30 April 2013

Book Review: 'DEROS Vietnam: Dispatches from the Air-Conditioned Jungle'

"DEROS Vietnam: Dispatches from the Air-Conditioned Jungle" by Doug Bradley

The word "DEROS" is an acronym, and something of a shibolleth—a word that only members of a given tribe will know. Recent U.S. veterans may not recognize it at all. Veterans of the Vietnam War, however, will likely recall it as "Date Eligible for Return from Overseas," the magical date upon which one would first be eligible to rotate back to the states, getting aboard a government-contracted "freedom bird," and shipping out after 12 months or so of deployment.

Veterans and families who have experienced wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere might find a DEROS analogous to a unit homecoming. During Vietnam, however, service members often traveled in and out of country on their own individual timelines, and didn't experience their wars as members of a single cohort.

Reflecting some of the fractures and facets of that time, Vietnam War veteran and Wisconsin-based author Doug Bradley has published a metafictional memoir of his experiences as a "REMF"—a "Rear-Echelon Mother F---er." As an information specialist, Bradley worked in the intestines of Army journalism, first at the Army Hometown News Center in Kansas City, Mo., and then at the U.S. Army Republic of Vietnam headquarters at Long Binh. He writes:
"That doesn't mean that there wasn't any pain and sacrifice and danger for us REMFs. But it's muted, much like our collective Vietnam voice, because well, most of what we did wasn't glorious or heroic or even very interesting. Trying to unmute that REMF voice is part of the reason why I've been writing about Vietnam for more than 40 years. [...]

Truth is, that's way too noble a motivation for me and this collection of stories. I wrote them mainly for myself because the process of writing has helped me to better understand Vietnam—and to heal myself a little in the process. I need to write, I have to write, to be who I am. There's as much of the non-Vietnam me in here that there is the Vietnam me.

But I doubt that you'll be able to tell the difference.
In 32 short stories, Bradley tells of Iowa boys who learn to respect the farmers and soil of Vietnam; of secret societies of snarky Army newspaper advice columnists; of power struggles over controlling populations of puppies on post. He tells of riots, mutinies, and counter-insurgencies. Some of the latter are tolerated. Some are even sanctioned. Most, however, are squashed by heat and hopelessness.

Because they both take place "away from the action," Bradley's work invites comparison to David Abrams' "Fobbit," the 2012 satirical novel about Army public affairs efforts in the Iraq War. Bradley's objective is less overtly black-humored and over-arching than Abrams' book, however, although funny things do happen. War is like that. No matter where and when you are.

Bradley openly evokes Ernest Hemingway's "In Our Time," a 1921 collection of vignettes thematically focused on the author's experiences of World War I. It was an experimental book, in which readers were left to collect their own understandings and meanings through an apparently unconnected series of short stories.

Bradley also stews together elements of both fiction and non-fiction, an approach similar to that of fellow midwesterner and Vietnam War veteran Tim O'Brien, who wrote "The Things They Carried" in 1979.

"Short or long, writing these pieces has pushed me, after all these years, to complete my own cycle," Bradley writes. "Some is eerily autobiographical, some fictional, and some a little of both. What it all means and how much it matters is now up to you."

Along with co-author Craig Werner, Bradley is currently working on a second book, this one regarding Western popular music during the Vietnam War. "We Gotta Get Out of This Place: Music and the Vietnam Experience," is slated for publication later in 2013. Bradley also writes a blog at the Huffington Post.

"DEROS Vietnam" is available in both paperback and Kindle formats.

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