A child of the 80s, I grew up on a distorted view of Vietnam. Free love was a whispered aphorism that seemed almost impossible in the age of Ronald Reagan, televangelism, and HIV. Peace on earth, a barely remembered dream amidst the bluster of Cold War bravado and the cinematic blood lust of Sylvester Stallone, Chuck Norris, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. The 60s were dead.
But in its place, like some perverse cosmic satirist with a zeitgeist-altering pen, was a hyper-visualized mirror image that exaggerated its more memorable aspects. And in this tangled, half-remembered milieu was the deeply entrenched association between Vietnam and the cultural rage of a generation. I knew about the drug use. I knew about napalm, and agent orange. I knew about My Lai and POWs and the draft.
I also knew that my dad enlisted after his 17th birthday, of his own accord, and briefly did a service in Vietnam, of which he never spoke.
I’m no longer a child, grappling with the constraints of ignorance not overcome and knowledge casually obtained. There was more to Vietnam than the bacchanalian horrors of my imagination. I now understand that there was terror in Vietnam, as there is in every war, and that much of what I imagined was due more to the regurgitation of a traumatized generation. This generation, my dad’s generation, watched the violence play out on their TV screens and counted the dead every night, and they witnessed, firsthand, the interplay between young men fighting for control over their own lives and a government requiring them to be tools in its machinations.
Hill 488 marks the divide between the hellscape that is the reality of war, and how we treat it from the safety of an unsullied land.
Chris Kyle, in American Sniper asserts that he can’t tell us how war is. That the experience exceeds the limitations of language. It is, perhaps, too harsh of me to chalk this up as another lie on his part, but Hill 488 shows that it can be done. No memoir, it is true, can serve as a substitute for the experience of war – but Hidlreth seems to have no difficulty expressing what he lived through. And it’s incredible.
In June of 1966, a platoon of eighteen reconnaissance Marines set up camp atop a hill in the Quang Tin province of South Vietnam with the goal of monitoring enemy movements into and around the area. On the evening of their second day, they started to run out of water. By nightfall, they were surrounded by a battalion of NVA (roughly 400 soldiers). By the end of the third day, every man in the platoon was either dead or wounded, and the NVA had limped away in defeat.
Unlike the other war memoirs I’ve read recently (Lone Survivor and American Sniper), Ray Hildreth doesn’t paint himself as a patriotic badass who enjoys combat. It’s not that I doubt Marcus Luttrell or Chris Kyle, but there are a number of things that make their stories different. Hildreth was a kid (19 years old) with no idea what he was getting into. He signed up for the Marines voluntarily, but this was his first real taste of combat – and it was as harrowing an experience as you’re ever likely to read about. Hildreth, also, lacked the bravado of a Navy SEAL, and had 40 years to reflect on his experiences.
40 years is a lot of time.
The dialogue in the book is what you would expect from 18-19 year old kids serving in combat in a strange and foreign land. Racist terms for the Vietnamese are thrown around casually. Again, the time differential works in Hildreth’s favor. The racism and dehumanization on the part of US military personnel is addressed – unlike in American Sniper or even Lone Survivor (which both treat this as acceptable and justifiable behavior). Simply: if your job is to kill other human beings, it’s easier to see them as lesser people. When you’re fighting for your life, you don’t have the luxury of being fair and equitable.
But the book itself is filled with numerous passages demonstrating Hildreth’s respect and even admiration for the Vietnamese. What they went through, the deprivations they faced, how hard they fought and the degree to which they sacrificed. The dialogue, if anything, remembered by Hildreth is possibly more offensive than Chris Kyle’s musings, but the passages written after 40 years of reflection show a man better able to understand the people he fought against.
He reflects, throughout the book, that he and his fellow Marines were just “colored pins on a map” in Vietnam. They were moved from place to place, and maybe they’d be replaced with black pins if they died. Or maybe their pins would be removed and replaced by other, different, pins that represented other, just as disposable young men. There’s a tinge of bitterness at the way the war was run, but you never really get the sense that Hildreth is bitter about being a Marine.
I think that’s something we’ve become very good at recognizing, as a nation. It’s okay to be against a war, or against the way our government conducts the operations, but that doesn’t mean we have to treat the young men and women tasked with fighting those wars as though they were monsters. We ask them to fight, to risk their lives for our country. That they do so for a cause that means little is our fault, not theirs.
Both Kyle and Luttrell mentioned the reception veterans received after Iraq and Afghanistan, and while I’m disinclined (and unqualified) to countermand their experiences or knowledge, I think it’s unquestionable that we as a nation learned a lot from how we responded to the Vietnam war. But it’s worth noting that this book is not about the anti-war movement and how veterans were treated upon their return to the states. Hildreth specifically talks about how his social standing increased at home because he was serving, and that he got letters from numerous young women eager to write him. This may be a product of when he fought (1966 instead of, for instance, 1972), but I think it also says a lot about him, and how he thinks of his experiences.
As a reading experience, this was a lot more palatable than my previous two war memoirs, and Ray Hildreth seemed a lot easier to identify with.