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Book review: Cartoonist tells his tale of the Vietnam War

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Lieutenant Dangerous, A Vietnam War Memoir, by Jeff Danziger.  With illustrations by the author.  Published by Steer Forth Press.  195 pages in paperback.  $14.95

 

Reviewed by Chris Braithwaite

 

It came as a considerable surprise, when I wandered into Barnes and Noble last week, to discover that the nation’s best political cartoonist has written a prose memoir to explore a pivotal period of his long life.

It’s always risky to switch platforms.  Like the pop icon who writes an opera, the Wall Street mogul who goes into politics, Mr. Danzinger has stepped out of his comfort zone.  He has left himself open to know-it-alls — people who have no idea how to craft a political cartoon, but feel qualified to point out the shortcomings of a freshly published book.  People like me.

I knew a couple of things about Mr. Danziger before I read his new book.  I knew he was a master of his chosen field; and I knew he was a generous soul.  The Chronicle has published a lot of his work over the decades, thanks to the fact that he gave us free second-publication rights while he was establishing himself at the Rutland Herald and later, when he went to work for the likes of the Washington Post and was nationally syndicated.

But I didn’t know he was a veteran of the war in Vietnam; that he was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1967 and served there until 1971; that he spent the last of those years in Vietnam and came home with the Bronze Star and the Air Medal.

Though I am, at age 77, part of a generation that has an abiding interest in that war, I am not part of Mr. Danziger’s target audience.  He explains:

“I began writing this memoir after a dinner conversation with some young people who seemed interested in what Vietnam meant and how we fought in such prolonged and bloody battles against people who were now making clothes they could buy at Banana Republic.”

And for this young audience, he writes later, “I tried to make my role, if not heroic, at least understandable.”

In this Mr. Danziger succeeds brilliantly.

He recalls the young man who finally got his draft notice.  “I had been raised in middle-class comfort, and the trade-off was obedience….  Wise heads had concluded that America had to fight communism.  The only way to stop communism was to fight against it, whereas in fact the cure for communism was plain.  The real cure for communism was communism.”

He believed in his country.  “Our version of ourselves was a combination of the World War II victory, the Marshall Plan, and Louis Armstrong,

“I showed up for induction,” he continues, “because, in addition to the foregoing reasons, I had always taken the path of least resistance.  I was not a protestor, at least not personally.  The easiest thing to do was to let myself be drafted and then look for a way to keep out of the actual fighting.”

In that, it must be said, Mr. Danziger failed miserably.

But it might be wise to pause here and consider the author’s style.  Political cartoonists have to capture complex ideas in very small spaces.  Maybe that skill rubbed off when Mr. Danziger sat down to write.  Consider again this brief, unpunctuated, and very memorable sentence:  “The real cure for communism was communism.”  Given the course of those great communist powers, Russia and China, over recent decades, it seems that Mr. Danziger has summed up a great deal of history in a very few words.

His book is rich with examples.  After introducing the testosterone-driven men who enjoy competitive violence, he writes:  “These people start wars.  The rest of us are left to finish them.”

Of the disastrous misreading of North Vietnam’s motivation he writes:  “In later years it turned out that the Vietnamese didn’t give a damn about the ravings and disastrous thinking of Marx or Mao or anyone.  They wanted to be Vietnamese.”

And besides being destabilizing, hot, miserable, lonely and crazy, “War is interesting if you can avoid getting killed, and don’t mind loud noises.”

If his cartooning brought precision to his prose, Mr. Danziger’s fury at the stupidity of the war must have sharpened his cartoonist’s pencil.  A relief from the tedium of his year at Vietnamese language school in Texas, he writes, “was a sharpening, almost vicious honing of our sense of humor.”

And so we meet Nixon’s security advisor, Henry Kissinger, as “a great sack of unwarranted self-regard.”  And Bob Hope arrives at a USO show in Saigon with “Raquel Welch and some other grinning pneumatic cretins.”

Mr. Danziger was no fan of General William Westmoreland, “the face of the war.”  The author heaps particular scorn on the General’s calculation that “the American public would accept a weekly death toll roughly equal to the number of Americans killed on the nation’s highways.

“The only danger,” Mr. Danziger continues, “was the chance that Americans would begin to drive more safely, in which case further adjustments would be made.”

Through all this nonsense, Mr. Danziger opines, “the real damage was being done not to the enemy, but to the army itself, by itself.”

That impression was confirmed when, all his attempts at delay having failed, the author left behind a wife who was seven months pregnant and flew to Vietnam.  “The first days in-country were spent in some last-minute training to explain that all the training you had received back in the States was wrong.  So wrong, in fact, that it might even get you killed.”

If Vietnam was a tragic failure for America, would it at least help us avoid another one?  Mr. Danziger fears not.  Rather, he worries, “what Americans learned by the inglorious conclusion of the war was not that there are provable limits to military solutions.  They learned that failure could be ignored.  In fact, if there is any reason for what I am writing today, 50-plus years on, it is that we seem doomed to a sort of Vietnam-like quagmire every few decades.”

As for his own instruction, Mr. Danziger writes, “I gained, without actually getting shot, some knowledge of what war is like.  This allows me to read bloody sections of history and strife not as abstractions but as scenes I can clearly picture.  I never sought this knowledge, but now that I have it, I’m stuck with it.”

But such awareness, however grim, has its compensations:  “On a more practical level it means that I can meet the cowards of the right and the fools of the left with a simple stare and a few words of cold dismissal.  Of course, as you can tell, I enjoy doing this, and seize every opportunity.”

Mr. Danziger belongs to a generation that was shaped by the war in Vietnam and the political upheaval it caused.  He has succeeded in what he set out to do — to narrate one young man’s journey through the worst of that maelstrom.  And he has managed to set it all down without so much as a whiff of undeserved nostalgia.

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