OUR YEAR OF WAR: TWO BROTHERS, VIETNAM AND A NATION DIVIDED
By Daniel P. Bolger
DaCapo, $28, 352 pages
Living in Chevy Chase for decades, I was astonished to learn yesterday that in the Vietnam War my town, cushy Belmont, Mass. and Great Neck, N.Y., “sacrificed more men proportionally than … the rest of U.S. towns and counties.” This is one of surprises that Daniel P. Bolger weaves through his splendid and useful account of America on a cusp.
“Our Year of War: Two Brothers, Vietnam and a Nation Divided” announces itself as a history focusing on the year 1968. It is also a portrait of the extraordinary brothers from Nebraska who fought in the same infantry unit, Tom and Chuck Hagel. A paean to both the former senator and secretary of defense and his law professor sibling, it is as well a eulogy to lost American values and a clarion for the vanishing virtues of civility and genuine patriotism.
In serving this latter purpose, Gen. Bolger is no knee-jerk flag-waver. Having served in the Army for 35 years, he proffers as scathing an indictment of our Vietnam misadventure as Hippy Longhair might. The Vietnam War, he learned through wide research, (he is too young to have served there) was appallingly mismanaged. The Pentagon instituted policies that treated soldiers as interchangeable parts; the commanding general practiced a style of leadership straight out of central casting.
On the one hand, soldiers were rotated in and out of combat individually with no regard for the integrity of fighting units and the mutual loyalty of brothers in arms. On the other hand, William Westmoreland and his spit-and-polish brass led from the rear, judging battlefield success by clipboard statistics based on bogus body counts. “All that mattered was the scoreboard,” Gen. Bolger writes, then paraphrases our picture-perfect commander’s pronouncements: “We killed them by the gross. Therefore we won.” Before we lost.
Revealing the horrors of combat through the brothers Hagel and their firefight ordeals — between them they won five Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star — this is also a brilliant, exciting and tragic survey. Gen. Bolger manages to splice the year’s political and social events into a cogent narrative that illuminates America’s war, its divisive politics and its disparate people.
As a war story its hair-raising suspense is as artfully crafted as any spellbinding fiction. As compressed history, it is often witty, always admirably complex and nuanced. (However, I disagree vehemently with the bland appraisal of Chicago’s police during the Democratic National Convention. A campaign staffer, I saw a cop break his nightstick on a coat-and-tie colleague’s head in our Hilton Hotel headquarters. Note: Mayor Daley’s bulls ran riot.)
A master of the mot juste, Gen. Bolger has a knack for nailing actualities with concise drollery: Martin Luther King “enjoyed the rare distinction of being attacked and vilified by both the Soviet KGB and the American FBI.” Gen. Curtis Lemay “managed the seemingly impossible feat of making George Wallace sound reasonable by comparison.” The Army’s policies regarding piecemeal assignment and individuals’ rotation “torpedoed unit cohesion. Going to war alone bred PTSD like the Mekong Delta rice paddies bred mosquitoes.”
Recalling that Russian agents influenced some dissident groups in the 1960s, Gen. Bolger writes that these provocateurs “resembled ants atop a log rushing down whitewater rapids. The ants thought they were steering. Evidently so did the FBI.” Discussing one of our bad strategies that cost soldiers’ lives: “Majors up at division headquarters joked about live bait. The bait weren’t laughing.” Describing one candidate’s theatrical gesture in campaign appearances: “Nixon tapped his breast pocket, as if the Vietnam plan rested right there. Indeed it did. The pocket was empty.”
Quantifying some costs of that war, he animates drab data: for example, we lost more helicopters in Vietnam “than today’s entire U.S. Army rotary wing fleet.” Offering bald statistics, he notes that though people argued that the poor and especially blacks bore the brunt of that draft-era conflict, statistically the death toll was actually quite evenly spread.
Reporting a wide range of research into the nuts and bolts of warfare, Gen. Bolger offers awful surprises. In the aftermath of World War II, the Army actually quantified a GI’s limits: the experts explained “practically all men in rifle battalions will become psychiatric casualties” after eight months in combat. That prescription was written 70 years ago.
Yet today we brilliantly train young men (and now women) to perform the ghastly acts that combat requires, then send them into war zones to do this demonic work for a year at a stretch, and then we act surprised when they run amok or self-destruct after coming home again.
“We continue to repeat the same errors and miss the same opportunities. I know. I lived through just those bloody mistakes in Iraq and Afghanistan. We see our past, but we don’t understand it, even when men like Chuck and Tom Hagel plead with us to do so.” Thus this sanguine and gritty book that relates history even as it resonates today’s real news whether by intent or happenstance.
Witness Gen. Bolger’s observation that George Wallace, 1968’s wildcard presidential candidate, came to fame by “demanding a return to a past that never really was.”
• Philip Kopper, publisher of Posterity Press in Bethesda, Md., writes about American history and culture.