Raw Man Review
History 112 – Meyers
Raw Man is a brutally honest book showing the reality of the Vietnam War and the aftermath of the people involved. It is a glimpse into Fred Rivera’s life during the war, in the battlefield, and on the home front including the good, the bad, and the ugly, but mostly the wildly ugly. This book gives us insight on coping with tragedy and fighting for life and our country through a writing style we can relate to without even being present during this time.
One of the major aspects of war that is really highlighted in this book is how death becomes sort of meaningless while amidst battle and a how a person becomes numb during constant stress and chaos. While writing a letter to his mom, Rivera admits that when a person is shooting at you, you don’t realize it because that is commonplace in the day to day. In response to that, it seems that life is cheap because casualties never cease and there will always be a person to fill a void in need. Rivera’s dear comrade Herman puts this comprehension of life and death into words with the small line on the bottom of page 23; “Same o’ same o’. Lose one nigger, get another. Uncle Sam just keeps ‘em coming.” The value of life by itself was not appreciated in the monstrous setting of the Vietnam War. Value was determined by work done, and enemies killed. An example from Rivera’s life in the jungle that demonstrates this thought is when he brings up Dale Darnel, the hyper weird guy, on page 66. Rivera recaps a night where he was playing cards with fellow soldiers to relax and forget the stressful day and Dale persistently asked for water with no luck. Getting frustrated, Dale pulls the pin to a live grenade and asks for water again. Obviously panicked, the boys beg for him to put the pin back into the grenade but he gave them no break and handed them a live grenade to dismantle before detonation instead. If not properly dismantled, the grenade would have killed them but it was just used as a pawn in a game. This is a near death experience that people genuinely fear for and it was just part of their ordinary day. If the grenade had gone off, they would just be another casualty of war and replaced because the show must go on. This is their outlook on the value of life that is regarded so highly today.
Another one of the major themes that is present throughout this book are ways of coping for people in the war, post-war, and families of the war. During the war, the struggle was evident and multiple methods of ‘clearing the mind’ were used. Rivera, and men just like him, clung to the idea that if there was at least one good thing about Nam, it was the great weed. Smoking was considered a way to get out of ones body for a moment or two after a long day of battle. It was also a ceremony for those that were dear and lost during the daily struggle. A passage from page 73 really sums up the way they feel about coping and drugs and that is, “We talked about Doc Lewis not being with us anymore and we smoked a bowl to him. We smoked a bowl to Bobby Haynes and one for Wayne Saunders. By then we started losing guys, as they had smoked so much weed they were passing out left and right.” Drugs ranging from alcohol to opiates, and probably even worse, were rampant among these men and became a crutch to ease the pain and heartache. Obviously, Vietnam was a very different time but this is a relationship that carries on into today’s society with heavy homeless drug addiction and marijuana becoming legalized. Drugs will remain a societal crutch, always have and always will.
Rivera talks about how coping on the home front required a different approach than abusing substances, although it was practiced as well. With the Vietnam War being publicized through media more than ever before, people could see the horrific events taking place in South East Asia. Citizens supported, and many opposed, returning troops just trying to make it home. Rivera writes about his return where a young woman spat in his face and deemed him a ‘baby killer.’ This woman had no evidence that Rivera was what she had said but the war was a very negative subject to society and anti-war protests were growing rapidly. Groups like Mothers for Peace, Students for a Democratic Society, Black Panther Party, Chicano Anti-War Group, etc. had a very large role in the states at that time. At home, Rivera joins the Vietnam Veterans Against the War to cope with the aftermath that he had found himself in. “I had mixed feelings about taking part in an anti-war demonstration after just over a week of being back in the World. But now that I was home, I could not see any good reason for the war and the killing to continue” (pg. 231).
This notion identifies a new theme in Rivera’s book where the atmosphere of America was changing and there was a new type of war to deal with: anti-war protesters and the law. Rivera talks about the day he joined an action at Griffith Park where the VVAW were throwing their badges, medals, and ribbons they earned into a coffin as an act of defiance. This is day that he realized his war was not over, for the law enforcement of Los Angeles (which he refers to as East L.A.’s occupation army) retaliated against all of the individuals’ involved, whole families and all, for exercising their First Amendment rights. After being beaten, pepper sprayed, kicked, cuffed, and jailed, Rivera gives insight to the protester’s basic concept while talking to his father which is: “there is a war going on right here, in this country, in this community. Until today, I never saw the strength of opposition to the war I just abdicated. I believe the American people can bring an end to this vicious war” (pg. 231). This is a war that didn’t require violence but inherently possessed it because of opposing views on what is right and what is law. The key slogan: struggle is not in Vietnam but in the movement for social justice at home.
When Rivera realized that the war had shifted drastically in the US, he was on the receiving end of brutality. What was supposed to be a Peace Movement guided by the teachings of Martin Luther King and Gandhi, turned into an attack on thousand of non-violent protestors. The war he had helped fight for was now fighting against him and the echoes of Vietnam rang like a bell. The transformation from the beginning of the book to the end, from the ally to the enemy, is the major comparison that needs to be addressed.
Rivera’s writing style makes this book worth the time because he is great at recapping his past in a very fluid manner. The information he chose to include grabbed my attention and made the book hard to put down. I felt as if I was in the jungle myself from all of the detail he provides. He had a way of balancing all of the gruesome, bloodcurdling events that took place during his draft with all the positive insight he took from the war and people around him. By including his own letters his mother kept, the reader is able to look at this era through his eyes and interpretation. This is a way to analyze history that isn’t focused in any textbook. Raw Man would definitely be considered a great read.