Book Review: Hearts, Minds, and Coffee

About a month ago I was sent a book called Hearts, Minds, and Coffee: A Vietnam Peace Odyssey. It is the first novel by Kent Hinckley, a veteran who served in Military Intelligence for a year in Vietnam. In the book, Mr. Hinkckley slipped in a note with the following:

I judge by the address that you are stationed in Afghanistan. I’m sorry to hear that and hope we can bring our troops home. What a difficult situation.

If you have any questions, please let me know. Thank you for your service.

All the best,
Kent Hinckley

The younger me would have been offended by that sentiment. Shortly after coming home from Iraq, I remember hearing statements like that from lots of people I met. I didn’t like it. I was proud of my service, and it was hard for me to understand how someone could feel “sorry” for me or the situation and still be thankful for my military service. I just couldn’t compute it, and I am sure many readers of this blog probably still feel the same way.

Over the years, however, I’ve come to understand that war and military service are subject that generate deep emotional feelings, and none of them are more right than the other.

The book follows the tale of a young officer “Slater” who joins ROTC to help pay for college, despite his anti-war leanings. The story takes him from his days as a farmhand in Iowa, his time at Officer Candidate School under the strict tutelage of Captain Gray, and then to Vietnam. Slater is pegged early in his military career as being a trouble-maker and anti-war. When he gets to Vietnam, he is given an austere and dangerous assignment with Special Forces, despite him being branched Adjutant General. For military readers, this is one drop in a bucket of seemingly incredulous things (blanks being fired without blank adapters, the wearing of an NVA ribbon on the dress uniform, etc.) that might drive by-the-book military types nuts.

The book flows well and is engaging. The characters that Slater interacts with – especially in Vietnam – reminded me a lot of the guys in “Bravo Squad” in Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. Hinkley manages to paint the reader a vivid image of what it must have been like to be in the mind of an anti-war military officer in Vietnam, focusing often on the inner-monologue of Slater and his thought process. The situations that Slater finds himself in border on the ridiculous, which led me to think that if this were to be made into a movie, it might be a comedy. Hinckley even named two staff officers Major’s Laurel and Hardy after the comedians. The two intercede the narrative occasionally to update the situation, often with information the reader knows to be false.

In Vietnam, Slater sets out to make sure he and his team make it out of Vietnam alive. Without spoiling the book, the team goes to pretty extreme lengths to ensure they are “at peace.” It’s a wild story, and the reader wonders how much of it is fiction and how much of it is inspired by true events – and if it could have even happened at all.

There’s a “forbidden love” story embedded as well, which felt a bit forced and obvious at times.

For me, the most powerful part of the story came at the end, in what at first felt like a tacked-on epilogue following Slater and his team on their return to America and eventually the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington DC. Sitting in my room in Afghanistan, I couldn’t help getting a little choked up as I followed Slater’s eventual pilgrimage to The Wall, something he avoided for years.

Overall, the book is an interesting look into a rare genre – the anti-war military man. Slater is a character who did not believe in the Vietnam war, but went anyway. Once there, he did everything he could in his power to “make peace.” The usual depiction of the anti-war soldier is one of indiscipline – the pot-smoking draftee or the deserter. In this case, Slater and his team are actually pretty efficient, despite being anti-war.

While there may be more “Slaters” out there, this is the first I’ve read about the anti-war military man who still managed to work through the system. The author writes in the notes at the end that this is a story that needs to be told. I’m sure there were many who went to Vietnam who didn’t believe in the war but felt that it was their duty to serve as they were called.

Check it out if you’re interested. Thanks for sending the book, Mr. Hinckley!

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