May 28, 2008
F.N.G. (revised edition)
Modern History Press (2008)
Donald Bodey's Vietnam War novel F.N.G. is a powerful, engaging story about one man's tour of duty. While many Vietnam Veterans have come forward in recent years to tell their stories, Bodey chose not to write an autobiographical account, but specifically, a novel based on his experiences. While few ex-soldiers could masterfully write a novel of war, Bodey’s skill has created for the Vietnam War what Erich Maria Remarque accomplished for World War I in All Quiet on the Western Front.
At the center of Bodey's novel is Gabriel Saunders, the “F.N.G.” (Fucking New Guy). Gabriel has been drafted into the army, and when he arrives in Vietnam, he is scared and unsure of himself. To make matters worse, he has the horrendous experience of seeing his newly made friend killed before his eyes the first day he arrives. From there, the reader is taken through Gabriel's tour of duty over the course of a year as he matures as a soldier, going from being the new guy to the leader of his squad. Vietnam soldiers were transitioned in and out of their units, rather than all arriving together, so as new soldiers came in, old soldiers left, thereby continually rotating so the squad always had some seasoned soldiers and some FNG’s. The effect of this rotation is new soldiers having more experienced ones to learn from, but it also means seasoned soldiers are the envy of new ones. Bodey emphasizes the psychological weight of their remaining time on the soldiers, who always knew to the day how much time they had left, and how they pondered their chances of surviving a certain number of days.
This 2007 publication of F.N.G. is Loving Healing Press’s revised and expanded version of the original 1987 novel. The revised edition’s major change is the immensely effective opening chapter of the novel, set in the present day during the War in Iraq. In this chapter, Gabriel, returned from Vietnam for over thirty years, is going hunting with his grandson, Seth. Gabriel is angry that his grandson will soon be leaving to serve in Iraq. Gabriel knows war’s horrors and does not want Seth to have the same traumatic experiences. Unknown to Seth, Gabriel is contemplating shooting his grandson—just enough to wound him so he cannot be sent to Iraq. Gabriel would rather see his grandson limp the rest of his life than suffer the far greater psychological and physical hell of war. That a man would intentionally hurt his grandson as a way to protect him is far more than a clever plot device. It makes readers consider whether in Gabriel’s shoes, having undergone his own war experiences, they would not do the same to protect a loved one.
I will not spoil the story by revealing whether Gabriel goes through with injuring his grandson, but after reading the rest of the novel, Gabriel’s motivations are clearly understood. While F.N.G. does not have much of a plot, its strength lies in its descriptive, realistic character depictions. The details of a soldier's life are presented with gritty realism intermixed with humor. The reader comes away with a real sense of the camaraderie so vital for survival among soldiers. The novel’s dramatic conclusion provides a strong example of how war affects a soldier. While post-traumatic stress disorder is a term well known today, few authors have portrayed it so effectively; Gabriel comes to realize something has changed within him, something he cannot yet define but which he knows will haunt him. Donald Bodey, himself a Vietnam soldier, has captured his personal experiences in fiction, never seeking to be sensational or sentimental, but rather to depict the Vietnam War realistically. The author’s website www.donbodey.com provides additional information about F.N.G., including a glossary of Vietnam War terms.
F.N.G. is a book everyone would benefit from reading, especially families of military men and women, so they will understand what their loved ones go through. Members of the US military and US government should also read it to understand what happens to those the government sends to war, especially wars where it is questionable whether the United States should be involved. Very few war novels would receive such a recommendation from me.
— Tyler R. Tichelaar, Ph.D. author of The Marquette Trilogy