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!

Enjoy these posts? Follow me on Twitter and sign up for the monthly newsletter.

Tom Finton Vietnam

fmj-born-to-kill

Week ending March 2, 2014

I didn’t do a search term of the week last week because it was just the usual suspects. This week, the term was Tom Finton Vietnam. I had no idea what this was in reference to. I’ve written a number of posts orbiting Vietnam but the name Tom Finton didn’t mean anything to me.

After searching around my blog, I found a comment referencing Tom Finton on my post titled Conscientious Objection and the Moral Responsibility of Volunteer Soldiers. A little more searching and I learned that he wrote a book titled “The Folks Back Home Won’t Believe This.” Tom Finton didn’t agree with the Vietnam War and the book chronicles his service in the Army and in Vietnam. I haven’t read it, but it does seem interesting.

Here’s how he opens the book:

On the rear bumper of my ZX3 I have a 10- by 3- inch Vietnam campaign ribbon sticker. On the left rear side window I have a peace sticker. I put both stickers on the car when Bush went to war after 9/11. Occasionally someone will recognize the campaign ribbon and comment as if we have a symbiotic patriotic bond. When that happens I just nod politely and go on my way. But one day a woman who appeared to be in her mid-40s spoke to me in the grocery parking lot. She had seen both stickers and it piqued her curiosity. “I was in the Army,” she said, “Don’t you think it contradictory to display both stickers?”

As a former Concerned Officer Against the War in Vietnam I responded, “Not at all.” She didn’t stop to talk. Her bemused smile turned to a disapproving scowl as she walked past me.

Enjoy these posts? Follow me on Twitter and sign up for the monthly newsletter.