365 Days: 50th Anniversary Edition, by Ronald J. Glasser (George Braziller Inc., 310 pp., $19.95)
Don’t count the days—make the days count. So goes an old adage on military deployments. Ronald J. Glasser did both as a physician treating the wounded in the Vietnam War. After returning home, he wrote 365 Days, a collection of short stories drawn from the patients he treated and the colleagues he served with. This month’s reissue of the book commemorates the 50th anniversary of its publication. The intensity and immediacy of Glasser’s accounts make 365 Days an extraordinary read. So, too, does the perspective from which he wrote: Glasser served not in the jungles of Vietnam but at a military hospital in Japan. Reading the book today raises important questions about how we remember conflicts, and who can tell war stories.
The 17 stories in 365 Days assume the perspectives of combatants and others connected in some way to the front lines. Much war literature focuses on a platoon, squad, or company; Glasser’s subjects are the patients who passed through his hospital. From a squad in the delta to helicopter pilots conducting medevac missions to the nurses in the hospital rendering care to rangers who infiltrated North Vietnam, these stories stand on their own, while also complementing one another. The result is a pulsating narrative of the Vietnam War.
What makes Glasser’s book truly distinctive is his vantage point in the liminal space between the frontlines and the home front. The hospital serves as a kind of purgatory for both the medical staff and the injured. It also allows him to capture the experiences of individuals from different parts of the conflict, not just from one unit or one region. The intensity and immediacy of Glasser’s writing spring not just from the loss of limbs and lives but also from the worry that citizens would forget the wounded or killed.
365 Days recalls the oral tradition of war stories. Without Twitter, Signal, or Telegram at his disposal, Glasser used his ears. As patients bared their souls, Glasser bore witness. The tenor, tone, and cadence of the stories are proof that he was a good listener. Here, for example, is how he describes the work of front-line medics, asked time and again to do the impossible:
Medics in the 101st carried M & M candies in their medical kits long before the psychiatrists found it necessary to explain away their actions. They offered them as placebos for their wounded who were too broken for morphine, slipping the sweets between their lips as they whispered to them over the noise of the fighting that it was for the pain. In a world of suffering and death, Vietnam is like a Walt Disney true-life adventure, where the young are suddenly left alone to take care of the young.
How might today’s readers receive a collection of short stories authored by a doctor far removed from the front lines? Would the author’s lack of combat credentials overshadow the book’s literary merit? And who gets to tell a war story? A recent trend in literature emphasizes the “lived experience” of authors rather than the merits of their writing. Some have even dismissed creative writers and their works as “cultural appropriation.”
The wounded had other concerns. They spoke with Glasser seeking human warmth in the face of the fear that permeated the hospital—fear not only of the loss of limb or life but also of their deeds being forgotten. In his foreword, Glasser writes, “These pages were not written in desperation, nor were they written out of boredom, or even, I think, to prove a point, but rather to offset the sinking feeling we all had that someday, when the whole thing was over, there would be nothing remembered except the confusion and the politics. There is, of course, something else to be remembered.”
Those under Glasser’s care needed not just healing for their wounds but also coherence for their thoughts and recollections. Plucked from a Vietnam jungle and transported to the tranquility of a hospital in Japan, they began the process of reconstructing their experiences without the familiar analgesic that unit cohesion offers. As soldiers searched for the semblance of mental order, Glasser rendered medical care, while also stitching together their fragmented memories through conversation.
The stream of tweets, videos, and images from the Russia–Ukraine war has brought that conflict from the frontlines to the entire world. The collapsing distance between such savage fighting and the relative tranquility that most of us enjoy—a barrier first breached through television coverage of Vietnam—continues to create challenges for authors of war literature. But as 365 Days reminds us (a reminder at least as old as The Red Badge of Courage), proximity to the front lines is not a requirement for good war literature. The flood of Ukraine writing from the likes of Artem Chapeye, Artem Chekh, Thomas Gibbons-Neff, Matt Gallagher, and Salar Abdoh also shows us that writers remain best equipped to define the contours of conflict. Social media cannot replace the depth, horror, and beauty that war literature invokes. Glasser made his days and words count. In changed circumstances, the next generation of war writers must do the same.
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