Rolling Thunder is an historical novel about the decisive role politics played during the Vietnam war. Its characters range from men on the battlefield to the Pentagon and the White House. Fighter pilots and Special Forces warriors try to do their best but are hampered by President Johnson, Secretary of Defense McNamara, and their staff members who despise the military. Only one aging USAF general, who fought in Korea and WWII, is on their side. His clashes with his Commander in Chief, Lyndon Johnson, are epic in proportion and startling in content.
In Rolling Thunder, the time is late 1965 and 1966 in war zone places such as Saigon, Hanoi, Bien Hoa, Da Nang, and Tahkli. While back in Washington, LBJ sits over lunch and personally picks bombing targets in an attempt to fight a limited war. In Vietnam the war knows no limits.
There, as the hostilities escalate, the fates of three men intertwine: USAF Captain Court Bannister, overshadowed by a famous movie star father (who fought in WWII as a B-17 gunner), driven to confront missiles, MiGs, and nerve-grinding bombing raids in order to prove his worth to his comrades — and to himself…Air Force First Lieutenant Toby Parker, fresh from the States, who hooks up with an intelligence unit for a lark, and quickly finds his innocence buried away by the lessons of war…and Special Forces Major Wolf Lochert, who ventures deep into the jungle to rescue a downed pilot — only to discover a face of the enemy for which he is unprepared.
Four airline stewardesses fly the civilian contract flights that bring American soldiers to and from the war zone in Vietnam have difficult love affairs with G.I.s and fighter pilots. After one flight they come under attack while on an airbase.
Through their eyes, and those of many others — pilots, soldiers, lovers, enemy agents, commanders, politicians, profiteers — Rolling Thunder shows us Vietnam as few other books have, or can. Berent captures all the intensity and drama of that searing war, and more, penetrates to the heart and soul of those who fought it. Rolling Thunder rings with authenticity.
OK, before I jump into this book I’ve got to give you a little background. First I will date myself and secondly I will show you how lacking my education was while growing up. Born just after Vietnam I don’t have any personal memories or ties to this period of American History. A few years later memories I do have are much more about being a kid than stuff that was happening. In general there is not much I do know about this period of time outside what I see in movies or read in books. I have a couple of uncles and cousins that fought in Vietnam but never had an opportunity to talk to them about it. In school, even through college, I never had a history class that encompassed recent American History. I swear, I think every single year of history in school started with the Revolution and let’s see how far we get so to speak. I’ve never studied history more recent than the Civil War. Let’s get going.
Before I tell you why I really liked this book I’m going to share a few tidbits I didn’t. I want to end this time together on a positive note so let’s start with the less thans. All the acronyms and military lingo that I struggled to pretend to be able to follow. My memory is less than stellar so even though I read it once and knew what it stood for a paragraph later when it came up again I was clueless, I played along. The technical information, such as briefings, that seemed to take up multiple pages throughout the book. Don’t get me wrong, they were kinda interesting in theory but so many acronyms and abbreviations and military lingo that I was hopelessly lost on impact. I feel like in saying this I’m creating an incomplete picture. I work with the military community and some things I am comfortable with and am not hopelessly clueless. However, I am also part ditz and so am in fact occasionally hopelessly clueless. The final drawback for me, though really also an enrichment, is the sheer number of characters. I have a hard enough time remembering the names of people around me. I struggled to remember who was who and where they fit in as different names were dropped off and on throughout the book. This was enriching as well though as the different individuals from different areas crossing paths added real life to the book. That part of it I appreciated
Looking at my list of drawbacks one might believe I didn’t care for the book. Actually, the complete opposite. Half the locations I just made up pronunciations in my head but that’s OK. This book, while fiction, felt very real. Real people, real situations, real politics, and unfortunately real war for an ‘engagement’ that we didn’t belong in. These characters drew me into this conflict, they drew me into their experiences, and even when I didn’t understand them I felt them. Throughout this cast of characters I also found a little bit of representation of some of the more common ways that different personalities react to war. Not everyone is a stone cold soldier like Wolf or driven like Court. There are still way to many Parkers. Remember back where I started all this, I wasn’t really around during this time. My knowledge is from books, movies, and TV shows. Pop culture so to speak. One thing that continues to hamper the US and our soldiers is the reception these men had upon returning home. The interchange with Wolf and the group in the airport is a prime example, splashing the group with red liquid and calling them murderers, pigs and baby killers. I can’t begin to imagine being in those men’s place. But Wolf, whom I grew to admire and adore throughout the story, had a reaction that truly fits. “I am not a murderer, Young Lady, I am a Killer. There IS a difference.” Our soldiers do not go to war because they want to murder. They go to war to defend our country. They go to war to defend an ideology they believe in. They go to war knowing that they may be in a position to kill. There IS a difference.
About Mark Berent
MARK BERENT served in the Air Force for over twenty years, first as an enlisted man and then as an officer. He has logged 4,350 hours of lying time, over 1,000 of them in combat. During his three Vietnam tours, Berent earned not only the Silver Star, but two Distinguished Flying Crosses, air medals, a Bronze Star, Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry, and Legion of Merit.
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