Picks and Pans Review: A Time of War

updated 04/16/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/16/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Michael Peterson

There are a lot of standard plot devices, a lot of predictable characters, a lot of the usual combat stuff—tragic deaths, craven and heroic behavior as well as corruption—and yet Peterson's book rises out of the muck and presents itself as an authentic and distinguished war novel. The stock characters are worth listening to as the story unfolds.

It is the tale of an American viceroy who has come to Vietnam to end the war at the time of the 1968 Tet Offensive. Bad timing. The chaotic backdrop, like the author's description of sinful Cholon and the American pride of power, is exact. The fact that everyone is engaged in some rigid reenactment of a worn-out saga whose end we all know does not detract from the blunt insights about the nature of war. But then Peterson, a former Marine lieutenant, served in the DMZ and knows firsthand about such things. The ambushes he sets up sound dangerous. The jungle he inhabits has a wet, wild feel to it.

He is less certain when he gets out of the bush and into the offices of the high military commanders. His intelligence people are silly. His American viceroy, Bradley Marshall, and his CIA chief might have been written by action novelist W.E.B. Griffin. But the grunts up at Khe Sanh and the innocent-yet-knowing corporal Mead might have been written by James Jones.

You can detect something important in this book, which is Peterson's belief that the agony of Vietnam was not only the result of high policy mistakes but also the consequence of national character flaws (impatience and overconfidence) and the collision with an unkind fate. It took time for Peterson the author to teach that to Peterson the Marine lieutenant. We get it along with a swell book to read. (Pocket Books, $19.95)

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