For Chuck Newhall, a young lieutenant in the famed 101st Airborne Division, the Vietnam War did not end for him or his family when he returned home in June 1969 after12 months of rugged combat in the A Shau.
With uncommon candor and crisply written language, underscored by searing emotion hidden from most observers by his deliberate stoicism and well-cultivated warrior ethic, Newhall’s “Fearful Odds, A Memoir of Vietnam and Its Aftermath,” is as painfully absorbing book that I have read in a long time. I highly recommend it.
This book has two parts. In the first part, Newhall describes his horrific, life-changing experience in war. He details how his platoon and company, part of the 1st Battalion, 327th Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, fought bravely against the North Vietnamese Army, often outmanned, against great odds. He served with heroic soldiers and officers; he served also with soldiers and officers who cared mostly about saving their own hides. He felt mostly proud, sometimes disgusted.
The other part of the book, Newhall’s first, dealt with his marriage, which failed and then ended with his young’s wife’s suicide at age 32. After her tragic death in a field behind his home, Newhall underwent extensive therapy. He learned that he suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Up to his wife’s death, he hid his emotions as he established a fabulously successful venture capital firm in Baltimore, MD.
In pursuit of a career that brought great wealth and beautiful possessions, driven too by a warrior ethic to win, win and win, Chuck Newhall sacrificed his marriage. He didn’t realize that his wife, a manic-depressive, would express her frustration at feeling abandoned and unable to create her life outside the walls of an expensive home by beating their two sons.
Why did I read this book, finding it difficult to put it down? Chuck Newhall is a friend whom I met as fellow undergraduates at the University of Pennsylvania. While I knew he was a member of the school’s Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) and an English major, I did not know about his desire to fight in war and fulfill his ambition to be a warrior. Yes, he seemed different in his love of the military. At the same time, he was an approachable person with refined tastes.
I attended his wedding to the 19-year-old Marsi Marr. She was likable and attractive. I remember a party at his parent’s home before he deployed for training prior to entering combat. He and I would talk periodically over the years as I tried to enliven his personal and financial interest in our alma mater. Our conversations differed greatly from of mine with classmates. Chuck was always candid and revealing.
In the preface, Newhall wrote that “this is a book about universal truths: the nature of war, the nature of leadership, the band of brothers, and reflections about the nature of love between a warrior and his bride. It is about the damage war does to those who survive it. It is about how war destroys love and life.”
In an exchange with his psychiatrist, Newhall said, “My mind plays tricks on me. The harder the armor, the more fragile the flesh. My chiton shell is impervious to the world. But my flesh is jelly. When the shell is breached, I have few defenses. I have difficulty dealing with anger—Marsi’s anger, my mother’s anger, or my partners’ anger. Yet give me an affront against my family, my honor, or most important of all do something that is morally wrong, and I will be your enemy. I may look calm, but such affronts send me back to the A Shau Valley for my soul is the soul of a warrior, I seek peace in battle and peace in destroying my enemy. Battle is the place I feel most secure.”
I have read many books about war. They generally command your rapt attention, as this one does. But “Fearful Odds” is different. While the author is a friend, but not a close one, I found his candor and soul-searching sometimes excessively wrenching to absorb. At the same time, I admired his willingness to open his troubled soul and aching heart to readers who may feel stunned and shocked by the unvarnished truth.
I wonder if the author, blessed with extraordinary writing skills and a deeply ingrained and developed sense of the warrior ethic, as he viewed it, was determined to show his strong character and acknowledged vulnerabilities–as if he were still swinging his rifle in the A Shau Valley. This book is a relentless burst of recollections, reflections, regrets and recriminations.
Chuck Newhall has led a remarkable life. He has tasted success, winning a Silver Star and two Bronze Stars. He helped established a venture capital firm that brought him tremendous financial award. And he experienced personal tragedy for which he takes responsibility. He has suffered the ravages of PTSD, battling the demons of combat in which good and courageous people died.
I believe that this book presents an uncommonly honest view of the Vietnam War, as told by a person determined to hide little about a war he fought in the Southeast Asia jungle and the longer lasting internal battle that Chuck Newhall fought when he returned home. His rapid-fire writing style makes this memoir highly readable.
Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland. Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer. In retirement, Howard serves on the boards of several non-profits on the Eastern Shore, Annapolis and Philadelphia.