Heinemann’s Successes and Failures as an Author and a Veteran

Heinemann’s novel, Close Quarters, holds a very different tale for Generation Y than those alive during the Vietnam War. The novel communicates its necessity of impressing upon its readers the real experience of war. Those that were alive during the time of the Vietnam War at least saw the images of war. They realized, to a certain extent, the horror that soldiers were going through as they fought a war that so few of them really believed in. For so many of us it’s so difficult for us to understand that and to be able to visualize the emotional, mental, and physical anguish of our soldiers. All the past wars have been reduced to statistics and very structured educational and “objective” viewpoints, which makes Heinemann’s detailed account difficult to come to life. I’m speaking of course about our generation that, by and large, has never lived through such a horrid experience and even the war that our country is in now is very filtered. That being said, Heinemann had a very difficult task that he set out to do, to communicate the experience to a generation that hadn’t lived through the war, but in a very removed sense had somewhat “experienced” it through the books, films, and images of Vietnam that exist today.
Close Quarters both benefits and suffers from Heinemann’s own experiences. Obviously it engages the reader and establishes a sort of unspoken trust between the reader and the writer, knowing that he’s writing from sort of personal experience, but it is also his experiences that make the novel difficult to read and, at times, perhaps a bit tedious. I can’t imagine that this novel was intended as light Summer reading by the poolside, and the gravity of the novel’s subject matter and its themes is established early on. However, as a Generation Y-er and a student, the novel comes across as dense as a result. Of course, when I began to read it and knowing I was reading it for a class and what it was about, I had to prepare myself. That being said, it is difficult to prepare one’s self completely for such an account, and I’m not sure I ever got used to it. One thing that makes it difficult to get accustomed to the book is its vocabulary. It may be realistic and representative of the experience, but speaking as a college student, it’s difficult to personally invest one’s self and submerge one’s self in the experience when you have to look up most of the words and acronyms.
Most importantly, and oddly enough, I think that the thing that I disliked the most about the novel is one of the things that I most respect about Larry Heinemann as an author and as a soldier, and that is his honesty. We’re so accustomed to this perception of war as this glorified action and it’s difficult to understand war as this one thing. War is a great many things, both ugly and brutal and at times, an absolute necessity. He details these experiences of war and the complexities of the actions that soldiers are asked to perform. As a reader, it put me out of my comfort zone more often than not, but at the same time, I viewed that as such a wake up call. War isn’t something that should be written about safely. It should be bold and it should be daring and it should force you to ask questions of morality and does it even exist in wartime?
Finally, as a reader I felt that this novel challenged me. Heinemann and his characters in the novel force these questions upon its readers, but never really provide them with answers. He clearly has his own feelings about the war and he articulates them quite well, amidst the jumble of military jargon, but he never provides answers to these questions of morality. I don’t think he necessarily has the answers. I would imagine that even at his age now, he’s still looking for answers. That’s what he asks of us as an audience. He asks us to question the actions and the unfolding of the Vietnam War. More importantly, this novel seems to be a quiet and dignified plea to not let the Vietnam War be forgotten as it seems to have become in recent years. Heinemann beautifully details the reality of the Vietnam War as a soldier and through it’s difficulties, seems to succeed in relating the experience to the new generation.


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