Authors writing from personal experience about combat know that conveying their experience is ultimately an impossible task. The chasm between those who lived the trauma in a place like Vietnam, or some other version of Vietnam in another war, and those merely reading about it is nearly unbridgeable with mere words or images. But like many other veterans before him, John Podlaski tries to do just that in his book, Cherries: A Vietnam War Novel. And in this basic mission he successfully describes what Vietnam was like for some. I have to say some because in a war where the vast majority of those in uniform served as support personnel, most of the hardship fell on those few actually in the field. But more about that later.
Cherries, which in the context of the Vietnam War is slang for virginal inexperience in combat, is a fictional memoir of an infantryman’s 12-month stint in Vietnam late in the war (1970 – 1971) and has no conventional plot. The gritty reality the author dispenses, in conjunction with the biographical information Podlaski provides, leaves little doubt that his book character’s tour mirrors his own. And it is obvious this is the intent, since even the hero’s name is unmistakably close to the author’s. To depict what the war was like for the grunts bearing the main burden of fighting it, the book follows the hero’s tour from beginning to end.
Cherries suffers from a number of technical problems that some good editing would have taken care of. The character dialogue is poor, the novel’s point of view hops around inconsistently, and the text contains many errors. But the reader with a father, a grandfather, or an uncle who served as a grunt in the war and who wants to learn why combat leaves such deep psychological scars—the stuff not found in history books and action hero novels—could do worse than to overlook these faults and give it a read.
Books about the Vietnam War, and I’ve read many, all contain the same clichés and slang that were a staple of that war. Cherries is no exception. It contains raw language too, although the book’s profanity is far milder than that in the real setting. The same can be said for the book’s brief glimpses into the problems of race relations in the base camps, drug use, morale, and the futility felt by many soldiers. However, a novel can only convey so much and these things were really beyond the scope of this book.
Cherries was of particular interest to me because I also did a full tour, and then some, in Vietnam in roughly the same time period. I departed from the same place the author/hero described, arrived in-country where he did, wore the same 25th Infantry Division patch, hung on during the same typhoon he described, and even experienced the same kind of mad dash to the 93rd Evacuation Hospital in a medevac chopper. I was also familiar with many of the places Podlaski mentioned while his character was part of the 25th Infantry Division because my mechanized infantry company operated in some of the same locales.
I have a few minor quibbles with certain descriptions in the book, but recognize that memories differ. I’ll close with one that brings me back to what I said above about the hardship not being shared equally. In the final chapter the author writes of his fellow passengers aboard the plane that brought him back home: “Every one of them however, looked ten years older than when they arrived.” This was not my experience or memory, because the great majority of soldiers on any ride home were rear echelon personnel who spent their year in the safety of base camps.
The largest base camp, Long Binh, alone housed 60,000 support troops at its peak, and smaller ones like Cu Chi (which the author described and I knew as well), perhaps 20,000. In these camps, the real enemy was boredom. I know, because for the first half of my tour I was fortunate enough to be in a base camp and facing that mental enemy instead of the armed one out in the bush. That was the luck of the draw or the reward earned by enlisting for extra years in uniform. Behind the concertina wire, the layers of Claymore mines, and the dirt berm, base camp duty was nothing like the combat tour described in this book. It is my fellow grunts like the ones described in this book, and others such as the insanely brave chopper pilots who supported the field soldiers, that are to be saluted. But for myself and many soldiers who served, that salute would be not be the military type, for to this day saluting still brings back unpleasant memories.