- Ballad of the Green Beret – The Life and Wars of Staff Sergeant Barry Sadler from the Vietnam War and Pop Stardom to Murder and an Unsolved, Violent Death
- by Marc Leepson
- Publisher – Stackpole Books
- Copyright 2017
- 235 pages
Rating – 6/10
Review – As a high school senior, I happened on an article in the April 1990 issue of GQ magazine by John Ed Bradley. It was titled “Barry Sadler with a Bullet” and it detailed Sadler’s strange life and death. In his 49-year life, Sadler was a dead-end kid, a Green Beret, a pop star, an actor, a men’s adventure author, an accused murderer, and an expatriate before he was shot in Guatemala City in 1988. Sadler died in November 1989.
As I read Bradley’s piece, I though that Sadler’s life would make a terrific book. Well, the good news is that Marc Leepson has written that book. The bad news is that the book is just “pretty good,” not the book that Sadler’s life deserves.
27 Years Later, A Biography
When I saw Ballad of the Green Beret, I ordered it right away. The book is short and can be read in just a few hours. I did so Thursday and Friday and would read it again. Still, I’m disappointed.
Author Leepson covers the bases. He gets the broad strokes of Sadler’s life, but there’s just not enough depth. When he recounts the success of Sadler’s life-defining hit record, Leepson does a good job of explaining how fate and a few key connections helped push Sadler toward his 15 minutes of fame. However, the account of Sadler’s time at the top is plodding. Leepson spends too much time recounting a “laundry list” of the personal appearances that Sadler made to promote his song – and the Vietnam War.
My guess is that Leepson used a newspaper archives database to find this material; whatever the source, this prose is dull. However, I did like that Leepson included an extensive list of all of his sources in the back matter; I guess that’s the professor in me.
Hey Baby, Wanna See My Winnebago?
The second part of the story covers Sadler’s descent in 1970s Nashville. This part of the story works well and held my interest. In Nashville, Sadler made aborted attempts at reviving his singing career, which didn’t go very well. Eventually, he found his niche as a writer of pulp, men’s adventure novels.
The details are pretty sordid. He ignored his wife and three children. Instead, he became a barfly who hung with friends, told stories, and picked up women. The book tells of one extended drinking session in which Sadler took three women outside (@ different times) and enjoyed their company in the Winnebago that he’d left in the bar’s parking lot. (I feel particularly sorry for the third woman, whoever she was).
Eventually, Sadler shot and killed a down-on-his-luck country singer who was stalking his girlfriend. Surprisingly, Sadler escaped with almost no consequences. More surprisingly, Sadler (a high school dropout) established himself as an author of over 20 men’s adventure novels, which supported him to the end of his life.
The Guatemala saga was the last major part of Sadler’s life. He abandoned his family in Nashville and moved down. Life was still an extended adolescence – he drank, chased younger women, played with guns, and told tall tales. By the time Leepson tells of the gunshot wound that would eventually take Sadler’s life, the reader feels as though the ending was almost preordained by the choices that Sadler had made.
The Bitter End
Ballad closes on a down note, with Leepson providing a page-plus commentary Sadler’s life. The material is surprisingly harsh. Among other put downs, Leepson describes Sadler as a man who “had his hour strutting on the national stage” (p. 232) and “who spouted ultra-right-wing political tropes” (p. 231).
While Leepson’s points aren’t inaccurate, they are overly harsh. Moreover, if Leepson’s points are all there is to say about Sadler, they raise the question of whether Leepson’s book is a waste of the reader’s time.
Taps for Ballad
To me, Ballad was not a waste of time. Friday night, I drank a couple of Blue Moons and found that the story “held” me all of the way to the end.
But it could have been so much better. Sadler’s pop stardom was over 50 years ago, and he has been dead for close to 30 years; Leepson’s book is probably the best biography we’ll ever get.
My father is a Vietnam Vet and he enjoys “action books.” So, before reading Leepson’s book, I told Dad about it and promised that I would pass it on after I read it. I still plan to offer the book to him, but I’m going to give it only a lukewarm recommendation. Dad can decide whether he wants the book or if it should go straight to Goodwill.