AN ACCIDENTAL SOLDIER

Reviewed by Joni Bour


I would like to say first off, that this is not your typical 'soldier boy tells old war stories' book. I had a very difficult time following the story at first, because Mr. Garcia tells his story the way he remembers it. He isnít a timeline thinker, but then neither are you and I, right? He writes in the order he remembers, the way you and I remember events in our own lives- afterthoughts, vague recollections, one memory triggering another. In one case, he tells about a specific event that happened while in boot camp- well before he went to Vietnam, then in the same paragraph he speaks of something that happened while serving in Vietnam. While I often think in my personal life the way he writes, it was hard for me to follow at first. Don't lose heart though, it gets better! While he scatters his thoughts often from chapter to chapter, he tells some good stories! He speaks in a very straight forward manner and I have a great deal of respect for someone who is not afraid to tell it the way he saw and lived it. He explains very well, how as a young man he did not have the depth of character or experience to know what he was going through, how his service to his country changed his life or that his youth had been taken from him by the Army, politicians and the jungle. He knows now. He admits it and talks about it in great depth and with amazing candor. 20/20 hindsight helps to make a great story as you will see, but it does nothing for the experiences he looks back on. It canít bring back his innocent youth, or revive a dead comrade. It does not have the power to reverse mistakes. But perhaps, it has helped him to live with the knowledge and the memory of them.

The title of the book should be the title of every tale ever told about our young men gone to war. Mr. Garcia states it so well. He was a seventeen year old kid when he walked into a recruiting station. He was just walking by. It was an accident. It could not have been an adult decision- he wasn't an adult. He was too young to vote and too young to buy beer. He was barely old enough to drive a car. He was even too young get married- those are all adult decisions. How is it that he was not too young to go off to a jungle war and kill or be killed? He had never jumped out of anything higher than a tree before and yet he signed up to be an Army Ranger to leap from the sky. Didnít anyone think to say to him, ďSon, letís talk about this a little bit moreĒ. The brochures looked kind of neat he thought. That is as deep as it went. Should there be a lesson for our military in there somewhere? In one moment of his life he had never even won a fist fight and the next he was being trained in hand to hand combat for guerilla warfare. He calls himself an accidental soldier. But perhaps he was an accidental young man even before that. He was 'accidental' in that he spent his teen years just floating around from one thing to another. He had no direction, no ideas about where he was going or what he would like to do. He had no influences in his life to tell him what he should do or encourage him to strive for greatness, or in fact to strive for anything at all. He was one pebble in a quarry full of pebbles. As I read his book, I wondered how many other young men and women in our history were pebbles in a quarry full of rock. How many have volunteered for service not because they were driven to serve or because of some political or patriotic duty - but just because. Just because they were curious, bored, lonely or needed to belong to something?

Mr. Garcia went through all the motions expected of him, and yet none of it really sunk in. He was just too young to see it. By chapter eight in the book, you begin to fully appreciate the situation he had found himself in and I as a reader felt very bad. I wanted to reach back into time and snag that boy, bring him back home and teach him how to be a regular kid. Things like curfew, the virtues of eating his vegetables, playing baseball in the summer and working for the local grocery store to pay for his first muscle car. I would hook him up with one of my girl friends and lecture him about being a gentleman.

It nearly broke my heart in two when I read his account of his first confirmed kill. It was wrong. If he had only had another chance, he would not have done it. He saw black pajamas, the carbine and the trail. He shot. He thought he had killed a guerilla, just as he had been trained to do. He thought he had saved his squad from further attacks. But he had not. He had killed an old woman, a villager, someoneís grandmother. He was embarrassed, ashamed and angry, with himself, with her and the Viet Cong who had probably forced her into their service in the first place. He was just a kid. He probably could not have prevented this death, it was a time of war, and yet it is something that is so obviously fresh in his mind and his heart that I wonder what he has truly allowed himself to think. He may have forgiven himself this moment in time. He certainly should have, but it has etched itself in his memory as if it were a painting in a museum - something that can be described with such vivid detail, that all who read it will travel to the jungles of Vietnam to be silent witness. It is a powerful part of the book.

Accidental Soldier is not a typical Vietnam memoir. But it is one of the most real. It is one of the most honest. It is one that speaks more about the reality of war for a young soldier than worry about the feelings and judgment of the readers. That is the way history should be written.


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Posted 12/30/03