Lieutenant Dangerous, by Jeff Danziger

Lieutenant Dangerous is a forthright, brutally honest memoir of one American’s experiences during the time of the Vietnam War. After reading a lot of books about that era over the years, I would not normally have picked up another one, but a friend’s recommendation convinced me that this one might just be the best memoir to come out of that time.

While possibly true, I’m still a little sorry I took his advice. At this long remove, I have given up rehashing that period in my life and, for those of us who are old enough to remember, reliving that time via yet another graphic, evocative accounting was a bit painful and not very enlightening.

Having said that, I accept Danziger’s stated purpose in providing a personal record for younger generations who have no idea what those times—now 50 years on—were like. He accomplished this goal many times over and in a way that no history book could or would. What he has written needed to be said and the way he said it is a choice.

Jeff Danziger has long been a highly-regarded, hard-hitting political cartoonist and this book marks him as an excellent wordsmith as well. His acerbic, take-no-prisoners cartoons are widely distributed in Vermont and beyond by the Washington Post Writers Group, and in this book, he effectively translates that tough, insightful attitude to the written word.

Danziger is honest throughout about his inability to reconcile his strong anti-military, anti-war feelings with his eventual meek acquiescence to his draft call and life in the army. He repeatedly calls himself a coward for his unmilitary attitudes as well as his lack of resolve to resist the draft.

But with a wife and a child on the way, he decides his best recourse is to take the easy way out and just go through the motions of military service. He would look for every dodge he could find, volunteer for lots of useless training to stay in the States and away from the fighting, and even wangle his way into becoming an officer. (That last one was one of his many wrongheaded decisions since it just prolonged his time in the army.) If we had an army of Jeff Danziger’s—and at times in his memoir it seems we did in those years—our role in the world would be quite different.

Danziger takes us chronologically through his basic training at Ft. Dix, New Jersey, language school in Texas, ordnance training in Maryland, commissioning as an officer, and with all his delaying tactics exhausted, his assignment to Vietnam. From there the tone gets angrier and the circumstances more absurdist.

By 1970, when Danziger arrived in Vietnam, the U.S. Army was a largely dysfunctional army. Its mission was unclear, its leadership politicized and fractious, its home front support evaporating, and the mindset of its mostly draftee rank-and-file ranged from indifferent to insubordinate. Danziger documents it all with snarky personal observation and candid, often disturbing descriptions. How he avoided court-martial is a testament to the army’s dysfunction.

Minor nitpicks: Danziger castigates the army for ignoring the unique orthography of the Vietnamese language with its special letters and diacritical marks and then fails to use them himself in the book. Likewise, he seems to think all Vietnamese are Buddhists, doesn’t mention the role of the influential Cao Đài sect, and never acknowledges that significant portions of the South Vietnamese political and army power structures were Roman Catholics.

This is not a book I can recommend to anyone who has served in Vietnam. You won’t learn anything new, it will reopen old wounds, and no matter your politics, will probably just stir up long-suppressed anger at those you believe misunderstood the whole thing from the beginning. At least that was my general reaction.

If you do want to learn more, however, Danziger recommends Neil Sheehan’s A Bright Shining Lie (1988). I couldn’t agree more.

Ed Guest lives and reads in East Burke.