A Different Face of War: Memories of a Medical Service Corps Officer in Vietnam

A Different Face of War

Memories of a Medical Service Corps Officer in Vietnam

James G. Van Straten

University of North Texas Press, 2015, 576 pages

Book Review published on: March 3, 2017

James G. Van Straten’s book, A Different Face of War, chronicles his year in Vietnam serving in I Corps as the senior medical advisor to the Army of the Republic of Vietnam. Then a major, Van Straten wrote his wife, Patricia, 352 letters over the course of his one-year assignment. Patricia saved the letters, and they provide the chronology and rich detail that characterizes this book.

Beginning with his almost-did-not-happen two-hour briefing with the officer whom he replaced, Van Straten’s tour began on a run and evolved into an almost-constant sprint as he worked to develop a personal rapport with his Vietnamese counterpart, the Army Republic of Vietnam I Corps surgeon. From the tense Buddhist Uprising ongoing as he arrived in Vietnam, to the informal surgical program for Vietnamese children with deformities he initiated shortly after his arrival, Van Straten describes in detail the many and varied circumstances and duties he found himself performing.

Field grade officers today will easily be able to identify with Van Straten’s experiences in Vietnam. His assignment as the senior medical advisor to the Army Republic of Vietnam in I Corps came without a job description. Van Straten found himself in a complex environment with limited resources. His ability to accomplish tasks was limited to his ability to develop rapport with his Vietnamese counterpart as well as with local nongovernmental organizations. He spent much of his time attending social events and working with civilian agencies that would not have been on any job description, yet were vital to his mission accomplishment. He had a limited staff and commanded no one, yet he achieved tremendous results during his one-year tour of duty. Very few Medical Service Corps majors received the Legion of Merit for their accomplishments during their tour in Vietnam; yet, Van Straten received one.

What resonates throughout the book is Van Straten’s essential goodness and depth of character, as well as his devotion to his duty and family. Any deployed soldier with a family can identify with Van Straten’s anguish over leaving his wife and six children–one of whom was an infant in delicate health–for a theater of war. His love of family and humanity shines through the book as he tirelessly worked to improve the quality of life for many Vietnamese children and their families.

A Different Face of War achieves what its title suggests; it presents a different face of the Vietnam War. Anyone wanting to broaden their understanding of our military’s service in foreign countries would appreciate this very personal book. Newly promoted majors would especially benefit from reading of the experiences of a Medical Service Corps officer whose actual duties far transcended any mere job description. Van Straten displayed all of the qualities we desire to see in our field grade officers.

Book Review written by: Lt. Col. Kevin L. Watson, U.S. Army, Retired, Fort Belvoir, Virginia