The Wars Among the Paines (KoehlerBooks, 616 pp., $39.95, hardcover; $26.95, paper; $7.99, e book) is a work of historical fiction by John M. Millar, who served as a first lieutenant with the 1st Infantry Division in Vietnam in 1968-69. The novel looks at the effects that fifty-five years of war (1918-1973) had on the nation as seen through the eyes of one family, the Paines. They are proud citizen-soldiers who served when called to wars. They haven’t missed one, reporting for duty in World Wars I and II and the Korean and Vietnam Wars.
The main character, Treat Paine II, refers to his younger sister as “the martyr,” while his older brother is “the prick,” his mother “a drunk” and his father “a bastard.” For decades the family has famously owned several non-union munitions plants. Paine says his family seemed to have it all, yet ended up being dysfunctional, and he wonders how much the pressure of family members fighting in four wars contributed to that.
Within the first few pages we learn that Treat’s brother was killed in Vietnam in 1965 in the Ia Drang Valley and his sister was a leader in the antiwar movement who died by carrying a hunger-strike to its fatal conclusion. After that, his mother went into a catatonic state from which she never recovered. His father, a World War II veteran, would die from a heart attack.
A grandfather survived World War I and the 1918-19 flu pandemic. An uncle was killed in Korea. “We were a family that answered our country’s call every time,” Paine says, “right or wrong.” He tells the stories of his relatives by using journals each kept during their time in service.
After Treat Paine graduates from college in 1966 he volunteers for the Army because he wants to fight in the Vietnam War. Why? Not because of his brother’s death there but because, as he says, he “worshiped Hemingway.” His “purpose for going was complicated by my desire to be a famous writer. I knew that, if I did not go to Vietnam, I would not have the grist to create meaningful stories.”
He volunteers for Army Officer Candidate School and arrives in Vietnam in early 1968. He left the war after serving two tours, with a promise to himself that his writing would never glorify the things he witnessed there.
In preparing to write the historical parts of this novel Millar used an impressive amount of reference materials that are listed on three pages at the back of the book. For the fiction parts we get a ton of details about Paine’s school years—all of them: subjects he studied, classes he took, his thoughts about his instructors, and final grades he made.
The fact that Millar makes those parts nearly as interesting as military combat shows what skills he has as a writer.
Considering a nation’s history by looking at the personal history of generations in one family is not a new idea. But John Millar has done it as well as anyone.