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

War Dogs by Rebecca Frankel


Rebecca Frankel earned the nickname “Chief Canine Correspondent” in 2010 at serious-minded Foreign Policy magazine where she works after she began writing a weekly blog feature called “Rebecca’s War Dog of the Week.” Frankel, the magazine’s senior editor for special projects, had just put together a photo essay called “War Dog” in the magazine. Researching and writing that article opened her “eyes to the wide world of war dogs,” Frankel writes in War Dogs: Tales of Canine Heroism, History and Love (Palgrave Macmillan, 251 pp., $26), an engagingly written look at dogs and their handlers in the U.S. military.

Most of the book deals with today’s military and the nation’s most recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. But Frankel also weaves in the history of the use of dogs in wars. That includes the American war in Vietnam where dogs did valuable work in many areas, most significantly in helping detect “booby traps, land mines, trip wires, and the enemy’s intricate tunnel system,” as Frankel notes.

“From the beginning of their use in VIetnam, these canine teams gave patrols negotiating the froth and fray of the jungle an advantage against the guerrilla tactics used by Vietcong,” she writes. “Within a year of scout dogs’ arrival in Vietnam, they are reported to have saved over 2,000 lives.”

Rebecca Frankel and friend

Frankel devotes part of one chapter to telling the story of Ron Aiello, who served as a scout dog handler in the Vietnam War. Former Marine Aiello “still beams with pride for Stormy, the dog who accompanied him to Vietnam,” she writes. “From the way Aiello talks about her—immediate, vivid, and joyful—it’s as if Stormy is somehow at his feet or dozing in the next room, instead of a memory from a lifetime nearly half a century old.”

Vietnam War scout dog team

Stormy, a German Shepherd mix, “was a lovable, friendly dog,” who performed extremely effectively in Vietnam. The story of Ron Aiello and Stormy, though, has a sad ending. Stormy stayed behind when Aiello rotated home in 1967. Aiello slept on the ground next to Stormy his last night in country to be with her “until the very last moment.” He spent years trying to find out what became of his beloved dog, but as was the case with “the majority of the some 10,000 handlers who served in Vietnam, Aiello never saw his dog again.”

Frankel says that some 5,000 dogs served in Vietnam from 1964-75, and only 204 came home to the U.S. Those left behind “were either euthanized or turned over to the South Vietnamese Army, which likely meant death.”

This book is written with strong empathy for war dogs, dogs in general, and military dog handlers. It’s sure to appeal to dog lovers of every stripe.

The author’s web site is www.rebecca-frankel.com

—Marc Leepson

Vietnam War Elegy by G. Lowell Tollefson

G. Lowell Tollefson served in Vietnam as a Marine civil affairs interpreter attached to an infantry battalion. He holds a degree in philosophy from the University of Washington and has taught philosophy at the University of New Mexico’s Valencia campus.

The long poem that makes up the book Vietnam War Elegy (LLT Press, 34 pp., $5.50, paper) “was born on a hilltop over forty-five years ago in Vietnam,” Tollefson tell us. “Time and the loss of this war have shown America that it was politically wrong in prosecuting it.”

Tollefson takes to task the use of H & I (harassment and interdiction fire) as he saw many innocent people die from that indiscriminate use of heavy ordnance. He says that it is time we owned up to it. “Let us admit the full measure of what we have done and learn from it,” he writes. “This is the reason I have written and am now publishing this elegy.”

Tollefson

There are some great lyrics in this elegy. Chapter 6, I believe, is the strongest example of Tollefson’s poetic gifts and moral sensibilities:

 

Along the copses of trees, the dense

jungle, beside the corn fields,

honeycombed like the damp-rooted rice

we set out ambushes and waited.

 

In the morning after the killing, we

washed the night away with sunlit

patrols.  The people were smiling, over-

joyed they could see us and to know

where we were.  They brought us

their broken-skulled, infected, rancid corpses.

 

We gave them candy, placebos, the stone

silence of force.  Fractured and folded in flat

fields under bombs, this peasant nation

endured, drawn to closure in a rhythm of

wounds, shadowed in movement like a snake come together,

come out of an old skin into one.

 

C. Lowell Toleffson is a new, strong voice in Vietnam War poetry. I look forward to his next work.

—David Willson

A G.I.’s Vietnam Diary by Dominick Yezzo

By page six of Dominick Yezzo’s A G.I.’s Vietnam Diary: A Journey Through Myself (iUniverse, 94 pp., $11.95 paper) I was totally hooked

The story: A week after he arrived in Vietnam in August of 1968, draftee Yezzo hiked several klicks outside of Camp Evans on an orientation patrol and did a hilltop night observation exercise. In the morning on the way home, the guy next to him screwed up a grenade-throwing drill, killed himself, and wounded Yezzo. Doctors in Quang Tri failed to remove shrapnel from his shoulder, and for the remainder of his tour Yezzo suffered recurring pain.

While recuperating on the hospital ship U.S.S. Repose, he met a childhood friend—a man completely paralyzed by shrapnel in his spine. Yezzo was like a G.I. Joe Btfsplk: If it weren’t for bad luck, he wouldn’t have had any luck at all.

As property of 1st Cav’s PSYOPS, Spec4 Yezzo ended up in Phouc Vinh where he found himself adrift in routine, dropping surrender leaflets from helicopters, chauffeuring a major who directed him into an enemy fusillade, guarding prisoners, pulling CQ and KP, and surviving rocket and mortar attacks that killed people around him.

As he put it: “I often wonder if Washington knows about rockets, mortars, bullets, life, death, and this tremendous suffering.” His topmost desire became surviving.

As a short-timer, Yezzo received little consideration from his career-minded superiors who “imposed their ills” upon him. Two months after Yezzo got a puppy from a friend, for example, an MP captain shot the dog to death. Yezzo confronted the captain and called him a “goddamn bum,” but avoided an insubordination charge.

Off duty, Yezzo spent more time with Vietnamese—fluctuating between loving and hating them—than he spent with Americans. A Vietnamese sergeant named So became his confidant. Yezzo’s insignificance was confirmed when he milked a short medical leave for extra days and “Nobody seem[ed] to care.”

Dominick Yezzo

After seven months in-country, Yezzo’s fear for his life led him to smoking dope. “Marijuana,” he writes, “is readily and very easily obtainable to every G.I. in Vietnam.” He also drank to escape from reality. Recognizing his weaknesses, he thought a lot about God and family. Years later, Yezzo’s “journey through himself” culminated in becoming a college literature professor and lawyer.

Yezzo, a VVA member, originally published this ultra-thin memoir of diary entries in 1974, and reprinted it this year. However, his experiences have a timeless quality.

A few of his accounts flashed me back to forgotten events. For example, Yezzo anguished over escorting the body of a Vietnamese boy killed by a booby trap to the boy’s mother. He wrote, “She hated the sight of me and the other Americans with me.” That made me recall airlifting a dead Vietnamese lieutenant to Dalat. His mother and father met our C-130 but refused to look at or speak to anyone on our crew. So it goes.

The book’s most revealing parts are Yezzo’s preoccupation with women: pen pals from home, platonic Vietnamese girlfriends, prostitutes, and bed partners from leave and R&R–particularly an Aussie woman to whom he devotes two full pages. He delighted me by asking, “How can I ever possibly marry one girl? I love so many of them, each for different reasons too.”

Dominick Yezzo’s long-ago immaturity reminded me that once upon a time all of us were equally as young. Yes, so it goes….

–Henry Zeybel

Kill for Peace by Matthew Israel

Matthew Israel’s Kill for Peace: American Artists Against the Vietnam War (University of Texas Press, 278 pp., $29.95, paper) fills the space that was left by Lucy Lippard’s A Different War:  Vietnam in Art and the National Vietnam Veterans Art Museum’s Vietnam: Reflexes and Reflections.

Much of the art in those two books is antiwar; in his book Matthew Israel focuses on that art to great effect. Israel is a New York art historian and author who has taught at New York University and the Museum of Modern Art. No information is given in the book on his military service.

The “baby killer” motif is prominent in Israel’s presentation and analysis of antiwar art. I’ve read hundreds of books by Vietnam veterans who say they are tormented by that appellation. This book has many references to the “baby killer” theme, although when I went to the otherwise fine index, that term was not there.

Korean War and World War II veterans got a free pass on the issue of killing innocent civilians, but Vietnam War veterans are held to account in a way that veterans of those wars were not. Was it that no women and children were killed in previous wars?  We know that is not true. Previous wars also drafted civilians to be soldiers, so that isn’t the variable either.  So what is it?

Israel addresses this question in a chapter entitled “AWC, Dead Babies, Dead American Soldiers.”  It contained an epiphany for me. First, Israel doesn’t say it straight out, but most home-front  Americans believed that all soldiers in Vietnam were in the infantry. Americans still tend to think this. But something like ninety percent of us were support troops who had little or no access to weapons—and if we had them, we would not have chosen to kill women and children with them.

The visuals in this chapter clearly show that the posters disseminated after the My Lai massacre focused on the notion that American soldiers were baby killers—that that, in fact, was their mission.

The most scurrilous image in the book is of a 1970 poster, Jeff Kramm’s “My Lai,” displaying a naked ROTC soldier as a muscular, smug rapist and murderer. The caption is “My Lai—We Lie—They Die.” As if young men were joining ROTC motivated by the urge to kill. Most men were in ROTC either as a way to get a college education or because we attended Land Grant colleges that required ROTC. That’s why I was in ROTC—no choice at all, just like when I got my draft notice in late 1965.

Leon Golub created a lot of art about the war: the Vietnam Series and later, the Napalm series. He later recanted. “I couldn’t blame the G.I.’s for the guys who were initiating all this,” he said. “The soldiers weren’t assassins. I became ashamed.”  Golub then destroyed most of those demonizing art works, but it was too late, the damage was done.

Tens of thousands of posters showing Vietnamese civilians—including the iconic photo taken by Ron Haeberle of My Lai (below)—did their work in demonizing American troops in Vietnam. That includes a poster that showed a Vietnamese mother holding her burned child with the words:“Would you burn a child? When necessary.”

These images became the defining visual myth that ruled the minds of most Americans, convincing them that we were all “baby killers.” The idea that Golub presents—that those who sent us to Vietnam are the real “baby killers”—escapes most Americans.

The entitled elite who used the term “baby killers” against us re-purposed the term from World War I, when the English used it to refer to what the German use of zeppelins did over English cities.

Matthew Israel

The World War II generation—the so-called “Greatest Generation”—punished Vietnam veterans for this sin when we returned home by not giving us much of a G.I. Bill, by not giving us jobs, and by not allowing us to join the VFW and similar old-line veterans organizations because we weren’t “real” war veterans.

Reading this book reminded me again and again of the questions I had in the eighties when I taught Vietnam War classes at a community college.  In a nutshell, students would ask, “Why did you go?  If you’d just refused to be drafted, there would have been no war, no dead Americans, no dead Vietnamese.”

My answer was: You are right, but young men don’t get to decide. Also, they don’t know what they knew later, and they don’t know what you know now. They just know that America was in a war against communism and that their dads wore the uniform and saved the world, and they now had the opportunity to do the same. Later, they know stuff that changes their point-of-view, and makes them very bitter at how they were taken advantage of. They knew then that if they hadn’t served, prison and infamy awaited them, and their families would disown them.

Anyone curious about how American soldiers who served in Vietnam became stereotyped as “baby killers” should read this fine book. Matthew Israel has done a brilliant job demonstrating the power of the media, both television and art. He shows how they worked together to foster the myth of American soldiers running amok in Vietnam.

The author’s website is www.matthewisrael.com

—David Willson

Song I Sing by Bao Phi

Bao Phi, the author of Song I Sing: Poems (Coffee House Press, 170 pp., $16, paper) was born in Saigon in 1975. He was raised in the Minneapolis suburbs and today Minnesota is his home base. Bao Phi’s poetry kicks ass; I have not read a more powerful book about the individual Vietnamese-American experience.

This is the guy I’d like to sic on the authors of Vietnam War books filled with name-calling of Vietnamese and Asians. I’d like him to shout his great poem “Vu Nguyen’s Revenge—Nguyen, Vu-Sacramento” at them. It begins: “Fuck you, Chavis Johnson, for pushing me down in ninth grade and calling me gook.”

The book is filled with references to Agent Orange, Oliver Stone, and other Vietnam War icons such as Senator John McCain. Bao Phi’s three-page poem, “Dear Senator McCain,” is a classic. It starts off with two quotes from McCain: “I hate the gooks. I will hate them as long as I live.”

The poems do not pull punches— in fact, they are punches, right in the face to those who have scorned and vilified Asians of all stripes and types. Bao Phi bravely calls out those who have sinned with their mouths and acts, and holds them accountable.

Some lines—among many—that stood out: “I write this letter on jungle leaves/and the skin of a white man”  and “I am gook,/I ate your motherfuckin cat.”

Bao Phi

Bao Phi’s CD’s are Refugiography and The Nguyens EP. They show off his abilities as a performance artist of what is called slam poetry. He is a two-time Minnesota Grand Slam champion and a National Poetry Slam finalist, and he appeared in the HBO series Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry.

The blurb on the back of the book tells us that the poet performs across the country and works as an Asian American community organizer. That job is a known springboard to the presidency, so I have hopes Bao Phi will be our first Asian president.

Anyone curious about how Vietnamese Americans are getting along in America should buy this book. The answer is here.

The author’s website is www.baophi.com

—David Willson

Cao Bang: Brothers in Arms by Richard E. Baker

44444444444444444444444Richard E. Baker served in the U. S. Army with the 4th Infantry Band. He did not spend his time in Vietnam marching on parade grounds playing his horn, though. He was in the field, setting up ambushes and the like. He has suffered a life-long battle with PTSD.

Cao Bang: Brothers in Arms (CreateSpace, 276 pp., $11, paper)  is part of Baker’s French Foreign Legion in Vietnam historical fiction series. Baker has done thorough and painstaking research for his recounting of the “retreat from Cao Bang [which], marks one of the largest fiascos in military history,” as he puts it.

Both the French and the Viet Minh are presented precisely and accurately in a narrative populated with memorable characters of many nationalities and disparate personalities. Baker is first a fine storyteller, and then a historian. But he never pushes his research down the throats of his readers. Still, you will know a lot more about the French War in Indochina after you have read this book.

I especially enjoyed the characters that Baker brought alive and the context in which they lived and fought. Baker’s great gift of knowing what to include in a list benefits the reader again and again in a book that is populated with lists along with unforgettable characters, both European and Asian. Even Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, the Viet Minh commander, a minor character in this book, comes alive in his few scenes. Baker has Giap say, “I’m not concerned about winning battles, just in winning the war.”

I am compelled to quote part of one of Bake

Richard Baker

r’s fine lists, just to show how he brings French Indochina in the 1950s alive.

“Tables of meat stood under cover: pig, dog, and cow, heads stripped of skin, buckets of entrails, tails undressed of hide, bowls of eyeballs staring blankly as if they could still see, thick tongues, brains piled like wet cauliflower, hooves, penises, legs crisscrossed across the wooden tables, and piano keys of ribs waiting for the delicate fingers of some mad and carnivorous musician.”

Baker shows the Legionaires “in search of small pleasures at cheap prices.” I could easily identify with them. Much is made of the pleasure that the soldiers took in smoking cheap cigarettes. I loved the comment from one of the villains: “With a single idea, much can be accomplished.”  This accomplishment is fired by cigarettes.

My favorite line comes near the end: “Many top generals were poor leaders; that is how they earned promotions and became top generals.” That was my impression from my one meeting with Gen. William Westmoreland.  All he wanted to talk about with me was that I needed a haircut. He had no interest in my theories about why he was losing the war.

This is a brilliant and enjoyable novel of the French debacle in Indochina, and it is prophetic of how the American War would go. We, too, were ignorant of history and scorned and dismissed both the French effort and the Viet Minh who beat them. America is always convinced of our exceptionalism. We turned out to be more like the French than we would admit.

I highly recommend this novel and all novels by Richard Baker. He is creating one of the great bodies of work about war in Vietnam—an entire shelf of books worth reading.

—David Willson

 

A Common Virtue by James A. Hawkins

James A. Hawkins served eleven years as a U. S. Marine, and is a veteran of the Vietnam War. His Marine Corps Vietnam War novel, A Common Virtue (Naval Institute Press, 240 pp., $29.95), takes place during the 1968 Tet Offensive.

Paul Jackson, an eighteen-year old recon Marine sniper, is the lone survivor of a massacre on a hillside. This is the information we are given in the cover blurb. It goes on to say that the book “is about growing into manhood in a toxic America and a world gone mad.”

That is the true subject of this first novel. I had expected and hoped for a Marine Corps adventure novel. The author seems filled with bitterness about America. The book begins with a brief author’s note in which Hawkins mentions that Marines “returned to a thankless nation.”  Later he says that Marines served in a war “that even today America despises.”

That led me to believe that Hawkins is pissed off about not getting a homecoming parade in which Sousa’s “Semper Fidelis” was played. I hoped this attitude would not undermine the entire novel. I also hoped that the book contained no anti-Jane Fonda rants and no scenes of returning veterans being treated badly in an American airport by a braless hippy chick.

The writing in this novel is for those who are deaf to cliché and insensitive to plodding prose. Someone, for example, actually says, “We’re all gonna die.” And Hawkins writes: “His scarred face looked as if it had been burned by napalm and somebody had put it out with a garden rake.”

On the very same page we get: “The malevolence in his voice chilled Rivers to the bone.” All the way to the bone? As I read that my expectations for the novel sank even lower.

We get the usual John Wayne references found in Marine Corps books:  “John Wayne routine,” “John Wayne incarnate,” and “instructions on how John Wayne would use a knife to cut a throat.”  We get two references to “feather merchants,” and countless “saddle up’s.” I lost track of how many times they got out of Dodge, but there were at least five of them.

We get a mention of lima beans and ham, which I was thankful for, but when I read, “happier than a pig in shit,” I was compelled to ask myself, how happy is that pig? I believe that pigs actually prefer to be clean whenever they can be. When an NVA is shot, he “dropped like someone slugged in the stomach with a baseball bat.”  I’ll bet he did not.  And it was likely to be “darker than midnight in a coal bin” when that happened.

We get a reference to “hippy bastards,” and when our hero passes through an airport, he has to deal with “a large gathering of long haired, scantily clad demonstrators” One of their signs reads, “Welcome Home, Baby Killers.”

Were the “scantily clad” demonstrators wearing bikinis? I’d love to know since I went to a lot of antiwar rallies and never encountered anyone who was scantily clad. I wish I had been so lucky.

Civilians are casually described as “fat, dirty.” REMFs are mentioned countless times in the novel—never in a kind way.

The one true villain in this novel is a REMF Marine Corps officer, who vilely undermines the authority and credibility of the hero, Paul Jackson, causing the deaths of many Marines.

I would have liked to have read a lot more of Marines in combat, and more about the setting up of the “two-man reconnaissance-team concept in the Vietnam War” and a lot less social commenting.  My theory, based on the author’s comments, is that Hawkins could not help himself. The book was his chance to express long-lived bitterness, and he let it rip whenever he could jam it in.

It does not benefit what could have been an exciting Marine Corps novel about an exceptional teenaged Marine. At least Jane Fonda went unmentioned.

—David Willson