Books

With this edition Army Communicator begins something new for it – book reviews. As the Signal Regiment’s professional magazine, we’ll begin to offer opportunities for Signaleers to focus on any Signal/communications books that should be brought into the professional-development light.

Any AC reader can review a book. The book-review section will be a forum for a variety of Signal-relevant published books, from memoirs to technical books. "Published" can mean published on-line only, but if this is the case, discuss this with the editor before submitting your book review.

There will be two simple requirements: try to keep the book review to about 1,000 words, and approach the review from the angle of telling your fellow Signaleers how the book will/won’t professionally develop them. The review is your opinion, but be honest about the book’s strengths and weaknesses.

The format is a straightforward narrative, preceded by a paragraph stating the book’s title, its author, city where published, publisher, year published, page count, price per copy, paperback or hardback, and sources if the book isn’t readily available at your local "mega-bookmart." The publisher’s website address is optional.

Include two or three sentences of biographical information on the reviewer at the review’s end: present position, highlights of previous assignments, military and civilian education.

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Why a Soldier? A Signal Corpsman’s Tour from Vietnam to the Moscow Hot Line; David G. Fitz-Enz; New York: Ballantine Books; 2000. 404 pages. $6.99. Paper.

by CPT Russell Burgos

I made the cardinal error – I judged a book by its cover. This "Signal Corpsman’s" memoir by COL David Fitz-Enz held out the promise of filling an important gap in the ranks of popular history and memoirs of the Vietnam War. In fact, we really get three stories – none fully developed and the Signal story the least satisfying of the lot.

It would be understandable if a quick survey of the local mega-bookmart’s Vietnam War section led one to believe that everyone who fought in Vietnam was either a Green Beret or a Seal. Fewer than 10 percent of Vietnam memoirs in print deal with conventional forces – fewer still if we exclude aviation. This bias is understandable. Combat – especially elite, sneaking-around-in-the bush-type combat – is likely a much more exciting read than the reminiscences of a telephone lineman.

However, the lineman’s story is just as important. At a minimum, the lineman’s story preserves institutional history and promotes lessons-learned. It can be a source of esprit de corps and of practical problems for training at all levels. We can see problems solved in ways that challenge the technology of the day and draw important inferences about problems facing the Signal Regiment today.

Fitz-Enz isn’t to blame for the lack of "the lineman’s story." The Signal Corps itself has done a particularly poor job in this regard. The "official" Regimental history is outdated and hardly critical of the Regiment’s past performance. Official Army histories do little more than recount miles of cable laid or antennas erected. Army Communicator offers important technical contributions, but articles seldom build upon one another in the accumulation of knowledge. As a result, successive generations of Signal leaders still find themselves reinventing the wheel and learning how it was done before, particularly in tactical units. Our junior soldiers know nothing of the Regiment’s past accomplishments because our institutional memory is almost entirely word-of-mouth.

My expectations to the contrary notwithstanding, Fitz-Enz’ memoir contributes little to closing this gap. To begin with, Fitz-Enz was hardly a conventional Signal officer. His first tour in Vietnam was as a combat photographer, which – though interesting – wasn’t a core Signal competency. Fitz-Enz clearly relished the work, which gave him an astonishing degree of freedom. One week, he was rolling with the Australian cavalry; the next, flying air-support missions from the right seat of an Air Force Skyraider. His account is exciting and rightfully notes the outstanding contribution to the historic record made by enlisted men.

Curiously, though, Fitz-Enz gives short-shrift to the best parts of his tale. For example, he recounts in great detail how he managed his "best action photo," yet the photograph isn’t among those reproduced in the book! Fitz-Enz recounts combat as a spectator, viewed through the lens of a camera, but with little emphasis on what it meant to photograph battle.

Second, comparatively little of the book actually deals with Vietnam. Much of Fitz-Enz’s memoir recounts tales of garrison duty in Japan and staff duty in the United States. These glimpses of the "old" Army are in my opinion his most valuable contribution. They afford us a peek behind the curtains of an army where officers and their "ladies" were still expected to pay social calls upon reporting to a duty station, where soldiers lived in "little America" ghettoes overseas, and where Army life for spouses "demanded that ball gowns be worn several times a year." There is an important social history of the Cold War Army waiting to be written out there; Fitz-Enz gives us a tantalizing glimpse but, sadly, no more than that.

Fitz-Enz’ second Vietnam tour was at battalion staff level – both as a Signal S-3 and a tactical S-6. He participated in important Signal milestones – like the installation of the first troposcatter links in Vietnam and the first link of a tactical-communications net to the Oval Office – yet is curiously silent on the challenges the Signal Corps faced in Vietnam or the difficulties inherent in overcoming the limitations of tube-based and early solid-state electronics. Fitz-Enz witnessed a "brilliant staff officer" break down under the pressure of command, yet has little to say about the challenges of Signal command in combat.

If Fitz-Enz’s strength is in the variety of his experiences, then his weakness is a stilted, Hollywood-style dialogue that quickly wears on the nerves. Australians speak like B-movie Crocodile Dundees. Fighter pilots are bluff, clear-eyed and steely-jawed. Sergeants invariably issue "crisp" orders.

Adding to the book’s nuisance factor are trivial errors of fact that collectively weaken the book and undermine the author’s credibility. Two examples will suffice:

First, Fitz-Enz claims that during his first Christmas in-country in 1965, "the press at home ... vilified us and the war." This is incorrect. As John Mueller has shown in War, Presidents and Public Opinion (1973), editorial and public opinion supporting the war was at its peak in 1965, with support outpacing opposition by three to one.

Second, while at the Signal Officer Basic Course, Fitz-Enz rented a house on Tobacco Road, which he remembers was the location of "John Steinbeck’s famous novel." John Steinbeck is known for his California stories; Erskine Caldwell is the author of Tobacco Road.

Most vexing of all, Fitz-Enz never answers the question posed by the book’s title – why a soldier? We learn very little of the Moscow hotline, despite its prominence in the title, beyond the fact that he commanded the element which operated it. There are no tactical lessons-learned and even surprisingly little commentary on the rigors of combat photography in inhospitable terrain – which was clearly Fitz-Enz’ favorite assignment.

Fitz-Enz has a valuable story to tell, but this book leaves much fertile ground fallow. What the reader ultimately takes away from Why A Soldier? is a sense of the quiet pride that comes from Army service and a cautionary note that combat can turn solid peacetime leaders into ineffective shrinking violets – with predictable consequences. Fitz-Enz should be commended for inviting a glimpse into an important, though seldom-seen, aspect of the Vietnam War; unfortunately, the glimpse is all too brief.

CPT Burgos, a Reserve Signal officer, is S-6 of 6th Battalion, 52d Aviation Regiment (Theater Army). He previously served as a Signal platoon leader and radio officer in 306th Psychological Operations Company (Strategic Dissemination). A graduate of the Signal Officer Advanced Course and Psychological Operations Officer Course, he holds two master’s degrees (political science from University of California at Los Angeles and security policy studies from George Washington University). He teaches international relations at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif.

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04/04/12
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