In December 1981, a ''special issue'' of Newsweek magazine focused attention on ''The Men of Charlie Company'': their combat experiences in Vietnam in 1968- 69, and their conflicts with public apathy and disapproval back home in the years since. That 15,000-word essay became the basis for a Bill Moyers documentary for public television, and has been expanded into this fine and troubling book.
A team of Newsweek writers interviewed 47 survivors from the 65 men who made up a combat unit (''Charlie Company'') of the 2nd Battalion of the 28th Infantry Regiment, and also several families of deceased soldiers. The story assembled from their research describes the company's 365-day tour of duty in the jungles north of Saigon. It's a harrowing chronicle of hit-and-run warfare waged against an often invisible enemy; of runaway technology rendering fighting men vulnerable to the ''friendly fire'' of their own comrades; of a savage climactic assault on a scarcely penetrable jungle outpost (''Fire Base Julie'').
Nor was there any triumph in their return home - to ''a nation that was itself a victim of the war, its politics embittered, its economy ravaged by inflation, its educated young in revolt, its faith in its own military might and moral rectitude badly wounded.'' The complaint expressed by one speaks for virtually all of them: ''He had done what his country had asked of him. Now the country was saying he had been wrong, and he was angry.''
This is basically a story of what they endured as a group - and the sum total of their suffering is an important part of its effect. Most of them enlisted, or accepted conscription, because service to one's country was ''the thing to do'' (several had rejected parents' offers to send them to safety in Canada). Once in Vietnam, they understood that the war wasn't winnable; ''public opinion back home'' wouldn't support an all-out effort to subdue the enemy. They also realized their superiors lived only for high ''body counts'' and other comforting statistical illusions. No one knew who the enemy was (''one day people are running up to you and hugging you and the next day a little kid is throwing a grenade at you''), or even why the US were there. Simple survival became its warriors' only goal.
Those who did survive found themselves, returning home, strangers to their nearest and dearest. Carefree kids with sunny dispositions had turned into emotional cases. The soldier's ingrained habit of keeping silent about his fears and misgivings made communication, even with parents or wives, almost impossible. There were broken marriages, outbursts of helpless violence, reduced employment opportunities, miserly government benefits, and the knowledge of their exposure to the chemical defoliant ''Agent Orange'' and the uncertainty of its long-range effects on their health, and their children's.
Every one of their stories is memorable, although several have special resonance: Omega Harris's discovery that he couldn't quickly abandon the talent for killing he had cultivated; Curtis Gilliland's love for the Vietnamese people , and grief for their continuing troubles; the ordeal of David and Michel Rioux, brothers and battlefield companions, their religious faith and moral strength severely tested by David's injuries.
The book is well written - compact, vigorous, laced with lean and powerful imagery, and as objective as seems humanly possible, although everywhere infused with an ironic awareness of the failure of the United States to fully support the men it sent to do its fighting or fully comprehend their suffering.
It's easy to say that ''Charlie Company'' should be read by every stateside patriot who's eager to send American kids off on ''police actions'' all over the world. Every opponent of the war who ever called a Vietnam vet a ''baby-killer'' should read it, too. And I'm thinking seriously of sending a copy to my congressman.