True to its title, Carl Melcher Goes to Vietnam tells the story of one GI’s experiences and tragedies during his tour of duty in Vietnam. The story begins in 1968, when the youthful protagonist, Carl Melcher, flunks out of college and is subsequently drafted. Upon his arrival in Vietnam, he is full of childlike hope that good karma will somehow protect him from getting killed. That is, until his friends, one by one, meet various tragic ends.
In this novel, Paul Clayton pulls off the remarkable feat of being resoundingly anti-war yet simultaneously pro-troops. Clayton’s criticisms of war spelled out in this memoir clearly lie with the waste of human life that so strongly characterized Vietnam rather than with the soldiers who were under obligation to serve. This is emphasized by one of the characters’ statements that, “a lot of good people are being thrown away in this war, sacrificed on the altar of stupidity and ego”.
Complementing Clayton’s anti-war message is a theme of the futility felt by the troops. Day in and day out they are unable to see any real progress gained by their efforts, to the point that Melcher, in a manner that is bordering on delusional, creates a theory about the entire war being one big training exercise. His theory summarizes the surreality that is a part of the men’s everyday existence. The use of this theme ties the novel to the current war in Iraq in that troops and civilians alike are often unable to see any marked progress.
This novel is timely because once again a generation of young people find themselves at the mercy of a conflict they did not have a hand in fomenting. The parallel that can be made between history (Vietnam) and the present (Iraq) may either help delineate meaning in a connection with the past or simply further frustrate with the futility of such repetitive global violence.
The confusion and resentment many 40- and 50-somethings may harbor toward the Vietnam “experience” (as it is sometimes called since war was never officially declared) allows them to connect solidly with Carl Melcher. At the same time the X and Y generations are able to make a historical connection through the commonalities between Carl Melcher and vets of the war in Iraq.
Clayton does well with delivering his anti-war message both subtly and empathically. He does not go into details about gratuitous violence and uses hardly any cursing but rather employs the far more effective language of focusing on the human reaction to tragedy. Make no mistake, Clayton’s lack of profanity, which would normally be characteristic of enlisted men, does not imply that he has provided a watered-down portrait of war. The reader is forced to put away his or her rose-colored glasses when reading of one soldier who is accidentally shot by his own countrymen and another soldier who is suicidal after a mere few weeks in the field.
Clayton fills the plot with dynamic and interesting characters, from the very Southern Beobee to Ron from New York. Racial tension among the troops not only reflects the reality of the time period but also adds to their authenticity as heroes. They are real men, with dark sides, not pristine knights come to save the world from the Viet Cong. Clayton is weaker on his depth of characterization. After their original introductory description, some characters do not differentiate well from others, which can lead to befuddlement on the part of the reader and also dampens Clayton’s emotional appeal.
The book has received mixed reviews. Steven Rosen of Curled Up with a Good Book, says that Clayton separates the book reality from true reality by creating a pseudo-character for his autobiography. Yet Bookpage finds Clayton’s use of Melcher as a canvas for his own experiences to be a deft portrayal of “an innocent abroad”. Still other voices proclaim Carl Melcher Goes to Vietnam to be the next great anti-war novel. The London Morning Paper heralds it as “recommended reading for all ages” due to its historical relevance. So perhaps Clayton’s unnecessary fictionalization of things such as music (he replaces the Rolling Stones with the invented “Steem Masheen”) can be forgiven in favor of the novel’s overall historical consequence.
If nothing else, the novel provokes in the reader questions about the costs of war. Costs in terms of person freedom and in terms of human life. These questions hold vital importance to the current climate; Carl Melcher Goes to Vietnam provides its audience with an honest picture of the trauma caused by war.