You may wonder why I have chosen to read and review a book that was written in 1985 when there are so many books to choose from more recent times. This book has been by my bedside for a long time (although not on my side of the bed) and my better half has told me periodically over the last 16 years that I should read it as he thought I would like it. Up to now, I have always declined, as I’m not really a fan of military literature. However, as I’ve made such a big deal about changing my approach to how I select the books I choose to read, I could not put it off any longer. So, this week, I finally picked up this book that is not even available on Kindle and gave it a shot.
Let a Soldier Die is set in the Vietnam war and tells the story of Bear, a gun ship pilot who is revered by his comrades, if not always by his superiors, for his skill and precision. To give you an idea of my total ignorance to all things military, I spent the first chapter trying to ascertain why their didn’t seem to be any water in the direct vicinity of this ship. I received a look of bemusement from my partner as he exclaimed “it’s a gun ship, a helicopter”, as if I should have known this! I had worked this out for myself after the first few pages, but I must admit I did spend a few minutes trying to find the sea!
The plot of the book follows the gun ships as they go on patrols around the area to provide air cover to the troops on the ground. When Bear and his crew unwittingly fire on their own troops, then have to rescue the stricken soldiers while the medevac helicopters are unavailable, Bear is faced with the harsh reality of his role as a gunner and the impact that his actions have on the recipients. Up to the point where he has to rescue the victims of his ship’s weapons, he has been able to rationalise his job because he cannot see who he is shooting at. However, faced with the image of the injuries he has inflicted on these men, Bear questions whether he can continue to shoot at his fellow man, causing him to be more reluctant to fire his weapons on subsequent trips. The first half of the book leads up to this incident and shows the camaraderie between Bear and his fellow soldiers and the other half deals with his internal conflict regarding his actions.
Whilst there is a definite plot to the book, it is almost incidental, as it is the various characters that make this story. Holland introduces a number of characters that allow him to demonstrate the futility of war and the devastation it causes, not just on the front line, but to everyone with any kind of link to a conflict. We are shown the points of view of the ground troops, the gunners, the medical staff and the families of those who are killed. We are also given a variety of attitudes within the soldiers themselves. There are those who can justify their actions and who are determined to work their way through the ranks and there are characters who are just biding their time until they can return to their loved ones. Holland juxtaposes these characters to give the reader a more rounded view and to enhance the feeling of confusion that the main protagonist, Bear, feels, who does not quite fit into any of the aforementioned categories. Holland captures the idea that for those people involved in any conflict, life will never be the same and they will be forever affected by their experiences.
When I was asking my better half about this book, he assured me that although this was a story about war, really it is a love story. (This was the big selling point!) I don’t think this is strictly true. Admittedly, Bear does fall in love with a nurse at the hospital and his feelings are reciprocated but it is a definite sub plot and isn’t given a great deal of page space. That being said, I think that perhaps this intentional as it aids Holland’s message that nothing can flourish after conflict. The relationship between Bear and Alice is one of trust and understanding of each others roles in this awful situation. Alice can see how Bear is suffering after their accidental assault on their own troops and Bear appreciates her dedication to the injured, even when there is no hope of them returning to any sense of a normal life. They are limited to what kind of relationship they can have as Alice tends to the victims of those who are injured by the actions of soldiers like Bear but they attempt to make the best of their mutual attraction and it gives the characters and the reader a false sense of hope for their future.
The best feature of this book is Holland’s beautiful imagery when he describes the Vietnam landscape. He uses every technique in the literary device library to create an extra, unforgiving character in the book. The landscape comes alive at Holland’s hand and despite the fact that it is a war zone, he paints such an alluring picture that I can’t imagine any reader of this book who wouldn’t put Vietnam on their “Places to visit” list as a result. Holland even adds an air of mystery when he describes an island that is sometimes in view, something untouched by the war. Of course, the reader is brought back down to earth as the landscape becomes a scene of battle, but so much of the book invests in the scenery, that it appears that the landscape is the only place that will be able to regenerate itself back to its former glory, as the human impact remains.
I would probably never have chosen to read this book, and I do feel that my lack of military knowledge hindered me at times. However, I can fully appreciate that Holland has written a book that is technically magnificent and encourages the reader to really consider the inner conflicts of those involved in wars. He shows how a soldier’s rationality is obliterated when faced with the reality of the death of another human being at their hands, and how that image will haunt them forever. The ending of the book is perfect to solidify the message that Holland wants to enforce and it is a valuable message to learn. I’m glad I read this book and although it isn’t a book filled with positivity, it does give the reader a great deal of food for thought. I just need to convince my better half to read some of my suggestions, perhaps some chick lit…