Red Thunder, Tropic Lightning

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

With his important book RED THUNDER, TROPIC LIGHTNING: THE WORLD OF A COMBAT DIVISION IN VIETNAM, historian Eric M. Bergerud makes an impressive contribution to our understanding of a much misunderstood and still highly controversial conflict. Bergerud takes as his subject the men and women of the 25th “Tropic Lightning” Division, a combat unit which distinguished itself while fighting in Vietnam from 1966 to 1971, and in the process suffered one of the highest casualty rates of any American division in the war. Bergerud sees the experience of the Tropic Lightning Division as a microcosm of the war Americans waged in Vietnam, and he uses this story to illuminate the successes and failures of the American military effort. Although Bergerud provides a chronological narrative of the Tropic Lightning Division’s operations, he devotes the bulk of his book to re-creating the world of a combat infantryman in Vietnam. In separate chapters, Bergerud explores such topics as the terrain in which these soldiers fought, their weapons, their tactics, their morale, and the care they received if wounded. In a particularly compelling chapter, Bergerud examines the complex attitudes Lightning Division soldiers held toward the Vietnamese: their Communist enemies, their South Vietnamese allies, and the civilians trapped in the middle of a fratricidal struggle. Bergerud prepared for the writing of this book by interviewing dozens of Tropic Lightning Division veterans, and he increases the power of his work by quoting extensively from their remembrances. This gives his accounts of life in the bush, base camp, and hospital greater immediacy and moral resonance. While acknowledging the folly of the American effort in Vietnam, Bergerud effectively refutes a number of myths which have grown up about the war. Most notably, he attacks the image of Vietnam veterans as murderous, drugged-out zombies popularized in films. Bergerud argues that the American soldier in Vietnam made the best of a bad situation, winning all the battles in a war which could not be won.