Saturday, August 28, 2010

Dong Xoai, Vietnam 1965

by Joe Kubert

There was a point early into this book where I feared I'd made a mistake in starting to read it.  It seemed like a no-brainer to me - I love war comics, often feel the lack of good comics set in the Vietnam War, and I have the utmost respect for Joe Kubert.  What could go wrong?

The problem is that the book looks just like the cover.  Kubert didn't exactly finish his pencils, eschewed a panel grid in favour of having two or three illustrations spread across the page, and decided to print the book on the same grey paper you see on the cover.  All of that I could get past, except I found the writing at the beginning to be painfully amateurish, as he tried (not too hard) to establish some of the characters that made up Special Forces team A-313, without explaining much context for their mission, which at the beginning, involved training and supporting a variety of local forces in a remote outpost near the Cambodian border.

Now, I'm very willing to cut someone with Kubert's street cred a ton of slack, and I'm quite glad I did.  After the men of A-313 get transferred to Dong Xoai, and get their name changed to A-342 (does this have significance?  It gets mentioned a lot), the book seriously picks up.  Basically, these guys are in a poorly-defended base, filled with ARVN, Saigon 'Cowboy', Montagnard, and Cambodian forces.  They quickly realize that they face an invasion by VC and NVA forces, and rush to fortify their position.

When the attack comes, the book becomes pretty gripping, as Kubert shows time and again the resourcefulness and tenacity of the American forces (A-342 was joined by a small contingent of Seabees before the attack).

This book is based on the actual events that took place in Dong Xoai, and when one reads the lengthy notes and accounting of the battle provided by the surviving Marines (which takes up like 20 pages of minutely detailed writing), it becomes hard to see where things are fictionalized, aside from the changed names of our heroes.  Instead, Kubert has created a serious and accurate piece of war history, and his book stands as a strong testament to the bravery of the men involved.

Which brings me to my biggest issue with this book.  Was the battle at Dong Xoai important to anyone beyond the men who were there?  Was this an important turning point in the war, or a watershed moment that led to stronger US involvement in Vietnam?  I feel like I could have really used a little more context to put these events in perspective.  Don't get me wrong, the battle makes a very good story; the historian in me needs more guidance in interpreting its importance.

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