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Vietnam novel grippingly unveils the true reality of war

“The War You’ve Always Wanted” is a gripping, gritty Vietnam novel that dives into the stark reality of war, shedding myths along the way. There are no John Wayne-like heroes in this narrative. Instead, we follow an idealistic young man caught in the closing months of the Vietnam War in the early ’70s, as he struggles to help the people there survive while aiming to get out alive himself.

Pat Dolan grew up idolizing his father, a World War II veteran, who returned with medals, pictures, and memories that painted the conflict as a great adventure to his impressionable son. However, when Dolan enlists in the Army and is dispatched to Vietnam—eventually becoming an Army combat correspondent—he discovers that this war is vastly different from what he had imagined.

As someone who is a Vietnam veteran myself, I can probably relate even better than most readers to author Mike McLaughlin’s stark descriptions of life for American soldiers in Vietnam by 1971-72, after years of fruitless warfare dating back to 1965. The tone for the book is set early on when the 19-year-old Dolan arrives at an Army recruiting center to enlist, passing a young protester with an anti-war sign depicting her son’s grave at Arlington cemetery.

Throughout the novel, Dolan hears a phrase repeated by other veterans: “It’s the war you’ve always wanted.” It might have been true when American forces first arrived in force during the ’60s, but by the time Dolan joins the fray seven years later, it’s evident that American troops’ withdrawal is imminent and South Vietnam will soon be overrun by North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces.

Dolan is a smart guy who wants to do the right thing for as long as he’s in Vietnam. Though he didn’t attend college, his love for reading and writing (evident from a series of eloquent letters he wrote to Boston newspapers before joining the Army) gets him noticed by military brass. After a stint with an infantry outfit, he is reassigned as a war correspondent, becoming a military journalist.

Upon moving to his new role, he quickly learns the grim state of things during an initial exchange with the officer in charge of the military newsroom:

“How many US troops were here two years ago?” the officer asks.

“About half a million, Chief,” Dolan responds.

“Five hundred and forty-nine thousand… As of this morning, that number was one hundred and seventy-eight thousand. That’s less than a third of what it was in ’69. Tell me what this means to the Vietnamese.”

“It’s bad, Chief.”

“You are correct, son. On average, one man leaves this country every five minutes, give or take, and that pace is accelerating. There have been days when a thousand men simply got on planes or ships and left.”

Initially, Dolan’s job as an Army combat correspondent is more mundane than dangerous. He writes countless articles and covers various events for his military superiors without witnessing any serious combat or ever firing his rifle. Soon, his fear of dying in Vietnam wanes, replaced by a comfortable routine of doing his job. It’s not the war he expected, but nothing terrible happens to him.

Then, everything changes dramatically in a blinding twist of fate, and Dolan comes face to face with the true horrors of war and the pain and death it brings to everyone involved.

One of the standout aspects of this book is McLaughlin’s detailed descriptions of Vietnam during this period, seen through Pat Dolan’s eyes. At least three of the locations featured—Saigon, Quy Nhon, and Cam Ranh Bay—are places I visited during my own Army service. I also experienced many of the same things Dolan did, such as the unbearable heat, mosquito-borne malaria, distrust from the local populace, and the countdown to going home.

There have been many Vietnam novels over the years, but “The War You’ve Always Wanted” is the real deal.