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

Dartmouth Veterans edited by Phillip C. Schaefer

In the Foreword to Dartmouth Veterans: Vietnam Perspectives (Dartmouth College Press/University Press of New England, 400 pp., $29.95, paper; $28.99 e book), edited by Phillip C. Schaefer, James Wright tells us he joined the Marines in June 1957, two weeks after he graduated from high school.

“Military service,” Wright writes, “was a part of the life plan for my generation and in my culture.” This is a statement that really made me scratch my head. I am in Wright’s generation and it wasn’t my attitude in 1957—nor was it in 1960 when I graduated from high school, nor in 1960 when I was in Air Force ROTC in college. It certainly was not my attitude late in 1965 when I got my draft notice.

I say this to make the point that these Dartmouth graduates are not like me. What’s more, they are not like most young men I knew back then, nor are they at all like the veterans whose essays I read in The Conflict That Was a War, a book I reviewed recently on this page.

The only big similarity between the men who wrote the essays for these two books is that many characterize themselves as patriots and as thinking that military service was “part of a life plan.”

Dartmouth Veterans offers multiple windows for outsiders to view a culture I, for one, knew nothing about and did not even suspect existed—the elite world of Dartmouth College graduates. There are 55 essays by Dartmouth classmates and three extras in this collection.

Vietnam War veterans and other alums from the Class of ’64 with Dartmouth undergrad veterans of the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars.

I decided to start reading this book with David S. Decalesta’s essay, “Entitled Elites and Exploited Expendables: the Privileged vs. the Patriots.” The author came from what he (and I) view as the elites. He ended up in Vietnam as a lieutenant leading a platoon of “expendables,” carrying out the orders of elite majors and colonels who had no experience fighting a war of counter-insurgency. This essay is typical of the others in this fine book—cogent, compassionate, and humane.

Reading this book brought home a truth about America: The family you are born into and the schools you go to are the prime determinants of what your life will turn out to be. The Dartmouth men in this book ended up as CEOs, stockbrokers, university professors, bankers, venture capitalists, and owners of chains of conveniences stores.

Such was not the destiny of the men who contributed to The Conflict That Was a War. These men were the “expendables,” and terrible things happened to most of them in Vietnam—and after they came home from the war.

Why were the men of Dartmouth successful after their war? This quote from David W. Kruger illustrates why. “Unexpectedly out of active duty, I cast about for what to do next,” he writes. “My good fortune continued, though, as my father-in-law called a family friend at a large Boston bank.”

Kruger got a job at the large bank, and spent almost thirty years there.  All seven of the bank officers he met the day he interviewed were Dartmouth graduates. This is mind boggling to me, a lower middle-class boy from Yakima, Washington. My former father-in-law drove a beer delivery truck for Miller High Life. No career opportunities there for me.

This book puts the lie to the myth of Vietnam veterans as losers who came back home and never amounted to anything. These men went to law school or graduate school; they became captains of industry.

These men “elected to become officers” as that seemed the smart way to go. Many of us did not have that option, because we had made the bad choice to not attend Dartmouth. Had I even heard of Dartmouth in 1960, the year I graduated from high school, coincidentally the same year as most of the men in this book? I am not sure.

I highly recommend this book to everyone as a counterpoint to The Conflict That Was a WarThere is much less combat narrative in this book, as one would suspect. Most of the Dartmouth men were REMFs of one kind or another.

Why go to Dartmouth to end up a grunt out in the shit? That would have been stupid.

—David Willson

The Conflict That Was A War Edited by Jim B. Money

Jim B. Money served as a U. S. Army sergeant with Company B of the 65th Engineer Battalion in the 25th Infantry Division in Vietnam from January 1967 to January 1968. Money is the editor of The Conflict That Was A War: In Vietnam and at Home (CreateSpace, 218 pp., $18.99, paper), an eighteen-chapter book of essays that had its origins in a PTSD group at Modesto, California, Vet Center. The essays vary in length and quality, but all are well worth reading, well written, and well edited.

“Returning military personnel were spit on, called war mongers, and child killers and harassed by their own countrymen, their fellow Americans.”  This quote delivers the message we find in all the essays, often using this exact phraseology.

I have to believe that is how these veterans were treated when they returned to what we called “the World” after serving in Vietnam—the place our Greatest Generation parents chose to send us.

Why did the Greatest Generation send us there?  Most of the essayists are clear about that: to stop the spread of communism. Many of the essays mention President Kennedy’s “Ask not what you can do for your country” speech. Many mention their sadness at not getting a parade after coming home, about being shamed and scorned, about not being able to get job interviews.

Many mention Agent Orange as a cause of serious health problems. Father-son issues also are a topic, especially when the fathers made a point of telling their sons they had not fought in a “real” war. As soon as most got home, their loved ones began pressuring them to get a job, any job, and—by the way—nobody wants to hear about the war and what you did there.

I could identify. I got some of that, but mostly from my parents and their friends, seldom from strangers.

This book does a great job of giving interesting details of the jobs these men did in Vietnam: everything from medevacs to Marine Combined Action Groups. If you want to read bloody, true tales of combat action in Vietnam, this book is for you.

Be warned, though, that there is an all-pervading sense of sadness and loss—loss of friends in the war, and the loss of the way of life the men left behind when they went to Vietnam. They experienced culture shock after coming home, and there is much anger expressed at peace demonstrators and at those who fled to Canada. They are called cowards more than once in this book.

There is PTSD on every page, which is not unexpected given the book’s origins. I prescribe this book as must reading for anyone who still clings to the notion that it is a good thing to send young men and women off to war and that anything good can come from it.

I realize that this is heresy, but I believe that all of the people represented in this book would have led happier lives if they hadn’t gone to Vietnam—including going north to Canada.

—David Willson

Jaspar’s War by Cym Lowell

Cym Lowell joined the U.S. Navy at eighteen and served two years in the Vietnam War. He then went to college and law school. Jaspar’s War (Rosemary Black Press, 352 pp., $12.99, paper) is his first novel.

There are many connections to the Vietnam War in this thriller, mostly through Nulandi, one of the main characters, who comes to the aid of Jaspar, the titular heroine. Nulandi is a half-Australian aborigine trained as a child to be a professional killer. He practiced this craft in Vietnam, where he saved a Vietnamese family who acted as his disciples when he was on a mission.

Jaspar’s husband disappears in a plane crash and her two children are kidnapped. The entire thrust of the novel is that Jaspar, a socialite with no commando training, steps up to become a warrior. With Nulandi’s help she crusades to get to the bottom of why her husband was apparently killed and her two children kidnapped.

Cym Lowell

She goes on record saying she will do anything to get the children back, and does some amazing things after going through special training. That includes shaving all of the hair off her perfect body.

Jaspar is dangled as bait to the bad guys near the Vatican when she uses an ATM. Later, when she runs naked around a crowded square near the Vatican, much ado is made of her bouncing breasts. They act as a perfect diversion, allowing her and Nulandi  (and Alice, the commando dog) to escape to continue to fight the good fight.

I am leaving out the more far-fetched stuff. That includes the fact that the Queen of England is implicated in the plot to murder Jaspar’s husband and kidnap the children. I hope I am not spoiling anything when I report that the Queen of England did not do any of this bad stuff.

This is the first book I have read in which “the economic health of the world is under attack” and its “only defense is an aborigine, a society woman and a dog.” I highly recommend this book to those looking for a diverting read in which children are kept drugged and in jeopardy from the first page to the last.

In this novel all suites are “palatial,” all vegetables are “fresh,” profiteroles are “famous,” settings are “idyllic,” breasts are “alabaster,” taxis are “speeding,” vistas are “pristine,” and hounds are “trusty.” The writing style got on my nerves. But the book is well-edited and it moves right along.

I predict there will be a sequel, because it is left up in the air if Jaspar’s husband is alive. Nor are we told whether or not Jaspar keeps shaving all the hair off her perfect body, or if she lets it grow back out again.

Perhaps the sequel will settle that question. I hope so. I’ve been brooding about it.

The author’s website is www.cymlowell.com

—David Willson

 

Broken But Not Abandoned by Ronald L. Schwerman

To read Broken But Not Abandoned: A Veteran’s Journey to Healing and Hope by Ronald L. Schwerman, (The Wordsmith, 226 pp., $14.99, paper 2013) is to watch a train wreck in slow motion. Because the book is written in the first person, the reader knows that redemption will occur at some point.

Schwerman’s story—which he tells with the help of David Aeilts and Grace Smith—reaches out and grips the reader on many levels. It is a page-turner.

Schwerman, who was born and raised in Minneapolis, often played around railroad tracks, sometimes hopping a train and riding for a few blocks with his friends. His father worked for the railroads, taught his son how to operate signals, told him railroad stories.

Schwerman’s dad was a veteran of World War II in the Pacific. The family home was a kind of battlefield involving fights between mom and dad, fueled with anger and alcohol. For anyone who does not know what it is like to live in an alcoholic’s family, this book is a must-read. Alcohol, it turns out, became a nemesis in the author’s life for decades as well. ‘

The book is clearly written, and Schwerman’s honest disclosure of himself is at a depth of which I have never before seen in a book. There is no doubt that such honesty was crucial to Schwerman’s redemption into a successful life.  

On 27 February 1967, at Da Nang Airbase Schwerman, an airplane mechanic, was hit by a rocket. He lost both arms, one leg, and sustained critical internal injuries. After being hit, he was in such bad shape that a Navy corpsman pronounced him dead. For some reason, the corpsman who meant to throw his still-living body onto a pile of dead bodies, threw him onto a truck of wounded men instead.

Eydie and Ronald Schwerman

The story of Ronald Schwerman’s journey from brokenness in mind, body, and spirit to a life with hope and possibilities has spanned more than three decades and in some aspects will continue for the rest of his life. Fortunately, he has now kicked alcohol off the train, and his faith in the power of God is his constant traveling companion. Schwerman, who closes some of his chapters with biblical quotes, writes that the divine power on which he relied manifested itself in the form of family, friends, and medical personnel.

His story includes two divorces and a third marriage. He alienated both of his daughters, who themselves spiraled into the darkness of drug addiction. His verbal abuse of his family is extremely painful to read.  

Schwerman has now reached a level of healing and personal growth in which he can offer advice for a successful marriage, drive a van, and take trips with Eydie, his wife. Some of her thoughts on her husband’s life are included in the book.

Appendix 1 and Appendix 2 should be required reading for the families of veterans of any war, including the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. These final pages provide information on PTSD and some clear direction for returning veterans. 

“Waiting” is not an option, Schwerman says. “You have a problem that is affecting all of us. I have your back, and we will do this together, but you are the one with the services—you have to ask for the help.”

The author’s website is www.brokenbutnotabandoned.com

—Joseph Reitz          

Night Flares by Robert M. Pacholik

Robert M. Pacholik’s Night Flares: Six Tales of the Vietnam War (Action-Adventure Press, $3.50, e book) is a work of fiction “based on eye-witness accounts of real events,” as the author puts it.

The great cover was designed by Emma Grisske. The book is dedicated to “the E-1s through E-5s of the American Army, the backbone and soul of the nation, and to the officer corps, who failed us.”  Hear hear.

Pacholik, a native of Chicago’s Southside, served two tours in Vietnam as an Army Field photographer and military journalist from 1968-69. These six stories, he says, “examine the micro-personal experiences of men in combat: the fear, the loss, the moments of overpowering events and how they struggled to cope with the inferno that was Vietnam for the common soldier, sailor, airman, marine or coast guardsmen who served there.”

The author tells us that in December 1969 in the San Francisco Airport, a woman of about twenty walked up to him in his brand-new Army uniform and spat in his face. She said not one word to him. That’s the reason Pacholik wrote this book, he says, because when “they tried to return home, veterans were met with a sense of loathing unheard of in our history.”

That’s true. No one, however, spat on me or at me. But I did experience that loathing from my family and their Greatest Generation friends when I tried to go home again.

The book’s Saigon stories take place about six months later than the Saigon I knew and roamed around in. They are set before, during, and after the 1968 Tet Offensive. This Saigon—on or near Tu Do Street—is much different than what I knew; it is tough, dangerous, and totally believable, a place a grunt or a clerk could easily die if he let down his guard or was unlucky

Pacholik (above) allows us to get to know, like, and root for a character, a short-timer, Ron, a Spec4. But Ron gets blown away for no good reason, and also gets name-called by a dumb-ass LT who gives Ron no credit for his bravery.

That’s the Vietnam War this author presents us: a hard, bloodthirsty war with no justice, where old drunk NCOs survive and a teenage draftee dies.

John Wayne gets a couple of mentions in these fine short stories, as does Country Joe and the Fish. Operation Ranch Hand and Agent Orange get the attention they deserve and the rear-echelon gets a whack or two. On the other hand, Jane Fonda is only alluded to as a “pampered, cynical, barely-starlet photographed on the gun carriage of a Russian Anti-aircraft battery giving …aid and comfort to those proud fighters…”

The six stories in this book are different from all the hundreds of other stories I have read that take place during the Vietnam War. Plus, they are well-written and often witty.

But this book contains much more than just six stories. There is an extensive “Prelude,” which explains the title and places the stories in context.  At the end is a long and cogent history of the Vietnam War.

The author is to be congratulated for his clear and well-organized thinking. His book deserves a place on the shelf with the half dozen classic collections of single-author Vietnam War short stories, which include John Mort’s Don’t Mean Nothin and Rob McGowan’s Nam: Things That Weren’t True.

Buy this one today and read it. I did and I raced through it, eager to get to the next page.

—David Willson

Loose Ends by Jim Zitzelsberger


Jim Zitzelsberger served as a Navy Seabee. The stories in his book, Loose Ends: Stories Started During the Vietnam War (Moki Lane, 210 pp., $19.95, paper: $9.99, Kindle), are mostly lighthearted, semi-autobiographical tales of Seabees in the Vietnam War.

Death, however, often intrudes.The hero, Henry James Barthochowski, nicknamed “Cow,” is a sort of stand-in for the author. He is stationed in Quang Tri. The book’s hero, like the author, did two tours in Vietnam before turning twenty-one.

This is that rare Vietnam War book of fiction that not only mentions General Westmoreland, but contains an entire story with the general as the main character—a story in which Westmoreland is making his exit from Vietnam after guiding the war since 1964.

Cow, our Seabee hero, is near the bottom of the military food chain. He realizes that his orders are to defeat the Viet Cong and stop the spread of communism, as the general points out to the troops, but he’s skeptical that “a difference was being made and the war was being won,” as Westmoreland wanted the troops to believe.

Cow’s enlistment begins in March 1966, under the Delayed Entry Program. He goes on active duty one week after graduating from Hilton High in Wisconsin.

The author assures us this book is a collection of fictional short stories. I believe him. In fiction is where the truth resides. And all of these short stories ring with truth.

The fictional main character is one of my favorite figures in the literature of the Vietnam War. He is mild, eternal, and as memorable as Yossarian in Catch-22. The stories in Loose Ends, in fact, teach us many of the same lessons about war that Catch-22 tried to teach us.

Americans seem to need these lessons taught over and over, and yet they still never seem to learn. I guess we are slow learners about the futility of war.

Loose Ends was an eye-opener. Until I read it, I knew little or nothing about the role of the Seabees in the Vietnam War. Now I know.

Every story brings home the daily life of a lowly enlisted Seabee in Quang Tri and Danang;  whether he is driving a truck, standing guard, welding a water tank, or doing any of the myriad crappy duties that the low-level Navy man must do. Many of them, of course, are chickenshit duties that put him in constant threat of conflict with lifers who are more an adversary than the VC or the NVA.

Much of the book involves “monkey business as only young men can make it.” Said monkey business is always fun to read about.

Henry James Bartholowski will always live in my memory because the author brings him alive on every page. This Wisconsin farm boy in the Navy in Vietnam is ”a listener, observer, and anything but a cheerleader for military decorum.”  His observations lead him to conclude that “the theater of war is more the theater of the absurd.”

The story that makes this point best is the one in which Cow is showering and three pretty Vietnamese girls come in to clean the shower room. They giggle and pretend they don’t see him. Funny stuff. The same thing happened to me in Vietnam at Tan Son Nhut more than once.

Cow’s homecoming is also familiar. He comes back to his small town in Wisconsin and is castigated for his long hair, quickly grown when he returns to college. The local American Legion lets him know that they do not want him as a member as he had not been to a “real war.” Vietnam, to the members of the Greatest Generation, was merely a “conflict.” Guadalcanal was part of a “real” war.

We encounter Agent Orange, ham and lima beans, shit-burning details, and short-timers’ calendars. I was sad to learn that Navy guys did not have it as cushy as we Army guys always liked to believe they did.

They do have a commanding officer witty enough to use a recording of the Animals’ “We Gotta Get out of This Place,” for morning reveille. That beats anything in the Army I served in. But I would still rather do one tour in Vietnam with the Army than two with the Navy. I learned that much from this fine and funny book.

Read it, and you will learn plenty too, and have more than few laughs.

—David Willson

Redeployment by Phil Klay

Phil Klay is a former Marine who served in Iraq. He says the dozen stories in his new best-selling, critically acclaimed book, Redeployment (Penguin, 304 pp., $26.95), are partly autobiographical.

These are not Johnny-one-note stories, all using the same point-of-view, or showing us the same protagonist. These are stories about war told from many angles and with many different voices. All are convincing, interesting, and spell-binding. Klay is a master storyteller.

This is not an all-male war book. There are well-imagined female characters in the book, including a soldier who spent the war filling potholes until she got blown up and disfigured.

These stories make the innocent reader aware of the horrors of all wars—including the Vietnam War. In one story a female veteran who is severely injured  in Iraq, says, “My dad was in Vietnam.”  And her granddad was in Korea. She thought of Platoon and Full Metal Jacket when she went into the military. Her dad had been a REMF. But she was out in the shit.

Her friend comments about the films: “I’ll bet that more Marines have joined the Corps because of Full Metal Jacket than because of any fucking recruitment commercial.” He goes on to say that there is no such thing as an antiwar film. I agree. They all make war seem like an adventure.

We get the stories of a Lance Corporal grunt, a Mortuary Affairs Marine, a chaplain, and a young foreign service officer assigned to bring baseball to Iraqi street kids. Another story deals with veterans in a bar who take part in an interview for a school project, one of them so badly burned that he looks like a horror show villain.

In the story “Unless It’s a Sucking Chest Wound” there is a Fobbit, or REMF, who says:  “I went for an MOS that wouldn’t put me in harm’s way. My Iraq War was a stack of papers.”

Phil Klay

The Vietnam War continues to pop up. One of the best stories, in fact, is entitled “In Vietnam They Had Whores.”

The narrator tells us: “My dad only told me about Vietnam when I was going over to Iraq.”  The story “Psychological Operations” contains one of the funniest jokes about Vietnam veterans I have encountered, and I thought I had heard them all.

It starts with “How many Vietnam vets does it take to screw in a light bulb?” But I won’t ruin it by telling you the punch line. It is a good one, and true.

There is humor in the book, and I often laughed aloud. But it is dark humor. One example: the plague of herpes that infests a platoon where there are no whores available. Finally it is tracked to the serial use of an infected and unclean “pocket pussy.” Funny stuff, but very dark.

Redeployment has been compared by reviewers to Tim O’Brien’s The Things We Carried. That’s fair enough as a quality comparison, but the book is more like John A. Miller’s Jackson Street or John Mort’s Don’t Mean Nothin or even Robert Olen Butler’s A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain.

The great strength of the book—aside from the fine writing and the dark humor—is the honesty and how the stories are presented from a kaleidoscope of experiences. Klay generously thanks a long list of folks who helped him, but he must get the final credit for this powerful book of people at war who then try to survive after their war.

No book better makes us aware of the butcher’s bill of modern war.

—David Willson