‘The Brutality of War’: Written over a decade ago, Gene Dark’s memoir about his time in Vietnam is still a compelling read

Published 5:00 am Sunday, November 28, 2021

Gene Dark of Lake Charles doesn’t talk much about his year serving in Vietnam as a U.S. Marine. It was July 1969 when he arrived. Dark was fresh out of boot camp. He was 19. Back then, he was not yet old enough to vote, but he was old enough to serve and die for his country. And for an entire year he served, doing whatever he could to survive in the bush, jungles and rice paddies of Vietnam as he quickly turned from fresh-faced teen to war-hardened soldier.

After all these years, memories of his time there still don’t make for easy conversation.

“All of the ‘stuff’ still lives a little too close to the surface for comfort,” he said.

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But in 2007, Dark wrote a book, “The Brutality of War: A Memoir of Vietnam.” The words he found hard to say aloud to others found life in its pages. With raw honesty, Dark tells his story — from his decision to join the U.S. Marines to his plane ride home from Vietnam in July 1970.

Dark said he never does interviews or speaks in front of groups about it. But over a decade after its publication, the book is still telling others what he cannot.

“I wrote it a long time ago, but I still get letters from around the world about it which always amazes me,” he said. “It seems to have a life of its own.”

For those who have ever wondered what U.S. Marine boot camp is like, or what living as a U.S. Marine in Vietnam was like, Dark’s book spells it out in such a way that the reader feels like they are hearing the words from a brother or a friend. He tells what happened. And he tells how it made him feel inside.

The first thing he saw as he stepped off the plane when he arrived in Da Nang in 1969 was a truck loaded with silver caskets pulled up to the plane to load for a trip back home. The dead soldiers were first making a stop in Okinawa, though.

“The body boys clean ‘em up (there) and make sure they look good for Mom,” he was told.

“In spite of the heat, the sight sent chills through me,” he writes in the book.

Dark quickly learned he would be roughing it during his tour. There were no comfortable cots or soft pillows to sleep on. Soldiers were issued inflatable mattresses upon arrival, but one of the first thing his commanding officer did was have all the new “boots,” the new arrivals, report to him with their mattresses inflated with air. The officer then whipped out a knife and slashed all the mattresses. They made too much noise when soldiers slept on them, he said, alerting the enemy of their location.

As the months wore on, the bloody conflict raged all around Dark, and inside of him, too.

He saw comrades blown apart right in front of him. He was shot at. He had to identify a close friend at the morgue. During a blast, the friend’s dog tags were destroyed and nobody was sure who he was. But Dark knew. And he grieved for his friend.

War was a physical and emotional nightmare, but never once does Dark feel sorry for himself or ask for pity. Like his father before him, and his son Brian after him, he takes pride in being a U.S. Marine and in doing any job called for to the best of his ability. During his tour, he earned the Purple Heart and was meritoriously combat promoted twice.

Back in July 1969, Dark arrived in Da Nang with 35 other marines. In the end, only four were left to make the trip back home. All but one of those four earned a Purple Heart.

And yet Dark returned home to a country that didn’t care that he had given his all in the unpopular Vietnam conflict.

“The cruel truth became obvious,” he writes in the book. “America only accepts winners, and in the eyes of America, Vietnam was a loser, and those who fought were losers.”

This point was driven home to him as he boarded a civilian aircraft in California wearing his uniform to fly home to Lake Charles. He writes that the flight attendant handed a meal to the man on his right, who was reading a Wall Street Journal. The flight attendant then looked at Dark and said, “I’m sorry, but we were overbooked, and since you are flying military standby, we won’t be able to feed you. I have some peanuts if you’d like.”

The man next to him had to have heard but never looked up, Dark writes. And no one aboard cared to say, “Hey, marine, thanks for your service. Here, take my meal.”

“The Brutality of War” makes the reader aware that every war veteran should be told their efforts are appreciated, but especially Vietnam veterans who, if they were lucky enough to make it home, likely never got much thanks.

More about Gene R. Dark

Four days after returning home to Lake Charles after his tour in Vietnam, Dark was introduced to his future wife, Nettie, on a blind date. They have been married 50 years and have three children.

Dark, now 72, was a partner in Port City Construction Company in Lake Charles for many years. He retired five years ago.

Dark is the son of professional baseball player Alvin Dark. Alvin Dark was also an All American at LSU, lettering in football, baseball, basketball and track. He was named Rookie of the Year of the National League in 1948 as a Boston Brave and later voted by the players to be Captain of the New York Giants. He played and managed in five World Series. In 1954, the New York Giants won the World Series with Dark as shortstop. He managed the Giants in the 1962 World Series, and was managing the Oakland Athletics when they won the 1974 World Series.