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Sat, 13 Nov 2010 | Review by: Bernie W
Bernie Weisz's Review of "Better Him Than Me" by Jack Eager 10/15/09 BernWei1@aol.com
"I have read the other reviews of Jack Eager's book "Better Him than Me" and over 80%, particularly those written by ex combat vets, appear to believe that this is a work of fiction. On the line notes, the book heading asserts: "This book is the product of the author's struggle with P.T.S.D., following his service in Viet Nam. As part of his treatment for the disorder, his psychologist suggested that he tape record his thoughts and feelings about his experiences during the war, and his life before and after. "Better Him Than Me" is the verbatim transcription of over 18 hours of the author's tape recorded recollections and reflections." Why would a vet publish is own private therapy sessions done with a therapist, supposedly private and confidential? ASIN:096670360X Stolen Valor : How the Vietnam Generation Was Robbed of Its Heroes and Its History Or is this demented fiction simply written under a pseudonym to cash in on the "P.T.S.D." bandwagon? Eager (a pseudonym) answers this in a letter to his readers, also inscribed on the back dust jacket.
It reads: "To my readers; I am a Vietnam Veteran who is trying to live and cope with a condition called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, P.T.S.D. for short. A private psychologist which I have been seeing on a weekly basis for the last several years suggested that I should tape record my experiences as a combat infantryman in the Republic of South Vietnam. I agreed to do so, and firmly stated that I would record my extremely frank, graphic and totally true events as I lived them. Unlike all of the other past books and movies that dealt with the Vietnam War, my nonfiction story describes in detail everything that I saw and did in that horrific and insane war and country. I did not sugar coat anything or try to be intellectual or arty in any way during the telling of my story. ASIN:1401096751 Fake Warriors After hearing my first micro cassette tape, the psychologist said that my compelling and forceful story would make a really good book! So a year and a half later, which is the time it took to complete the taping, we compiled a manuscript and submitted copies for publication. My book also deals with my childhood and the physical and verbal abuse that I suffered at the hands of an alcoholic father. I discussed these events about my father, because it was my first introduction to the world of P.T.S.D. I also talked about my life treatments for this condition after I came home from Vietnam to the present time. It was extremely difficult to recall all of these traumatic events of my life, and I strongly hope and feel that the telling of my unique story will help me and millions of others out there like me". So is this book's story the "real deal"? Although it is clearly stated that "Jack Eager" is a pseudonym, I tried to research some information about the publisher, James Criswell. I came up with nothing. The clinical psychologist that Eager supposedly records his 18 hours with is Jan B. Roosa, P.h.D. I called the American Psychiatric Association, as well as googled the name, once again drawing blanks. Perhaps also false names? So, who the hell is Jack Eager, and why did James Criswell publish this?
Griswell elaborates with this explanation: "On a gloomy day in November, just before Thanksgiving in 1998, I received a phone call from an individual who identified himself as Mr. Jack Eager (not his real name). Mr. Eager said that he had written a book. He said that he saw our company's name, Truman Publishing, listed in the phone book and was calling for some free advice about securing representation by a literary agent. Jack and I chatted and I became intrigued by what I he told me. He explained that he was a Vietnam Veteran and was undergoing treatment for a disorder called P..T.S.D. He told me that the book he had written was derived from his psychotherapy. During the course of his treatment, his psychologist suggested that he use a tape recorder to privately dictate his life story. He said that he made 18 hours of these tape recordings, He also told me that his psychologist's secretary had transcribed them verbatim. I asked if we could see the transcription. I was stunned by the documents that Mr. Eager delivered to us. The fact that some American soldiers were guilty of atrocities in that terrible war in Vietnam is fairly well documented. Seldom, however, does one read a detailed first person account of the crimes that one individual actually committed or witnessed. I had never seen, or heard of, a story quite like this one. I have never read an account of such remorseless brutality, delivered in such a matter-of-fact manner. I met Mr. Eager face to face when he delivered his manuscript to our office. When one meets someone, one immediately forms an impression. My impression of Mr. Eager was that he was articulate and well spoken, unassuming and polite. He was well groomed and conservative in his dress. Overall he seemed a likeable fellow. Indeed, he struck me as a gentle man, a nice man. Then I read his story. As you will see, he paints a picture of absolute depravity. He describes numerous instances where he witnessed or committed the most heinous acts of torture, mutilation, and utterly senseless murder. Even more shocking then his reports of wartime atrocities is the fact that he continued a pattern of chaotic violence even after his return from Vietnam. I asked myself how could a person who seems so intelligent and gentle have committed so many vicious crimes? How could he be capable of not only murdering without remorse, but actually taking pleasure in the act? Mr. Eager's explanation, as detailed in this book, is that he is a victim himself. He is the victim of P.T.S.D." Eager was so detail oriented about his Vietnam experiences that he: (if in fact there is a "Jack Eager") 1. Really was there and this book is real 2. Knew someone or several Vets and collectively combined the worst of their experiences to form this book, whatever the percentage of truth vs. reality. Or finally, 3.The author, whomever he is, read a tremendous amount of both fact and fiction to allow himself to sit down and write a fictitious book about his "supposed Vietnam experience." Certainly, this book has the feeling of reality. I simply could not put it down. I have read many gory stories, from Ted Bundy, Tex Watson and Charles Manson, to William Calley and Joe McGinniss et al. This one took the cake for the intensity and degree of violence. The only thing that bothered me from beginning to end was whether I was reading fact or fiction. It annoys me when I read a work of fiction deceptively dressed as a realistic memoir of actual events. What did Eager's "shrink" say about Eager's endeavor? Jan Roosa asserted: "Two years ago I asked Jack Eager to build a chronological history of his experiences as a Vietnam soldier, interweaving his growing up in a severely abusive home. It was critical that each event he recalled be dictated, reviewed, and re-dictated in sequence, leaving no event out of the sequence. This prescription, if you will, is for the purpose of helping the person who underwent trauma and is still experiencing very painful mental and emotional spasms to develop perspective and objectivity regarding the trauma. These spasms are most often referred to as flashbacks which often start by being triggered by an event that brings on terror-striking fears of helplessness, worthlessness, harm, abandonment, and loss of control. This five-some is the terrifying, powerful, and all-consuming vortex of P.T.S.D. Abandonment, child abuse, sexual abuse, violence, extreme suffering, all of which are found over-abundantly in many homes and communities, are always found in war. Jack experienced these from a very young age, right on through the Vietnam War and beyond. What he went through is honestly and forthright given to the reader. Not a word has been changed." With official psychological endorsement of the veracity of this story, the publisher, Mr. Criswell, added: "We decided that the story was so powerfully presented to us as the actual transcription of Mr. Eager's recorded personal reflections that any editing on our part would only dilute the impact of what he has to say. We know that the language is vulgar and that there are grammatical and typographical errors. You'll find that there are a few instances where the timeline of incidents seems to be confused. But these are the words that the man spoke when he was alone with his tape recorder. And the typographical errors are those that the typist made when she transcribed the words from the original recordings. We decided that we were not qualified in the least to offer a more authentic version of the story that this book contains. The reader is, of course, at liberty to believe or disbelieve whatever he or she chooses of this story. I can tell you that we spoke with Mr. Eager's private psychologist and learned that he believes that the text contains a true account of Mr. Eager's recollections. His experience (Jan B. Roosa, Ph.D) with P.T.S.D. victims is that their recall of traumatic events that happened many years ago is often more detailed than their recall of events that happened only last week. This is the psychologist's explanation for vivid detail. We verified that Mr. Eager was in the military, served in Vietnam, and is still under treatment at the V.A. for P.T.S.D. Having personally spoken with the author and reviewed what other evidence of authenticity that is available to me, I can tell you that, personally, I believe this is a true story". Possibly Eager's psychologist and publisher believed the authenticity of this account. However, on my behalf, I just could not come to this conclusion beyond a shade of a doubt. As I mentioned early in this review, Eager mentions all the right names, nuances of Viet Nam and places, something a nonmilitary layman with neither a historical nor military background would know. He talks about his basic training and A.I.T. (Advanced Infantry Training) at Ft. Polk, La. Eager lamented: "Ft. Polk was called "Little Nam" because they had built a lot of huts and they had some jungle land they had kinda made (remember, this is supposedly an exact transcription of Eager's voice on the tape recorder with no editing) and everything was built to resemble Viet Nam and the terrain there. It was very, very vigorous training. It was all geared to one thing. Kill the enemy, survive, and come home. It taught how to be these real mean, green, killing machines. They used to joke about it. Except I'm not laughing". Eager summed up, upon his graduation from A.I.T. his assessment of being in the U.S. Army: "The armed services seemed to think the more you treat a person like a lowlife and the more you insult him and his family and his name and his life that I guess the more obedient he's going to be or the better fighting man he's going to be." He was also told by his instructor: "Guess what, guys? About half of you aren't coming back home. Listen to everything we say and do, everything we say to do, and you just might be one of that 50% that brings your sorry asses home." There is a questionable aspect at this part of Eager's story. He claims that he departed (he doesn't say from where in the U.S., so I'll assume from Ft. Polk, Louisiana, although most troops leaving stateside departed via California) from the U.S. to South Vietnam, via Hawaii. Aside from misspelling his 1st destination in Vietnam from Cam Rhan Bay to Kamron Bay (is this the typist's error?), I have never in my historical studies came across an account of going to Vietnam via Hawaii. The normal route was from California to Japan to Okinawa and finally points in South Vietnam. Eager also recalled a dubious story of his journey, which I will leave it up to you, the reader, to decide it's veracity. Eager recounted: "One of our last stops, as a matter of fact, it was our last stop, before we got to Kamron Bay, Viet Nam, we stopped in Hawaii. The plane landed and only stayed there about one hour. And we looked up and there was armed MP's at the entrance and the exit of the plane. These MP's were there to make sure we didn't get off the plane. See, this was the last opportunity we had to change our minds and run because the next stop was Viet Nam. So, they were there-I don't know if they would have shot us or not, but I'm inclined to think they would have if we tried to run 'cause they would have called it desertion. But I'm telling you now, if I had to do it again, I would have got off that plane, and I would have killed anybody I had to get off that plane. I would have gladly gone to prison, and I wish I had. You see, we all had choices, and I'll never forgive myself for not making the choices back in 1968 that I thought was right. We were all given the choice to either go to Canada, be exiled and never see our families again, give up our country, our allegiance to that country, or we would be sent to Leavenworth, Kansas Penitentiary, Military, for 3-5 years. Or, we could go to Viet Nam. Well, like always, I made the wrong mistake, the wrong choice because I was a coward. Yes, I said coward, because I really think it took more courage to go to Canada or to prison than it did to sit there and allow myself to enter the nightmare that was before me." Next, his description of his first impression of Viet Nam is also questionable. Eager claimed: "Once the plane was refueled (from Hawaii), we took off again, and it was real, real weird. There we were, a couple hundred of us, playing, talking crap about how bad we were, how many kills we were going to get, how we were going to be heroes. Then, over the loudspeakers, we heard that we were about to land in Kamron Bay, Viet Nam, which is the landing station everybody went to. That's the first place in Nam you go to before you go off to your specific areas with your company. I belonged to the 196th Light Infantry Brigade. It was the Americal Division. Our main post is stationed in a place called Chu Lai, Viet Nam. I'm straying a bit from the story, but so what. Back to the plane. As we touched the ground, all of a sudden we stopped our crap again. We were like we turned to stone. We had heard stories. We had seen movies. We had no idea how bad it was going to be. The plane touched down, the cargo bay opened, and all of a sudden this raging heat came through there like a tremendous blast furnace. Heat like I had never in my life experienced. It burned your eyes, it burned your body it was so hot. That's how hot it was. The average temperature in Nam was 140 degrees nearly every day. After the haze and heat had died down, we started slowly walking off the plane, and we could hear little explosions off in the distance, heavy artillery, gunfire, small weapons fire. It was extremely scary. But once the haze cleared and we got out eyes together, then we saw a sight that I and the rest of the men will never, ever forget. As we got off the plane, the first thing we saw was caskets. Dead soldiers. Caskets stacked one on top of the other. Silver caskets. These were the guys, these were the ones, this was the 50% those drill instructors talked about that didn't make it. They were getting on the same plane we were just getting off. They were going home. We had just got there. I mean, think about this. The first thing we see when we enter Viet Nam is other soldiers, dead 19 year old guys. Bodies tore apart-still, dead, cold bodies going home to their families. I could not even fathom what lay ahead." In reaction to this, I do not believe the temperature was 140 degrees just about every day in Viet Nam, especially during the monsoon season. Second of all, do you really think the U.S. Military would be dumb enough to openly display caskets in plain view to the newly arrived G.I? Eager starts the tone of where this book is headed when he describes his first conversation with a "seasoned vet" who greets Eager to the war with the following comments: "Well, how you doing, man? Welcome to Viet Nam. Maybe you'll make it, maybe you won't. But you're here. Now let me tell you some stories". He started telling me about some people he had killed that morning. He'd been out on patrol with about 10 others. He was talking about getting about 10 confirmed kills, and he made it sound like a contest. He was bragging about how he killed them and mutilated them afterwards and spit on them and urinated on them and defecated on a few of 'em and all this kind of stuff. I thought, "Is this guy for real or is he just talking crap? As he kept talking, I realized he was telling the truth. I looked at his face. He looked like he was happy, really thrilled about his great accomplishments. He was talking about killing some old people, some Viet Cong, some kids, some pigs, and a water buffalo. He said this was confirmed kills and therefore it helped the rest of us. I didn't know what he meant by the rest of us, but they had a deal over there. Everybody did. Every company kept count of how many people we killed that day because the more people you killed, the more stuff you would get, like more beer. You would get more beer rations, you'd get more paper and pens to write with, you'd get more cigarettes, you'd get candy bars. These were things they had stockpiled over there to make us feel more like home, I guess. It was the body count that mattered. The more body counts, or kills you got, the more favors you got. The more beer you got. Beer was like gold over there. It was all hot beer over there, but, damn, it was beer." This is corroborated in all separate accounts and individual memoirs of the U.S. war in Indo China. The focus was on body counts, which was deemed the "War of Attrition" and the military reinforced this amongst the troops with rewards as Eager mentioned. Although Eager did not mention this, another factor the military stressed was taking land from the enemy, in particular, the enemy controlled hills, and once controlled by our forces, they were relinquished in the never-ending quest for V.C./N.V.A. controlled territory. The author goes on to graphically describe endless patrols, ambushes and missions laced with graphically described, unemotional and chilling violence that I would only recommend you read if you have a strong stomach. Even if Eager made up the tales of senseless murder, his descriptions of certain subjects, such as booby traps and the insanity of the military ground presence, i.e "waiting to be attacked" is incredibly accurate. Eager describes: "Our job was to walk out into the jungle to look for the enemy. Which of course we didn't see. What's even more idiotic, our job was really just to walk out into that jungle and wait to be ambushed. See, they were always hidden somewhere waiting for us, and we engaged the enemy by walking into their trap. That was our job. Booby traps were the things that the Viet Cong was real good at. They would dig deep holes and in the bottom of the holes they would sharpen bamboo stakes and cover them up real nice with grass and weeds and everything to hide them, and of course you'd walk and step on them and fall through there and they would cut through you like a bunch of spears. Then, of course, they had regular land mines. They went off by pressure. The pressure is not instantaneous. A person would have to step on a mine and you would hear this click and that meant it was engaged. The only way it became disengaged is when you lifted your leg up. Then it would blow upward and cut you all up in your privates and your legs and your intestines." Eager also talked about the problem of snakes and leeches: "We were walking in the jungle looking to engage the enemy. We were just there to be targets, looking for ambushes and at the same time having to worry about killer snakes, land mines, pungee sticks and holes-the pits we called it. Plus we were fighting the heat, the humidity and leeches, etc." Another truism that is repeatedly emphasized in other accounts is Eager's assertion of the indiscriminate use of U.S. firepower during a firefight-which only a soldier actually out in the field would have known. Eager wrote: "With an M-16, you could just hold it up above your head-you didn't even have to look-just start firing. That's what a lot of us did so we didn't have to stick our heads up. I was shooting like crazy. I don't know what I was shooting at. I was just shooting in the general direction of where the fire came from". After Eager's first kill (which his description of which is unprintable in this review, sorry!) he wrote: "When you see somebody killed, when you see death in 'Nam, it's just that you get this taste for blood. But until you actually kill someone, get your hands in it, have your hands in the blood, then you know you have done the right thing and then you know you really are a soldier, you're really there. " Eager did not invent this. In the previously mentioned book "On Killing" by Dave Grossman, the exhilarating phenomenon of "combat addiction" is described as the following: "Combat Addiction" is caused when, during a firefight, the body releases a large amount of adrenaline into your system and you get what is referred to as a "combat high." This combat high is like getting an injection of morphine-you float around laughing, joking, having a great time, totally oblivious to the dangers around you. The experience is very intense if you live to tell about it. Problems arise when you begin to want another fix of combat, and another, and another and, before you know it, you're hooked. As with heroin or cocaine addiction, combat addiction will surely get you killed. And like any addict, you get desperate and will do anything to get your fix." To give you a small sample of the violence and brutality that Eager describes in this book, there is the story of where Eager was told to go into a village and search for Viet Cong cadre hiding among the inhabitants. In as much as winning the "Hearts and Minds" of the South Vietnamese, (pardon this overused cliche!) here is Eager's description of this particular mission: "We took off for the village. It was about 2 miles, or what we called 2 clicks from our base camp. After we arrived at the village, Sgt. Jamerson told me and Tom and a few other guys to go to the first village on the left. This was his instructions. He said just go into the hut, and no matter who was there, what was there, just kill everything there. When we went into the hut, there were just adults. There were no children, so I felt good about that. So me and Tom opened fire and killed about 4 young adults and an older man. Then we moved to the next hut. We went in. There was no one there. Suddenly Sgt. Ski came over and asked, "Did you check that hut thoroughly?" I said, "Yes sir, we did". He said, "Well, we'll just see." So we went in there and he showed us a little place over in the corner that looked like just a place where they kept grain or rice or something. He pushed it, and it was a cover for an underground tunnel. He said, "This is where your enemy goes to hide when we come down here to make these little searches and so forth." The Lieutenant then called our Vietnamese interpreter to holler down into the tunnel to tell whoever was down there to come out, to give up. Just seconds later, a man, a woman, and 2 children came out of the hole. They said their grandfather was still down there. He was scared to come out. Lt. Ski said, "Well, we'll teach him to follow orders correctly." I was told to back up. Lt. Ski took a hand grenade off his belt, and he said, "Now I'm going to show you guys the beauty of this weapon, especially to these people that don't follow orders and think they're a joke." The next thing I know he pulls the pin and yells, "Fire in the hole!" We haul ass out of there, and it blows up. Lt. Ski goes down himself and drags this old man out of there, The guy looked like he was 90 years old. Of course, he's all black, chunks of meat are blown out of his body, he's smoking, and he's stinking, and he's deader than hell. Lt. Ski and Sgt. Jamerson picked him up and threw him against a tree. They said, "Now you come over here, Jack and Tom. I want you to see what a hand grenade does to human flesh." He went over all this, showing how there were chunks out of his legs, part of his head was gone, his eyeballs, his hair torn off. "Isn't this wonderful" This is wonderful-what a grenade can do, the force that it has." How can such a callous act be perpetuated by a formerly nonviolent civilian turned into a U.S. grunt with the backdrop of war existing? Once again, and in part explaining how P.T.S.D. crops up, Dave Grossman elucidates: "When you have to kill men in their homes, in front of their wives and children, and when you have to do it not from 20,000 feet but up close where you can watch them die, the horror appears to transcend description or understanding. Much of the war in Vietnam was conducted against an insurgent force. Against men, women and children who were often defending their own homes and were dressed in civilian clothing. This resulted in a deterioration of traditional conventions and an increase in civilian casualties, atrocities, and resulting trauma. Neither the ideological reasons for the war, nor the target populations, was the same as previous wars. The standard methods of on-the-scene rationalizations fail when the enemy's child comes out to mourn over her father's body or when the enemy is a child throwing a hand grenade." Furthermore, Grossman concluded that the biggest factor contributing to P.T.S.D. was because in Vietnam: "When a soldier shoots a child who is throwing a grenade the child's weapon explodes, and there is only the mutilated body left to rationalize. There is no convenient weapon indisputably telling the world of the victim's lethality and the killer's innocence; there is only a dead child, speaking mutely of horror and innocence lost. The innocence of childhood, soldiers, and nations, all lost in a single act reenacted countless times for 10 endless years until a weary nation finally retreats in horror and dismay from it's long nightmanre." There are also extreme examples of prisoner of war torture. Eager points out the meaningless of the "Geneva Convention" with tales of torture of captured V.C. suspects, from cutting them up piece by piece, to interrogating them via taking a group of 3-4 prisoners up in a helicopter and at 1000 feet, "give up information ("intel") or get thrown out". As Eager states: "The only rule was "We get your ass before you get ours". There are other subjects Eager talks about in this book such as the death of his mother from cancer, and how he struggled emotionally with it. Drug use is another issue, with Eager high from marijuana, heroin and amphetamines through his entire tour. This did not stop when he "returned to the world.' Instead, it spiraled out of control, exacerbating to the point of robbing drug houses at gunpoint. To conclude, this was one of the most exciting, readable, and interesting books I have ever read. Conversely, there was another work of fiction concerning the Vietnam War. Lennox Cramer's "The Slow Dance On The Killing Floor" that was deemed "fiction" to protect issues of national security as well as the innocent. In the final analysis, it was found out later that Cramer was the star studnet in a Prison Creative Writing Course, inventing the entire tale while incarcerated. In Eager's instance, I simply could not judge. Regardless, a very worthwhile, interesting, albeit excessively violent book, and a tremendous read! You be the judge. True or false? You get the book, be the judge, and write in this column your opinion! I'll be watching for it!"
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