Our Year of War
Two Brothers, Vietnam, and a Nation Divided
Daniel P. Bolger
Da Capo Press, New York, 2017, 368 pages
Book Review published on: May 18, 2018
In Our Year of War, retired Lt. Gen. Daniel Bolger applies the wisdom and knowledge that comes with thirty-five years in uniform to poignantly tell the story of brothers Tom and Charles Hagel. Bolger retraces the Hagel brothers’ footsteps beginning in Nebraska, relating how they joined the Army, prepared for their year in combat, and survived the crucible of Vietnam. He masterfully weaves in the stories of the Hagel family, the soldiers, the politicians, the places, and the events that would somehow impact the brothers’ journey through the most pivotal year of the war, 1968, and how the war shaped their lives when they returned to a nation deeply divided.
The story begins with an infantry platoon patrolling deep in a hot, steamy jungle. Tom Hagel is walking “point,” a position that put him first in order of movement, and often, first to make contact with the enemy. Even though Tom hated walking point almost as much as he hated the war, he did it for his comrades behind him, beginning with the platoon’s navigator, his brother Chuck. Chuck and Tom Hagel volunteered for the draft and for the infantry, and they requested in-country transfers so they could serve together. The Army approved their transfer requests and assigned them to the same platoon, a platoon where they earned five purple hearts between them.
Even though their story remains the central theme in Our Year of War, the author expands well beyond that. In a tightly disciplined manner, Bolger critically examines the Vietnam War at all echelons of command, calling into question the policies, strategy, and the tactics they employed and ultimately how they were carried out by infantry riflemen men like Tom and Chuck Hagel.
Through the course of the book, we learn about several prominent figures who helped shape the turning point in the war in Vietnam and on the home front. One in particular, Gen. William Westmoreland, who commanded the Military Assistance Command-Vietnam during the Tet offensive, appears throughout the book. His attempt to turn the path to victory into a math problem encompassed the concept of reaching the “Cross Over Point,” where the Americans killed more enemy soldiers than the North Vietnamese could replace; this became the purpose behind all tactical operations in the field.
It all boiled down to “killing Cong,” and no division commander vigorously pursued that better than Maj. Gen. Julian Johnson Ewell of the 9th Infantry Division. Ewell’s relentless and singular pursuit of higher body counts was supported by teams of statistically minded staff officers who turned the 9th Infantry Division into an efficient killing machine as they looked for new ways to root out the enemy and improve their totals on Westmoreland’s charts. The division applied what Ewell coined as “excruciating pressure” onto the enemy. This meant conducting day and night operations that left no quarter to the enemy and finding new ways to draw the enemy out, such as the tactic called “jitterbugging.” The idea behind jitterbugging was to quickly blanket an area using helicopters to insert several small units with the intent of catching the enemy off guard. For the men down in line units like the Hagel brothers, this meant constant patrolling—sometimes at a moment’s notice—frequent contact with the enemy, and mounting exhaustion. In the case of Tom Hagel, a jitterbugging operation earned him a much unwanted third Purple Heart.
Throughout the book, particularly with the 9th Infantry Division, Bolger masterfully shows us the connection between the brass up and down the chain (with all of their grand ideas) and the soldiers on the ground charged with carrying out those plans. His ability to transcend the ranks from general to private, to tell all sides of a story with equal clarity, and to offer fair and respectful judgments after applying all relevant evidence shines in Our Year of War. Bolger tells the story like a soldier, with a dose of dry wit and with acceptance of the inevitability that the Army will keep rolling along.
Our Year of War will draw you in and keep you until you finish. When you finally do, you will be richer for being steeped in the history of two American heroes who served in an Army unaware of the enemy it was facing and returned to a nation at war with itself.
Book Review written by: Lt. Col. Ronald T. Staver, U.S. Army, Retired, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas