As part of my research into books around people’s experiences in the military, I was pointed toward Chickenhawk, a novel by Robert Mason following his time as a Huey pilot in Vietnam. I can safely say ‘Wow’.
The novel starts with mason’s account of helicopter training with the army. As my pal Kev said when he recommended the novel, ‘This guy f*cking loves helicopters’, and he does. Details of how the controls work were given throughout, and gave me flashbacks to playing ‘Gunship’ on the C64 as a kid, and flipping the Apache upside down when trying to play it on realistic mode. With little to no prior knowledge of the controls, you’re given a crash course on what they do, with many things counteracting many other things constantly. When describing the effects of certain things – such as increasing the cyclical – I always figured you’d just crack on, but no, increasing that also affects something else, so you need to adjust the wotsit, which in turn affects the thingy, all resulting in a fully functioning plasma-conduit.
As he describes flight school and the training they did, and the inevitable crashes some trainee pilots had, it really made me think about how dangerous flying them in good conditions was. So seeing the Hueys zipping in and out of an LZ under fire in films suddenly had a new angle to it, for me at least. Any helicopter pilots out there can now scoff at my lack of knowledge. It’s defo not like riding a bike.
From there Mason talks about being assigned to the cavalry, the journey to Vietnam by ship, and to his initial camp there, and its from this point that the book becomes a wild ride. The start isn’t bad by any means, it’s impressive to see what pilots go through, and it’s something I’d never even through about.
Once the missions start coming, you start getting uncomfortable when he discusses ‘an easy flight’, expecting the VC to open up from the trees, or any number of the dangers over there. What I really liked about the novel, is that Mason’s narrative is particularly human. He doesn’t talk about things in a gung ho way, he is phased by the death all around him, and he does suffer as a consequence. As a result, you get to see a very real view of Vietnam from someone who is only there because he f*cking loves helicopters, and trained with the army to become one.
The Cavalry had a name for themselves over there, and you can tell there’s moments when he’s uncomfortable with what is happening. VC hiding in a group of civilians? The gunner takes them all out. Uprooting villagers from one location that generations have lived there and moved to somewhere totally new.
He also gains, and talks about his appreciation of the way of life of some villagers, spotting a waterwheel made entirely from local vegetation, and the different materials they used in their day to day life. Discussing local civilians, how they didn’t know who was VC and who wasn’t, and the massive failings in the US plans is all very telling, and it’s easy to see how things could go so wrong so very quickly.
Landing in what he calls hot LZs (under fire from the VC), he sees friends and fellow pilots shot and killed, has near misses, and starts to feel the futility of the conflict. While the papers and press at home were telling the world they were winning, he is never so sure, as no one on the ground (or in the air) can tell.
I don’t want to talk about the ins and outs of the novel in any detail – well I do, but I also want people to read it – but it is an absolutely stunning novel. It’s the only thing I’ve read in a year or so that has made me read every day – yes Mike, every day.
I can honestly say that it’s a brilliant novel, and the human side of it is refreshing to read and I do recommend it to anyone with even the vaguest interest in military novels.