book review

In keeping with my recent book review concept (see my review of the Korean War book), this is a review for Marine Sniper: 93 Confirmed Kills by Charles Henderson, about the exploits of marine sniper Carlos Hathcock.

The book was a pretty quick read. It was the size of a standard fiction western or romance paperback, and it read about as quickly. I think it was slightly under 300 pages.

The story follows Hathcock’s career as he becomes a sniper in Vietnam, with several flashbacks to earlier times in his life. It’s a somewhat entertaining story, but most of the enjoyment comes from realizing that it is nonfiction. If you didn’t know better you’d assume it was normal fiction. But, in this case it really happened, and the guy they are talking about is really real.

On the negative side, I wouldn’t mind it being a little less fictiony. I think
Henderson tried too hard to make it read like a fiction novel. There are numerous sections of dialog in the book, and they just don’t come across as being genuine. He says in the preface that the dialog sections among the Viet Cong and other enemies are fictionalized (since no one was there to record them) but even the exchanges between Hathcock and friends just don’t come across as being authentic. They often read as though one person is defining terms and terminology to another, when such exchanges would rarely take place in real life.

Because of this fiction-type of storyline, you never really get bogged down when reading the book. It flows from the first page to the last page, although the flashback sequences are sometimes hard to identify. You’ll be reading along and you kinda have to watch carefully to realize that you are now reading about an earlier event in Hathcock’s life. This is relatively minor, but it is something to be aware of.

As with many books describing history in geographic locations that us Americans know little or nothing about, a map would have been helpful. A book like this doesn’t really need more than one map, probably. But that would have been nice to have simply as a reference.

Concerning Hathcock’s illness. It doesn’t get hardly any treatment in the book until
the end, except for one section about his body shaking and feeling bad in the middle of the book. You get the impression that this event will be the beginning of the end and you’ll hear more and more about it, but that doesn’t transpire. He has this event, you read words about it being an ominous foreshadowing of things to come, and then you don’t hear any more about it until Hathcock is out of Vietnam for several years.

Is the book recommended? Sure. It’ won’t take you more than a few hours. If you don’t know of Carlos Hathcock, or don’t know much about him, you should definitely read it. It’s a brief introduction to a truly amazing man. His exploits have been repeated ad naseum, and they have been tweaked and twisted into movie segments and sequences that you’ll definitely recognize as you read the book. The Sniper is the most feared weapon on the battlefield. And Hathcock was definitely the most feared sniper of them all.

Lately, I’ve decided that I need to read more about various non-fiction things, such as history. So, I’ve been reading books that I figured might enlighten me in various ways.

I started out by reading The Diary Of A Young Girl, also known as Anne Frank. I wanted some Jews-In-Hiding history. Next, I read the brief, but amazing The Hiding Place, by Corrie Ten Boom.

After that, I decided to move from World War 2 to the next war that America was tightly involved in: the Korean War. After looking around for a while, I decided on Bevin Alexander’s Korea: The First War We Lost. The book seemed reasonable, and Bevin Alexander had been a combat historian during the “police action”, so it seemed as though he would probably know what he was talking about.

First, a few technical issues. For reasons known only to the book binders, the copy I read started at chapter 1. The first regular page in the book was the first page of Chapter 1. No title page… nothing. When I made it page 86, the next 14 or so pages were the title page, table of contents, table of figures, etc. And then, page 87 and so on. Strange, but not that big of a deal.

The book is 483 pages long, with another 80 or so pages of “notes” and index. Bevin does what seems to be a good job of citing sources. I didn’t do the legwork to track down the thousands of references that he includes, but I assume that they are accurate.

Before reading this book, I really didn’t know anything about the Korean War. Blame whoever you want, but that’s the fact. My uncle was in the War and M*A*S*H was based there. According to wikipedia, the Korean War is called the Forgotten War, because people just don’t say much about it. So, I was looking for a book that would give a history of the war, along with political motivations, and a little bit of everything else. This book did what I would consider a pretty good job of achieving this.

After a brief teaser on the first couple of days of the breakout of war (June 25, 1950), the book goes into describing the political situation before the war. This was done pretty well. By the time Bevin got back to discussing the war-proper, I felt like I had a good grasp of the creation of the Koreas, Taiwan’s place in all of this, and how the fear of spreading communism forced America to behave the way they did.

The beginning months of the war are then discussed in detail. North Korea blitzed into South Korea. The tanks that the NK had simply rolled over the ROKs primitive weapons. Only when more advanced weaponry showed up (after several weeks and months) did the tide start turning. By this point, the Pusan Perimeter was in full effect, and MacArthur’s brilliant Inchon invasion helped turn the tide. Then the UN forces managed to beat the NK back well north of the 38th parallel, which caused China to get into the war a few weeks before winter 1950 hit in earnest. China then beat the UN forces back to the general area of the 38th parallel (not exactly, but you get the idea). MacArthur is then relieved of duty by Truman and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and, at this point, you are approximately 400 pages (out of an approximate 500 total) into the book, and you have only covered about the first six-eight months of the three-year war. I don’t feel like I have enough of a grasp of what occurred in the last 2.5 years.

The main things discussed after this are the peace talks, the battle for Bloody Ridge, and events that occurred at the Prison Camps.

Bevin has several maps (13 all together) describing various engagements. This isn’t enough. Some engagements are described in rather detailed text, and the best that you get is a periodic “(See Map X)”. At the very least, the page number of the desired map should be included. Several times, I found myself wanting to find events on a map somewhere, but didn’t have the appropriate desire to page through the book up to that point to find the appropriate map (assuming a map existed for the area being discussed).

At some points in the book, Alexander goes into extreme detail on early battles, and you get the feeling that other battles are given little or no treatment. Perhaps it really was just a stalemate situation and no events really merit discussion. Since I wasn’t around then, I just don’t know.

It was an interesting read. One of my favorite sayings is that “Those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it”. I noticed it happening in the book (China had apparently defended the North Korean area several times in the past 2,000 or so years to maintain a buffer zone between themselves and the people’s of the south Korean area. This, in part, made it foolish for the UN forces to think that Chinese warning were simply sabre-rattling). I have also noticed similar things happening more recently as happened during the war. During the present Iraqi conflict, we have had lots of problems with events at the prisoner of war camps. The same thing happened in Korea. It’s just interesting to find things that back up sayings that I know and love.

Would I recommend the book? Yes. I would recommend it. I wouldn’t tell you to risk having an automobile accident driving to your nearest book repository to pick it up. It’s not that good. But, it gives what I perceive to be a reasonable account of the Korean War/Conflict/Police Action, and definitely enhanced my knowledge in that area.