Score: 95/100 (9.5 out of 10)
Who would've thought that a book about the Vietnam War would be the breath of fresh air we needed after numerous books about time travel, abuse, pandemics, politics, and racism? Letters from Vietnam by Dennis Hoy was exactly what we needed to read. It is a beautiful, grounded autobiography/memoir about one man (and couple's) experience during one of the most unpopular, violent, and divisive wars in American history.
One of the things that pleasantly surprised us about this book is that this isn't just a lazily thrown together collection of letters (which we expected), but actually a thoughtful and thorough interpretation of these letters. In other words, this book actually has a clear and compelling narrative. And, by golly is it compelling!
Dennis Hoy was an aspiring baseball player with a beautiful, loving girlfriend who got wrapped up and drafted into the Vietnam War, a conflict that provides the very real possibility of soldiers never coming home or not coming home in one piece. The tension is raw and real, and that's part of what makes this book great.
Another thing that makes this book great is that you really get to know Dennis and the mindset of a soldier during the war. While the instinct to survive and protect oneself is great, so is the desire to make a positive difference and do one's duty such as when Dennis volunteered to be on point a third of the time and to be on watch when others couldn't be relied on to stay awake.
This one year in Vietnam seems like an eternity as Dennis endures one struggle after another, not just from a very determined and tricky enemy but from his own military, particularly the higher-ups. Something that continually gets shared is how unjust and unfair the hierarchy can be. For example, many officers have less wartime experience than the grunts and serve tours that are half as long. But some of the greatest criticisms are regarding those much higher up in the chain of command and politicians, people who can send men to their deaths from all the way on the other side of the world. We are frustrated when Dennis is frustrated, anxious when he's anxious, and excited when he's excited.
The greatest tension in this book, beside Dennis trying to survive the war in one piece, is whether Dennis and Beth will be able to reunite, marry, and have the happy ending they dreamed of before he was sent off to war. It's very tragic that these two are separated by a circumstance like this. What helps build the tension is when Dennis talks about other soldiers who are dumped or divorced during the course of the war, devastating them. We often worry if Dennis might suffer the same fate. After all, we've all experienced the difficulty of a long-distance relationship of some sort, so it's a very relatable conundrum made all the worse by war.
It was also amazing to see some of the things we learned about from documentaries or in Arlen's Gun by Edgar Doleman be discussed from a real-life, first-hand perspective. Case in point: we got to read about Puff the Magic Dragon (the AC-47 gunship) in action, albeit sometimes tragically. For instance, there is one time when Dennis's side is overrun and outnumbered, having to call in close-air-support from an AC-47. The AC-47 devastates the enemy with tens of thousands of rounds per minute, but it also wipes out civilians who are wrapped up in the violence with nowhere else to run.
Speaking of situations like this, the author isn't shy about talking about them. In fact, Dennis discusses some of the atrocities and torture he witnessed on both sides such as people losing fingers, being scalped, or being waterboarded. What's interesting is that Dennis doesn't bluntly condemn these actions but rather tries to understand them from the perspective of men at war who've seen their comrades mutilated and killed, dealing with immense trauma mixed with a burning bloodlust for revenge and retaliation. It seems natural, sadly, that immense cruelty might be met with immense cruelty. At the same time, there's a lot of hope and humanity to be found too. For example, when Dennis suffers from Malaria, he is visited by Vietnamese schoolgirls who give him gifts to cheer him up. Also, when the Americans visit a particular village, some of the children come out to greet them and give them coconuts.
Perhaps the most enjoyable stories in this book aren't really about people at all but rather the exotic and often dangerous wildlife in Vietnam ranging from venomous snakes to mysterious murder cats that attack in the night to bullet-sponge water buffaloes that charge without warning. There's even a lizard so huge and aggressive that the soldiers mistake it for a crocodile!
This is a perspective of the war that we think doesn't get a lot of attention: from the ground. It's one thing to see movies about Vietnam or watch media, but it's another thing to hear and read these perspectives. It's also interesting to get Beth's perspective.
Check out this incredible book on Amazon!