University of Connecticut in Hartford, has been a jazz drummer, a playwright, an actor, an alcoholic, a college dropout, a master’s degree recipient, the son of an alcoholic, a college instructor, a drug abuser, a PTSD sufferer and a poet. The book begins with Anderson’s dysfunctional childhood, then offers an evocative depiction of his tour of duty in Vietnam, which included a lifetime’s worth of closely observed battlefield horror.

Anderson clearly evokes the hell of war as he experienced it, and goes on to show how he has relived it ever since. He suffered emotionally after the war for many years, self-medicating with booze, drugs and sex. Only in recent years did he stop drinking, find meaningful work, marry and make a life-changing 2000 trip back to Vietnam. His story is one of redemption, and also is one that is beautifully told. Yet, what Anderson dubs “Snakebrain” (the demons inside him) remains a part of his life, and his memoir has no neat, happy ending.

Unlike Doug Anderson, Jack McLean is not a poet, but he has poetic passages in his war memoir, his first book. Contrary to the overwhelming majority of men in his social class, McLean joined the Marines after he graduated from high school in August of 1966. In his case, he was educated at one of the nation’s top secondary schools, Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., where George W. Bush was a classmate. After his military service, Anderson was the first Vietnam veteran to enter Harvard when he walked onto the campus in the fall of 1968.

Anderson, who today runs his own marketing consulting company, wrote more than 100 letters home from Vietnam, where he served with Charlie Company of the 3rd Marine Division’s 1st Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment from November 1967 to July 1968. He makes excellent use of those letters, reconstructing his time in the Corps with a sharp eye for detail and a very readable prose style. We’ve read countless descriptions of Marine boot camp at Parris Island and combat Vietnam War–style; McLean manages to make his seem fresh, evocative and insightful.

The crucible of McLean’s tour came in June 1968 when his unit was torn to bits by the NVA on a mountainous landing zone (named Loon) near the Laotian border. Of the 180 Marines who landed on LZ Loon, only 60 came off the hill, McLean says. Hundreds of NVA perished after McLean’s commanding officer, Captain Bill Negron, saved the day for the survivors by calling in artillery, nearly on top of the Marines.

McLean uses a good deal of reconstructed dialogue to tell his war story, a technique that in lesser hands only cheapens a memoir. But virtually all of McLean’s dialogue rings true, as does nearly everything else in this excellent book.


Originally published in the August 2009 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.