Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Review: Chickenhawk by Robert Mason

This is the second book about the Vietnam war I have read in recent weeks as I amble through the history of that conflict that might see me take in a couple more before moving onto another subject.

Just as with Matterhorn, which was written from the view point of an infantry solider who was out in the bush coming into contact with the enemy on the ground this is also a personal history that is used to tell a larger tale about the war. This time around the focus is on the air with a Huey helicopter pilot the narrator of a tour of duty that sees him go from a believer to a sceptic and from a functioning human being to someone crippled professionally by PTSD.

The points that come out of this book are similar to Matterhorn with the enemy regularly underestimated and an arrogance of those controlling the war to believe that firepower and body counts would win and grind down their opposition. But with people in the field like Bob Mason who were trying not just to make sense of orders but stay alive and fight their own demons the chances of success appear to be limited.

The book flows well and there is a benefit perhaps of having a year tour from August 1965 to July 1966, because it by default gives a structure to a large part of the book once you get past the before and share a little bit of the after story. There are a few photographs online but my edition could have benefited from having a few. There is also a slight need perhaps to provide brief thumbnails of what became of some of the people that Mason mentions regularly throughout the book. Not all finish their tours at the same time and are left behind in Vietnam and the reader is left a little bit in the air wondering and hoping that they all came through in one piece.

Each book about the war comes from a different viewpoint and that is true of Chickenhawk. But if you read enough of them then a picture starts to emerge of an army that had the best of soldiers but a level of ignorance about the way to fight the war and of a political and military machine bogged down in spin. The Tet Offensive blew away the idea that the war was almost over and revealed that the strategy of body count was not working. But until that point you are left in a world, like Mason, where there is optimism mixed in with speculation that turns out to be based on spin and hope.

Having read Matterhorn and now Chickenhawk and got tales of the war from the ground and the air its hard not to feel depressed about how these young men were taken into a war they knew so little about. The stories are there to be read and hopefully the lessons are there to be learnt.


amro said...

One can only hope that lessons will be learnt - but going by Iraq, etc - they never were.

Simon Quicke said...

Thanks for commenting Amro. Sadly you are so right and people do the same thing again and again.