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Years of a Life: Lessons Learned and Unlearned
By Joe Miller (reviewer)
Lieutenant Dangerous: A Vietnam War Memoir
by Jeff Danziger
(Steerforth Press, 2021)
How many have appreciated the cartoons of Jeff Danziger in The Veteran over the years and wondered: Who is this guy? Now you have a chance to find out with this entertaining, disturbing, and ultimately satisfying memoir.
This book is filled with potential quotations in a review like this (my copy is underlined in many spots throughout), but I will try to limit myself. Here is one that provides the essence of Danziger's story, in my view:
"On the plane [to Vietnam], after it was clearly too late to do anything about anything, I was almost impressed at how little I understood of what I was doing. I was not depressed. My ignorance of my situation, at least of the reason for my situation, was almost like some sort of ether… If there was a common emotion among the soldiers it was one of failure. Somehow, we had been stupid enough to get caught in this trap. We were in an unfolding misfortune that we should have done something about years ago." (p. 70)
This was in 1970, three years after Danziger had been drafted as a married college graduate. He had spent these years trying to find some way to meet his military obligation while staying out of the fighting war. You may ask: why was he still in the Army if he had been drafted in 1967? Well, after putting in for intelligence duties, getting sent to language school for Vietnamese (this story is worth a book in itself), he decides to try for an officer's commission, then ordnance officer training. Now, instead of a discharge in 1969, he must wait until 1971.
At each step in this long and winding effort to put off being sent to war, events conspire to result in his eventual orders for Vietnam with fourteen months left to serve. So, the last fourteen chapters of the book take place in Vietnam, and, eventually to Laos in Operation Lam Son. Danziger is detailed in every event, every effort to really understand his (and others') circumstances. His sensitivity to the struggles of everyone to survive and get back home, his internal battles with choices to be made, external battles with the stupidity of officers above him, his awareness of the real political and economic issues of the war. These are expressed in clear prose, almost as if he were drawing a political cartoon.
He does not pretend to be a hero, or even a heroic victim. He tries to explain (to the reader and to himself) what convictions led him to each decision. He is clear about his conservative values. He struggles with them. He takes the reader through a history of US involvement in Vietnam, especially during the Nixon years.
The Catch-22 elements of Danziger's story are entertaining and informative. Anyone who ever served in ANY branch of the military will nod and smile in recognition. I had to chuckle at the story of his Vietnamese language training. He thought he would be sent to the cushy surroundings of Monterey, California. In earlier years, that might have been the case. When I was stationed in Monterey for Chinese in 1961-63, they were just beginning the Vietnamese program. Unfortunately, by 1967, more troops were being sent to the dry, dusty climes of Texas.
One final, niggling point. On the very last page, Danziger recounts the story of Mao being asked by reporters what he thought of the French Revolution. In fact, it was Zhou Enlai, the Premier of China, who was asked this question. He replied, "It is too early to tell." Danziger's response to this story is "if that doesn't scare the hell out of you, nothing will," assuming that Zhou was talking about the 1789 revolution. In fact, many in the China field believe that Zhou (and the reporter) were talking about the French Revolution then on-going in the streets of Paris in 1968. Of course, that was still scary for many conservatives.
Read Jeff Danziger's book. You will not be disappointed.
Joe Miller is a board member of Vietnam Veterans Against the War.