RogerBW's Blog

Chickenhawk, Robert Mason 25 October 2014

Robert Mason flew Hueys for a year in Vietnam. This is his story.

One suspects that it isn't always a reliable story. The book wasn't started until more than ten years after Mason got back, and even by his own account his mind hadn't been in great shape during that time. Still, he doesn't paint himself as any sort of great hero, just a guy thrown into a nonsensical war who happens to be pretty good at what he does.

Things kick off in 1964-1965 with flight training, then (after a brief misleading posting to a VIP-carrying unit in Washington DC) it's off for a year in Vietnam. My perspective on that particular war is generally a high-level one: this push, that retreat, the other failure. Mason was on the sharp end as a warrant officer pilot, first with the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) and later with the 48th Aviation Company, and knew no more about the big picture than the public back in the USA; he was fed the same lies about inevitable victory and having the bad guys on the run.

The book recalls many of the standard clichés of Vietnam, possibly because many of those clichés were inspired by it and similar memoirs: the minimal accommodations, the casual looting of anything not nailed down, the higher-ups who seem completely disconnected from the actual business of fighting the war, the boredom interspersed with brutality, the gradually increasing load of stress and Mason's descent from enthusiasm into first cynicism and later hallucination.

But there's also some fine technical material about flying, particularly some of the tricks one can do with a heavy-rotored helicopter (and indeed how much more effective that turboshaft engine was compared with the piston-engined trainers): chopping light tree branches, rolling takeoffs, working the machine loose from bogs, and increasingly in the background the tick sounds of enemy fire hitting the aircraft.

The writing style is clear and straightforward, essentially a recounting of events, with occasional post facto commentary. Mason makes no attempt to justify his, or the USA's, actions: the book's just about what he did, and how he felt about it. There's horror here, but it's not so much in the grisly descriptions as in the author's self-defensively flattened reactions to them. I defy anyone to read this book and then continue to conflate "supporting the troops" with "supporting every military adventure the government advocates".

This is not at all a cheerful book, but it's a very good one.

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  1. Posted by Ashley Pollard at 07:13pm on 25 October 2014

    It's an excellent book, and of course in the film We Were Soldiers you get to see him in action during the big battle.

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 07:55pm on 25 October 2014

    One of these days I will catch up on the Vietnam films I haven't seen. Some time when I'm feeling overly happy about humanity and need a counterweight.

  3. Posted by Dr Bob at 01:07pm on 26 October 2014

    Read this decades ago as a student, along with a ton of other Vietnam War memoirs (well maybe not a tonne - a kilogram perhaps). At the time they were a stark contrast to the 'military history' I'd been raised on: Commando Comics, WW2 war films on BBC2 every weekend and really, really dull history lessons at school! Books like Chickenhawk were a complete revelation that there were history books out there (even non-cheerful ones) that were about people and not just boring old dates and place names...

  4. Posted by RogerBW at 01:55pm on 26 October 2014

    Whereas what I got as a kid was much more along the lines of "war is always and everywhere an entirely bad thing (and all soldiers are probably psychopaths)". Which implies that role-playing and wargaming may have been my adolescent rebellion. Oh dear. Too late to worry about it now.

  5. Posted by Ashley Pollard at 02:19pm on 31 October 2014

    Well you might not want to read anything by Peter Watts, who writes highly nihilistic works that are excellent, but not for when you're feeling down.

  6. Posted by RogerBW at 02:23pm on 31 October 2014

    ...yeah, I really didn't get on with Blindsight. Many people whose opinions I respect think it's wonderful, but it had nothing to say to me at all apart from "everything and everybody is irredeemably awful".

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