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

Silence is Broken by Susan S. Rosvall

Susan S. Rosvall’s Silence is Broken (Dog Ear Publishing, 284 pp., $16.95, paper) is a work of fiction, but is based on Rosvall’s brother’s life story. Rosvall’s brother was deployed to Vietnam in 1966 as a 1st Infantry artillery specialist.

The author has done thorough research to provide an accurate historical context for her story. There is a long historical section in the back of the book, as well as a lengthy bibliography. There also is a section on Agent Orange, which makes the point that 100 million pounds of that extremely toxic herbicide was sprayed over millions of acres of South Vietnam.

“All names have been invented,” Rosvall writes, “and exact interactions are incidental.” The unit that the book’s main character, William Scofield, is assigned to, Battery X, is fictional.

Rosvall says early on that those who served in the Vietnam War were men “who couldn’t make it in school” and those who had no family influence or the money to escape the war by going to Canada. There’s plenty of truth in that. However, it also is a generalization that makes me uncomfortable. That’s because there were plenty of us who served in Vietnam who had done just fine in school. I get that William Scofield is an undiagnosed dyslexic and that his struggles with reading got him in this pickle.

William Scofield arrives in Vietnam in late December 1965. In a letter dated January 10, 1966, he tells us that Phu Loi is his base camp. He is assigned to the 8th Battalion, a group of about 500 men– “the division’s only 155 millimeter towed-howitzer battalion.”

John Wayne gets plenty of mentions in the book, as does Bob Hope. We are informed that Bill is assigned latrine cleaning due to the antipathy of a sergeant who is southern to the core and who hates “college boys” and Californians. Bill never did well at the community college, so the irony of being singled out for ill-treatment for being a “college boy” is not lost on him.

The characterization of the southern soldiers in this novel is very brutal. Most of my best friends when I was in Vietnam were southerners. None of them were the unlettered, racist brutes that figure prominently in this story. I am not doubting the reality of their existence in Bill’s Army experience. All I can say is I’m glad that my Army time was not like Bill’s.

Susan Rosvall

I have encountered no book that better describes the daily life of an enlisted artilleryman. The pages of detailed explanations of what Bill and his cohorts had to do to keep the big guns firing into the wilderness, the free fire zone, are graphic and powerful. I can think of no better novel on the use of howitzers in Vietnam.

The section dealing with the battalion’s encroachment on the famed Michelin rubber plantation that paid protection money to the VC and gets money from the U. S. government for each young rubber tree that is uprooted, brings home how hopeless this war was. Bill ends up with a $2,000 VC bounty on his head for his exploits with the howitzer, and is awarded a Bronze Star.

The book has several small but annoying glitches of that kind that often creep into a Vietnam War novel written by someone who did not serve in the military or been in the military in Vietnam. The frequent references to sergeants and corporals as “officers” got under my skin. The description of An Loc as having “the pungent odor of rotting fish and botulism” displeased me. You can’t see, smell, or taste botulism.  When “H & I” is referred to as “harassment and irritation” I ground my teeth. “Interdiction” was the word the author was searching for. Consulting The Webster’s New World Dictionary of the Vietnam War would have prevented that confusion.

These are small cavils, however. They are more than balanced out by the author’s gift with narrative and story-telling which she uses to fine effect in the book. She shows how the “thrilling sense of American invincibility” that “kept spirits high” turns into a world-weary acceptance that the war is not going as well as men in the trenches are led to believe.

We are shown that the Iron Triangle in III Corps that the 1st Infantry entered in early June of 1966 deserved the name. The sense of American invincibility died there for Bill and his fellow soldiers.

The author’s website is www.silenceisbrokenthenovel.com

—David Willson

The World’s Greatest Military Investigator’s Ultimate Book of War Stories by Michael J Oszman

Michael J Oszman’s The World’s Greatest Military Investigators Ultimate Book of War Stories (CreateSpace, 60 pp., $10, paper) is a collection of fiction, rumors, war stories comments, dim memories, and a little truth. Oszman dedicates his book to his brother Chester and a friend named Eddy, both of whom died in 1994. I believe that they would hope—as I do—that is the first of many such writings.

The author received a degree in criminal justice and went to work for an agency of the government. He never reveals which agency because he says that if he did, he would have to kill the reader.

Oszman opens with an explanation of a rule that was extremely difficult for most military people to understand: the procedure by which troops had to receive permission to fire on the enemy. Perhaps he placed this entry at the beginning of the book because it sets the surrealistic tone of his reporting.

The book continues with dozens of brief descriptions of incidents Oszman investigated. Some are comedic and some disastrous. The author closes each incident with a bit of his own wisdom or laugh line.

The case of an exploding latrine tells how a soldier was ordered to burn material but no one told him to first remove the drums from the latrines. So he poured two gallons of gasoline into the stuff and threw in a flaming rag. As a result, a lieutenant was seriously burned.

In another incident, one trooper, suspecting that an inspection was imminent, passed around a bottle of Jack Daniels. When it was half empty, he pissed into the bottle before an officer confiscated it. The reader can only imagine the look on the officer’s face when he took a swig.

Oszman describes another incident in which the main communication lines to Air Force command were cut. Since the lines had been buried and there was no map to locate them, it was assumed that the enemy had sabotaged them. Panic ensued. In the author’s special note he explains that the wires had been accidentally severed by a backhoe.

Michael J Oszman

Oszman follows the first twenty investigative reports with a shift to military life in Korea. He tells of a Korean farmer who pick-axed a pipeline of jet fuel thinking that the line was carrying water. In another fuel incident, a Korean houseboy filled barracks heaters with gasoline. After he learned about the color coding of fuel tanks, the houseboy was observed tasting the fuel cans to make sure he had the right stuff.

The author opens one chapter with a comment about the horrors of Agent Orange. Large numbers of veterans, including Oszman’s brother Chester, suffered and died from the being exposed to that toxic herbicide.

In a humorous episode, a large flight of helicopters passed over a group of officers. Objects began falling from the helicopters. The objects were condoms filled with urine.  One landed on a major’s head. Oszman was ordered to find out who perpetrated that foul deed.

He closes this short book with a few observations about the conundrum called the Vietnam War, and ends with the statement, “but that is another story.” We hope he shares that story with us.

—Joseph Reitz

 

Monsoon Blues by Elijah Imlay

Elijah Imlay’s Monsoon Blues (Tebot Bach, 88 pp., $14.25, paper) is a collection of poems drawn from the author’s experiences as an Army bandsman stationed at Camp Eagle in Vietnam in 1971. Imlay has arranged the poems chronologically, which results in a cogent poetic narrative of his time in the war zone. He uses a variety of styles in this book of short poems, making it fun to read.

This is a welcome book, as the literature of the Vietnam War relating to bandsmen is limited. The only other worthy published effort that leaps to mind is by Richard E. Baker, who went to Vietnam to play coronet but ended up setting ambushes.

When I tell people that I often stood formation in the early morning in Vietnam in the near darkness on a wet parade ground and had to leap out of the way to keep from being run over by a marching band playing a Souza march, that tale is often pooh-poohed. But the fact is that seventeen Army bands were stationed in Vietnam during the war. Imlay played clarinet with one of them.

In Monsoon Blues, we meet Imlay’s friend Bird, the man responsible for organizing a rock band to tour fire bases. We hear a lot from Bird. His is a voice worth hearing, conveying what it was like to be in the jungle with the First Cav.

Elijah Imlay

The book is arranged in four sections; each packs a punch. “Playing with the Band in Nam,” which appears near the end of the book, is my favorite poem.

It beings: “We sit on a hill/watching a firefight/while we eat supper”  One of the bandsmen plays “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” but the soldiers far below cannot hear “the throb of music/that rises out of their horror/into the sky’s abyss/from where they fall.”

The beautiful, fiery orange cover features band instruments and a bandsman, rather than the usual helicopter and beleaguered grunt that often adorn the covers of books dealing with the Vietnam War. The poems do not let down the hopeful reader. Buy and read this unique book of excellent poems.

—David Willson

The War That Never Ends edited by David L. Anderson and John Ernst

David L. Anderson and John Ernst, the editors of the 2008 anthology The War That Never Ends: New Perspectives on the Vietnam War, which is out in a new paperback edition (University of Kentucky, 376 pp., $28), dedicate this worthy volume to the eminent Vietnam War historian George Herring. He is the author of the classic concise history, America’s Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950-1975 (1979).

Herring, the Alumni Professor of History Emeritus at UK, contributes an excellent essay, “The War That Never Seems to Go Away,” to this collection. It deals with how the lessons and experiences of the Vietnam War have become part of the debate whenever the United States gets involved—or thinks about getting involved—in military action around the globe.

Other contributors include Vietnam War historian Marilyn Young, who writes in her introduction, “Why Vietnam Still Matters,” that—as Herring indicates—the lessons of the Vietnam War have mattered very much in “each conflict in which the United States has engaged since 1975.” Also of note: Robert K. Brigham’s essay on Ho Chi Minh, Confucianism, and Marxism; Robert Topmiller on the Buddhist antiwar movement in South Vietnam; and Robert Buzzanco on military dissent during the Vietnam War.

Anderson is a history professor at California State University, Monterey Bay, who has written widely about the Vietnam War and who served a 1968-70 tour of duty in Vietnam in the U.S. Army  Ernst is a U.S. History prof at Morehead State University where he teaches a course in the Vietnam War, his specialty.

—Marc Leepson

Tours of Duty Edited by Michael Lee Lanning

Retired Army Lieutenant Colonel Michael Lee Lanning is one of the most prolific Vietnam veteran writers. Many of his twenty-one military-themed nonfiction books deal with the Vietnam War.

That includes the well-received memoirs he wrote about his tour of duty in the 199th Light Infantry Brigade, The Only War We Had: A Platoon Leader’s Journal of Vietnam (1987) and Vietnam 1969-1970: A Company Commander’s Journal (1988), as well as Inside the LRRPs: Rangers in Vietnam (1988), Inside the VC and NVA: The Real Story of North Vietnam’s Armed Forces (1992), and Inside the Crosshairs: Snipers in Vietnam (1998). He also wrote a comprehensive guide to Vietnam War films called Vietnam at the Movies (1994).

 

Lee Lanning

Lanning’s latest book is Tours of Duty: Vietnam War Stories (Stackpole, 288 pp., $18.95, paper), a collection of tales from some forty other Vietnam War veterans that Lanning collected and edited.

Virtually all are told by men who served combat-heavy tours of duty. Don’t therefore look between these covers for the voices of cooks, clerks, truck drivers, or other support personnel. Many of the tale tellers—like Lanning—served with the 199th.

Lanning chose not to put names with these first-person stories. But, he says, he can “personally testify to the veracity of some because ‘I was there.’ Others were related to me over the years by soldiers whom I hold in high regard. Names have been left out to protect both the guilty and innocent.”

The author’s website is www.michaelleelanning.com

—Marc Leepson

At the Altar of War by Alan Cutter

Alan Cutter grew up in a pastor’s family. He served on active duty in the U.S. Navy for five years. In late 1972, he was commissioned an Ensign and went to Vietnam where he worked in and around Da Nang. A Presbyterian minister, he went on to edit the Vietnam Veterans of America Book of Prayers and Services.

Cutter was diagnosed with Agent Orange-related Parkinson’s Disease in 2010, having been earlier diagnosed with PTSD. Cutter holds a degree in library science, among other degrees. At the Altar of War (CreateSpace, 172 pp., $10.95, paper) is a work of fiction, but I suspect that much of it benefits from the author’s time in Da Nang.

Alan Cutter

Cutter calls the war “the usual comedy of false assumptions and futile reactions.” His main character, Brian Mewling, arrives in Da Nang as a Navy Ensign just as every other Navy officer is preparing to leave Vietnam due to the war winding down.

The higher ups don’t quite know what to do with Mewling. Soon, he is involved in a large number of dangerous enterprises. That includes the black market, a combined American-Vietnamese secret operation to murder suspected VC, and a love affair with a mysterious and beautiful Vietnamese woman named Linh.

Mewling is in way over his head and his pay grade. Then his lover, Linh, pregnant with his child, disappears, and his main black market connection is murdered in a fake VC rocket attack. Not to mention the fact that the NVA are encroaching from the north, and most American forces have left or are leaving Vietnam.

In other words, things are falling apart and chaos has ensued.  Vietnamization is in full swing and the inevitable result of that plan is apparent to all.

Cutter does an amazingly good job using Ensign Mewling to carry the freight of America’s failed enterprise in South Vietnam. Much Johnny Walker is consumed and gallons of sweat are exuded in this fine novel. No novel since Graham Greene’s The Quiet American better communicates the heat and dust and treachery of Americans in Vietnam. I would rank At the Altar of War right up there at the top of the list with Greene’s classic.

For those who think they have reached the limits of their cynicism about our dirty little war in Southeast Asia, think again. Read this fine novel, and keep in mind the cliché’ oft muttered by Ensign Mewling: “It is a good day to die.”

Mewling also says, “My God, I have no country anymore. I’m an alien in my native land.”  I know well how he feels.

—David Willson

Healing the Warrior Within by Alan Cutter

 

My feeling while reading Alan Cutter’s Healing the Warrior Within: A Veteran’s Spiritual Journey (CreateSpace, 240 pp., $11.95, paper) was that it needed to be reorganized with the chapters placed chronologically for clarity. I believe that the last three chapters would have been more effective moved up to follow the introduction.

Parts 2, 3, and 4 contain well-written examples of Cutter’s Vietnam War combat experiences and his post-traumatic stress disorder. I also would delete the first Letter of Paul to the Beloved Warrior, adding the absent footnotes indicated by numbers in the text of the letter.

In the preface to Paul’s letter Cutter quotes his mother’s philosophy “that we all are writing our own sacred book.” This led the author to comment that he found nothing sacred in his “unholy task” as a warrior so he rearranged “sacred” to express how he did feel: “scared, then scarred.”

I recommend that readers of the commentaries to Paul letters discuss them with trusted friends, family, Vet Center groups, or in a retreat setting when intense subjects such as reconciliation, the “unholy task” of combat, thoughts of suicide, or self-destructive behavior are mentioned.

The commentaries following the Paul letters provide insights into the author’s combat and subsequent PTSD. “I found it hard to explain what if [sic] like to be told that because of some physical loss I was now disabled,” Cutter writes. This came after his Agent Orange-related Parkinson’s Disease was diagnosed.

Alan Cutter

The section called “The Gathering” in Part 2 has several references related to Cutter’s war experiences that are worthy of note, such as: “I always arrive a little early at these retreats, or wherever I go. Before I can feel comfortable, even partially safe which is about as good as it gets, I have to have a chance to walk the perimeter.”

Part 3 contains more personal thoughts. In “G for Gratitude,” Cutter writes: “When I first stepped into a Vet Center I was not filled with gratitude. I was filled with resentment. I didn’t want to be there.”

In Part 4 Cutter writes about joining the National Conference of Vietnam Veterans Ministers, which became the International Conference of War Veteran Ministers when the membership grew more inclusive. This final part features biblical passages from the Christmas season accompanied by the author’s thoughts .

Cutter suggests that veterans write or record their war-time reflections and share them with family and friends. That’s good advice.

—Curtis Nelson