Excerpt: Review of "Sergeant Back Again"
The Hudson Review: Summer 1981 Vol XXXIV - Number 2
by George Kearns

The strongest, best-written novel by a new writer I have seen for a very long time is Charles Coleman's Sergeant Back Again. Coleman, who served as a medic in Vietnam and later in the mental wards at Chambers Pavilion, Fort Sam Houston, the scene of his book, tells us in a didactic Foreword:

I did not make this story: it came to me that way, ready-made, defined by historical circumstances, generated by the soldiers who have had to fight the mo
st insidious and intimate battle: the one with yourself. . . . In writing this book I am mainly a chronicler who was left no choice but to try to speak for the inarticulate, the psychically scarred, and the wasted . . . . It is a synthesis of personal experiences, observations, interviews, and journals here woven together into a narrative.

Elsewhere, in a press release, he says that the book began as a documentary, “but I discovered that distancing myself was more crucial than achieving exact chronology or unflinching accuracy. However [it is] the unvarnished truth.” There will be readers who will not agree with me that Coleman has been completely successful in moving from documentary to drama, and who may share his own ambivalence about aestheticizeing the experience. The crucial point may be the character of Mr. (formerly Captain) Pollard, a traumatized inhabitant of the Ward, whose long, articulate discourses on the meaning of Vietnam are “distanced” by Coleman's making him a Berkeley professor, an Asian scholar who sees that his work in Army intelligence in Vietnam has helped destroy the culture he meant to preserve. Perhaps Coleman would think it beside the point if readers either take or mistake Pollard as his spokesman.

The central figure, however, is not Pollard, but Specialist Andrew Collins, a medic who began deeply to identify with his wounded patients in Vietnam, worked with the ESR (Every Soldier's Responsibility, an anti-war movement), released to the Press documents about torture and murder of prisoners, and wrote a series of letters addressed to himself by the voices of American dead and wounded.

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Excerpt: American Literature and the Experience
of Vietnam

by Philip Beidler

Charles Coleman's Sergeant Back Again, a challenging, intelligent, painful book, is about the war-haunted inmates of a psycho ward in a Stateside army medical center, and about their attempts, some successful and some monstrously failed, to put off the madness of the war that has in one way or another seized them to the farthest depths of being.

With regard to Sergeant Back Again, more than one writer commented on the sense of profound experiential authority that pervaded the narrative, seemed in fact its most compelling feature. Evident throughout was the author's deep commitment to telling a story that was clearly his own and that of the men he himself had come to know and care for most deeply ten years earlier.

"The point of this is that we, gentlemen, we have to make some sense of this. We have to make some sense of ourselves." So, in Sergeant Back Again, speaks Pollard, the mad, broken, scholar-intelligence specialist, who now attempts to engineer a pact among his fellow psychic victims to get to "the truth of what happened, and why it happened," at whatever the cost, even if in the process the chance of thereby coming back instead eclipses itself into the final certainty of no return.

But there is also the young surgical specialist named Collins, the one soldier who does come through by going all the way back, abandoning himself to flight and darkness, casting himself down in the muck of a Texas riverbed and spending a last solitary terrible night in frenzied reenactment of what he has undergone, forming in clay effigy a "yearbook," his young psychiatrist Captain Nieland tells him, a "catalogue," a "sum total" of all the dead Americans he tried so desperately to keep alive. Collins returns from this to realize that "the possibility of making some sense of the non sense was not the futile plea of a madman."

 

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