My War

I had come to Vietnam to see the country in its primitive state and life with all its primal and desperate forces—and I did.

JAMES JOHN MAGNER

I may have been the only infantry platoon leader in Vietnam with an art degree. Artist/soldier: a lifelong dichotomy, if not a severe personality conflict. As a child in a tough Chicago neighborhood, I had to fight just to cross the street, but could see beauty in the rainbow colors of an oil slick.

After moving to Arizona, I spent many hours drawing in the high Sonoran Desert and its rugged mountains—when I wasn’t going to war movies or getting in trouble.

An art major at the University of Arizona, I was also in the ROTC advanced program. My art professors weren’t comfortable with the uniform, and my Army cadre wasn’t happy with the paint stains. I received my fine arts degree and lieutenant bars on the same day in May 1964. I asked for infantry, and got it.

“The most dangerous threat was in forgetting it was dangerous.”

After officer basic and jump school, I was assigned to Ft. Polk, La., where I ran a basic training company and continued to paint whenever I could. When the first combat troops were sent to Vietnam in 1965, I volunteered. Vietnam was the ultimate test of leadership. And, as an artist, I understood that I would have to wade the rivers and face death if I was to get beyond surface appearances.

I reported to Charlie Company of the 2nd Battalion, 18th Infantry, 1st Infantry Division, on March 5, 1966. I had the 3rd Platoon. I found Vietnam astonishingly beautiful. The most dangerous threat was in forgetting it was dangerous.

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