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Book Review

Vietnam War: Truth Direct From a Soldier

November 29, 1985|DON STRACHAN | Don Strachan, a former Book Review columnist, was a Resistance draft counselor during the Vietnam War. and

Green Knight, Red Mourning by Richard Ogden (Zebra: $3.50)

War is hell: It's one of our hoariest but truest truisms. Every clash spawns its own literary gem because, after all, lies there anywhere a literary landscape richer than hell? And where exists a state of mind more inspirational, so taut that every detail gets burned into memory, so harrowing that every stray bit of good fortune is felt as a miracle?

But where is the jewel from Vietnam? The accounts have stressed the political follies and catalogued the suffering, making for good journalism, not literature; Pulitzer Prizes, not Nobels. "Green Knight, Red Mourning" may be too unpolished to adorn the same showcases as Hemingway, Mailer and Stephen Crane, but, until a better Vietnam book comes along, it'll stand for me as the one.

Joined Marines

Richard Ogden, a sawed-off Idaho bumpkin who joined the Marines because he liked their song, hasn't a political thought in his head: He gives us a simple, direct, old-fashioned soldier's-eye-view personal account. His superiors have the standard personality problems: If they can't fight the enemy, they'll bully their underlings. Ogden comes to equate them with the enemy; his company becomes, then, at once a microcosm of and a disheartening commentary on the bullets, bombs and "hot apple jelly" raining around them in the mad, mad world outside.

Yet to dwell on this after "Catch-22" would be redundant, and Ogden has bigger fish to fry. "The fight to remain alive was one problem," he acknowledges; "the fight to remain human was quite another." He finds his first attack "exhilarating almost to the point of hysterical excitement." To his credit, it takes only a dog's death for him to recover his sanity and feel pangs of conscience.

Assigned an angry black trench mate from Watts, the ingenuous author learns a frightening fact: Poverty and degradation are not indigenous to rural areas only. "I thought all city dwellers had nice houses and fancy apartments." The black, once he grasps that Ogden is not shucking him, becomes his sidekick and mentor.

High-School Dropout

Writers, they say, are made, not born. Amazingly, Ogden is a high-school dropout who last tested at the fifth-grade reading level. Pedants will wince at the misspellings, misquotes and sometimes hackneyed metaphors. (So did I; why didn't Zebra give him a copy editor?) Yes, he's rough. He's also crude, but his relentless emotional honesty elevates his graphic depictions of horrors to art: The sights and smells he catalogues are etched indelibly into his memory, and, like a good Ancient Mariner, he passes them along to us in full color.

He's also painstakingly observant and blessed--or is it cursed?--with such perfect recall that you'd swear he must have kept a diary, scribbling entries by bomb light on the battlefield.

Acute, eccentric subjective observations pepper the book. Listen to the clash and roar of a beach landing, "so deafening that it numbed the senses, leaving the strange silence of animation only." After a particularly bloody battle, a new fear arises: "not the gut-grabbing, heart-stomping terror; it was an all-consuming fear that lay at the base of the brain, like a termite. A subtle, bleak depression of hopelessness." (The voice of hell.)

Time for Details

When we admire an author's sense of detail, it's because he blends it with a sense of timing: He knows when to write details. A chopper gunner gets blown apart; as his insides gush from his chest, Ogden watches someone pick up his boots so blood won't run on them. He doesn't notice details like that except when overpowering emotions jam him into a hyperspace of heightened perceptions.

But the ultimate marrow of Ogden's style lies in the very roughness that mars it. Behind the occasional awkward phrase and mismatched metaphor rests a backwoods innocence and purity that makes "Green Knight, Red Mourning" a cry from hell out of a child's mouth. This plucks a chord equally as deep and heartening as the moans and wails from the external drama being enacted in the rice fields and jungles.

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