#Book Review: Brothers Bound

Author: Bruce K. Berger

This is a book review of Brothers Bound a novel partially based on a true story by Dr Bruce K. Berger, professor emeritus at the University of Alabama, College of Communication and Information Sciences, Department of Advertising and PR.

I first read Berger’s academic work as an undergraduate student at the University of Zagreb somewhere around 2002. I remember thinking, at the time, how does someone called Bruce not become a rock star or a fighter? I was, interestingly, sitting in a park opposite the Croatian Ministry of Defense (or something military-related, I think it was the Ministry). I don’t know why I remembered this when I normally forget everything, but I do remember giggling at the name, and it was a humorous thought.

Fast forward, two decades later, I came to Alabama and joined his department, and I found out that Berger was a Vietnam vet. I immediately thought, well, that explains the name and Bruce did become something like a fighter. But then I thought how on earth does a soldier end up in PR? Military is known as the most masculine and patriarchal of all professions rooted in a very strict hierarchy and former soldiers are not exactly known as chatty. Before, this book I would have probably said that soldiers are not sensitive either, but now that I read this book, I am wondering whether they are the most sensitive of us all.

The answer to Berger’s career in PR probably lies in the fact he served in the Casualty Branch of the 101st Airborne Division in Phu Bai unit where he was in charge of writing sympathy letters to families of fallen soldiers and those missing in action. I knew about the telegram practice of various militaries from around the world, but I never knew about this American practice and was astonished to learn that Berger basically served in what is, in all but name, a PR unit of the US military. I now wonder whether this unit explains an incredible attachment Americans feel towards their military, which I always thought was quite peculiar. But, what an outstanding PR activity and what an outstanding care and empathy for families of soldiers. I am amazed by the US military now and will be looking into this practice further. I found online samples, which can be accessed here and here. I tried to find some research on this but haven’t found anything so far but needless to say, this intrigues me and I will keep looking.

Image from Koehler Books

Bruce Berger starts Brothers Bound by explaining his service (and what is real in the novel and what is not) and then starts the novel with Brian from Michigan, nicknamed Buck, who also serves in the Casualty Branch of the 101st Airborne Division in Phu Bai and writes sympathy letters to soldiers’ families. Berger then explains how this process worked and how they were expected to give as much information as possible to families but obviously, without disclosing too much or saying something that should not be said; the order was an appraisal of the soldier and ultimately, trying to give information (and closure) to families. Brian occasionally helps the unit called Graves Registration, which rescues and processes bodies of American soldiers –Berger also did this during his service in Vietnam – and he does that with his friend, or brother as they call each other, Hues, a Black man whom he met in a bar near the military base in Kentucky when they were taking training ahead of being sent to Vietnam. Hues ended up in a bar fight and Buck saved him and throughout the book, these two men become brothers and look after each other.

During a routine rescue of soldiers’ bodies, the two brothers face an attack on a helicopter, which crashes, and they get captured by local soldiers who take them on a march towards their camp, where they stay for over a year facing starvation, forced manual labour and regular beatings. They survive this hardship by morally supporting one another, looking after each other physically and by creating memory rooms in their heads where they escape to survive; stories which they share during nights when they whisper in a cage. They also encounter two other American soldiers who introduce themselves by singing and pretending they are praying, the only form of communication allowed, and two brothers later repeat the same practice with the other two American captives. VC soldiers also have a cruel practice of every few weeks taking Americans to a beating where two brothers nearly die. The memory rooms were fascinating and are present in many chapters in Brothers Bound; these chapters always celebrate good memories and hope and are beautifully written. My favourite story was one of Buck’s father teaching him how to jump a pole and to never give up, which carries Buck forward through the jungle.

On the eve of a planned escape, Hues ends up with a swollen ankle after a beating by VC soldiers and Buck starts a journey of escape by carrying his brother, just like his brother carried him from a helicopter because American soldiers who could not walk had their throats slit. Buck carries his brother, and they have a signal of danger, so Hues taps Buck’s shoulder several times, depending on whether the danger is on the left, right, back or forward. His spirit carries Buck despite Hues not being able to speak due to his tongue being cut off by VC soldiers and Buck sometimes wonders whether he is still alive or if is it just his spirit that guides him. We also follow Buck’s mental state where he hallucinates and becomes unsure what is real and what is a hallucination, knowing that his days are numbered due to a weakened body and ruthless insects in the jungle, and he must find an American base, which will pose a new challenge; will American soldiers recognize them or shoot them. The escape is written in a beautiful way and in a way that makes the reader worry whether the two brothers will make it. There are lots of twists and dangers that come along the brothers’ way, not just VC and NVC soldiers but also snakes, mosquitos, leeches and all sorts of wildlife that two guys from Michigan are not used to. There is also a twist at the end and the ending of Brothers Bound is not guaranteed or easy to predict, which also speaks volumes of the writing talent of Bruce Berger.

This is an all-American story of growing up in the 1960s because we learn about brothers’ lives in the US before the war, and ending up in a war in a foreign country where it is not just the local army and villagers who are hostile to you but also the territory you don’t know such as the jungle. However, throughout the book, there is a call for peace because Berger – through Buck who tells the story in the first person – talks about shattered villages and wonders about lives and families that were displaced and lost. Brothers rarely show any hatred – as remarkable as that sounds – towards soldiers who enslaved them and treated them with cruelty; just hope to escape and go home to Michigan to their future wives.

What Brothers Bound also made me realize is that this is an American story in a way that is written. I read mainly British authors but occasionally also American authors and whilst British authors are outstanding in writing about communities, friendships and thoughts, Americans are outstanding in descriptions. In this book, I had a picture of the Vietnamese jungle in my head, just like in When The Crawdads Sing or Tom Lake I could see the swamp and Michigan village and theatre respectively. I ended up googling images of the Vietnamese jungle and it looked almost exactly as I imagined it through this book, a definition of a talented writer in my mind. I might give more space on my reading list to American authors!

I was unable to put Brothers Bound down and ended up nearly oversleeping at an important meeting because I stayed up all night and kept reading. It is an outstanding story and an outstanding writing style written by a truly talented writer who deserves recognition, particularly because of his ability to describe areas and the feeling of hope. The whole book is breathtaking and remarkable from the first to the last page.

Inspiring! Beautiful! Read this!!!

Thank you for reading!

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