I first read Welcome to Vietnam in the 6th grade. Being something of an overachiever, I usually finished assignments in half the allotted time and found myself looking for things to do. My teacher—bless her heart—usually sent me off to the library to find a book.
At the time, I had no particular interest in the Vietnam War (barely even knew what it was, actually, but flipped idly through it and noticed several curse words immediately. Imagine yourself as a young boy, given the opportunity to read a book from your school library that employed the phrase “typical Army bullshit” within the first few pages? You’d read it, wouldn’t you? I did.
If I recall correctly, I got the book on a Friday, finished it that evening, and bounced off the walls all weekend, so badly did I want to get back to school and pick up the next book in the series. I was floored.
Welcome to Vietnam would technically be considered juvenile fiction, it’s true. At just over 200 pages, its narrative breadth pales in comparison to, say, Going After Cacciato. Neither can I speak with any authority about its accuracy; Zack Emerson (a nom de plume for Ellen Emerson White) is not a Vietnam vet, and is almost assuredly working from secondary sources.
The book tells the story of Michael Jennings, a 19-year-old draftee, beginning as his plane touches down in the Republic of Vietnam. Young, scared, and a pain in the ass, Michael—soon dubbed “Meat” by is squad—quickly finds himself over his head.
It’s a typical Vietnam scenario, with squads of guys with jungle rot, sweating in the jungle, shooting and shadows and occasionally getting blown apart by mines. In that respect, Emerson (White) hasn’t added anything new. What I find so fascinating about the book is the fluid way the author narrates Meat’s thoughts. It’s an Emily Dickinson kind of narration, pierced through with hyphens that illustrate the wandering mind of a frightened grunt patrolling the jungle. Much of the time, Meat is reminiscing about home in a way that doesn’t feel like a prepared flashback.
Admittedly, his is a squad of stereotypes: Snoopy, the light-hearted black kid; Hanson, the solemn sergeant; Finnegan and J.D., the slapstick Irish boys. These tropes are well-worn, but Emerson also succeeds in using them in a way that doesn’t feel
trite or overused.
208 pages was over far too soon.