Sunday, November 16, 2008

Naval Institute Press, $28.95, 256 pages

Hollywood films that portray conflict tend to make an icon of the featured weapon involved. Think of the Colt Peacemaker revolver of the Western gunslinger. Or the Tommy gun of the ‘30s gangster. Or the Huey helicopter gunbird that has dominated our vision of American wars starting in Vietnam and continuing right on through this evening’s news broadcast. Talk about your icons.

Yet until now, not a lot has been written about the UH-1E, the Bell helicopter with its Lycoming engine and its side-mounted M-60 machine guns and its nose-aimed rockets. Less still is known about the people who wielded them for the first time as a serious weapon of war in Vietnam. For that matter, do we know much about those who man them today in theaters of strife around the globe?

Author David A. Ballentine’s “Gunbird Driver: A Marine Huey Pilot’s War in Vietnam” is noteworthy because it can be read on several levels. It is a memoir to be sure, but one unlike the standard-issue series of anecdotes that come from military retirees who have justifications to make or agendas to promote. What it is, instead, is a back-porch conversation with plenty of saltiness and lots of appropriate expletives, such as what one might get listening to the man himself.

The story line covers his time as a young lieutenant pilot flying a Huey with a Marine observation squadron in 1966 and 1967, a year before the Tet Offensive. His unit ranged over what was known as the I Corps area, the farthest north of the South Vietnam theater, along the DMZ, to perilous bases such as Khe Sanh and even into Laos.

The book is an easy read for the ordinary civilian despite the military acronyms and technical idiosyncrasies of the Huey as a piece of machinery. Mr. Ballentine gives the aircraft its own personality, one with plenty of foibles and flaws, but also with a certain workmanlike solidness that makes both machine and the men it carried understandable and admirable.

The more military-oriented reader can find plenty of action and adventure to his taste. While the unit was called an observation squadron, its primary role was to provide covering fire as other Marine, and sometimes Army, ground forces were inserted into hostile territory, invariably drawing hostile fire from the North Vietnamese regulars in the area. So Marine Observation Squadron Six, (its radio call sign was “Klondike”) provided suppressing fire when the troops went in and when they came out again. It covered for medical evacuation helicopters that took out the casualties. Counter-fire was a constant hazard and Mr. Ballentine’s craft caught its share.

One of the more interesting facets of this book is that it does not really matter if you’ve never even ridden in a helicopter. Mr. Ballentine’s portrayal of the Huey makes the reader confident he could sit in the second seat and know right where the dials and pedals were located, perhaps even to take the stick if hostile gunfire required. This is no mean feat of writing on technical matters.

Although the book is written in the first person, the author gives an understandable emphasis on the other Klondike men with whom he served. This brings something of a jolt for they were so young to be tasked with such lethal work. Most were in their early 20s, some in their teens. We need to be reminded that when we send our men and women in the military services into harm’s way we truly are sending our children.

Yet he and they grew up fast and Mr. Ballentine credits not just the fabled ethos of the Marine Corps but also the personal bond that springs up among humans who find themselves forced to actions that fly in the face of the instinct for self-preservation. He quotes his unit commander’s instructions on the day Mr. Ballentine flew his first Klondike mission with the squadron, “If I go down, your job is to get me and the crew out.”

It is when Mr. Ballentine ponders this obligation to others where the book’s real value lies whatever the reader’s background has been.

“I’ve pondered the notion of duty, bravery, and even love in the military. Where does one end and the other begin, or are they somehow merged, inseparable?” he asks.

He concludes, “When it came to military brethren in our squadron, I’ve come to believe it was responsibility, duty to each other. This was fostered, not only from association in and identification with our unit, but through training to a standard and to institutional expectation. The closer the association, the greater the obligation.”

There is reason for us to be concerned and not a little troubled about the plight of our young men and women who return from tours of war duty today and find trouble fitting back in. Mr. Ballentine reminds us it was ever thus. Once one gets used to the imperatives and intensity of warfare, civilian life can be hard to take.

Of himself and the Klondike veterans he says, “We’ll never be the same, and sadly what follows this sort of high adventure is a bit flat, the ho-hum mellowness of everyday life. After you’ve finished a no-net, high-wire act, the clown suit doesn’t quite fit.”

This is a book that is worth reading and pondering. Vietnam may have been a long time ago, but the story is still going on.

James Srodes is a long-time Washington author and journalist.

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