The Bookshelf: Platoon. Bravo Company by R. Hemphill

15 02 2008

Finally I took a plunge and re-read the book. To my surprise it was a much better read than my first attempt in 1997. Which is good indicator for my increasing English skills. *proudly tapping myself on the shoulder* I still get lost in the military and radio lingo though, so it is nothing I will read again just for fun. 

There is a striking dissonance between the moods in the book and in Platoon. It felt as if Bravo Company belonged to a completely different universe, to another, cleaner, more logical war than that described by Stone. Hemphill’s war is like a strategy game: there were some bloody moments, but recalling it I have an impression of observing everything from a bird’s eye view. Probably it’s because Hemphill did have a different perspective. He knew the tactics, the “bigger picture” of what’s going on, but it was not a grunt’s POV.

There are two particular moments echoing the movie. The first is the attack at the Firebase Burt near the Cambodian border, on the New Years Day 1968 when the 9th VC Main Force Division overran the perimeter and the air support had to drop napalm dangerously close to American positions. There was some hand to hand fighting that night, and in the morning bulldozers were digging mass graves for the dead Vietcong — the enemy body count was about 500, against surprisingly low american casualties (unlike in the movie, where it was like a final extermination of the platoon’s leftovers).

Another incident reminds of the church battle: the point man was killed as the unit entered a bunker complex masked by ant hills (remember Chris hiding behind an anthill?) There is a piece of dialog surprisingly similar to the radio talk between capt Harris and a panicked soldier, and a glimpse of bodies uncovered by wind blow.

And I think that capt Harris is based on Hemphill himself. 


The book was clearly written as an answer and a counterbalance to Platoon. But if people see it as “denouncing Oliver Stone’s lies” it’s because of a misunderstanding. IMO the problem is caused by Stone showing the unit’s name so prominently at the beginning of the film. Is suggests that all what happened took place in that one unit. Stone explained, over and over again, that the movie’s story is a compilation of his experience in four different units, but that statement is easy to overlook. 

Stone was in Vietnam from September 67 to November 68. Hemphill — from October 67 to February 68, which means he left before things started to worsen. And to state accidents like drug use, fragging etc., didn’t happen at all only because they didn’t happen in Hemphill’s company during Hemphill’s tour, make as much sense as stating that Platoon is the only true movie about the Vietnam war. To me both, the movie and the book, are parts of a bigger picture.



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