19 October 2011

'When We Walked Above the Clouds'

When We Walked Above the Clouds by H. Lee Barnes available here.

H. Lee Barnes on far left with 57mm Recoilless Rifle and the Australians

Barnes firing recoilless rifle

Barnes in flip flops

Barnes (in Tiger Stripe fatigues) shakes hands with Charlton Heston. Heston was considering a film role that went to John Wayne.

H. Lee Barnes 2002

In 1963, H. Lee Barnes was an Army Brat living in El Paso and struggling through college. A disinterested and alcoholic mother wasn't helped by a radio announcer step father whose constant job searches would later be subsidized by Barnes himself. There comes a time in some men's lives when they discover they don't belong anywhere. This is usually followed with the recognition that they're pretty much alone. It's a ripe moment for an Army Recruiter.

Barnes enlisted in the Army and volunteered for Special Forces. "You know that song?" Barnes tells me. "One hundred men they'll test today --Only three win the green beret? I was the only one of 50 who made it." I tell Barnes only three in my class of 88 made it and I wasn't one of 'em. I'm looking for a laugh. I don't get one.

Memories of Ft Bragg in 1965 and '66 are seared into my brain despite being eight years old. The green beret itself was something holy to me. I revered the men who wore it. My father, his team members, the next door neighbor and all the men who inhabited Smoke Bomb Hill. This small corner of Bragg was home to Special Forces and was littered with white frame buildings from WWII stuck in the pines. I revered the place when I came back ten years later looking for my own beret.

Assigned to the 7th Special Forces Group at Ft Bragg, Barnes is sent to the small but promising hot spot of the Dominican Republic where Communists are trying to push over a domino. Barnes quotes a lifer's observation in the book, "Wherever Americans go, they turn the women into whores." It's easy duty, guilty even, so Barnes volunteers for Vietnam and winds up at SF Camp A - 107 in Tra Bong some 60 miles south of Da Nang.

Barnes specialty was Demo and secured the Spec 5 ($194 a month) two hazardous stipends of $55 each. One for jump pay and one for blowing things up or the more challenging job of keeping things from blowing up. This all sounds pretty sexy but life at Tra Bong is a thumping bore. As junior man on the team, Barnes gets the shit details...to include burning it.

Jame's Jones took tedium in the army to an art form in A Thin Red Line. A man's thoughts and memories of home in the book became film director Terrance Malick's flashbacks in the film version . A Walk Above the Clouds (author's blog here) takes us on patrols of surrounding mountains with a ruck and a weapon. But there's higher altitude.

Barnes mines his deeply personal reflections. Not only on his good luck, and the guilt that comes with it, but the value of a man's specialty over his value as a human being. Two senior noncoms whose alcoholism reflect a sad army tradition but whose honor and duty spoke to a responsibility the army instills. What Barnes calls, "An honorable action" and "Doing the right thing."

I ask Barnes if he can think of any traits unique to Special Forces members back then. He quickly ticks off a list: "A broken home. Poor. Rootless. Driven to be recognized. Bright and unstable." Tra Bong is one of three places in the world where Cinnamon grows naturally. It is also a place where Lee's captain was beheaded and three team members were killed. Barnes writes of the obsessive card playing with fellow team members, "Cards, like war, reduced to luck no matter a man's skills. No one wanted to be alone with his thoughts to think about that."

Barnes tells me he is done with writing about Vietnam and claims it's the hardest thing he's written. Not only because he was bound to the truth of it but because his team mates names were on it. These events occurred 45 years ago but they should be fresh on everyone's mind. War in a far off place and in a culture not understood. Where the object of "Hearts and Minds" becomes confusion over who the enemy really is. The surprising ending of this book is a reminder...sometimes our biggest enemy can be on our own team.


initials CG said...

Thanks Tin. Great story.

Ben said...

I am afficionado of this genre of writing. Unfortunately, the vast majority of these books follow the same template and get tiresome. "I went to boot camp and the D.I.s were awful but I sure learned a lot. Then I went downrange and was an FNG until I got shot at. Then I shot at a lot of sounds in the dark and saw awful things that I am only now coming to grips with ..."

As a result, I've moved on to other forms of non-fiction. However, you were not wrong with your Lee Haney recommendation, so your word is good. I'm looking forward to finding this one ASAP.

Anonymous said...


Jennings and Gates said...

Thanks for the great post. Another good account of Vietnam is "We Were Soldiers Once...and Young" Joe Galloway's book about the battle at Ia Drang, when the Army's 1st Battalion, 7th cavalry Regiment fought outnumbered 7 to 1.

Anonymous said...

Knock out post Tin. Very well written. This book is next on the list.


tintin said...

cg- How's Rome, man? I miss your comments around here.

Ben- That's Eric Haney. Glad you checked it out. It's a series and I think Eric has another one due out for release soon if it isn't already.

Check this one out. Barnes is looking back from his 60s so this isn't a bang-bang shoot-'em -up thing at all. The actions are of a 21 year old but the thinking and tone is close to poetry. I liked it a lot. Hope you do too.

Anon -Since you posted fairly late I guess you're pretty tired.

Jennings & Gates- We Were Soldiers is a great book. Rick Rescorla who was a young LT in the 1st Air Cav called the book, We Were Soldiers Once and Thin. Rick was killed in the WTC but my Dad met him in Vietnam and tells some great stories about him A natural leader according to Dad.

Here's a clip of Rick before his death. He predicts future acts of terrorism and cautions our political leaders.


Matthew- If you like it, you should find, Gunning for Ho, a book of Vietnam short stories published ten years ago. I just finished the title short story and it's some wild stuff.

Anonymous said...

My first husband was an Army Ranger 101st Airborne in Viet Nam, a war I barely remember. I often wondered what he was like before he was drafted at 19 and went to Viet Nam. Silly me, I thought at 24 I thought I could find what was left of the man the war had not destroyed... give him a fresh start. How young, foolish and optimistic one can be at 24. No one could have told me about his nightmares and countless other unexplainable fears and seemingly irrational behaviors. In the end, there are some broken things that can not ever be fixed. Sadly, that is a lesson I learned 15 years later.
Thanks for the post John... a familiar story for those of us who have ever loved a veteran,
especially a Viet Nam vet.

tintin said...

MBN- Vietnam has touched many of us who were never there. Lee Barnes told me the big problem with veterans is the reluctance so many of these people have when it comes to asking for help or even just talking.

GSV JR said...

"Wherever Americans go, they turn women into whores."

I mean, I don't even know what to do with this. Laugh uneasily or nod solemnly.

I need a recoiless rifle to go along with my tiger stripe fatigues.

ADG said...

I read Halberstam's Best and Brightest and thought that it should be mandatory reading for every U.S. citizen...pert near kilt me to get through it though.

This book came yesterday from Amazon. I opened it last night. And read half of it in one sitting. This, like "Soldiers Once" ... is the ground level "what the fuck" to Halberstam's fifty thousand foot view of said Goat Rodeo.

Thanks for making me aware.