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Facing down war’s terrors

William Prochnau is the author of "Once Upon a Distant War."

To not be afraid in combat is to not be human, but eyeballing the ape -- encountering the kind of fear that immobilizes and twists the body fetal -- can ruin a man. It surely can ruin an officer leading other fearful men.

Halfway through Donald Pfarrer’s jarring novel “The Fearless Man,” Marine Capt. MacHugh (Mac) Clare eyeballs the ape. He conquers it through his fear of fear and moves on before his men fully appreciate what has happened, but if you were facing the terror of raw combat as a member of Delta Company in Vietnam, a terror painted here without flourish and with all the grit, you would want to follow this young officer.

This is not a perfect novel. Many of us are waiting for the as yet unwritten epic of America’s perhaps finally and fatally lost innocence in Vietnam. Oddly, the nearest an American writer has come is Neil Sheehan in his nonfiction account, “A Bright Shining Lie.” But as a novel about combat, “The Fearless Man” ranks among the best to emerge from a war so political and emotionally charged.

Pfarrer’s strengths as a storyteller are not lyricism or lush description. He writes like a tank -- straightforward and effectively, although he has a magical ability to manipulate you fairly into guessing the wrong ending or missing the mystery of fearlessness until it is sitting on top of you. The captivating power of “The Fearless Man,” however, is his knack for creating all the drama, strategy and tactics of a Napoleonic battle of tens of thousands with the 130 men of Mac Clare’s Delta Company. Spare on romanticizing, Pfarrer writes that spread throughout Delta Company are “gripers, bigots in black and white, haters of the Corps, cowards and shirkers and con men” who meld into “a single imperishable world unto themselves.”

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The combat is divided into three sequences: a brief foray into the forest to find a forward observation post staffed by three Marines who might be dead, a powerful clash with a larger North Vietnamese battalion and a gone-flaming-nuts episode near the end.

We’ve had enough of the last in Vietnam books. It is the great middle that shines here. Clare pries his way into the mind of his North Vietnamese alter ego, dips into the lessons of Napoleon and Sun Yat-sen to outflank his adversary on the right and surprises him with a gut charge up the middle. But Pfarrer does not give Clare a grand army to command and the flanking maneuver sends soldiers with names like Graves Registration and Ichabod and a couple dozen others shuffling to the right, while he leads a handful of Marines in a frontal assault as suicide-prone as Pickett’s Charge. The reader is swept along, men dropping beside him, ducking a severed hand dangling from a tree branch from the previous night’s air assault.

No Vietnam novel can ignore politics, but Pfarrer puts the subject on a back burner. By the end of this epic, Clare has unloaded in an outburst directed at his father-in-law, who challenges him to get back in the real world and rejoin those who make the earth turn.

“Make the earth turn,” Clare echoes. “Like Lyndon Baines Johnson, like Robert Strange McNamara. Like that whole club of blood-soaked buffoons in this city who send marines and soldiers to die for nothing -- because they are making the earth turn.”

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One cannot read this book without wondering whether American fighting men and women will come home from a different war with the same bitter sense that they were sent to die on a fool’s errand by another president and another Defense secretary and a city of blood-soaked buffoons trying to make the earth turn their way. *


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