The Viet Nam War was the most unpopular war ever fought by the United States. It was a Cold War-era military conflict that occurred in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia from November 1, 1955, to the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975. The U.S. government viewed involvement in the war as a way to prevent a communist takeover of South Vietnam as part of their wider strategy of containment. Twenty years after it started, it had claimed 52,000 American lives and the lives of over one million Vietnamese.
Protests across the United States in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s brought the war to an inconclusive ending; troops that survived the bloody ordeal staggered home to less than a hero’s welcome—American soldiers who had risked their lives fighting for this country were subjected to derision and shame—many developed post-traumatic stress syndrome, became unemployable and were homeless. The war that had served no good purpose was a blot on the national psyche.
Fifty years is a given length of time for a nation to come to grips with its ghosts—it took 50 years for the people of Germany to begin to acknowledge its Nazi past, and it has taken these past 50 years for us to reconcile the waste of a war fought on the territory of an extremely poor nation, where we had reeked considerable damage without realizing anything valuable in return…
John Rixey Moore, a 21 year-old, philosophy major who had graduated from the University of Virginia, was drafted in 1967 and was sent to Viet Nam to be part of a Special Force of Green Berets to do reconnaissance missions into the Viet Nam jungles. He was sent to Forward Observation Base 4, which was located on the eastern shore at the bottom of Marble Mountain, a mountain that rose from the shore like those in Oriental paintings. This was a strange place for the US Army to place a camp since the mountain was ribbed with Buddhist caves (some carved with elaborate pagodas) that were inhabited by the Viet Cong and thus was at all times in harm’s way.
On his very first night at the camp it was attacked in what was the worst military engagement John Moore was to experience during his Viet Nam stay, including the insertions into the jungle where the enemy was sometimes within touching distance. Much of the camp was destroyed. Americans and Viet Cong were killed or severely wounded. Moore himself suffered shrapnel in his hip, leg and foot. The mayhem was appalling and instilled a fear that remained with him during his entire tour of duty.
It took Moore twenty years to write Hostage of Paradox. He began writing it for his brother’s children. That gave him the focus he needed. Early on when he got to the description of that first night at FOB4, he found the memory too painful to proceed. So, he turned his attention to the second volume of his memoir, which is an account of what happened when he returned home the war. That volume is called Company of Stone; it is also published by Bettie Young Books and will soon be available through Amazon. Once he completed Company of Stone he was able to proceed with his account of that horrible night and with the rest of his Viet Nam memoir.
What strikes the reader about Moore’s writing is his phenomenal memory, the detail with which he recalls events that happened 25 years ago. Moore says that fear is a great driver, and that’s why he remembers the events he endured in such detail. Another notable thing is his vocabulary, which greatly exceeds the common person’s. This he attributes to all the essays he was required to write while a student at Woodbury Forest Prep School.
Soon enough Moore was made the captain of his unit, which contained himself, another American, and half a dozen Nungs, or Chinese mercenaries. A usual mission consisted of being air lifted by helicopter to a pre-determined location in the jungle with orders to search for troops who had captured prisoners of war, to do surveillance of helicopter crashes, or to survey battle scenes. Being responsible for the lives of seven or eight other soldiers heightened his sense of responsibility and accentuated his fear.
Once they were dropped, they usually spent four or five days crawling around the damp jungle, their nerves on end, lest they be discovered, their clothes soaked through and through, being assaulted by armies of insects, eating only rice balls (they could never do the civilized thing of setting up a camp) and sleeping half-awake on their backs with their guns released lest they suddenly be assaulted by the enemy. On one mission, while making his way through a dense jungle, Moore encountered a ten-pound orange centipede, something sure to haunt his dreams to the end of his life.
Moore usually carried a fifty-pound radio, which he used to signal headquarters as to their location and any other relevant information. When thoroughly exhausted to the point that they could no longer function, he would request an extraction. Then they would wait until at last they heard the sounds of the helicopter wings coming to lift them from their location into the helicopter and back to headquarters.
Here is his description of coming across an enemy camp where Agent Orange (napalm) had been dropped:
“The complex salad of rancid odors grew as we worked our careful approach the next morning. Grayish light through the trees ahead soon gave way to open sky and a great sagging canopy of coming rain, plump and low. As we emerged, beneath the clouds was revealed a landscape of the Last Judgment. It required a long minute to grasp the scene and the implications of what it contained. The earth was churned, torn, scorched, layered over with still smoke, and strewn with the blackened remains of dead humans. Parts of bodies protruded from the furrowed ground amid the skeletons of shattered trees, some shivered off at the base of the trunk, many others with a single grotesque and hopeless branch left. Nothing moved. The place still radiated heat and had been swept clean of living things by a tempest of orchestral death. There were no birds. Even the air was stilled.”
Yearly monsoons assault Viet Nam with a particular fury—every day a deluge of rain tears at the jungle and made progress by enemy forces or our own nearly impossible.
Moore proved to be very good at what he did. Though he attributes his survival to luck, intelligence seems to have also played its part. As he observed the statistics—lucky soldiers often survived two or three missions. He had survived four. He then became paranoid, sure that he would not survive another. But, survive he did, and we are richer for it because of his narrative. When he was discharged, he was reluctant to surrender his rifle because he felt safe as long as it was in his possession,
When asked what happened to Viet Nam after the fall of Hanoi in 1975, Moore answered, “In the immediate aftermath of the American withdrawal the Communists took over the whole country and changed the name of the old southern capitol from Saigon to Ho Chi Minh City. The whole united country then sort of fell back into its thousand-plus year decline until the US manufacturers began to invest in its labor pool. A lot of clothing is now assembled in Vietnam, and I understand it’s coming back as a tourist destination. It does have great swimming beaches.
“On a recent episode of BBC America's ‘Top Gear’ program, the presenters took a motor scooter ride all the way up the coast from the old Saigon to Hanoi along old Route One (The Highway of Tears, when we were there). I like the program and watched it all. I was astonished to see major cities and high-rise buildings all along the route where there used to be a warren of dirt streets and shanties with corrugated tin roofing. So, it seems the country, like so many others, has gained a great advantage for having hosted another American war.”
Producer Tom Perry writes, “John Moore fills this memoir with craft, immediacy, and authenticity. Simply the best Vietnam narrative I have ever read.”
My understanding of the Viet Nam War is scant—I often read to fill in the gaps of my knowledge of certain periods of history. This was the only Vietnam narrative I’ve read. I got from it what I was looking for—descriptions of what it was like being a soldier in the jungles of Viet Nam.