Thursday, May 07, 2009

Mekong First Light, by Joseph W. Callaway, Jr.

Mekong First Light (Presidio Press, 2004) is a memoir about Joseph W. Callaway's experience as a soldier in Vietnam during the late 1960s. Its strength is that it is not a literary memoir. Callaway is not a trained writer, a fact evident throughout his narrative. But his memoir is not at all clumsily written. It is simply not especially artful or elegant. It is intelligent and honest and devoid of pretense. It is what it is—straightforward and to the point. Callaway begins with a discussion of his childhood and adolescence. His family moved around fairly often as his father struggled to find a way to make an adequate living. Callaway came to think of himself as a failure, a kid who always seemed to mess up, who couldn't do well in academics or athletics. Part of the problem was, he later realized, a learning disability. He basically gave up on himself.

After several failed attempts at college, Callaway joined the army. In training school he discovers that he has a knack for leadership, that the men he leads trust him, and gradually a change begins to occur—a change evidenced in the memoir's title, Mekong First Light. In Vietnam he discovers the fullness of his capabilities. He becomes there the man that he thought he would never be. But the discovery comes at some price.

Callaway's account of his time in Vietnam is graphic and disturbing. On the one hand he continues to distinguish himself as a leader, though he resists receiving awards for his efforts. He describes the deaths of several close friends, men whom he respected, and their deaths had a profound impact on him. Although there were men in the command structure of the army whom he respected, there were others he did not respect. He points out serious mistakes—in the assignment of personnel, in tactics—that often led to a loss of life, or that might have. He makes no bones of his opinion that awards and honors given out for valor in battle were often given for false reasons and were often underserved.

Callaway also makes clear in his introduction his opinion that the nature of war is that it is fought by young men—too young and inexperienced to realize their own vulnerability and mortality—under the command of older men who have grown wise enough to realize that they might die in battle.

Callaway's is not a leftwing point of view. Though he was friends with some members of the activist movement following his departure from the military, though he had some sympathies with the movement, he was never wholly in support. As an older man, he describes himself as conservative and expresses misgivings, for instance, about John Kerry's use of his military record for political ends. His criticism of the war and of the U. S military therefore seems especially credible.

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