War is no laughing matter.
But Chester Wong, the Chinese American author behind [Yellow] Green Beret: Stories of an Asian-American Stumbling Around U.S. Army Special Forces, has somehow managed to hone in on the humor tucked away into his 12 years of military service and used it to construct three volumes of chuckle-worthy tall tales.
Not to say that the former Special Forces Commander takes his duty as a representative of the US Army lightly, however.
In fact, Wong (a pen name, changed to protect both himself and those involved in the aforementioned stories) kicks his collection off with a disclaimer:
“I am not a war hero. This is really important for you to understand.”
His preface is a telling one, as what eventually unfolds in the following 300 plus pages (in just the first volume) is not the kind of war tale that readers may have become accustomed to.
There is the prerequisite detailing of military strategy and recounting of intense training conditions, yes, but those technicalities are mostly overshadowed by the creative exploits in which Wong and his cadre of military brethren take part.
In one particular story, for instance, Wong details the extreme measures that he and his buddies went through to recover a cell phone he had stolen out of his back pocket during a tour of duty in the Philippines. As this happened before iPhones and the Find My iPhone locator app were made popular, Wong and his pals had no choice but to map out an entire military strategy for the retrieval -- including a female decoy, the local police and three different lookout positions.
In another, Wong recounts the now-infamous “pizza incident,” in which he and a number of his fellow “wannabe Special Forces guys” opted to break strict military rules during a SERE Special Forces qualification test and scarf down pizza instead of suffering through the exercise’s implicit hunger pangs.
Needless to say, Wong was swiftly punished.
But for all of his ludicrous antics, the author is at heart clearly a proud veteran of the US military system. And though his storytelling is not conventional by any means (it is, in fact, littered with phrases like “douchebag,” “dude,” and “homies”), his collection of stories humanizes the military experience in a way that is both accessible and understandable for any layperson.
His casual writing style is effective in its colloquialisms, his implicit “ya know what I mean?” at the end of each humorous anecdote like a friendly elbow in the ribs.
It’s refreshing and, perhaps just as importantly, it acts as an honest reflection of what being a member of the military is truly like -- excessive downtime, chow thieves, interpersonal problems and all -- sans the pomp and circumstance that often characterizes other war memoirs. Wong sees each tactical misstep or bizarre incident as a learning opportunity and every interaction as a chance to reflect on the idiosyncrasies of wartime and the people he meets from a myriad of different backgrounds.
While Wong’s intentions in writing the books are clearly not political or confrontational, he doesn’t shy away from criticizing failings of the very US missions he led, nor does he hold his tongue when being critical of special operations forces in the Philippines, Korea and Baghdad.
He does, however, sometimes border on the edge of political incorrectness in his descriptions, commenting on the “stereotypical” (Wong’s words) white pickup truck full of Mexicans that he chanced across during the pizza incident or breaking down the Korean American West Point culture, as demonstrated in the following passage.
“Growing up in Cupertino, California, which was about 50 to 60 percent Chinese in the late ‘90s, I actually hadn’t had much exposure to Korean or Korean American culture despite being in such a heavily Asian-American community,” he writes. “There were a few Koreans at my high school, but they didn’t travel around in the giant wolf packs that they do in normal Korean American social circles. ...So, needless to say, it was quite a bit of shock when these Korean upperclassmen (at Westpoint) wanted me to call them hyung, or ‘older brother,’ pretty much every sentence like how I was supposed to say ‘sir’ to the other upperclass cadets … holy cow! I mean, I was like, are we living in feudal times?”
It’s at times like this that Wong runs the risk of alienating some of his audience. His own shock and awe about Korean American culture may be a familiar one to readers who are similarly new to the experience, but to those who grew up accustomed to the customs he mentions, his jabs are naïve at best, offensive at worst.
There are nods to Wong’s Asian American background interspersed throughout his stories -- each chapter serves as a standalone tale, and none of the anecdotes are in any chronological order -- and the references to certain cultural touchstones are not overly didactic.
Wong’s saving grace in toeing the line between honest and offensive is his stereotypically Asian, self-deprecating humor, ironically enough. For every time he gripes about an ethnic group, he admits to his own tendency to judge too quickly, and his realization that people can be “douchebags” (a favorite word of his) regardless of cultural upbringing.
In the end, the takeaway is less about crawling into the deep recesses of a mind sorely affected by the travesties of war than recognizing that the nameless faces involved in the war efforts are not too different from the average reader.
It’s as though your best college buddy had come home from the war, hauled you out of your apartment for a drink and said, “You’re not gonna believe this but …”
By the end of it, you’ll still not believe it, and you’ll want another drink.
Joyce Chen is a second-generation Taiwanese American journalist and current multimedia editor at the New York Daily News, where she covers viral videos, recaps "The Bachelorette" and wades her way through all things entertainment and gossip - with tongue firmly in cheek, of course. She originally hails from Cerritos, CA, and graduated with degrees in print journalism and psychology from the University of Southern California, where she was previously the editor-in-chief of the Daily Trojan. Her writings have been published in People magazine, Los Angeles magazine and the Los Angeles Daily News.