Larry Gwin’s memoir gives the reader an unflinching view of a conventional infantry officer doing a conventional job.
By Major Robert Bateman
There are only a few books like Larry Gwin’s Baptism: A Vietnam Memoir (Ivy Books, New York, 1999) that have come out of the war. Perhaps it was the nature of that conflict, or maybe it is the attitudes of postwar Americans that have conspired to make this kind of book such a rarity. Judging from the shelves at the local mega-bookstore, it seems like 99 percent of American troops involved in Vietnam were either Marine Corps snipers or were in Special Forces or one of the Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol Ranger companies. Larry Gwin was not any of these. He was a conventional soldier in a conventional unit doing conventional things. His story will hit home with the vast majority of readers who–like him–are more or less conventional.
Baptism stands nearly alone as a classic first-person narrative of the early phases of U.S. involvement in the war. Gwin provides us with a full account, warts and all. That alone is enough to put the book on professional reading lists everywhere.
Gwin, by his own account, was a typical ROTC officer. After graduating from Yale in 1963, he went through the normal progression of Infantry Officer Basic, Airborne and Ranger courses before being assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division. Assigned initially as an adviser to the ARVN, Gwin spent the first few months of 1965 in the Mekong Delta.
Readers interested in his experience as an adviser will appreciate the account, written from the junior officer level, of a “straight leg” Vietnamese infantry unit’s style of warfare. This is not, however, where the true value of Baptism lies. What makes this book a must-read for everyone from the rank of sergeant through lieutenant colonel is Gwin’s unvarnished account of life as a junior officer in an infantry battalion.
In late 1965 Gwin received an in-country transfer to the newly arrived 1st Cavalry Division’s 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry (2/7). Those familiar with Joseph Galloway’s classic book We Were Soldiers Once and Young may recognize Gwin. He was a rifle company executive officer during the Pleiku campaign and earned a Silver Star for his actions at LZ Albany.
Although not specifically intended as such, Baptism is a virtual leadership primer. NCOs should read this book if they want to understand what is going on in the minds and lives of their lieutenants. Although the narrative is strictly chronological, the chapters are short enough to be read as individual vignettes. Each one could serve as the topic for an officer or NCO professional development session.
One account in particular stands out. Gwin recounts an episode that took place just after the arrival of the 1st Cavalry Division at their new base in the Central Highlands. As with many units new to combat, the troops were jumpy while on duty on the perimeter at night, resulting in some accidental discharges and more than a few one-way firefights, as the inexperienced soldiers became accustomed to the nighttime sights and sounds of the jungle. It also brought down the ire of the division commander.
As a result, the battalion commander of the 2/7 Cavalry ordered his men to stand watch on the perimeter with unloaded weapons, thereby assuring that there would not be an accidental discharge that might upset the general. Three soldiers–a specialist and two privates–said, “Hell, no!” then walked off the perimeter and tried to tell the brigade commander what a stupid idea it was. The brigade sergeant major talked them back to the perimeter. Case closed? Not in this situation. The battalion commander ordered a summary court-martial. Gwin was present as a counsel. His account of the event and the subsequent proceedings could fuel an entire professional development session on the nature of officer-NCO-enlisted relations, leadership and the nature of stupid orders.
Lieutenants and captains should read the book for much the same reasons. Although Gwin is less than definitive in his assessment of what makes a leader great, he does provide many accounts of how company grade officers can screw up, both tactically and in leadership. Gwin does not spare himself or others in this book. His account is, if anything, extremely self-critical, and he is often the butt of his own jokes. It is this very quality that brings the story home for a junior officer in today’s military. Reading the book is like sitting in a bar as a brand new “butter-bar,” and listening to your older brother or to one of the battalion’s senior lieutenants. The wisdom here is not proscriptive–“don’t do this, do this”–it is more subtle and encompassing. Yet the book is also full of hard lessons. Few officers today have ever seen a company commander relieved in the field. Gwin’s account of his commander’s relief is a lesson unto itself, one well worth reading.
Field grade officers may have the most difficult time reading this book. Gwin was a 1st lieutenant throughout the period covered by the story, so he stood at that juncture between knowledge of events at the battalion level and total immersion in the events of his own company. Majors and lieutenant colonels about to go down to the battalion level in any type of unit would be better prepared for the challenge if this was the last book they read just before their assignment. It serves as a reminder that what is important at the higher echelons is not necessarily a reflection of reality.
All in all, Baptism is a wonderful book, a true jewel among the host of Vietnam memoirs. This is not a “How I won the war single-handed” type of story, nor is it a diatribe about the conduct of the war. Action and adventure enthusiasts should look elsewhere to get their fill of thrills. Gwin was a “line dog” executive officer doing a line dog executive officer’s job, nothing more. He lets it all out in this book–the good, the bad and, perhaps most important, the ugly.