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Lost in Translation: Vietnam: A Combat Advisor's Story [Mass Market Paperback]

Martin Dockery
4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)

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Book Description

June 29, 2004
In September 1962, when Martin Dockery landed in Saigon, he was a young, determined, idealistic U.S. Army first lieutenant convinced of America’s imminent victory in Vietnam. While most of the twelve thousand U.S. military advisors in-country at the time filled support positions in Saigon and other major cities, Dockery was one of a handful of advisors assigned to Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) combat units.

For eight months Dockery lived and fought in the heart of the Mekong Delta with an ARVN infantry battalion on missions and operations that often lasted several days. And for most of that time, whether tramping through the steaming, leech-infested jungle, hiking across canals, or engaging in sudden firefights, Dockery was the only American soldier with the unit.

Dockery’s solitary assignment with ARVN during the infancy of U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia afforded him an understanding of Vietnam far more profound than most other Americans. Lost in Translation is his riveting account of the largely overlooked role of American combat advisors in the war. As he vividly evokes the sounds, smells, and vistas of the country and its people, Dockery depicts an army poorly trained, incompetent, and unwilling to fight for a government every bit as corrupt as that of the French colonial empire it replaced. Yet even worse than his daily fare of isolation, frustration, and danger was Dockery’s growing conviction that the advisory program was doomed. Though these dedicated, highly motivated advisors would do their best and persevere under the most trying circumstances, they would not succeed.

The author’s eyewitness testimony provides inescapable evidence that as early as 1962 the writing was already on the wall concerning the outcome of the Vietnam War. Although it would take U.S. leaders more than a decade to divine what the young officer learned in a single year, Dockery’s personal and penetrating analysis of the war—which he presented in a lecture at a Special Forces facility in Germany one week after his tour in Vietnam ended—proved chillingly accurate. Those who send soldiers to war should consider the realities and truths within these pages.


From the Hardcover edition.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Inside Flap

In September 1962, when Martin Dockery landed in Saigon, he was a young, determined, idealistic U.S. Army first lieutenant convinced of America?s imminent victory in Vietnam. While most of the twelve thousand U.S. military advisors in-country at the time filled support positions in Saigon and other major cities, Dockery was one of a handful of advisors assigned to Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) combat units.

For eight months Dockery lived and fought in the heart of the Mekong Delta with an ARVN infantry battalion on missions and operations that often lasted several days. And for most of that time, whether tramping through the steaming, leech-infested jungle, hiking across canals, or engaging in sudden firefights, Dockery was the only American soldier with the unit.

Dockery?s solitary assignment with ARVN during the infancy of U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia afforded him an understanding of Vietnam far more profound than most other Americans. Lost in Translation is his riveting account of the largely overlooked role of American combat advisors in the war. As he vividly evokes the sounds, smells, and vistas of the country and its people, Dockery depicts an army poorly trained, incompetent, and unwilling to fight for a government every bit as corrupt as that of the French colonial empire it replaced. Yet even worse than his daily fare of isolation, frustration, and danger was Dockery?s growing conviction that the advisory program was doomed. Though these dedicated, highly motivated advisors would do their best and persevere under the most trying circumstances, they would not succeed.

The author?s eyewitness testimony provides inescapable evidence that as early as 1962 the writing was already on the wall concerning the outcome of the Vietnam War. Although it would take U.S. leaders more than a decade to divine what the young officer learned in a single year, Dockery?s personal and penetrating analysis of the war?which he presented in a lecture at a Special Forces facility in Germany one week after his tour in Vietnam ended?proved chillingly accurate. Those who send soldiers to war should consider the realities and truths within these pages.


From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

One

EARLY LESSONS


Draw from others the lesson that may profit yourself. --Anon.


Family

My parents were part of the American immigrant experience. They came to the United States from Ireland in 1927. Their formal education was limited, but they understood its importance. Religion, education, family, truth, and country (both old and new) were important to them, so they passed on these values to their seven children. I was the third child and the first male. I graduated from Catholic grammar and high schools in White Plains, New York, and from Boston College. My family and these schools formed my character and prepared me, for better or worse, for what followed.

Dad kept a tavern, Dockery's Restaurant, at 11 West 31st Street in New York City for forty-two years before retiring in 1975 at age seventy-five. He was the vice commandant of the 1st Roscommon Battalion of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and was imprisoned during Ireland's fight for independence. He told me he had nothing against the English people. The guards treated him well, but the government of England was another matter. He kept a donation jar on the bar for the Saint Francis Bread Line on 35th Street and one behind the bar for the IRA. My mom and dad fed, clothed, sheltered, and educated seven children with the tavern profits. Dad took the 6:10 a.m. train to New York City six days a week "to catch the early birds," those wanting a drink before work. He returned home tired and sober at 10 p.m. each evening. Advice he gave me when I was young showed he had qualms about his business: "Sure 'n' I sell the poison, but I don't want ye drinking it." At the time, I did not understand his concern. I know now. John Barleycorn is fun but not a friend. Do not invite him home. He will not leave on his own.

My father was proud to be Irish and proud of his adoptive country. "Martin," he once said to me, "this is really the land of opportunity. In the Old Country I couldn't have provided for and educated all of ye. And ye and yer brothers and sisters have opportunities here that wouldn't be possible for ye over there." As a thirteen-year-old, I told him I wanted to have a tavern when I grew up. He rested his hand on my arm, looked me in the eye, and said: "Tavern work is okay for an immigrant boy like me; twelve hours a day on your feet is okay for me, but not for my son. Ye go to school and stay there. Do something with yer brain. It will be better for ye and you'll feel better about yerself too." I wish I had accumulated enough experiences, a past, to ask the questions of my dad that come to mind today.

Diversity Training As a young person my world included whites and blacks--"coloreds" back then--as well as Catholics, Protestants, and Jews, and Irish and Italians. In those days you weren't called an Irish American or an Italian American. You were simply Irish or Italian. My parents taught us tolerance and understanding and judging people by what they did and not by their race, religion, or ethnicity. They had felt the sting of discrimination when they arrived in the United States. At that time it was not uncommon for the last line in published job advertisements to read, "Irish need not apply." When I was old enough to understand, my mom told me why the Irish were not sought as employees. In 1927 alcohol was a problem for the Irish; my mom, in her honesty, said that was why it was difficult for the Irish to get jobs. I have memories of lessonlike talks dealing with slavery, lynchings, and Jim Crow laws. Other times her talks were about the mistreatment of Jews by Christians and how that was wrong. She used the plight of the Irish under English rule and as U.S. immigrants as examples of prejudice. My parents also taught me by example how to treat people, the best way to teach.

My father cut the grass on Sunday afternoons. I was six and wanted to help but was not strong enough to push the lawn mower by myself. One Sunday we pushed it together, he from the back with his hands next to mine on the mower handle. We cut the whole lawn that way. It must have been painfully slow for him.

As we were mowing the lawn, a car pulled to the curb across the street. Three people emerged and approached my dad. A woman introduced herself and said she was a real estate agent. She was showing houses in the neighborhood to the couple with her and they wanted to know whether any Jews lived close by. My father and I stood there behind the lawn mower, with me in front, his hands on mine. My father's answer burned itself into my young mind so that today I can still hear him responding: "Some Jews are good neighbors and some Jews are bad neighbors, just like Christians. That's all I'm saying." After the people left, he explained to me what had happened and why it was wrong for them to ask those questions and think like that. I asked, "What's a real estate agent?" and "What's a Jew?" These are old questions from a young person. In answer to the second question, my dad said something like it's a different religion and they believe in different things than we do, but we are all the same in God's eyes.

Dad went to work every day. Mom raised, fed, and clothed us. She cleaned the house and dealt with teachers, priests, doctors, groceries, and schoolwork. Clean clothes for nine, meals for eight twice a day, seven lunch bags on school days, and supervision, supervision, and supervision seven days a week--that was my mom's lot. All this was hard for her, but she shepherded us through the pitfalls of youth and schooling.

Breakfast and supper were eaten in the kitchen around a big table. The food was hot and good, and we ate everything in sight. Fourteen quarts of milk, two dozen eggs, and a pound of butter were delivered three times a week. At the evening meal she would make a point of asking each of us what we had done that day, where we had been and with whom. During one supper when I was ten, I answered that after school I was playing ball on the street with Barry and Steve Levine, our neighbors. Then as an aside I said, "Barry Levine's a kike." Within seconds, mom dragged me by my hair over to the sink and pushed a bar of soap in my mouth. All this while she called me a "little Hitler" and asked, "Where did you hear that word? Who did you hear it from?" With tears streaming down my cheeks and soap bubbles coming out of my mouth, I said I didn't know what the word meant but that Steve Levine had called his brother, Barry, a "kike" while we were playing ball that afternoon. Mom was taken aback. Her initial reaction was out of character. She always was caring and reasonable with us. Gamely, she said it was a hateful word and did not care where I had heard it; I was not to use it again. That evening before my bedtime, she said she was sorry about the soap and should have let me explain first, but prejudice and hateful words made her angry.

ROTC When I started at Boston College in 1956, I enrolled in the Reserve Officers' Training Corps, commonly known as ROTC, with the purpose of spending two years in the army as an officer. I was hoping to fulfill my military obligation while at the same time gaining experience that would be useful upon return to civilian life. The ROTC program required one class a week for four years plus summer camp after my junior year.

After graduating in 1960 from Boston College, where I studied philosophy, economics, and theology, I received a reserve commission as a U.S. Army second lieutenant of infantry. Officer Infantry Orientation School and Paratrooper School at Fort Benning, Georgia, preceded my assignment to Fort Knox, Kentucky.

Sensitivity Training I was a late bloomer, both academically and emotionally. I was not particularly susceptible to the attitudes, feelings, or circumstances of others. My mom and sisters endeavored to teach me to be sensitive. They tried hard, but I never mastered it.

Paratrooper School consisted of one month of strenuous physical conditioning and instruction in the techniques of parachute jumping from an airplane and the niceties of landing on the ground unhurt. Graduation occurred after five jumps from 1,200 feet. I was proud of completing the course and sent my parents a recording of the paratrooper song. I thought they would like to share in my accomplishment and the humor of the song. Alas, I was insensitive again. My mom was horrified, and my sisters roundly criticized me for sending the recording home. "Blood on the Risers" is a song about the fate of a paratrooper whose parachute fails to open. The last eight lines of the song are:



There was blood upon the risers, there were brains upon the chute

Intestines were a-dangling from his paratrooper's boots,

They picked him up, still in his chute, and poured him from his boots.

He ain't gonna jump no more.

Gory, gory, what a helluva way to die,

Gory, gory, what a helluva way to die,

Gory, gory, what a helluva way to die,

He ain't gonna jump no more.



There was something about the song that upset mom. This lesson in sensitivity was not lost on me. The letters I wrote to my parents from Vietnam were devoid of hardship, danger, and combat. They touched on politics, weather, food, geography, and religion. I was learning to be sensitive, incrementally. Still am.

Fort Knox Recruit training is probably the worst assignment a second lieutenant can receive, and that was my assignment. I learned that I would be training recruits at Fort Knox for the balance of my two-year military commitment. Caring for and training inductees was not appealing. After eight weeks the recruits leave for other training at other posts and the eight-week cycle begins again, ad infinitum. Regular army (career) officers were not assigned to recruit training; they received choice postings. Not so with reserve officers.

I remember Fort Knox as a large, sprawling, dreary place. The barracks, bachelo...

Product Details

  • Mass Market Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Presidio Press (June 29, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0891418512
  • ISBN-13: 978-0891418511
  • Product Dimensions: 0.8 x 4.2 x 6.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,173,239 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars One man's war in Vietnam September 13, 2003
By A Customer
Format:Hardcover
Every vet has his unique experience and Martin Dockery's is a worthy read, a page turner. Arriving in Saigon '62, he (age 23)was the field combat advisor to an ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam)Battalion commander (age 45) with 25 years of military and combat experience. The pair had vastly different backgrounds -- cultural, religious, philosophical, educational. In addition language was the source of misunderstandings and many frustrations between the two, hence the title of the book. The isolation of being the only American with the Battalion certainly drew on Dockery's inner qualities. His service in Vietnam came to an end because he contracted malaria, hepatitis, dysentery, skin fungus and worms. A very ill man was taken to the Philippines for medical care.
This memoir takes us from Dockery's growing up in White Plains, NY, his education, Vietnam experience (his views on the war and many interesting stories about the people and the land). He completed his military service in the Army's "Old Guard," telling of his duty at President Kennedy's funeral. Law school and years as a bond attorney followed, not without more interesting tales.
I found this a very "honest telling" of a young man's growth and his desire for adventure. He found more than his share!! It's a reflective piece, clearly written; as he says after 38 years of gained perspective, he might "make some sense of it."
I highly recommend this good read!
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An enterprise doomed from the start March 15, 2005
Format:Hardcover
This is a very worthwhile account of one young officer's experience in the early years of America's Vietnam War when President Kennedy sent a couple of thousand advisors to Vietnam to show the South Vietnamese Army how to fight their war. Reading Dockery's account it is incredible that anyone really believed that seasoned Vietnamese commanders, many who had a totally different agenda, would take advice from a few fresh-faced Americans. Query? Are we in the process of making the same mistake this very minute in Iraq?

The reviewer is the author of "Killed In Action..." a book about the other end of the Vietnam War, told through the life of SP4 Stephen H. Warner, an anti-war activist, who was drafted and killed in action while serving as an Army journalist in February 1971.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Read twice May 29, 2006
Format:Mass Market Paperback
Terse and void of embellishments Dockery chronicles his frustration with moral compass to ultimately discover self actualization as tenacious warrior turn civilian. I highly recommend this book for Policy Planners and those interested in histography, volunteerism, and Asian American Studies. Especially potent for those compelled in the circuitous rational, that ground conflict establishes a venerated democratic value system. The reader is left to speculate as to why entrenched corrupt civil war settings consistently prompt this "Christo-American" reaction.

Dockery's voice is original, masterful, and commanding. Weaving a penetrating insight on the human condition with its flaws and zeniths making this reader suggest that Random House Publishers keep a pulse on additional Dockery writings, clearly he has more to contribute. Read it twice, time well spent.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars All the reasons we went wrong in Vietnam. November 16, 2004
Format:Mass Market Paperback
Dockery list in a clear and concise manner all of the reasons for our ultimate failure in Vietnam. From the arrogance of our views of people and culture to our total misunderstanding of the influence of the dead on a culture. This is a must read for anyone who needs evidence that the military is not in the business of winning the hearts and minds of a people.

Thanks to Martin Dockery for sharing this long overdue piece of American military history.
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4.0 out of 5 stars An enjoyable and informative read. January 4, 2004
Format:Hardcover
"Lost in Translation" provides an interesting and thoughtful account of one man's war experience in Vietnam. As an advisor for the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, Dockery was able to observe the war and its combantants from a unique perspective. He describes the evolution of his initial enthusiasm and idealism into dissatisfaction with the role his government foisted upon him. Dockery's experiences are fascinating, especially the profound cultural differences he encounters with his Vietnamese hosts and personal acquaintances. His reflections upon Vietnamese social values and customs are often poignant and moving; I often wished he had offered further discussion of the consequences of this transformative period in his life. Upon his return to the United States, Dockery had personal contact with both President Johnson and President Nixon. His book is a compelling personal history that coincides with a number of major national events. It is an enjoyable and informative read.
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