Riveting, but not for the faint-hearted. The term “widowmaker” comes from the slang term given to battalions with casualty rates approaching 90 percent. The average was around 50 percent. Definitely not the Marine Corps of John Wayne. Mortensen’s squad has descended to a level of inhumanity that’s difficult to read. He tries to maintain a level of sanity, but the pressure to become as evil as the rest is overwhelming. “Then, I begin thinking about what I am becoming in this wretched place. Something evil grabbed hold of me today. I feel my spirit of patriotism and belief in just causes slowly slipping away. I have moved a step closer to being a boonie rat in the Nam.”
Arriving in ‘Nam as a grunt Marine, one of the first tasks his platoon engages in is to burn a Vietnamese village. Having just lost three Marines to severe injuries from a makeshift IED (“ Mr. Frankenstein, a trip wire connected to a grenade stuck inside a spool of barbed wire.”) the leader of the platoon orders his men to tie up three village women and then kicks them over a cliff to their deaths. The new Marines are horrified and protest, only to be threatened with death themselves :
This ain’t the fuckin’ real world, asshole! Y’all better get your shit together before it’s too fuckin’ late. Now y’all know what payback is.” Dusty stares at me with icy blue eyes. He turns, lights a cigarette, and walks away with Tanner. I’m in shock and very confused. This unconscionable attack against defenseless women can’t be justified under any circumstances. I keep repeating to myself, Why? Cars and I walk silently back to our position along the dike. I am still stunned about what had happened when Killer, Calahan, and a fire-team leader from third squad named Corporal Stafford approach us. I’m thinking, now what? Stafford does the talking. “You guys better learn to keep your mouths shut or something bad might happen to you. What I mean is, when there is one of those crazy firefights, anything could happen.
“I’m really feeling the pressure to become one of the hardcore members of the platoon. Getting my first gook is one thing, but I am expected to move on to more insidious, evil acts. Becoming an animal in the eyes of others is the next step. Now, I will be evaluated on how well I rape or kill in cold blood. It seems I am constantly being pressed to walk the fine line between bravery and blackhearted insanity… This is the Vietnam War I had never envisioned. I had always believed that American fighting men were brave and honorable like John Wayne and Audie Murphy. This war, however, is nothing like the movies. I feel empty, betrayed, and alone in a world of chaos. Nothing makes sense any more.”
Mortensen’s life is saved only by being badly injured during an attack on an NVA stronghold, one that gave the battalion its nickname of “widowmaker” All of his friends but one were killed. His description of the scene is extraordinarily vivid and realistic and equally horrifying. The nightmare continued on the hospital ship where a soldier, reminiscent of the famous scene in Catch-22 where nurses come daily to switch bottles on the soldier in white, has lost all his appendages and screams constantly. “The Marine Corps is supposed to produce heroes—not freaks. Tears fall down his cheeks like a dreary autumn rain. Now he must come to grips with the reality of being a freak, a war leper destined to live in a country where beauty and strength are worshipped. He’s distant, remote, and totally alone. He probably would have been better off dead. As my mind clears, I become aware.”
Another soldier, his arms and legs shot to pieces, his nose and ears missing and having been tortured by the NVA is lying in the hospital at Bethesda. “Later that afternoon his parents rush onto the unit to be with their dying son. I’m shocked they let them see him in such a hideous condition. From my bed at the end of the ward, I hear his mother let out a blood-curdling scream. She falls to the floor, unconscious. I am so upset I leave the ward and walk around the hospital in disgust. Mercifully, the Marine dies later in the day. He will always remind me of the real horror of war." Mortensen comes to truly appreciate the benefits of pain-killing drugs, a relief that comes back to haunt him when he is discharged back into civilian society and is labeled “baby-killer.”
Having suffered a “dear John” letter earlier, he was fortunate to meet his first wife, Jean, but that relationship became haunted by the specter of Vietnam, also. The final 20% of the book reminded me of “Chickenhawk,” and the problems of psychologically having to deal with the horror of what he experienced.
A disturbing book, and I fear for my son, having already been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, may be yet again. When are we humans ever going to stop this insanity.
And let’s not forget that those who tell us the highest honor is to die for one's country are those who didn't.
The author has a facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/widowmakerbook/photos_stream) with pictures of himself at bootcamp and in Vietnam.
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