World War II has Catch-22 The Korean War has MASH I’m not sure what book will ultimately serve as the satirical insight to the Vietnam War. I do know it isn’t Nam-A-Rama.
Nam-A-Rama is a farce about “Almost Captains” Armstrong (first name Jack, of course) and Gearheardt, two Marine helicopter pilots in Vietnam. But Armstrong and Gearheardt aren’t in Vietnam just because they’re Marines. They’re actually on a secret mission assigned by the President: sneak into Hanoi, meet with Ho Chi Minh and stop the war. One part of the plan is a little fuzzy. That’s the small matter of whether they’re to stop the war by killing Ho or cutting a deal with him.
Gearheardt is the self-appointed leader, claiming to have been involved with the CIA since joining a childrens’ auxiliary organization. Through most of the book, Armstrong wonders if the mission isn’t just a figment of Gearheardt’s imagination. Moroever, nothing is ever really quite as it seems and there are ultimately wheels within wheels within wheels, involving Cubans, British intelligence and the star of a movie called Barbonella.
The book does take a caustic look at politics, intelligence services, war as a pork barrel, life in the military and military leadership, to name a few. Yet much of the satire did not strike me as funny. Perhaps people who served in Vietnam or the military may find more humor in the book than an “outsider.” But if that is the case, Nam-A-Rama is written for a fairly narrow market.
That doesn’t mean Nam-A-Rama is without merit. It is generally well-written and quite readable. In fact, the few straightforward battle zone scenes in the book rank with the writing of Tim O’Brien and Michael Herr. Had Phillip Jennings, himself a Marine helicopter pilot in Vietnam, written a straightforward novel about the Vietnam War, it may have been a great success. Unfortunately, that novel is lost in Jennings’ choice of satire to portray the absurdity of war.