21 June 2005
The U.S. Army Special Forces 'Green Beret' and both the war and country called Vietnam came to American public consciousness as a package deal.
To those who weren't involved in either Special Forces
or the war in Vietnam, it all seemed wildly exotic, adventuresome, glamorous and romantic-and I suspect that, at least on occasion, it seemed the same way to those who were involved. As a young paratrooper serving in Vietnam in the late 1960's and I usually had plenty of company. “Those were the days,” I remember thinking. And if I remember correctly, that was also the tone of the reminiscences I heard.
Tan Phu is a book about those “early days,” by an author who went on to serve many subsequent tours in Vietnam. Leigh Wade was a junior commo man on A-23 when it deployed to the Mekong Delta region in early summer, 1963. Back then, first term enlistees were almost as rare in Special Forces as they are invisible now, and Wade gives us a good picture of both garrison life and life in the field as a very junior but fully operational young SF soldier, back before the Green Beret became the subject of a best-selling book, a hit record and a John Wayne movie. I suppose I've read better books abut the weird ethno-politics, compromised strike forces and other somewhat unique problems Special Forces A-teams had to deal with in Vietnam, but Tan Phu certainly doesn't fail in this regard. And when it comes to the rather primitive level of support available in those early days, Wade is damn near poetic in his ability to say a lot in a few words. As for combat…well, lets say that the average Army or Marine Corps infantryman to serve in a later stage of the war will find things he can relate to, but won't be overly impressed with scale or frequency of it. That's okay, however. Wade did see his share and he saw it at a time when the vast majority of Americans, even in the military, really had no idea that American soldiers were at war. More than that, he describes it well and lets himself marvel that it is really happening to him, he's having amazing experiences that the folks back home could not even imagine.
This is an honest book in many ways, but the most impressive bit of honesty to me is that even before the Preface, Wade lets the cat out of the bag and lets slip the dirty little secret that all those who would hope to put a stop war had better make a point of understanding. There's a wise quote from Robert E. Lee that it's good that war is so terrible, or we would grow to love it too much. And then there's a quote from Matthew Ridgway: “Great horror as war itself is, every honest soldier know that it has its moments of joy.”
There are moments of Joy in this book, but there is also terror, fear and real agony. A-23 was the team on which Nick Rowe and Daniel Pitzer were serving when they were captured. “Rocky” Versace-who comes across here as a man only the semi-saintly Nick Rowe could stand-was a straphanger with the same A-23 patrol when he, too, was captured, and eventually murdered in a reprisal execution. In six months, two members A-23 were captured and only two members of A-23 returned to Fort Bragg unwounded. But since they had served on the same team with Rowe and Pitzer, they, too, had been wounded at least in the heart.
It was winter when Wade and his teammates returned to Fort Bragg, and then went on leave in to a civilian world that knew nothing of their war. Wade tells of this and he briefly mentions that he had other tours, later-tours that I hope he writes about. After ten years of service-a good deal of it with SF in Vietnam-Wade left the army, and then returned to SF after more than a ten year break in service, serving another ten years before retiring as an E-7. His return alone would make the subject of a good book.
I have to say that I like Tan Phu very much and I came away from it liking Leigh Wade, and really hoping that he comes out with a few more books. Tan Phu has already been on the racks for almost a year now and we can hope that it will still be in print for at least another couple of years. But the publishing business is as mercenary as the cocaine business, as unpredictable as the San Andreas fault, and you can't be sure that Tan Phu will still be around if you dawdle too long. If you don't have it already, go out and treat yourself to a copy. It may be the most enjoyable six bucks you've spent since the dollar went downhill.Buy Tan Phu from Amazon.com
This article was originally published in Behind The Lines magazine. VietnamGear.com has reproduced this article with the kind permission of Gary Linderer.
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