October Book Club Review: Word of Honor by Nelson DeMille

Word of Honor by Nelson DeMille

blog by Cindy Bushey

With the hostility and anger present in today’s political discourse, it is helpful to remember that our nation has experienced other times of great upheaval which caused pain, suffering, and emotional trauma.  Lives were impacted, families ripped apart, men and women made to shoulder burdens too heavy to be borne and yet they did.  The distance of perspective can sometimes provide a calmer review of such times, but how far that distance should be is an open question since it can vary from person to person.  The depth of the trauma can also raise barriers and prevent the reopening of thinly scabbed wounds.  One of those national wounds is the Vietnam War.

This was brought home to Zion’s readers in a personal way through October’s selection Word of Honor by Nelson DeMille.  A fictional recounting of an unspeakable atrocity and the U.S. Army’s desire to unequivocally place blame so to avoid the embarrassment of another My Lai, the novel faithfully depicts the experience of young GIs dropped into an unfamiliar world fighting a war they did not understand while their government forced them deeper and deeper into a quagmire with no attainable victory.  The stresses of a pressure-cooker environment can cause circumstances to escalate out of control, and the fragility of human life, both soldier and civilian, is starkly evident.  The author, a former soldier himself, brings authenticity to his descriptions of place and his renderings of complex characters.

Our readers met Lieutenant Benjamin Tyson eighteen years after the war when a scandal is unearthed and engulfs him.  We learned that an officer, depending on how he resigned his commission, can be recalled to active duty at the government’s whim.   We also learned that an officer is always responsible for the behavior of people serving under him or her, even if the officer is not present when the behavior occurs.  Tyson, however, was very present when events disintegrated although we were kept in suspense about the details as the author swung between present and past.  He moved our readers slowly toward the horror we knew was waiting, much like the young, green soldiers were carried toward their fates.

Ben Tyson was an interesting choice for a protagonist because he was well off but obnoxious, unsympathetic, and often objectified women.  His wife appeared to be a cold woman, and our readers felt sympathy for their son caught in a dysfunctional family stuck in a scandal that was front page news.  We learned a great deal about the differences between military law and common law as the plot moved to a court-martial.  We also took advantage of the series on Viet Nam by Ken Burns which was airing on PBS while we were reading this gripping book.  Seeing actual footage, hearing interviews with soldiers, listening to descriptions of fighting in places mentioned in the book, and having Vets share the physical and mental scars they brought home from the jungles gave the novel an immediacy that enhanced our reading.

We also had the benefit of two members who served in the military during the Viet Nam war and graciously shared their experiences with us.  From receiving their draft letters to viewing the contents of a C-ration meal from that era (still available on the internet for purchase), their memories connected us to that war and allowed us to ask probing questions about attitudes and perspectives.  Had you ever considered being a conscientious objector?  Canada and Sweden were attractive destinations, but it meant leaving your country forever at that time, a sobering thought.  What was your reasoning for your choice?  To continue a family tradition of serving?  Because a neighbor’s son had died and you could not face their disappointment if you did not go?  Because you had to see for yourself what was happening?  All had their reasons for their choices.  Each choice took courage in different ways.  Courage seemed to be something you put on when you dressed in the morning and carried with you to help you face the day.  Whether crawling down tunnels to find Viet Cong, or carrying radios for commanders which made you a target, or realizing that maneuvers meant going out into the jungles and paddies to attract the enemy to you, courage and resolve had to be found anew each morning.  Morals were constantly challenged as one member recalled a general with a policy for his soldiers to shoot first and ask questions later.  While not frequent, events like shooting elderly peasants in the back as they were running in fear create a mental wound.  It was our veterans’ opinion that every soldier came home from Viet Nam with a certain level of PTSD.  They agreed that transitioning to civilian life was made easier by supportive family and the ability to utilize the GI bill to continue their educations.

However, college campuses were exploding with anti-war protests, and Vets kept a low profile.  They didn’t talk about their war experiences, and most came home and made a success of their lives.  Some developed into leaders in various fields.  But Viet Nam is always there, living in their memories.  Vietnam and Watergate were the origin for the disbelief in government and distrust of the military that still fuel divisions in this country.  Viet Nam remains a flash point for those who proudly served their country in that foreign place.  Emotions they like to think are deeply buried can rise to the surface very quickly when their choice to serve is denigrated as shown in one of our Vets’ recollections.

From that perspective, it was agreed that the author very accurately depicted a soldier’s life in Nam and the attitudes of enlisted men toward officers.  He captured the fear under which soldiers lived and operated.  Word of Honor is not a new novel.  It was written in the 1990s and spanned twenty years, so there were racial terms that jarred our modern readers.   Yet it unwaveringly faced a turbulent time, and Mr. DeMille wrote a compelling, touching, and courageous depiction of a war people still have trouble discussing.   Lieutenant Tyson, while not entirely likable, kept his word and his honor as he saw it.  We ended our discussion with these words of wisdom from one of our Vets’ commanders – only you can give away your integrity.  Viet Nam tested the integrity of a generation of soldiers and shaped ensuing generations.  Word of Honor took our readers to that time.  While some found it a long, hard read, most found it a worthwhile and enlightening view of history.  One was neutral, four gave it half a thumb up, five gave it one thumb up, and two gave it two thumbs up.