Immigrant Soldier: From the Baltics to Vietnam is a very personal story that is told with heartfelt conviction and sincerity. Unfortunately, it never develops beyond an oversimplified look at history through the prism of personal experience.
As the title suggests, the memoir attempts to span the historical era from Latvia’s independence through Vick Pakis’ own experiences fighting in the Vietnam War. That is a Herculean task. It includes the Soviet occupation of Latvia and the family’s flight to the West, their experiences in a Displaced Persons camp in Germany, and their arrival and adjustment to life in the United States, eventually culminating in Pakis’ own experiences in the Vietnam War.
Similar approaches were used by Agata Nesaule in A Woman in Amber and by Modris Eksteins in Walking Since Daybreak. The problem is that Pakis has neither the literary skill nor the historical backgrounding of Nesaule or Eksteins. His story seldom goes beyond simple narrative in which all the good guys wear white and all the bad guys, in this specific case, wear red. The writing often reads like ledger entries.
Small nagging errors are hard to ignore after a while. Pakis refers to his grandfather as Khrisjanis. The Latvian pronounciation of the name would most likely be Krishjanis (Krišjānis). Another character is referred to as Mr. Ozoles; in Latvian it would be Ozols. The family members are referred to by first name only, which can be confusing. The book’s jacket claims that the book "…reveals how his personal history would ultimately influence Vick Pakis’ own confrontation with Communism—as a soldier in the U.S. Army." However, the only character in the book who serves in the U.S. Army is named Karl. The only Vick in the book is Viktor, Karl’s father.
These are to be expected in a book from a small publishing company, Hellgate Press, specializing in books that claim to look "through the eyes of someone who has experienced war" and written by a novice writer who feels strongly about his subject matter. Ultimately, it’s the strength of feeling that is the downfall of Immigrant Soldier.
The story of the incredible hardships that the Pakis family had to endure works, even if one suspects that it might be a bit self-serving. It’s the recounting of history that exposes the book’s shortcomings. It’s not that Pakis’ family did not go through hell and that the Soviets were responsible. It’s not that the Vietnam War wasn’t as simple as the war protesters tried to make it out to be. It’s just that he tries to put it all into such a narrow historical perspective that even the staunchest conservatives might blink.
The Reds are to be blamed for everything. In the fight for Latvia’s independence all of the bad guys are Reds. During Latvia’s independence the Reds cause all of the problems. In German labor camps the bad guys are all Reds, or Russians. During the Vietnam War period it’s the Red media. And if they are not Reds, then they are obviously malcontents and idiots. The book is peppered with passages like “…experiences of the past created a hatred for hypocrites, liars, thieves, and most of all, the so-called experts…Viktor’s success was based on hard work, but it did create a few enemies for him. Envy and jealousy came his way from several older writers in the section…It’s not going to be tomorrow or the day after that, but eventually they will be able to say, ‘I told you so’ to all of these Commie lovers and Socialists."
Pakis’ life, the experiences of his family’s flight from the Soviet occupation of Latvia and—by extension—the lives and experience of countless other Latvians, those who left and those who stayed behind, deserve to be heard. Unfortunately, Vick Pakis was probably not the best person to tell them.
Immigrant Soldier: From the Baltics to Vietnam
Central Point, Ore.: Hellgate Press, 2000
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