top of page

The Volatile War in Vietnam - an Editorial Review of "Lightning Split the Tree"

Book Blurb: Coming soon

Book Buy Link: Coming soon

Author Bio: Coming soon

Editorial Review:

This first person account of the American involvement in the politics of the highly volatile and unstable region of south east Asia and, specifically, of the Vietnam War, pulls absolutely no punches from the start! From the very first page, the reader is plunged into a depiction of violent event; culminating in multiple deaths and the destruction of a village that has clearly exhibited sympathies for the enemy. In his brief forward, Thomas Allen makes an especial mention and thanks to Richard Parker, a veteran of the Vietnam War and who served three tours of duty between 1969 and 1971. Perhaps the memories of Thomas Allen are also contained here. In any event, 'Lightning Split the Tree' reads like an autobiographical account, despite it being described as a work of fiction.

Mike Beaty, the hero of this truly harrowing tale, is from Paw Creek, North Carolina. A boy with a Baptist upbringing, keen and gifted at sport, he is in his final year at High School and approaching his eighteenth birthday in 1967. He is prime fodder to be caught up in the rapidly escalating war in Vietnam. Even at this young age, he is fully aware of events overseas and of domestic politics. Accordingly, he is aware of Eisenhower's 'Domino Theory' and of the growing threat of World Communism and the measures that the American Government had been taking for some years past. The Johnson government has been sending 15.000 regular troops every month to the area, and the casualty rate is increasing. Young Mike, the son of a man with his own proud record of war service, feels, that despite his own personal uncertainty as to the justification of American involvement, it is nonetheless his responsibility to his nation, he feels, to become involved and to 'do his bit'. The 'Military Service Act', passed in 1967, requires him to register and, accordingly, on the day of his eighteenth birthday, he registers for the draft on 21st March and a week later he enlists. Although still too young to either drink alcohol or to vote, he is deemed old enough to kill! Before the year is out, he steps off a plane at Da Nang Air Force Base in Vietnam, a fully trained M-60 machine gunner with the rank of E4 - the equivalent of Corporal. He is promptly transferred to 'Forward Operating Base Halo', 50 kilometres north west of Da Nang and 50 kilometres south east of Hue. The Vietnam War has caught up with eighteen year old Mike Beatty and it will not let go of him again for some time to come.

From the very start, the whole experience is a jolt. There is so much to acclimatise to. First, there is the brutal reality of the climate. ''The jungle,'' the reader is told, ''is hot and steamy and forbidding. It is either dry as a desert or raining like all get out. There are three distinct climate zones in Vietnam. Here in north central Vietnam, the dry season is typically from January to mid September when the temperatures are high and there is very little rain. The dry season turns everything into a hot oven with very little to no air movement. The air is filled with a thick dust generated by anything that moves. That thick orange dust gets into your nose and throat, making you cough and feel like you can't breathe.....By contrast, the rainy season runs from mid-September to December, and the heavy monsoon rains come in torrents causing small streams to become raging rivers that wash over bridges and unpaved runways. The monsoon rains are accompanied by damaging sixty-mile-per-hour winds and vicious, bright, deadly flashes of lightning. The constant wet conditions cause shoe leather, canvas tents, and everything else to rot, and the rain storms hamper normal military operations....''

Almost immediately upon arrival, Beaty is summoned on a mission outside the dubious protection of his base at Halo and out into 'Indian Country' - as it was termed - as part of a group allocated to a 'search and destroy' mission and as a member of the unit 'Rifle Squad Alpha'. By now the reader has been furnished with a number of brief thumbnail sketches of certain of his comrades - and a mixed bunch they are, to be sure - under the leadership of Staff Sergeant Jack Rizzo, a hardbitten veteran and a professional. This highly experienced man will play an increasingly important role in the narrative as Beaty's leader, mentor and, ultimately, friend. This particular 'search and destroy' mission is part of the overall strategy of waging war by attrition in Vietnam as established by the supreme Commander, General Westmorland. The mission begins and ends with appalling violence and with very little tangible outcome and is Mike Beaty's first violent and bloodsoaked introduction to the realities of the war in Vietnam. He has also laid the foundations of a reputation for bravery and recklessness that will stand him in good stead for the future. The pattern of his life at Halo has been set, the violence and brutality of his excursions out into 'Indian Country', the increasing casualties among his comrades, the seemingly eternal diet of spam and scrambled eggs, the frequent harassment of the base by Vietcong attacks, and the boredom and monotony of life on the base and the power and intensity of idle talk:

''Gossip is the number one pastime of a soldier. And the story changes and grows with each retelling. If someone threw a grenade and blew up a villager hut, it has morphed into a nuclear bomb being dropped on the village by the tenth retelling. Bored, scared and lonely soldiers use oral stories as a social outlet. It's the culture of a remote Army Base.''

There is also, of course, in addition to the tension generated by their next projected mission into 'Indian Country', the careful preparations necessary and the sheer physical weight of the equipment that they are required to carry into the hot and alien jungle where everything they were likely to encounter was potentially an enemy intent on killing them:

''I never realised what a soldier carried. The fact is, the typical soldier carries an average of sixty five pounds. I'm talking water bottles, grenades, twenty one M-16 magazines, a bayonet, an E tool shovel, empty sandbags, and more; like an M I helmet, socks, toilet paper, a zippo lighter, C rations, smoke grenades, and even a rain poncho. An M-60 gunner had an extra twenty four pounds of weight to carry, plus the weight of the ammo.......''

Beaty has not been on station at Halo a month before he has distinguished himself in a number of actions [each with its own depressing rosta of casualties] and has been commended by his officers. He has also received a promotion - to the rank of E5. At one point, apart from the occasional nuisance attacks and periodic shelling that the grunts of Halo treat as routine occurrences, the Base is subjected also to a full blooded enemy infantry assault that leaves many dead and Beaty himself wounded. This time he has killed up close, in deadly hand to hand combat. He is further promoted to the rank of E6 and awarded the Purple Heart for wounds received and for gallantry. Throughout the narrative, young Beaty remains a somewhat paradoxical individual and at odds with his immediate surroundings. He remains true to his Baptist roots and eschews the possibility of pre-marital sex and the other sundry attractions of the drug culture of the time. He himself appears slightly puzzled by the all pervading violence that surrounds him and of his own ambivalent attitude towards it. He explores this theme frequently in the book:

''There is no describing the wait for death. My mind flashed to the many people I had already killed; how easy I found it to take a life. I loved the adrenaline rush and the smell of cordite; they moved me to action. I struggled with the thought of how easy it was to kill. I struggled with the thought of being a cold-blooded killer, of being that man that can kill so easily. But this is what I was trusted to do. I am physically and emotionally trained to kill, but I know this killing has changed me forever.....'' This is, of course, a classic definition of the condition of PTSD - post traumatic stress disorder - and a troubled Mike Beaty refers to it frequently, begging the question, of course, as to the number of veterans who returned home from the War extremely traumatised......''I thought about all the killing. I find killing to be too easy, thinking about the man that I have become worries me. The many nightmares that float around in my brain, and I am haunted by these images I will never forget. But most of all, I hate that I love the adrenaline rush and the smell of cordite that makes me want to kill. I worry about becoming who I am on the battlefield; a killer that finds it so easy to take a life and not give two green beans about it.....''

In fact, the eighteen year old Baptist from North Carolina has arrived just in time for the infamous Tet Offensive of January 1968, when the NVA [North Vietnamese Army] and the Viet Cong launched an Offensive aimed primarily at towns and cities in South Vietnam timed to coincide with the Buddhist New Year. Although isolated by their very location, the inhabitants of Halo experience an even greater frontal assault on the base on 30th January 1968, slightly earlier than the main assaults of the Tet Offensive. The violence and the death toll is even more pronounced. In the event, the Tet Offensive was a failure for the N.V.A. and the Vietcong, but the effects upon the Americans, both at home and abroad in the military, were far more profound. Throughout his two tours, Mike Beaty, something of an 'everyman' in the army, makes notes of the changes as he sees them while he steadily rises in the ranks, receives further decorations and is finally appointed as a full Sergeant. Around him, however, the death and destruction continues unabated. His remarks upon the effects of war remain clear and perceptive, despite his almost constant challenging of himself and his motives. He is a keen diarist and notes the chain of events following the Tet Offensive. America has suffered a profound psychological defeat and a blow to the power of its own propaganda; a discrediting reversal on its previously dearly held ''domino theory''. The news of forthcoming peace talks comes to him as a thunderbolt, so too does the announcement that President Johnson is not seeking and will in fact refuse a second term of office. The Tet Offensive has taken down a President and inflamed anti war sentiment in the U.S.A. This resurgence of hostility towards the military is something that Beaty will experience for himself when he returns to the States America, he concludes bitterly, has been defeated! Search and destroy tactics are discarded and the Vietcong seize the initiative in the jungles of Vietnam. On his very last operation before a period of leave in Hawaii [Beaty has chosen this location in preference to an opportunity to visit the fleshpots of Thailand] his section is ambushed and all but three of his twenty man patrol are killed!

In Honolulu [where he is still too young to buy himself an alcoholic drink] he meets and falls in love with a girl of identical age named Margaret Murray, the daughter of a serviceman. He vows that he will marry and spend the rest of his life with her. There is still, however, the minor matter of the Vietnam War to survive first. On his return to Halo, he is promoted to the rank of an E6 Staff Sergeant and placed in command of Rifle Squad Bravo, with all the responsibilities that attended this. His current tour of duty is due to end and he is offered the opportunity of re-enlisting and becoming a career soldier; to which Beaty somewhat self-consciously and piously repeats a by now familiar mantra:

''I love the action of combat. I am itching to kill. But I do not enjoy the killing......I do not enjoy the serenity, the inaction of a non-combat position. Some poeople say that I am a hero, but I believe I am more of a paladin, a defender of the cause, perhaps even a mercenary. I am in fact a hired gun. I sold myself to the army for college tuition. I absolutely love the disciplined lifestyle and the comradery offered by the Army; I even love the training.....but I dream of a career building tall office buildings, and being creative.......'' This does appear to be an unusual set of remarks to make to a superior officer and Beaty the 'everyman' does appear to contemporary readers as a very unusual person. He admits to the reader that he is, perhaps, slightly unusual and that his team of men, all equally as young as he, are far more typical of the average grunt and 'boonie rat'. In the event, he trains them up into an elite force of specialist killers before his time is done with them. The narrative continues thus; a series of violent encounters and bloody and violent deaths punctuated with more philosophical and political summaries and statements and musings [often accompanied by the propaganda radio broadcasts of 'Hanoi Hannah'] before the Vietnam War is quite finished with him and he is able to make his way and achieve his dreams in civilian life. Consider the following: ''It is not even a legitimate war. For a President to commit U.S. troops, Congress must make an official Declaration of War. That never happened, so this is an illegal war. Congress used the Gulf of Tonkin resolution to simply authorise spending to secure South Vietnam for U.S. interests. Now aint that some crap. I'm not risking my neck in a war, it's just a conflict to protect American interests.......''

Staff Sergeant Mike Beatty is finally released into civilian life after two very active and blood soaked tours of duty. For his pains, he carries physical reminders of his time, not least a serious chest wound, the awards of two purple hearts, a number of citations and the heartfelt thanks of his team. It has been, he says, the best two years of his life. ''Lightning struck the tree'' now joins the large and doubtless ever growing back catalogue of books, factual and otherwise, on the subject of the War in Vietnam. As a book, it fails to convey the power of, say, Michael Herr's truly magisterial 'Dispatches', there are confusing errors of tense and the inclusion of maps would have been very useful, but it is, nonetheless, a valiant attempt. The account of Mike Beaty from North Carolina, be he a composite of a number of different people or not, does fulfil its task of being an honest and brutal account of the conflict.


“Lightning Split the Tree” by Thomas Allen receives four stars from The Historical Fiction Company


To have your historical novel editorially reviewed or enter the HFC Book of the Year contest, please go HERE

bottom of page