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

Wommack’s The Art of Leadership by David R. Wommack

Wommack’s The Art of Leadership: Moving from Military to Industry  (CreateSpace, 118 pp., $12.95, paper; $4.99, e book) is a gigantic book crammed into just over a hundred pages. Author David R. Wommack’s career stretches through several realms in the military (including serving as an Army lieutenant in the Vietnam War in 1969-71) as well in the public sector.

The text is a clear-cut, well-organized guide designed to empower former military personnel to move into leadership roles in industy. It is obvious that the author speaks from personal experience in the workplace and not from a theoretical perspective.

Perhaps the most important concept that Wommack explains is the difference between management and leadership. Both are necessary positions in industry, but are very different. Wommack uses quotes from successful leaders to illustrate his points. For instance, this observation from Peter Drucker: “Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.”

What makes this book unique are the first 88 pages in which Wommack describes the characteristics of a true leader and how military life, by its very nature, develops those important skills. I believe anyone with military training will better understand the possibilities for leadership roles as the author explains how to make the transition from military to industrial leadership.

Chapter 3, “Leading,” is the book’s powerhouse. In it, Wommack explains how trust, honesty, and a willingness to take responsibility are integral components to successful leadership. Wommack also suggests using humility and humor—traits that one might not expect to come across in an industrial setting.

David R. Wommack

The author believes that humor can lighten the workplace atmosphere.  “Humor can make work fun. Fun? Yes, fun! Jokes. Laughter. Puns. Pranks. Games. Humor. Keep away from sexual humor for obvious and legal reasons, but self-deprecation—poking fun at oneself—is a sure sign of humility.”

Chapter 5 deals with motivating, training, and coaching of groups and individuals, necessary skills for any successful leadership career. Later, Wommack discusses finding a new job, covering areas such as resume writing, interviewing, and the need to be persistent in follow-up with employers.

While this book focuses on individuals leaving the military, I believe it would be helpful for anyone looking for a career. Any energetic job seeker is bound to feel grateful for the empowering ideas Wommack presents.

When you finish reading Wommack’s the Art of Leadership, the pages should be severely dog-eared and profusely highlighted.

The author’s website is www.davewommack.com

—Joseph Reitz

Echoes of a Distant Past (revised) by Eraldo Lucero

Eraldo Lucero’s Vietnam War memoir, Echoes of a Distant Past, first published in 2012, has recently been reprinted in a revised edition (CreateSpace, 190 pp., $35.38, paper).

You can read our 2012 review at vvabooks.wordpress.com/2012/10/06/echoes-of-a-distant-past-by-eraldo-lucero

Horses and Helicopters by Jim Downey

The title and subtitle Jim Downey chose for his book—Horses and Helicopters: A Son’s Tribute to His Father and Their Shared Military Service (iUniverse, 115 pp., $13.95, pape; $3.99, e book)—perfectly describes his intentions. The son is James R. (Jim) Downey III. His goal is to identify areas of the world where his and his father’s paths crossed during their military careers. The father—James R. Downey, Jr.—served twenty-seven years in the Army (1927-55); the son served twenty years in the Air Force, from 1958-78.

The first third of the book chronologically presents the paperwork left by the elder Downey after his death in 1986. It is mainly excerpts from a career’s worth of military records and orders, some of which are difficult to decipher, a fact recognized by the author. The father spent much of his early career in China and the Philippines, areas where his son later traveled. This opening section also includes paperwork related to life’s ordinary activities.

The son, who goes by Jim, devotes most of his part of the book to a questionnaire he received from the 366th Fighter Group Association in 1994. The questions focused on his experiences during his three Vietnam War tours of duty when he crewed aircraft while stationed at Danang (F-4C), Udorn (HH-53), and Korat (A-7D) Air Bases.

Jim Downey’s opinionated answers provide many enlightening and humorous anecdotes. He proudly remembers the selfless esprit of the HH-53 Jolly Green Giant helicopter crews and support personnel, which he rates as “the best managed” with “the highest morale of any squadron I ever worked with.”

USAF  Jolly Green Giant in the Vietnam War

He less-happily recalls frequent rocket attacks at Danang, but confesses that afterward he appreciated the lessons they taught: “Things I thought were important were not that important anymore,” he writes.

Downey berates the VA for its lack of understanding and medical support related to the effects of Agent Orange, to which he was exposed while working with C-123 Ranch Hand operations

Overall, the book does not clearly link the travels of father and son. Nevertheless, it is a distinctive approach to recreating the long military service—1927 to 1978—performed by two dedicated members of one family.

—Henry Zeybel

The Thin Wall by R. Cyril West

R. Cyril West was in elementary school during the Vietnam War. His novel, The Thin Wall (Molon Labe Books, 336 pp., $12.95, paper; $2.99, Kindle), takes place at the height of the war in 1968. It is set in Mersk in Bohemia in the former nation of Czechoslovakia during he time when the Russians crossed the frontier and took over the country. This time of uproar is used as a cover by the main villain of the book, Colonel Gregori Dal, to abduct an American Vietnam War POW and use him for his own ends.

Gunnery Sergeant Russell Edward Johnston, a red-haired American captured by the Viet Cong, was supposed to be executed and buried in an unmarked grave deep in the Bohemian forest. That’s what the Kremlin ordered.

But Dal had been recruited by a splinter KBG group to smuggle him to East Germany and then to Cuba where Johnston would become “a prized trophy for Castro.”  I have no idea why he would be a trophy—and West never tells us.

The author uses Johnston as a sort of a Hitchcockian MacGuffin to sustain the story and keep the novel’s plot moving along.

R. Cyril West

This may sound like another piece of fictional POW claptrap, but this book is not. It is a literate and literary novel. Milan Kundera, Josef Skvorecky, Franz Kafka, and other great writers are referenced. Colonel Dal burns some of their books in a public fountain. Elvis and Beatles LPs are also destroyed.

There is a large cast of well-developed characters and the author has provided a useful guide to them in the front of the book. There is a beautiful, young single mother the colonel becomes fixated on. She also is the object of attention from a doctor, an undercover spy long forgotten by his handlers. There is even a politically incorrect “village idiot” who is much more than comic relief.

Johnston may appear be just a plot device, but his back story is explained so that when bad things happen we feel badly for him. “He was on his second tour,” West writes, “just three months from leaving ‘Nam when it happened. Johnston and two other Marines. They were on a patrol when they came under heavy fire and were separated from their platoon.”

The men eventually fell into the hands of Russian intelligence agents who decide to hand them over to Soviet psychologists to be analyzed and then used as human guinea pigs in science experiments.

I enjoyed this novel. I even bought into some of the Cold War paranoia. The tragedy of the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia is well-demonstrated in this book, which is a POW thriller only on its surface.

There is a lot more going on in this well-written book. I recommend it.

The author’s website is www.rcyrilwest.com

—David Willson

 

Hearts, Minds, and Coffee by Kent Hinckley

Kent Hinckley served in Army Intelligence in Vietnam. His novel, Hearts, Minds, and Coffee: A Vietnam Peace Odyssey (Reyall, 282 pp., $14.95, paper), begins in January of 1970. The author informs us that “the time period corresponds to my tour in Nha Trang as a lieutenant.”

Hinckley was against the war, but served anyhow—like many of us. He salutes all the men and women who answered their country’s call.

The novel’s protagonist, Slater Marshall, is an officer who participated in ROTC purely as a way to pay for his college education.  “After being in Vietnam for forty minutes, he concluded he should have escaped to Canada as many draft-dodgers had done.”

Slater is targeted as a dissident during his advanced infantry training. When he arrives in Vietnam, he and four others of his sort are made Special Forces, according “to the needs of the service,” and placed in the middle of “Indian Country” to keep their ears open. Nothing they learn, however, is ever listened to.

They are given M-14s with only blanks to shoot, no live ammunition. But they make do and forge powerful bonds with each other and with the inhabitants of the village of Phan Loc.

You may have already discerned that this is not a typical Vietnam War infantry novel. It is a fable, a satire, and a dark comedy. Often it evoked for me Asa Baber’s classic Vietnam War-themed novel, Land of a Million Elephants, and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22.

Slater’s hero is anti-Nazi German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Slater adopts Bonfoeffer’s philosophy that when you are thrust into adversity, you accept it and take action—even if it places your life in jeopardy.

The coffee of the title relates to a coffee plantation that is the dream of the local VC leader. Slater and his men make it possible for him and the community to realize that dream.That is one way they wage peace—through economic development.

Kent Hinckley

This satire touches virtually all the bases that we expect to be touched in such a novel, and it is the stronger for it.  We hear the Animals sing “We Gotta Get Out of This Place.” We learn that the ARVN are not well-trained or well-equipped to fight. We find out about hearts and minds that must be won; shit is burned; and the heat and stink of Vietnam is evoked.

Agent Orange and napalm rain down. John Wayne is mentioned,. and the men are told to “saddle up and move out.” Ham and lima beans are eaten, with gusto.

When they rotate out of Vietnam, they are called “baby-killers” in the airports—in this case at Sea-Tac, the very airport I flew into when I returned home. The soldiers are described honestly. To wit:  “They believed in their government, Jesus, and apple pie. They thought they made America free.”  I remember being one of those soldiers.

Hinckley has written a great Vietnam War novel. I salute him and the characters of his book who jumped off the page and into my mind. I wish I had encountered them when I was in Vietnam, but my tour was real life, not a fantasy.

The author’s website is www.kenthinckley.com

—David Willson

Never Too Late by Ralph T. Jones

COver333333333333333333How does one classify a book that begins with an author’s note that says: “The events I have written about of my tours are those I have control of and may not be in the order they happened. My mind is full of many partial and unclear actions, some still may only be cruel images of my imagination”?

That’s what Ralph T. Jones writes in Never Too Late (Red Feather Publishing, 401 pp., paper). Jones, a VVA life member, also says that he chose to use nicknames or fictional names for the people in the book. The protagonist is seventeen-year-old Tim. With his mother’s consent, Tim joins the Army, trains as an infantryman, and arrives in Phouc Vinh, South Vietnam, in October 1965.

Jones takes the reader on a step-by-step journey of Tim’s experiences. It includes firefights, search-and-destroy sweeps, the death of a best friend, and bouts of drunkenness. Along the way, the reader sees the death of Tim’s youth and the birth of his disillusionment. All of this leaves him torn between fear and love of combat.

Tim returns to the United States, marries, and becomes a father. But he cannot find meaning for his existence. He rejoins the Army and in 1970 returns to Vietnam as a UH-1H crew chief and gunner. Tim’s two Vietnam tours fill the first half of the book.

The book’s second half describes Tim’s post-war life. Intent on making a career of the Army, Tim suffers a catastrophic car wreck. He spends much of three years in the hospital, which leads to his involuntary retirement. Left in  a state of physical and psychological pain, the rage within him builds up so much that he turns into a truly hateful man.

From this point, Jones takes the reader on a second journey that follows Tim through a battle to regain his humanity. This journey is as equally enlightening as the first.

Jones tells Tim’s story in a sort of chronological shorthand: Dense but brief paragraphs with few transitions comprise each chapter. At times, the book reads like a movie script. Jones first published Never Too Late in 1990, and this edition is a revision of the original.

—Henry Zeybel

Defend and Befriend by John Southard

In Defend and Befriend: The U.S. Marine Corps and Combined Action Platoons in Vietnam (University Press of Kentucky, 232 pp., $40, hardcover) John Southard brings a scholarly perspective to a Vietnam War Marine counterinsurgency program that hitherto has been discussed primarily by Marine Corps historians.

Combined Action Platoons, or CAPS, consisted of a Marine squad, a Navy Corpsman, and an equivalent contingent of Popular Force (PF) fighters from the village in which the CAP operated. CAPs might field fifteen-to-twenty-five men, but also could call upon Army fire support.

They were visible troops, and vulnerable. To be effective, they had to operate in areas under at least nominal South Vietnamese government control. CAP commanders were often twenty-year-old lance corporals with no language training. But over time, the training improved. At its peak, there were 114 CAP units providing a kinder, gentler imprint than Marines were historically known for.

The Marines arrived in South Vietnam in 1965 as an amphibious force designed, a la World War II, for assaults. General Lewis Walt, the commander, soon divined that that was the wrong strategy for the jungles, swamps, and mountains of I Corps. By trial and error, he and his field officers devised the CAP concept to defend villages near the coast while fighting units penetrated the Highlands.

Walt’s Marines were under the overall command of General William Westmoreland, whom Walt and other Marine officers felt did not fully endorse the CAP philosophy. Westmoreland believed that the way to win the war was through attrition—that is, the body count. Corollary to that belief, tieing down Marines in CAPs meant that fewer infantrymen were available to fight in the Highlands.

After reaching 114 villages, the CAP program stalled. In the book’s cogent conclusion, Southard quotes the Marine historian Curtis Williamson, who estimates that placing a CAP in every South Vietnamese village would have required 32,000 Marines (or soldiers), and 70,000 PF personnel. Williamson feels that with such an approach the communists would not have defeated South Vietnam.

Southard, a visiting lecturer in the History Department at Georgia State University,.is dry and somewhat repetitive. But his account is valuable for reporting on a program not everyone is aware of. With the long view of history, the CAP program was at least a qualified success, and it has contributed to military thinking both in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

– John Mort