Book Review: 13 Cent Killers
Over vacation I started and finished 13 Cent Killers: The 5th Marine Snipers in Vietnam. While I do like reading history books, I prefer them to be well-written. Though John Culbertson writes from the heart, his skills with the pen are not as refined as they might be.
The 5th Marine Regiment is one of the most active in Marine Corps history. They fought in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, and most recently, Iraq. Their men are the stuff of Marine Corps legend, the ones you hear about when you stand in the yellow footprints at Parris Island. John Culbertson was assigned to them as a Rifleman and later as a Scout-Sniper in 1966-67 Vietnam. 13 Cent Killers tells part of the story of his time there.
Though the book gives an adequate history of his time and his unit, it fails on several levels. There are more characters introduced and tracked than is necessary. Culbertson switches between the different storylines in a non-chronological manner that makes following the story difficult. He also switches off onto tangents that are irrelevant and distracting.
The several strongly held opinions Culbertson writes in his book are, if nothing else, vehement. His disgust for the M-16 and adoration for the M-14 are prominent. He also derides his chain of command at the Presidential level (Johnson & Macnamara) for their poor management of the war (a fair and honest evaluation in my opinion, though his is quite heated). But the most subtle opinion is his contempt for a not-quite named sniper from Vietnam – Carlos Hathcock.
Hathcock’s exploits are well-known, including his .50 caliber shot at 2500 yards, the 800-yard crawl to an 800-yard shot against a NVA General, and his reduction of a Viet Cong company in the Elephant Valley. Culbertson, however, subtly disregards each of these exploits with his own experience. He seems to fall victim to what Tony Zinni describes in Battle Ready – that strange presumption that your own experience in Vietnam is representative of everyone elses, therefore giving you license to call Bravo Sierra whenever someone describes something too dissimilar from what you experienced.
This presumption, coupled with other issues mentioned, lead me to give this book only 2.5 stars out of 5 – a fair showing, but not exactly something I’d recommend to give a good historical perspective. Though it broadens the scope of what snipers experienced in Vietnam, it would have done a world of good to give Culbertson a good editor instead of a merely adequate one. Ballantine Books/Presidio had a responsibility to give Culbertson at least that much respect. They didn’t, and the book’s readability and enjoyability suffered for it.