Like many other veteran of the Vietnam war experience, Susan O’Neill, who served as an army operating nurse in 1969-1970, was angry enough when she returned that she simply wanted to forget it. Years later, she wrote about her experiences in fictionalized short stories in her Don’t Mean Nothing: Short Stories of Vietnam. (2001, ISBN 0-552-99975-X). Although she swears this is all fiction, it becomes clear that most, if not all of it, is factual, and she’s changed names and possibly places to protect both the innocent and guilty.
The book takes a while to get its legs. The drudgery of the job, the asininities of many of the officers, and the questioning of why the U.S. was there in the first place don’t produce a lot of action stories, but give it time, because the book unfolds well. Many of the characters appear repeatedly in different stories and there’s very little in the way of character development. The personnel are who they are, and make no mistake, they are, almost to a person, jaded about the war and its aims.
O’Neill takes a sympathetic view to both the Vietnamese and to many U.S. soldiers, who were essentially sold a bill of goods before they arrived. Nevertheless, many of them re-up, feeling that at home, there really isn’t much awaiting them. The oppressiveness of attempting to win an unwinnable war is omnipresent, keenly felt as yet another soldier — on either side — arrives in her field hospital (she serves in Phu Bai, Chu Lai, and Cu Chi) with injuries that will created lifelong challenges or soon result in death.
For us here at WoWasis, the best chapter ‘Hope is the Thing with the Golf Club,’ which documents the tits-and-ass show brought in by Bob Hope, in which the comedian’s endless string of bawdy jokes falls increasingly flat on the audience. One of the most memorable characters is the magician Sammy Cohen (‘This Rough Magic’) who spurns a lovemaking attempt by his female assistant to such an extent that the reader is led to believe that he’s probably gay. Or is he?
O’Neill provides more questions than answers, and we found the book to be a worthwhile read more than a decade after its writing. We’re happy it’s still available, and recommend reading it as a worthwhile diversion that still conveys the power of the moment. Buy it now at the WoWasis eStore.