John Tinseth reflects on H. Lee Barnes’ emotionally resonant memoir of life as a Green Beret during the Vietnam War.
In 1963, H. Lee Barnes was an Army Brat living in El Paso and struggling through college. A disinterested and alcoholic mother wasn’t helped by a radio announcer stepfather whose constant job searches would later be subsidized by Barnes himself. There comes a time in some men’s lives when they discover they don’t belong anywhere. This is usually followed with the recognition that they’re pretty much alone. It’s a ripe moment for an Army Recruiter.
Barnes enlisted in the Army and volunteered for Special Forces. “You know that song?” Barnes tells me. “One hundred men they’ll test today –Only three win the green beret? I was the only one of 50 who made it.” I tell Barnes only three in my class of 88 made it and I wasn’t one of ’em. I’m looking for a laugh. I don’t get one.
Memories of Ft Bragg in 1965 and ’66 are seared into my brain despite being eight years old. The green beret itself was something holy to me. I revered the men who wore it. My father, his team members, the next door neighbor and all the men who inhabited Smoke Bomb Hill. This small corner of Bragg was home to Special Forces and was littered with white frame buildings from WWII stuck in the pines. I revered the place when I came back ten years later looking for my own beret.
Assigned to the 7th Special Forces Group at Ft Bragg, Barnes is sent to the small but promising hot spot of the Dominican Republic where Communists are trying to push over a domino. Barnes quotes a lifer’s observation in the book, “Wherever Americans go, they turn the women into whores.” It’s easy duty, guilty even, so Barnes volunteers for Vietnam and winds up at SF Camp A – 107 in Tra Bong some 60 miles south of Da Nang.
Barnes’ specialty was Demo and secured the Spec 5 ($194 a month) two hazardous stipends of $55 each. One for jump pay and one for blowing things up, or the more challenging job of keeping things from blowing up. This all sounds pretty sexy but life at Tra Bong is a thumping bore. As junior man on the team, Barnes gets the shit details… to include burning it.
James Jones took tedium in the army to an art form in A Thin Red Line. A man’s thoughts and memories of home in the book became film director Terrance Malick’s flashbacks in the film version . A Walk Above the Clouds (author’s blog here) takes us on patrols of surrounding mountains with a ruck and a weapon. But there’s higher altitude.
Barnes mines his deeply personal reflections in his book When We Walked Above the Clouds: A Memoir of Vietnam. Not only on his good luck, and the guilt that comes with it, but the value of a man’s specialty over his value as a human being. Two senior noncoms whose alcoholism reflect a sad army tradition but whose honor and duty spoke to a responsibility the army instills. What Barnes calls, “An honorable action” and “Doing the right thing.”
I ask Barnes if he can think of any traits unique to Special Forces members back then. He quickly ticks off a list: “A broken home. Poor. Rootless. Driven to be recognized. Bright and unstable.” Tra Bong is one of three places in the world where Cinnamon grows naturally. It is also a place where Barnes’ captain was beheaded and three team members were killed. Barnes writes of the obsessive card playing with fellow team members, “Cards, like war, reduced to luck no matter a man’s skills. No one wanted to be alone with his thoughts to think about that.”
Barnes tells me he is done with writing about Vietnam and claims it’s the hardest thing he’s written. Not only because he was bound to the truth of it but because his team mates’ names were on it. These events occurred 45 years ago but they should be fresh on everyone’s mind. War in a far off place and in a culture not understood, where the object of “Hearts and Minds” becomes confusion over who the enemy really is. The surprising ending of this book is a reminder… sometimes our biggest enemy can be on our own team.
H. Lee Barnes firing recoilless rifle.
Barnes in flip flops.
Barnes (in Tiger Stripe fatigues) shakes hands with Charlton Heston. Heston was considering a film role that went to John Wayne.