War may be hell, but it produces terrific literature, and “When We Walked Above the Clouds” by H. Lee Barnes is a cracker of a book.
In the mid sixties, the author was adrift and jobless in West Texas, a kid far too bright and talented to be in the circumstances he was in and too damaged and young to have figured a way out of it. To beat the draft, he enlisted in the army, and during training signed up for Special Forces, eventually ending up in Viet Nam in a mountainous outpost named Tra Bong.
Barnes tells this story straightforwardly, in pristine, laconic prose free of emotion or literary embellishments. I loved the late Hunter S. Thompson for his savage humor. But I also read him for his clean sentences—words used in a way that harnessed their full power and created a rhythm that held the reader locked in paragraph to paragraph, page to page. Barnes is not the good doctor, but he’s excellent. There is some awful good writing in here–clean and powerful.
And it is a heck of story. The camp he spent the war in, Tra Bong, was a shithole. Barnes was, at that point in his life, somewhere between an insolent punk and the ideal soldier, always in trouble for mouthing-off or fighting, while at the same time taking on the impossible task of rebuilding the camp into a real outpost that could be defended. Instead of spending his days in the rec tent popping open Schlitz cans, he spend his time pouring foundations for bunkers, digging and mapping mine fields and becoming a professional soldier. Eventually his raw talent and doggedness transforms him, turning him into a leader respected and liked by his peers and the Yards (Montagnard fighters,) and respected and despised by the semi-competent officers rotating through Tra Bong to check boxes on their personnel jackets.
Barnes weaves all of this together in a compelling narrative that keeps the reader fully engaged, despite the fact that not very much real fighting occurs. Indeed, in this account, the VC are a faceless foreboding presence, always out there beyond the wire somewhere, lethal and malevolent, but rarely seen or encountered. (The only human enemy with a face is a six year old would-be suicide bomber, whose story will make you skip a breath.) Anyway, the VC are only one enemy among many, ranging from a duplicitous populace to rats the size of terriers to a rotting, disease-ridden climate to fellow soldiers who have stopped caring and are just stumbling through the motions, and perhaps getting others killed with their sloppiness.
The author has chosen to tell the story from the standpoint of what he knew then. That is, he doesn’t add broader perspective or historical detail, or indulge in hindsight. There are no statistical footnotes in this story. Nor does he give us many broad descriptions of the camp or the valley he is in. It is as if we are watching a live feed from the GoPro camera on his helmet. We hear what he heard when he heard it and we see exactly what he saw when he saw it. It’s a narrow slit of a view, almost blinkered, but very effective. This is the Viet Nam war he experienced, and it is a fascinating one.
Despite the Spartan prose and narrow view, this book is rich with detail that resonates with the reader. When I was in Peace Corps, the volunteer in the next village over was a war buff, and after two years I’d read everything on his bookshelf. One book was about a German SS brigade drafted into the French Foreign Legion and sent to fight in Indochine after World War II. The only part of the book I remember is a six page discussion on the importance of clean, dry feet. Of course, part of the reason it stuck is because it is so….German. But it is also an example of the telling detail, the one little bit of added description that makes something jump off the page and adds verisimilitude. That is what makes books like this come alive.
The experiences Barnes writes about are for the most part far outside our personal experience base. When Mike Connelly writes about riding on the LA freeway, many of us have been there and can picture the exit he’s writing about. But less than 1% of Americans served in Viet Nam, and less than half of those in combat. We don’t have personal experience to draw on. This book is full of wonderful details that bring the story to life—some of it grotesque like gigantic beetles and the smell of burning latrines and some of it beautiful, like descriptions of the treks through the jungle.
This is a terrific book, but not a perfect one. Barnes’ laconic prose is, on occasion, too laconic. There are times when his descriptions are so Joe Friday that it is necessary to re-read the page a time or two, as in the section where he is to be assigned to a camp named A Shau, but then is re-routed to Tra Bong with the rest of his unit. And there are other times, such when a mortar round goes off beside his ear, when re-reading doesn’t help, and the reader has to work backwards from the result to piece the story together. Still other times, such as when his unit is assigned Swedish machine guns in the Dominican Republic, I never quite figured out what was going on. Another sentence or two here and there would have helped the reader along without interrupting the narrative.
But it’s hard to pound the author too much for this, because this is one of those books that more words could have ruined. Indeed, Barnes himself shows us that in the prologue, an annoying mush that reads like an afterthought dreamed up by a clueless editor. George Eliot said “Beginnings are always troublesome” and describes one introduction as “the worst bit of writing in the book.” She would not have liked this prologue. However, that is, in the grand scheme of things, a minor complaint.
I am putting this book in the mail to my friend. I suspect vets will love this book, but those of us with a more general interest will like it as well. Net, net, it’s not perfect, but it’s within mortar range of perfect.