Black veterans remember Vietnam; Bloods: An Oral History of the Vietnam War by Black Veterans, by Wallace Terry. New York: Random House. 300 pp. $17.95.
Oral histories are attempts to reconstruct the past through the voices and language of those who experienced it. The trouble is, the results are often mixed. Rambling or sentimental, they may sometimes miss the larger picture.
Fortunately, this is not true of ''Bloods,'' which is built on interviews with 20 Vietnam veterans, all of whom are black. These men succeed in painting the larger picture of a society tinged by racism, which relied on a disproportionately large number of blacks to do its fighting. Their comments range over discrimination, urban riots, Martin Luther King Jr., and their memories of the urban and rural worlds they left behind when they headed for duty in Asia. Author Wallace Terry shows skill and sensitivity in giving us a platoon of men who shared a common experience and helps illuminate an era.
Like good fiction, ''Bloods'' presents these men and their histories in a firm but objective tone, without apology. The soldiers include both heroes and losers - officers, NCOs, and enlisted men. Coming from both North and South, each of them went to Vietnam with a degree of naivete, just to do his ''duty.'' Many of them still believe the United States could have won the war.
Arthur E. (Gene) Woodley Jr. recalls vividly what it was like to have to kill an enemy soldier advancing through the elephant grass. Woodley, who came from East Baltimore, is very unlike David Parks, author of ''G. I. Diary,'' or George Davis, the protagonist in ''Coming Home,'' a novel about a black soldier in Vietnam. Those were articulate black men, very much like their white counterparts in other war books of the era.
But Woodley is a street fighter, competent with weapons, bottles, or fists, and equally comfortable with Puerto Ricans and ''rednecks.'' He never questioned the racism he encountered in his hometown or in the Army. In fact, he once saved the life of a close friend and fellow soldier who belonged to the Ku Klux Klan.
In some ways he is like Marine Sgt. Maj. Edgar Huff. Upon retirement from the military Huff received telegrams of congratulation from President Nixon and Gov. George Wallace of Alabama. Seven hundred guests showed up for a party in his honor. Yet, despite such laurels, he still encounters racism in his own backyard.
Hemingway once wrote that war ''is one of the major subjects (of literature) and certainly one of the hardest to write truly of.'' Terry's veterans maintain a fidelity to the subject by speaking of this war and the special place of their race in it, not as a disease or abnormality, but as something they have seen and experienced and must share with those who didn't. ''Bloods'' brings the war very close to home, indeed.