This book is different. It’s different from what I typically read and it’s different from what Jim Ross typically writes. It is also different from other Vietnam memoirs; at least I think it is. I’ve not read a ton of Vietnam memoirs so I can’t speak to that last point with any authority but I can try to explain why I believe it. In the more than forty years between the events told of in the book and the book’s completion, Ross wrote or co-wrote several other books and developed some formidable writing skills. That’s hardly all he learned, of course, but he somehow manages to keep most of those other things out of this book. In Outside the Wire: Riding with the “Triple Deuce in Vietnam, 1970, Jim Ross tells the story of a twenty year old kid, including the words and thoughts of that kid, with the skill of an accomplished writer and my sense is that that is a rare combination.
Not different is the basic story being told. Thousands of kids got drafted, trained, and sent off to Vietnam to shoot and be shot at. The details vary, of course. In Ross’ case, the shooting started with an M16 then he eventually became the man behind the 50 caliber machine gun mounted atop the armored personnel carrier to which he was assigned. Being shot at started with misdirected cluster bombs fired by US artillery then went on to include grenades, mortars, machine gun fire and other assorted projectiles from the other side. Even when the enemy wasn’t actively sending harmful things their way, the men had plenty to fear from the booby traps and land mines that were left behind.
I recall briefly questioning, early on in my read, how anyone could remember such detail through all those years but I soon realized that these are the sort of details that it is impossible to forget. Ross did some truly heroic things in Vietnam and he tells about them quite matter-of-factly. He also did some rather dumb things and tells about them just as matter-of-factly. That is not to say that the book is only a catalog of facts. Ross is as adept at describing his younger self’s emotions — plenty of fear and anger — as he is at describing the actions of a firefight.
Both friend and foe figure into that fear and anger. Being afraid of and angry at someone who is trying to kill you is pretty easy to understand but the soldiers on the ground also feared that the higher-ups would do something stupid and were justifiably angry when they did. From a four decade distance, it might be tempting to write about anger being directed at the safe-at-home politicians responsible for the war’s existence but that was rarely the case. For the most part, an enlisted grunt was concerned only with the decisions that affected his odds of staying alive for the next hour or day. Blame was rarely directed higher than the platoon leader. It only happened when it seemed that some big shot was padding his resume at their expense. After a particularly costly battle in tight quarters, Ross comments that:
Once again they had proven that mechanized infantry was always good for a sucker punch when shackled by terrain. It was as if we had brought a gun to a knife fight and still lost. Even though they had likely sustained greater loses, the psychological edge was theirs.
Several pages of color photographs help illustrate Ross’ words. These are not the artful photographs Ross fans are used to seeing in books like Route 66 Sightings. These are snapshots of soldiers taken by other soldiers. They no doubt help in visualizing what the words describe but the words need little help. The words paint vivid pictures. They are profane. They are the words soldiers use in profane situations and there is no more profane situation than war.
Ross draws no conclusion and does no preaching. What he does do is bring veteran skills to the telling of a rookie’s story. Well done.
Outside the Wire: Riding with the “Triple Deuce in Vietnam, 1970, Jim Ross, Stackpole Books, February 2013, 9.1 x 6.1 inches, 320 pages, ISBN 978-0811712224