One of the pleasures of working on the Vietnam Full Disclosure project is revisiting books I have read in the past. Most recently, I picked up Dr. Jon Oplinger’s QUANG TRI CADENCE: MEMOIR OF A RIFLE PLATOON LEADER IN THE MOUNTAINS OF VIETNAM (McFarland and Company, 1993). It didn’t take me long to get caught up in Oplinger’s narrative first because of his sardonic, wry voice that rings so true for a Vietnam War veteran, but, more importantly, for its unremitting allegiance to detail. But make no mistake — behind the irony is the author’s empathetic and deeply compassionate nature, never far from the page. Culling from radio logs and from his own memories, Oplinger applies his skill set as a trained anthropologist to make his own personal experiences a very readable journey for both his fellow Vietnam War veterans and for those new students of the war who are interested in cutting to the chase — what was it like “in the bush”?
Listen to Dr. Oplinger’s voice as he takes us
*from the “beginning” — “In the fall of 1965 I flunked out of college. This did not go unnoticed by my draft board.” —
*through his pre-field stateside experience as the officer leading “funeral details” — “In a cold, rain-darkened stand of trees, I watched a softly mewing man crawl on his hands and knees into his son’s muddy grave.” —
* to the triple canopy jungles of the Central Highlands — “In the mountains, beneath the canopy, being uncertain of your position, or ‘temporarily disoriented,’ or ‘fucking lost,’ was routine.” “It was very hot and several point men were exhausted as the column hacked and shoved through tangled, bug-ridden vegetation. Wait-a-bit vines, nature’s answer to the number 12 fishhook, ripped our clothing, leaving legs bare and deeply scratched.” “It was one of those humid, windless nights when the air seems to carry sound like water….No one slept. Another hour passed. Another. It was near dawn.”–
*to the moment he was wounded — “Bunker! There was an isolated shot and red dust spouted from the entrance just in front of me. My rifle and helmet simply disappeared, by what mechanism I didn’t know, and my right hand stung viciously. It was easy to see why; the fingers were hanging at odd angles and much of the meat had been blown off the palm. I managed a couple of steps to my right, fell on my face, and rolled over onto my back…. I was carried back and forth….There was a Huey overhead and I was conscious of a lot of activity around me. Then a tug and I was upright with a slowly revolving green world falling away beneath me…. In places the deck of the chopper seemed sticky; in others slippery. Blood.”–
*to months moving through military hospitals: “It took me a while to realize it but night after night the medic sat in a windowed room overlooking rows of dismembered, wracked young men. In a week, ten days, three weeks, there would be another group just like them. He had to think in terms of knees, eyes, legs, colostomies, and amputations. He had no choice. And what about the supply sergeant who worked in the bottom of the REPOSE (a medical ship)? If he ever let up on his joking, if he ever stopped jabbering away, then he’d be staring across the passageway at a refrigerator full of 19-year-old stiffs.“–
*and finally to home where he pursued his doctorate at, of all places, Kent State University, and of all times May, 1970: “Thin clouds of tear gas were drifting around by the time I had walked to the commons and I watched as two groups that shared a common desire to avoid participating in a war, tossed tear gas canisters back and forth….The town of Kent sprouted American flags every 50 feet and its citizens basked in a soul-warming vindication. ‘Those M-1s sure do hurt.’ They loved it and would hold up four fingers (four dead and 20,000 to go). “
Dr. Oplinger did not make the mistake of editing out the barbaric and often mundane realities of war to make his memoir more marketable twenty-five years after he lived through them. The book is laced with the harsh language of men at war — “fuck this and fuck that,” “gooks,” and a good smattering of the black, dark humor that prevailed, no matter where you were. As a member of the 7/15th artillery surviving on LZs and firebases in the very Central Highlands that Oplinger humped through, I had to chuckle at the author’s reference to guys like me as “…having it easy.” We’ll have to talk about that…..
Finally, I think the ultimate compliment I can bestow on this memoir is the sincere wish that it be translated into Vietnamese and shared with the ex-NVA troops who patrolled the same jungles that Oplinger wrestled through. And then to have Dr. Oplinger and a few of his old “enemies” be escorted into a room of present day college students to open up an honest dialogue about the incredible waste of war. That would be the ultimate “full disclosure.”
Veterans For Peace