Get Some! - old school nam' style baby
Published only four years after the fall of Saigon, War Story was the first of what has become a plethora of non-fiction Vietnam War memoirs. But because of the political climate at the time of its initial publication this potential blockbuster bestseller was all but ignored by the New York publishing houses. Robin Moore's The Green Berets was such a sensation in 1965 that it inspired a John Wayne movie, and the same photo of Army Special Forces Staff Sergeant Barry Sadler graced both the book's paperback cover and Sadler's top hit record. But by the early 1970's when Morris wrote War Story, the attitude towards the Vietnam War and America's elite warriors was colored by the anti-war movement, My Lai, the bombing of Cambodia, and the media's slanted reporting on Tet. Vietnam wasn't a popular literary topic.
Morris begins his memoir with the emotionally charged details of his re-occurring nightmare, a vivid and detailed replay of the firefight in which he had his left testicle shot off and was almost killed. In the nightmare, though, he is eventually killed. He ends the book with an emotionally charged memory also. In a heart-tugging coda, Morris recounts the scene. While standing in an Army hospital, his crippled right arm hanging at his side, his useless fingers attached to a mechanical brace he watches as the sun sets and the color guard lowers the flag; and tells us that as the flag is lowered "a feeling of almost overwhelming sadness, almost grief, came over me." As Morris attempts to salute the colors with his damaged right hand he stands "crying like a baby because I couldn't do it right."
A professional soldier who began military school as an eleven-year-old, Morris joined the Army and Special Forces where he rose to the rank of major. He volunteered for three tours in Vietnam and received four Purple Hearts and four Bronze Stars among numerous other decorations before a medical discharge for wounds cut his career short.
Jim Morris is a gifted story-teller and this book should be read for his Ludwig Faistenhammer and Larry Dring war stories alone. But at its heart War Story is the tale of Jim Morris, not an examination of the Vietnam War or even the role of Special Forces. It is, admittedly, a participant's interpretation of events. He offers up a good account of what it was like to be on the ground during the Montagnard revolt, to fight for survival during the Tet Offensive in Nha Trang, and to serve in the U.S. Army's Special Forces during its hey-day in Vietnam. Summing up his Vietnam experience Morris quotes Michael Herr's Dispatches, "Vietnam was what we had instead of happy childhoods."
This is a book by a soldier who is proud of his service, an experienced and consummate warrior who without a second thought or any moral retrospection whatsoever begs God to please send him some VC to kill for his birthday. But Morris is a thinking man's warrior (he opens his book sections with quotes from the works of Carlos Castaneda) and philosophizes about other men like himself: "I think perhaps Special Forces guys and other people like them have depressed metabolisms and they have to be exposed to some sort of danger to feel normal ... before going to Nam I didn't know that everyone wasn't paralyzed by boredom all the time."
Paralyzed with boredom is the last thing you'll be while reading War Story. A literary standout amongst the burgeoning pile of popular literature on the Vietnam War, Morris' prose is oftentimes humorous, always entertaining, and never boring, self-serving, or pedantic. A good example of his dry wit is how he describes his arrival at Ta Ko to take command of the Special Forces camp where "...the Strike Force had been for two years without going home or seeing a woman. Half of them had long hair and half of them had short hair and they were all real friendly with each other. But not with Americans. Every so often somebody threw a grenade into the team house." War Story is replete with a soldier's black humor on death and killing. One of the best lines in the book is: "I won't describe the operation because it was one of the most frustrating experiences of my military career, a compendium of tactical errors and blown chances grotesque enough to break the heart of anybody who likes to kill people."
But Vietnam wasn't all fun and games for Jim Morris. The loss he suffered, besides his physical and emotional wounds, includes the deaths of comrades and close Army friends in the brutal combat which marked Special Forces operations in Vietnam. Special Forces was a close community and the death of a "green beret" meant a personal loss. He agonizes over the fate of Philippe Drouin, one of his Montagnard comrades and a leader of FULRO, the Montagnard independence movement, who was a kindred spirit and Morris' good friend. Despite the disparity of the two cultures Morris formed a deep and long lasting attachment with the Montagnards during his three tours in Vietnam and was well connected with FULRO. While on an operation with the "Yards" at the end of his third tour, he refused medical evacuation though suffering a life-threatening wound and proceeded to supervise the evacuation of his wounded Montagnards first. His dedication to the Montagnard cause provided him with his paradigm for perfect happiness. "Get involved in something that is more important to you than your own life."
Special Forces' most ardent White House supporter, President John F. Kennedy, said, "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country." Professional SF soldiers like Morris answered that call to duty and War Story gives us a glimpse of what our country asked of some of its young men and what they gave. For some it was too much. Others, like Morris, are still measuring the cost.
Disclaimer: Morris has been a mentor to me since the early 90’s when I was a foreign correspondent for Soldier of Fortune (where he has been alternately a contributor and an editor over the past 3 decades) and wrote the forward to my book.