A truly remarkable book on Vietnam, Everything We Had by Al Santoli, is a group of interviews with those who served and survived that purposeless mess – subtitle “An Oral History of the Vietnam War By Thirty-Three American Soldiers Who Fought It.” Their lightly edited prose has the natural directness and black humor of heartfelt truth throughout, and are moving and vivid because of it.
From the point of view of literary quality this collection shows how powerful verbal accounts can be if they are from no-nonsense men looking back on life-or-death experiences in war. The ideology which was supposed to justify and motivate them rubbed thinner and thinner over time, as it was replaced by the reality of Vietnam as it really was, lethal to both sides and the population in between, and often instantly destroying whatever more enlightened actions soldiers would come up with on their own away from the front, or during a pause in fighting.
However, a warning to readers: two of the accounts are fiction, or in other words, fantasy. Or in other words, lies.
There are actually two false war stories in this book, those of Thomas Bird (“Ia Drang”) and Mike Beamon (“The Green-Faced Frogmen”). Mr. Bird apologized to the author after the book’s publication. He did serve in Vietnam, not in combat, and the POW story is a complete fabrication. Mr. Beamon did not even serve in the US military, never mind the SEALS or Vietnam. At the time the book came out, 1981, it was difficult to get veterans to discuss the war at all, never mind insist they verify their stories. Mr. Santoli, who I knew personally, was as disappointed as any of his critics that he had been taken in by these accounts. Still “Everything We Had”is a monumental work, from the days before the Vietnam Wall. Then the popular culture wanted nothing more to dismiss the war completely and held the men who fought there in contempt as losers or criminals. The feelings of Santoli’s real contributors are still a compelling read today, twenty years later.
A good test of your literary perceptions might be to decide for yourself if the two – Thomas Bird (“Ia Drang”) and Mike Beamon (“The Green-Faced Frogmen”) – looks different in some discernible way related to whether they are true, from the other tales in the book.
Both seem to us to be far too long and colorful to be false. If they are, they serve as a revelation as to how convincing and substantial the imagination of liars can be.
But then, why wouldn’t some soldiers have the same story telling talent as good novelists?