Books in Review II

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Welcome to “Books in Review II,” an online feature that complements “Books in Review,” which runs in The VVA Veteran, the national magazine of Vietnam Veterans of America.

This site contains book reviews by several contributors, while other reviews appear in each issue of The VVA Veteran. Our goal is to review every newly published book of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry that deals with the Vietnam War or Vietnam veterans. Publishers and self-published authors may mail review copies to:

Marc Leepson
Arts Editor, The VVA Veteran
Vietnam Veterans of America
8719 Colesville Road
Silver Spring, MD 20910

Email your comments, questions, and suggestions to mleepson@vva.org

–Marc Leepson, Books Editor

A Date with Vietnam by Steven Weathers

Steven E Weathers’ memoir, A Date with Vietnam (CreateSpace, 288 pp., $12.81, paper), starts off with the author telling us about his problems with authority in high school. I quickly found myself wondering how he’d do with military rules and authority given the fact that the relatively mild high school structure troubled him. Weathers says he wanted to be treated as an adult, and thought that he would get that in the military.

I also wondered how soon we’d get a reference to John Wayne. We did not have long to wait. “I grew up watching John Wayne movies and I especially liked his military films when I was a kid,”  Weather says. He goes on to praise Wayne for playing military characters “so true to life.”  Weathers grew up “in a family and a society that made you feel it was your duty to go fight communism.”

He was told “to join, not wait to be drafted. Guys who are drafted are treated like shit.” This sounds like Army recruiter talk, and it is a lie.  Weathers’ recruiter told him, that in his opinion, “a bunch of jungle backwoods pack rats wouldn’t hold up long against the American military machine” in Vietnam. The recruiter also told him that losers get drafted and that second-class soldiers are the first to be sent to the fighting.  Another lie.

Steven Weathers viewed serving in the Army as a patriotic duty—and his ticket to manhood. This point of view was not unusual for men to have in the mid 1960s.

A small-town Indiana boy of seventeen, a high school dropout who knew how to type, Weathers took the military aptitude tests and ended up as an Army clerk typist. He was sent to Okinawa, “a cushy assignment on an island paradise.”  At seventeen he was too young to go to Vietnam, but as soon as he turned eighteen, Weathers volunteered for the war zone.

Assigned to the 18th MP Battalion, Weathers was happy to have escaped small-town boring America. He makes the usual observations about Vietnam upon arrival. He is hit in the face by the hottest air he had ever experienced. He comments on shit-burning, but says he never got assigned that dirty detail. He mentions the steel wire on the windows of the bus that took him to his assignment.  Protection against grenades, he says.

Weathers

Weathers next went to Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 4th Transportation Command, where he lived in the Le Lai Hotel in Saigon. He discovered that he was considered a REMF and explains what that is.

He and his roommate spent their off duty time “drinking, smoking pot and frequenting the local whorehouse.” Weathers’ job consisted of typing up disposition forms, memoranda, and the occasional classified documents twelve hours a day, seven days a week.

After betting promoted to E-4, his job changed. He became a harbor pilot escort, using a jeep as transportation, and also PBRs ( patrol boat, river.) On one mission his jeep came under fire. His passenger, a harbor pilot, was killed; Weathers narrowly missed death himself.

This memoir offers a good description of the impact that Tet 1968 had on Weathers’ life, and life in general in Vietnam for soldiers with assignments such as his. After Tet, Weathers was moved out of the hotel and into more a typical barracks living situation. Later, while riding in a helicopter, he fell out at about fifty feet, and survived only because he landed in a grove of trees that cushioned his fall.

The main strength of this memoir is its unabashed honesty, especially about Weathers’ behavior and that of his best friend.  He tells us about kicking Vietnamese off of their bicycles while driving his jeep if they impeded his progress. He says he enjoyed “kicking gook ass” in bars.

Like many other rear-echelon troops, Weathers had a mama san to clean and polish his boots and do his laundry. Like many others who served in Vietnam, his favorite song was the Animals’  “We Gotta Get Out of This Place.”  He expressed outrage at a culture that sold dogs and cats and other pets in the marketplace for dinner items.

When Weathers came home in 1968 after two tours of duty, he partied for thirty days. But his parents were at him about moving out and getting a job. So he went back to the grocery store job he had left to join the Army.

Civilian life was hard. He had two dismal marriages. Weathers joined the Army Reserves where he found the structure and camaraderie he missed from his time in Vietnam. Weathers became a Senior Track and Wheel Inspector, and later a drill instructor. He received many honors and medals, and stuck with the Reserves until retirement.

Eventually he even found true love. She had been married for sixteen years to a man she called “a crazy Vietnam vet.”

This memoir is an honorable and honest addition to the canon of Army Vietnam War memoirs. I enjoyed reading it. There were many familiar chords in it reflecting my own REMF tour of duty in the Vietnam War–and also many differences.

—David Willson

Restless Hearts by Dennis Baker

Dennis Baker, who spent twenty-eight years in the Navy, has chosen a unique way to honor a group of service members who died in uniform: his book Restless Hearts: What If Fallen Heroes Could Go Home?  (Abbott Press, 176 pp., $30.95, hardcover; $13.99, paper), a novel that uses their real names.

The book is “a fictional novel that honors all military, including active duty, reserve, and veteran servicemen and servicewomen,” Baker says. “This is a tale of hope and destiny” intended “to evoke the thoughts of the reader to examine what possibilities exist, and the resultant heartache when there are abrupt endings to life.”

Dennis Baker

The seven men are Richard Allan Wood, Allan Arlyn Milk, Andrew Carl Brucher, Leslie Anthony Burr, Charles Ernest Koberlein, and Frank Leonardo, who died in the Vietnam War, and Peter Baker, who perished in World War II.

The book, Baker explains, “is my way of apologizing to the many families who have been left behind without closure about the deaths of their loved ones. It is also a tribute to those who gallantly gave, and in so many ways, continue to give to their country.”

—Marc Leepson

The author’s website is www.restlessheartsromance.com

The Lotus and the Storm by Lan Cao

Lan Cao is a professor at the Dale Fowler School of Law at Chapman University and the author of the novel Monkey Bridge. Robert Olen Butler calls her “one of our finest American writers,” saying that her new book, The Lotus and the Storm (Viking, 400 pp., $27.95) is a “brilliant novel that illuminates the human condition shared by us all.”

That is what we should ask from a serious novel—and this is a serious novel. I realized that when I read the quote from T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land on the page after the dedication, which begins “Who is the third who walks always beside you?”

Much of the book is set in 2006 in the United States, and deals with how life is for Vietnamese who immigrated here to start new lives after the war. This present-day narrative is set off with large sections set in Saigon in the 1960s.

The author does a superb job summoning up Cholon of the 1966-1967 era. I recognize it and feel nostalgic for the beauty of those narrow, clogged streets that seemed to go nowhere.

The two primary narrators, Minh and Mai, father and daughter, give us much to think about. When Minh says, “And the Americans entered our story not fully knowing what awaited them,” he says a mouthful.

This is typical of the understatement in this fine novel. Most Americans, in fact, didn’t even know that the French had been there, let alone they’d been defeated at Dien Bien Phu. What’s more, they would not have cared if they had been told, as evidenced by the fact that I don’t know how many times I got asked why the Vietnamese spoke French but not much English.

Mai and her older sister have a dear friend, James Baker, a young American sergeant attached to the MP Compound just down the street from where they live in Cholon. He is an enigmatic character who I never figured out, although he is as far from an Ugly American as you can get.  He is golden and pure and teaches the girls American songs and English.  He acts as an English tutor to Mai.

Among the most powerful sections of the book deal are those that deal with Mai and her family home coming under attack by the VC during the 1968 Tet Offensive, James dying nearby, and Mai blaming herself for not saving him, and the section in which Mai goes to the Wall in Washington with her father and makes a rubbing of James Baker’s name. Sad stuff.

Saigon, 1966

The whole book is sad, even though it is filled with joyful descriptions of great meals of delicious Vietnamese food. As soon as possible I will make a pilgrimage to my favorite Vietnamese restaurant, Fortune Noodle House, and order a big bowl of pho with beef brisket. I once ate a dish of frogs legs in garlic sauce, and it brought me back to the time I had consumed such a dish in a small restaurant in Saigon.Dealing with all the tiny sharp bones reminded me of why it has been over forty years since I ordered that dish.

The ubiquitous Vietnamese restaurants in King County, Washington, demonstrate that this novel of the Vietnamese diaspora is totally valid. We as a country are much enriched by the Vietnamese presence. The question remains: Was the war worth it?

This fine novel is filled with tiny sharp bones, too—many small, painful memories that hurt and remind us of how we mishandled the war and how the Vietnamese on both sides suffered, and that there is no wall large enough to memorialize all the deaths.

Read The Lotus and the Storm if you wish to encounter—and perhaps better understand—the trauma and suffering of the Vietnamese during and after that long and bitter war. The main character, Minh, was an ARVN general, and his point of view is perfectly presented.

I’d like all American Vietnam veterans who castigate ARVN soldiers to read this book and try to eradicate their hatred of the ARVN soldiers and try to understand the position they were in, and how totally the United States had been the architects of that situation.

I highly recommend that all Vietnam veterans buy and read this fine book.  Try it; you might learn something.

—David Willson

A Monument to Deceit by C. Michael Hiam

C. Michael Hiam’s A Monument to Deceit: Sam Adams and the Vietnam Intelligence Wars, first published in 2006 under the title Who the Hell Are We Fighting? The Story of Sam Adams and the Vietnam Intelligence Wars, has been recently republished in paperback (ForeEdge, 352 pp., $24.95).

Hiam’s subject is what happened after Vietnam War CIA analyst Sam Adams discovered in 1968 that the U.S. was facing a Viet Cong army that was significantly larger than what other intelligence analysts believed—mainly because, Adams contended, Commanding General William Westmoreland pressured the top U.S. military leaders to overstate enemy casualty figures to make it appear that progress was being made in the war.

Kept quiet at the time, the issue burst into the national consciousness in 1982 when CBS TV aired the documentary “The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception,” in which Adams told his story. Adams and CBS accused Westmoreland of leading a conspiracy to misrepresent enemy troop strength. In 1984 Westmoreland filed a $120-million libel lawsuit against CBS. At the very last moment, just as the trial was about to go to jury, Westmoreland dropped the suit, and CBS issued a statement standing by its claims, but saying it never meant to say that the general was unpatriotic.

In his book, Hiam tells Adams’ compelling life story, complete with blow-by-blow accounts of his muckraking at the CIA, and fascinating details of the CBS-Westmoreland trial, which some people called “the libel trial of the century.” Adams died in 1988.

Sam Adams in 1984

Hiam makes a case Adams was correct—and General Westmoreland was guilty as charged. The death and destruction that resulted from the 1968 Tet Offensive (including the deaths of 3,895 American military personnel), as well as the American public’s turn against the war after it was over, Hiam says, became “the legacy of Westmoreland’s intelligence operation at MACV.”

Hiam characterizes that as “a legacy of providing estimates that were born of political expediency, and a legacy that, as Sam Adams would try to tell his fellow Americans over the next two decades, fatally undercut all of the sacrifices that they had made in Vietnam.”

—Marc Leepson

 

Inverted Flight by Don Mercer

VVA life member Don Mercer graduated from USAF pilot training in 1970. He flew the Cessna O-2A flying out of Bien Hoa Air Base as a Forward Air Controller during his 1970-71 tour of duty in Vietnam. His call sign was Rustic 41 in flying combat missions supporting the Rustic Operation over Cambodia.

In the foreword to Flight: A Collection of Verse (Xlibris, 208 pp., $31.99, hardcover; $21.99 paper) we are told that the verses in this book were “inspired by the events and emotions of the year Don spent in Vietnam serving both his country as well as the Cambodian nation.”

The largest and most important section of the book is entitled “The War in Southeast Asia.”  It contains thirty-two poems in rhymed verse in the manner of Robert Service. This section contains poems with titles such as: “Arrival,” “The Good Men,’ “My Peashooter,” “A Water Buffalo Has the Last Laugh,” “Arc Light,” “Shot Down,” “Nui Ba Dien,” “Body Count,” and “Hanoi Jane.”

A reader can infer from the titles that the author covers many of the same subjects that seem to obsess many other Vietnam veterans who write books. I expected to find a poem on Jane Fonda ranting that she was a traitor. I was not disappointed.

In the verses “The Vet,” “What Price Paid,” “Midnight on the Mekong,” and “In My Face” we encounter some of the other often-voiced concerns of returning veterans, particularly the airport interaction with an push antiwar protester. In this encounter a “peacenik” calls a returning Vietnam veteran a babykiller and offers him a flower, which is rejected with the threat of leaving the peacenik with a stump if he did not withdraw the insulting flower.

Don Mercer

In “Who Should Fight” Mercer kicks both LBJ for his undeserved Silver Star during World War II and John Wayne for being a “reel” hero rather than a real hero.

There are lighthearted verses about Alaska in this collection, along with the Vietnam War poems. My favorite was a short poem about how Mercer loves dogs but does not have time for cats.

There are also a lot of verses dealing with Mercer’s love of flying. They are among the best in the collection. I’d buy this fine-looking and well-designed and edited book for them alone.

The author’s website is www.rustic41creations.com

—David Willson

Unlikely Warriors by Lonnie M. Long and Gary B. Blackburn

Unlikely Warriors: The Army Security Agency’s Secret War in Vietnam 1961-1973 (iUniverse, 490 pp., $39.95, hardcover; $29.95, paper) is the result of a twelve-year study by Lonnie M. Long and Gary B. Blackburn.  This book is a history of the Army Security Agency’s (ASA) involvement in the Vietnam War. It is a must-read for anyone interested in the role of secret communications in the war effort. There is so much well- documented information in here that I believe it could be used as a reference book.

This book has heart. While the authors lay out thousands of details, I also felt myself drawn into the personal lives of the combatants. The authors give brief histories of those men and include many photos of them.

In the Prologue the authors give a summary of the events leading up to the United States’ involvement in Indochina. That includes the fact that President Truman authorized funds and equipment to help the French in their 1945-54 losing effort to regain their Indochinese colonies after World War II.

The authors note that the United States should have learned something from the disastrous result of the French Indochina War. The Vietnamese, they point out, have a centuries-long history of fighting and defeating invading nations, along with a strong sense of patriotism that pervades every aspect of their lives

Long (who served with ASA from 1962-65) and Blackburn (who served with the Air Force Security Service) intersperse the chapters with descriptions of antiwar activities unfolding back home. At times the reader may be torn between supporting the men the field in Vietnam and the victims of violence back on the streets of America. The authors note that the war and political dishonesty in Washington tore the fabric of the United States apart.

During the war the ASA and the NSA were very successful in intercepting North Vietnamese military communications, and were able to send warnings about likely attacks. One such incident took place in the Ia Drang Valley.  ASA provided information to ground forces who were then able to decimate the NVA forces.  While mistakes were sometimes made in the exchange of information, overall the ASA proved its mettle.

Long and Blackburn provide the proof that the North Vietnamese Army was a very capable enemy by listing many of the ASA soldiers who were killed in action. Each time I read such a list, I felt like I almost knew the victims.  The sense of loss—along with the sense of pride—is almost palpable in the way the authors present these stories.

Several battle scenes are vividly depicted. The account of the Battle of Duc Lap, for example, was so intense and filled with heroic actions that I stayed up until 1:00 a.m. on a Saturday to finish it. The actions of the men involved showed once again that war—popular or unpopular—is about individuals performing almost unbelievable actions for their own survival and the survival of their buddies.

The authors conclude the book by giving their version of a part of the war that is the most difficult to read about: the end of South Vietnam in 1975.  While I was aware generally of what took place in that dark time, the specifics filled me with sadness.

If a person were to read only one book on the war in Southeast Asia, this would be one of the best.

—Joseph Reitz

The New Oxford Book of War Poetry Edited by Jon Stallworthy

The New Oxford Book of War Poetry (Oxford University Press, 448 pp., $29.95) starts with the Bible and works its way to modern times. The youngest poet I spotted in this book was David Harsent, who was born in 1942, the same year I was born. He is in the age group referred to in English literature classes as “young poets.” I hope he feels younger than I do.

The book, edited by Jon Stallworthy, contains fewer than a dozen poems by Vietnam War veterans. The arrangement of the poems in this large book—with no subject categories—makes it difficult to determine exactly how many deal with particular wars. The book is arranged roughly in chronological order, but the lack of subject arrangement is a serious lapse and does not make this an easy reference book to use. Nor does the fact that it’s printed on cheap paper.

Patrons come into a library looking for poems that deal with a specific war or wars. To find them in this book, you need to know the name of the poet associated with a particular war. Yes, birth dates help, but not a lot.

I used the birth dates of the poets as a rough guide to locate poems dealing with specific wars. Doing that, I generally found that the book included most-often-cited poets for each war.  For the Vietnam War, for example, there was the work of Yusef Komunyakaa, W. D. Ehrhart, Bruce Weigl, John Balaban, along with one unusual suspect, Ngo Vinh Long. This group gets a total of seven poems between them.

I read the introduction to find out why the volume contains so few poems by Vietnam veterans. Editor Jon Stallworthy—a poet and Professor Emeritus of English Literature at Oxford University and a Fellow of the British Academy—explains it clearly: “For demographic and socio-historical reasons,” he writes, “the ratio of poets to other servicemen and women was less than in either world war. Most American intellectuals disapproved of the Vietnam War, and men of military age, particularly white men of military age, could avoid conscription by signing up for university education, and many did.”

Jon Stallworthy

As a university-educated white man and an intellectual who disapproved of the Vietnam War, where do I begin to take issue with this explanation? Is Stallworthy saying that those of us who served in Vietnam were too dumb or uneducated to write poetry?  I think he is—albeit hidden inside a velvet glove.

Since I wrote poetry while I was in Vietnam—just as many World War I poets wrote poetry during their war—I accuse Stallworthy of either not doing enough research or not reading enough Vietnam War poetry. Tens of thousands of university-educated men and women served in Vietnam. What’s more, many other men and women who took part in the war and who did and did not have university educations wrote worthy poetry after coming home from Vietnam.

I found nine poems by Wilfred Owen in the anthology. Many Vietnam veteran poets wrote nine or more worthy poems. You will not find them in this book.

The American poet of the Vietnam War who Stallworthy singles out for the most attention is John Balaban. He served in Vietnam as a conscientious objector, and is a fine poet, a very brave man, and an old friend.  One of the best memories of my life is the day he showed up to read poetry to my Vietnam War class. But why not a few words about Bill Ehrhart?  Space constraints, no doubt. Ehrhart was a Marine in Vietnam.

Don’t look in this anthology for much in the way of poetry dealing with wars since Vietnam. There is one fine poem by Peter Wyton, who was born in 1944, “Unmentioned in Dispatches,” that deals with the Iraq War.

—David Willson