Otto Lehrack, No Shining Armor: The Marines at War in Vietnam. An Oral History.
(Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1992)
Reviewed by Peter Brush, University of Kentucky
Otto J. Lehrack offers a different approach in his attempt to tell "what it was like to be a grunt in Vietnam" (xvii). No Shining Armor is an oral history of the 3d Battalion, 3d Marine Regiment (3/3) from its arrival in Vietnam in 1965 until the unit embarked for the United States in 1969. This chronological approach nicely illustrates the changing character of the war over time.
Every person who served with 3/3 and could be contacted was invited to contributed to this project, and this solicitation yielded more raw material than could be used. Lehrack assures the reader that he maintained throughout the editing process the objective of presenting "a coherent and accurate account of what the infantry experience was really like in the eyes of the men who lived it" (xviii). 3/3 was chosen because it was an ideal unit to represent the Marine experience, having served in all areas of I Corps. Further, Lehrack had been attached to 3/3 in Vietnam and felt this intimate relationship would incline the participants in the oral history project to trust him to properly represent their experiences.
It seems obvious to me that Marines would have to learn combat tactics that were particular to the Vietnam War. Less obvious is that the Marine Corps as an institution also had a learning process to undergo in order to function effectively in Vietnam. The first mission of 3/3 was to guard the airfield at Chu Lai. These Marines had heavy uniforms and combat boots that would not dry out, sandbags that leaked sand, no hot food, no post office, no free mail, no showers, no beer, and no combat pay [the law authorizing combat pay had yet to be passed by Congress]. One sergeant relates an incident that illustrates this adaptation process: The policy of polishing boots was done away with, as highly polished boots would not breathe. Black saddle soap replaced boot polish, "... [and] we didn't have any camouflage grease paint. I had these men rub this saddle soap on their face. They looked good. I inspected them. I was in my bunker and over the phone Corporal Davis says, 'We need some help." I said, 'What's the matter?' And he said, 'We can't see.' I says, 'Why?' He says, 'Our eyes are burning from the sweat and that saddle soap.' And they were all temporarily blinded... I thought I was doing the right thing and as it turned out I almost got my troops killed" (23-24). If combat is indeed ninety percent boredom and ten percent terror, then 3/3's experience was highly unusual. The bulk of No Shining Armor deals with firefights, ambushes, airstrikes, medevacs, incoming and outgoing artillery, killing and being killed, capturing prisoners and being captured, as 3/3 traverses the I Corps Tactical Zone.
Poignant scenes are rare; the best is by a lance corporal who says of Con Thien, "I really loved that place" and continues with a description of a meal where rain water to boil spaghetti was collected by helmet from a rut left by tank in a minefield. The smell of the tomato sauce was "outstanding," a reminder of home, and the meal gave "a family type of feeling." The bunker was secure, there was mail, an electric light to read by and opportunities to socialize with other guys in the squad. (311-312).
Lehrack mentions the erosion of discipline in his chapter introduction on that subject, but doesn't give drug use, racism, or fragging much attention. He sees these things not as symptoms of the structural shortcomings of the military in the context of a changing society, but rather as problems themselves: "Many Marines believed that their toughest enemy was not the NVA but rather these societal changes that seemed to assault the very foundations of the Corps" (324). For better or worse, the turbulent 1960s. would drag a kicking and screaming Marine Corps along with it. "Concerning the drugs over there. There really wasn't very much of it that I saw...." (304). "There wasn't very much racial tension at all. If there was... it didn't last very long... it kind of defused itself." (254). Only one fragging incident is mentioned. The narrator, who was a sailor, implies that it was a racially motivated attack by Marines upon sailors attached to the unit (326).
Lehrack is convinced his narration "attempts to give the reader a sense of how it felt to serve with the Corps in Vietnam" but I remain skeptical about the depth of his picture. Perhaps veterans of 3/3 who were traumatized by their experience chose not to participate in this oral history. Perhaps the general sense of satisfaction that is portrayed by their experience is due to Lehrack's editing process.
I think No Shining Armor would especially appeal to veterans of Vietnam. It contains beaucoup militaryspeak and the physical descriptions of Vietnam are very good. But it reads like it had the official stamp of approval of the Marine Corps, and is not a critical examination. Lehrack's Marines seemed unconcerned with the impact their presence made upon Vietnamese society. Their regrets center around the notion that they could have won the war, but were not allowed to do so. They were too many rules that forced them to fight with one hand tied behind their back. It was a good war, but could have been even better. "War certainly wasn't pleasant... but... it was one of the most satisfying times I've ever experienced" (355). "We had a good time and we had some bad times, but all in all, I wouldn't trade that experience" (356). I'm better for it now" (356). "I'm eternally grateful I didn't miss Vietnam" (362). "I have no regrets and I wouldn't trade a day of it" (362).
Can war be this good for so many? Where are the dissenting opinions among the former Marines of 3d Battalion, 3d Marines?