Sounding retreat in the 'Fighting 57th'

March 23, 1993|By Mark Vosburgh | Mark Vosburgh,Orlando Sentinel

Even a few good men are hard to find in the "Fighting 57th." Defending post-Cold War Germany from an enemy that no longer exists, the U.S. Army battalion is a dumping ground for high school dropouts, drug abusers, brawlers and bigots.

The good fights already have been fought, so these "braindicapped" recruits have only boredom to battle, heroin to shoot and each other to kill. War is hell, but peacetime in this

volunteer's army is the proverbial cold day.

"Here, all the friendlies are enemies, and all the enemies are friendly," battalion clerk Ray Elwood tells us. "The main thing is to keep control of the situation. You keep control of the situation by staying slightly out of control. This is known as Army Zen."

This first novel about men in uniform is reminiscent of two old favorites, Joseph Heller's satirical "Catch-22" and Michael Herr's grim "Dispatches." Mr. O'Connor's twist is a peacetime setting in which military madness is heightened rather than diminished.

Colonel Berman, the battalion commander, and "Mrs. Colonel" must pin their hopes for advancement on strategic maneuvering at meals with General Lancaster: "Getting ahead on the career fast track involves guessing what the General will be eating in order to gain conversational position with a minimumof fuss."

For the troops, the only fast tracks are the veins in their arms: "You push the plunger down a little more . . . Then you pull it back up, milking blood from the vein and mixing it with the scag in the syringe to make gravy . . . It contains everything: Hope, Love, Life, Death."

Elwood appears to be the Army Zen master. A flair for memos to the general and letters to the families of soldiers killed in and outside the line of duty makes Elwood indispensable to the ambitious Colonel Berman.

To the parents of the late Pfc. Parsons McCovey, Elwood writes, "In him were resplendent the virtues of honor and loyalty to his country and God that are what keep our civilization together."

McCovey, widely despised by officers and enlisted men alike, fell to his death under highly suspicious circumstances. An investigation of the death is threatening to tarnish the colonel's record.

For the sake of the family and the colonel, Elwood adds: "He fell off the rooftop of his barracks while trying to make technical repairs on the an

tennae that we use to guard against the enemy."

Elwood's paper pushing is rivaled only by his drug pushing. He is even more indispensable to the many addicts in the battalion, but becomes a target for Sergeant Lee, a Vietnam veteran with a former addict's nose for dealers.

By selling drugs, Elwood can afford to hire the biggest and meanest brawlers in camp to protect him from roving gangs of black and white soldiers who prey on defenseless members of the opposite color. But Sergeant Lee is a more formidable enemy.

Lee is smart, possibly smarter than Elwood. He also is brave enough to call Elwood's black bodyguard a buffalo soldier.

"You don't even know what a buffalo soldier is, do you?" Lee asks. "That's when we let you guys in . . . the black army. You poor bastards fought the peace, took on the Indians after the Civil War. It was a dirty job, you couldn't get a white man to do it."

The sergeant's one-armed daughter appears to be the only weak link in his defenses. So Elwood launches an offensive, of sorts, in Sergeant Lee's own bed. With this act of war, or love, he begins to gain control of himself and to lose control of the situation.

Give Mr. O'Connor his stripes. "Buffalo Soldiers" ranks a grade or two below "Catch-22" and "Dispatches," but still commands attention.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Buffalo Soldiers."

Author: Robert O'Connor.

Publisher: Knopf.

Length, price: 324 pages, $22.

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