- The Washington Times - Friday, August 12, 2011

WHO SHOT THE WATER BUFFALO?
By Ken Babbs
Overlook, $25.95, 320 pages

They say that being a Marine means you can grow old but you never have to grow up. That is only partially true. Ken Babbs‘ “Who Shot the Water Buffalo?” is a Marine Corps coming-of-age story. A reader probably has to have been alive in 1962 to fully appreciate this thinly disguised memoir of the author’s time as a Marine Corps helicopter pilot in the second year of the Kennedy administration.

This is a story about a lost world. There was a time between the Korean and Vietnam wars when young college graduates were still subjected to the draft. Some, like young Teddy Kennedy, submitted to the draft, did their two years and got on with their lives. The most adventurous of the generation went to officer candidate school and on to flight school for one of the various services. Once they were through flight school, life was pretty good. They got to travel to strange lands, party with exotic women and get veterans benefits to boot. Barring a catastrophic engine failure or other accident, it was a pretty sweet deal.

This book chronicles the onset of the Vietnam War and the end of that good deal. The author lived it; he is well-qualified to tell the tale.

The story involves two Marine Corps helicopter pilots fresh out of flight school who are assigned to a helicopter squadron in California. Shortly after getting settled in, their squadron is assigned to Vietnam in an “advisory” role. This means ferrying Vietnamese soldiers to the front and resupplying them. No one knows it at the time, but the boys and their comrades have taken the first step down the long and bloody road into the Vietnamese quagmire.

Lt. Huckelbee and Lt. Cochran are high-spirited lads given to practical jokes aimed at their superior officers. These range from breaking up a poker game to which they haven’t been invited to trying to kill a shark with a hand grenade while escorting a high-ranking visitor. These pranks are the norm for peacetime overseas deployments, but in combat, they begin to wear thin on the leadership of the squadron, and trouble ensues.

Then, as today, the Marine Corps has two kinds of officers. The first are the reserves who populate the junior ranks. In 1962, they generally were college graduates who otherwise would have been drafted and found the Marine Corps the best way to do their national service. Today, there isn’t a draft, but the Corps is still an inducement to young men who want to serve their country and realize that such service won’t look bad on their resumes.

The second category is the regulars; these are the senior officers who have stayed in, augmented by graduates of service academies and others who became regular officers out of ROTC. They would become contemptuously known as “lifers” to non-career service members as the war in Vietnam turned bad, but they were - and remain - the core of the officer leadership of America’s military.

The tension between the lifers and the short-timers is heightened as the war becomes more real to everyone. Their squadron commander tries to enforce discipline while not breaking the spirit of the short-timers, and he hopes to bring at least one of the two amigos into the ranks of the regulars.

The backdrop of all this is 1962. It was the high-water mark of the “greatest generation.” Jack Kennedy, one of their own, was president. A war hero in his own right, he was leading a confident and assertive nation. He had faced down the Russians over missiles in Cuba, and the U.S. economy led the world. In these days of a second-class credit rating and some of the worst presidential and congressional leadership we have suffered through in our history, it sounds like Oz. However, the seeds of the world we live in today were being sown in that earlier time.

This book is not great literature, but it keeps the reader riveted enough to keep turning the pages. Mr. Babbs is the last member of the celebrated Stanford literary class known as the “Merry Pranksters” to have a novel published.

Eventually, our heroes experience the death of comrades and come to grips with their own mortality. I won’t give up the plot, but one character eventually grows up, while one does not. Readers of a certain generation will appreciate this book, while younger ones may find themselves in a truly alien world.

Gary Anderson, a retired Marine colonel, is an adjunct professor at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.