Rising to a point of personal privilege, I’m dealing today with Jeff Danziger’s memoir of his time in Vietnam despite the one disappointment, that it is only minimally illustrated by one of my favorite political cartoonists.
I have been spoiled by the in-depth WWII artwork featured in “Yank, the Army Weekly,” but those illustrators were sent with pads and pencils to record the war at the time.
Danziger had other things on his plate while in-country and wasn’t a cartoonist yet anyway.
But he does offer, for instance, a sketch of a Huey helicopter carrying an artillery piece, illustrating his resigned horror at the rocking of the chopper and the realization that nobody had thought to include a simple mechanism for letting the gun go if stability seemed seriously threatened.
The blurbs for the book have compared it to “Catch-22,” and Danziger himself makes a few references to the novel, the difference being that the illogic, incompetence and general madness in his memoir are entirely non-fictional.
As I searched for the cover image above, I stumbled over a local review from the weekend, by a veteran who served in Thailand at roughly the same time.
By contrast, I am a non-veteran and my personal response is that I’m thrilled to see someone affirm in print so much of what I heard from friends and contemporaries during the war.
As with Derf Backderf’s brilliant graphic depiction of Kent State, which I reviewed here in October, 2019, it’s comforting to see someone cut through the historic mist, the shared mythology and the overall bullshit that has descended on the era.
In fact, if you know someone in the roughly 60- to 75-year-old age group and would like to assure them that they are not delusional after all, the pair of books would be a much-appreciated gift.
However, I would add this: Just as there is a strong musical divide between those of us who came of age during the British Invasion and those a bit older who were teens along with Frankie and Annette, I think there is also some distinction between those who went to Vietnam in the mid-60s and those, like Danziger, who went at the end of the decade.
I had friends — chiefly volunteers — who went early and came home disillusioned, but I knew others — chiefly draftees — who, like Danziger, went later and had no faith to lose.
It’s hard to explain, but that’s the value of the book, because he explains it:
I had to laugh at the last line because, as a high school graduate, I visited the Soviet pavilion at Expo’67 in Montreal and only then learned of Russia’s contribution to the war effort. It hadn’t come up in our history classes either, Jeff.
Danziger speaks casually but not without passion of things I’d heard before the vets realized nobody understood and quit telling their stories.
In fact, reading “Lieutenant Dangerous” is like sitting in the far corner of a bar with a good friend, hoping nobody sees you and comes over.
And, certainly, there is a fair amount of foolishness about which he can be mordantly hilarious:
And if joining Bill Mauldin in shrugging off Patton weren’t enough, Danziger also, in enumerating the foolish things he was assigned to do, dares to poke holes in another of Flagwaving America’s most sacred cows.
It doesn’t line up with the mythology, but it sure lines up with everything I ever heard on the topic from the guys who really were there:
But, while Danziger maintains a dour Yossarian-like tone of “Can you believe this?” it’s not all funny.
He tells, for instance, of a prohibition on firing artillery into Michelin’s profitable rubber plantations, which made them an ideal sanctuary for North Vietnamese troops, which they then had to pursue on foot, getting as close as possible on unreliable vehicles that were as apt to leave them stranded as help them bug out when necessary.
He does a nice job, too, of explaining the Vietnamese people, most of whom were trapped in a civil war in which what they really wanted was not a communist victory or an American victory or to be ruled from Hanoi or from Saigon but, rather, to live their lives without being jerked around.
I also appreciated his honesty in discussing the home front. His only real negative experience as a GI in a civilian setting was when he made what he admits was a mistake: Visiting Columbia’s famously radical campus in uniform.
Even that doesn’t get overdramatized into more than the uncomfortable moment it was.
More revealing is the scene as he and his fellow GIs were being flown to Southeast Asia:
For all the current stories — mostly apocryphal — of hostile rejection, it was worse: It was irrelevance.
There was no rationing of gasoline or sugar, no collecting of scrap metal, no planting of Victory Gardens.
There was no home front effort whatsoever, beyond the occasional rah-rah “Ballad of the Green Berets” style Top 40 hit, more than balanced by “Eve of Destruction,” and, for that matter, by “Let’s Spend the Night Together.”
In the end, just as he explained his reasons not so much for going as for failing to not go, so, too, Danziger offers sparing but genuine reflections on what it all came down to for him:
That melancholy blend of candor and guilt matches the stories we heard before the stories stopped.
Most of the Vietnam vets you know are people you don’t know are Vietnam vets. In part, it’s because they’ve learned that nobody understands their stories, but, in part, it’s because they’re no longer 19 and 20 years old and they’ve got other stories to tell.
Some of them still hate the fireworks on July 4, some of their wives will tell you of shouts and flailing in the night, but many of them are largely invisible, and, at least for those who served in the second half of the war, Danziger’s memories will ring true.
“Lieutenant Dangerous” will not be released until July, but the publisher’s site offers a number of places where you can pre-order a copy.
Better yet, ask your local bookseller to put you on the list.