In 1979, Robert Dugoni spent the summer between high school and college working on a construction crew with two Vietnam veterans. He learned a lot about those two men and a great deal about their wartime horrors. But he also was made aware that he was living in a bubble. Like so many of his friends, he had a loving home, and was protected, for the most part, from outside forces that might harm him. He knew he had to write a novel pulling together these two stories, one that would be deeply personal. Explaining the book’s plot, a friend quickly grasped the two points of view with an oft-quoted adage: “The world played chess, while I played checkers.” Dugoni knew he had the title for his novel.
As a teen, Dugoni heard about the war from his two co-workers, but those days were long gone and he himself had not fought in Vietnam or, in fact, any war. For research he read at least 15 first-hand personal accounts of soldier’s experiences in Vietnam. He watched documentaries, including Ken Burns’ excellent one that ran on PBS. He also watched dozens of films about Vietnam. That painstaking approach to detail shows up in every page of The World Played Chess.
The novel is told in three time periods. In 1979, Vincent (in many ways, the teenage Dugoni), is working on the construction crew, listening to the veterans, and partying with his friends. In 2015, Vincent, now a lawyer, is married to Elizabeth, and the father of a son, Beau, 18, and a daughter, Mary, 15. The flashbacks to 1967 are provided from a journal sent to Vincent, from William, one of those veterans. Along with the journal, is a letter. “You asked about Vietnam. And you listened when others did not. You saved me from destroying my life, and you were the reason I found my life again.”
The marines turned down William’s request to be a combat reporter, instead handing him, along with a gun, a camera. William thought he could build a portfolio and land a job as a photojournalist after the war. Little did he know that most of the photos he took, many depicting the carnage he saw in Vietnam, would be destroyed.
Vincent can only read William’s journal in small doses and Dugoni, too, allows respite for the reader. William’s descriptions are raw and real. And in many instances, heartbreaking as he and those he’s fighting with, have no real perception of what they are fighting for. To stop the spread of communism? Few, if any, of the soldiers understand what that means. And the soldiers on the ground, despite the billions being spent to fight the war, are unable to battle an enemy that understands the jungle terrain and seems to keep coming, no matter how many are shot down.
William is only 18 when, knowing he might be drafted, he instead enlists. Those who are in charge of his unit are not much older in years, but have aged during the time they’ve been in Vietnam. Talk about going home is considered bad luck, so the soldiers remain in the present, avoiding any mention of the future and grinding out each day. When Vincent remarks about how William never sits on the ground, but squats, even when eating or smoking, he says it’s a habit formed as a way to avoid poisonous snakes that slithered on the ground in Vietnam.
As a parent, Vincent no longer lives in a bubble and, with a new appreciation of dangers that may lie outside of that cover, tries to protect his children. When Beau suffers a concussion during a high school football game, Vincent won’t allow him to get back on the field. Later on, another intervention by Vincent probably saves his son’t life, underlining that while young people can die on the battlefield, they can die in other ways. Nothing is ever assured.
I began to read Dugoni’s book – couldn’t stop reading, in fact – while the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan was playing out in the news. Coverage compared how we left Vietnam, and those images were broadcast, too. History will, at some point, have much to say about whether all the sacrifices made were worth fighting our nation’s longest war. And despite all the films, TV shows, and documentaries that have been produced, all the books, newspaper and magazine articles that have been written, the debate will continue about the Vietnam War. Dugoni’s novel, with the vivid excerpts from William’s diary, adds to that discussion.
The World Played Chess
Top photo: Robert Dugoni (Credit: Douglas Sonders)