I have always been cautious of wartime memoirs and even the more realistic wartime fiction, particularly those memoirs and fictions of the Vietnam War, but having taught several of Tim O’Brien’s books in freshman courses, I have a deep respect for the literature that came out of the Vietnam War. I saw how it worked upon my students. Mostly I taught core classes where very few of the students actually wanted to be there, but reading about Vietnam straightened more than a few backs. I’m cautious about reading books from that moment in history because … you can’t read them and remain unaffected. And as is perhaps to be expected for someone of a generation that has never seen a draft, I have no stomach for war.
I began God, Me and the Black-horse before COVI13-19 became the life-altering specter that it has become, and I’ll be honest: I had to put it aside for a couple of weeks when things here in Montana looked bleak.
But it’s a compelling read, and once the new normal of working from home and so forth had fallen into place, I found myself drawn back to Barry Beaven’s voice and experiences in his memoir. His story isn’t the typical one coming out of Vietnam, either, so I learned a great deal about the function and realities of being a noncombatant medic on the front lines. There were a lot of good surprises in reading this book. For example, I knew going in that Beaven had taken the medic path in part because of his religious beliefs, so I expected something more like the memoirs of wartime chaplains that I’ve read, which tend to have more to do with either falling out of faith (disillusionment) or distinctly preachy in
tone, mapping the faith lessons of battle onto the peacetime lives of readers who have never been. There’s nothing wrong with those types of books; it’s just that my own religious upbringing means I’ve already read so very many of them. Beaven is not preachy. His is also not a story of great disillusionment or loss of faith. From what I can tell, he had his reckonings, but he keeps his faith and is rightly proud of his decisions during that time to this day. His is the voice of a thoughtful observer, the kind who notices small details not just because they tended to save his life or help him save the lives of others on a regular basis, but because that’s the kind of storyteller he is. One of my favorite moments in which we watch Beaven watching others is this one:
We had a Spec 6 medic with the unit then. He was an LPN and basically ran the medics. Dr. Cupps was in charge, but the scut was run by him. He had this bad hand tremor that would shake constantly up until the moment he had to do something, and then it would smooth away. It was fun watching him suture or cut as he’d have this shaking needle heading for someone’s skin but then be totally smooth when the needle touched the skin
Through a wonderful command of the details, he perfectly reconstructs both his world and the many personalities moving through it during the wartime years. He summons the tedium of the endless patrols, punctured as it was by sudden bouts of hostile contact.
And yes, he paints a pretty good picture of the kind of emotional callouses combat medics have to develop in response to so much death. And while he puts his readers in that moment perfectly, Beaven the adult memoirist does draw back every now and again to comment upon the actions and thoughts of Beaven the young medic.
But it’s not a tedious read, I guarantee you. Beaven has a good sense for when to give his readers a bit of humor. I may or may not have laughed out loud (T admit nothing) when I read the line:
One of our squadron’s medics stole a jeep and drove to Saigon for a bash and sold it to pay for the party. We got him back but not the jeep.
It’s asides like this that make God, Me and the Blackhorse more than just another record of a hard time. And it’s Beaven’s personality that I find the most valuable aspect of this very interesting memoir.