Uphill Battle by Frank Scotton

Frank Scotton’s Uphill Battle: Reflections on Viet Nam Counterinsurgency (Texas Tech University Press, 376 pp., $85, hardcover: $39.95, paper) is an odd—though entertaining and insightful—account of a USIA and foreign service officer’s work during the Vietnam War.

It’s odd, because Scotton was a difficult, headstrong young man who didn’t like to follow orders. He arrived in Vietnam in 1962 under the supervision of a man he came to respect deeply, Everet Bumgardner. But Scotton liked to go it alone in the bush, playing Rambo and embarrassing his superiors, even getting himself kicked out of his AO through the combined protests of his Vietnamese counterparts.

Early on, his exploits were not only reckless, but pointless, and he came within a whisker of being ordered home. In the early part of the book, the reader will be reminded of Alden Pyle, the over-confident fictional CIA operative in Graham Greene’s acclaimed novel, The Quiet American.

Early on also Scotton’s wife, serving with him in Vietnam, demanded a divorce.

Scotton gained fluency in the Vietnamese language, and made some Vietnamese friends. He learned that loyalties could shift among the Viet Minh, the ARVN, the Vietcong, and the South Vietnamese government. In other words, you could never understand Vietnam as well as the Vietnamese, and you needed always to be a student.

U.S. Army medical personnel treating South Vietnamese civilians in 1970

In 1963, for instance, it was important to understand who was Catholic and who was Buddhist. The so-called pagoda raids of Catholic President Ngo Dinh Diem—and his overall bungling of the Buddhist crisis—eventually led to his assassination.

Scotton’s reckless early experiments fostered his ability to organize small groups that operated in the same, village-level spheres as the Viet Cong. Though he retained a slightly rogue modus operandi, Scotton became effective at the grassroots level. He maintained that “Any American (or Australian) assigned to the program should be imbued with an irregular spirit, abjure creature comfort, and risk going native.”

Scotton became an advisor to senior staff, and an important leader in his own right, rising to the post of USIA Assistant Director for East Asia. He spent time in Vietnam from 1962-75, and retired from USIA in 1998.

Scotton doesn’t have anything very startling to say in this book about the failure of U.S. policy in Southeast Asia. As he notes: “We all know how the story ends.”

Scotton’s book is nevertheless fascinating for its portraits of famous and influential people who passed in and out of view in Vietnam during the war: Maxwell Taylor, William Westmoreland, John Paul Vann, and many others. His book could have used some maps, and the photos are not very useful.

But otherwise Scotton documents his assertions thoroughly, and educates as well as entertains.

– John Mort

lThe Silence of the Fallen by David DeChant

David DeChant served two tours in Vietnam, the first from 1966-67 as a U. S. Marine Combat Intelligence NCO assigned to battalion scouts, and the second from 1968-70 as an Embassy Courier flying throughout Vietnam on Air America flights. DeChant says very little in his new memoir, The Silence of the Fallen (Sanhedralite Editing and Publishing, 298 pp., $2.99, Kindle,) about his second tour; the emphasis is on that first tour.

The point of view of the book is different from many Marine Corps memoirs. We do get some of the usual stuff, such as “Eat the apple, fuck the corps—The Crotch.”  And DeChant playing “John Wayne with a friend throwing a K-bar.”

However, when DeChant details the first casualty in his unit, he points out that it was friendly fire, “one of the expendable millions in the folly of Vietnam.”  We do encounter yet another reference to a VC barber, but it turns out that this guy only looks like DeChant’s unit’s barber, in the sense that “all Asians resemble each other.”

DeChant makes it clear that his life was pleasant compared to that of many. For one thing, he never fired his rifle while in Vietnam. “We lived like animals in the bush; however life at Dong Ha was relatively nice: hot chow, cots, mail, clean laundry, calls home, and even movies in an open-air theater. Most of the time, we could even get a nice hot shower.”

He includes the oft-stated complaint of this era about the M-16, calling it “absolute garbage. A piece of shit.” He supports this contention with many details. DeChant notes that the Marines asked for, but did not get, their M-14s back.

M16 edited...............“We should have been at home chasing pussy, going to college, starting careers,” DeChant writes. It’s difficult to argue with that.

The story is told in stark and hypnotic prose. “Move out, slow down, keep your interval, pick up the pace, slow down, take a break. Dry land, rice paddies, rivers, streams, rolling hills, open areas, 12 foot high elephant grass, (find the chopper above), sweat, bugs, leeches, vipers, heat, thirst, and the ever present fear of sniper attack, ambush, booby traps, wounds and death.”

Then there’s this brilliant rant in this very quotable book: “We were trying to stay alive and survive the insanity of this war perpetrated by America’s so-called Best and Brightest (worst and dumbest)—immoral, treasonous, cowards, merchants of death and treacherous war-lovers, most of them!”

As you might guess, DeChant does not hold back his feelings and his facts. I loved this memoir and highly recommend it to those who have the stomach for it.

—David Willson

Last Plane Out of Saigon by Richard Pena and John Hagan

Regardless of a reader’s attitude about the Vietnam War, Richard Pena’s Last Plane Out of Saigon (Story Merchant Books, 136 pp., $12.95, paper), written with John Hagan, offers insights worth reflecting upon four decades after the fact.

Drafted into the Army out of law school, Pena served as an operating room specialist in Vietnam. He ended up among the last American troops to evacuate South Vietnam in 1973. Discharged upon his return to the States, Pena finished college and became a lawyer. During his Vietnam War tour of duty, Pena kept a journal that he stashed away for thirty years. That journal serves as the core of this concise flashback to the life of a wartime draftee.

Pena arrived in Vietnam amid the chaos of the 1972 North Vietnamese Easter Offensive. Upon deplaning at Tan Son Nhut, he wondered why he had been “sentenced to exile in this forsaken land.” He questioned whether America could win the war and worried about people “dying for a policy dictated out of ignorance and falsehood.”

Pena worked as a technician in the operating room of the 3rd Field Hospital in Saigon. Most of the patients came there straight from the battlefield, having received no treatment elsewhere. Pena therefore saw the results of war in human terms every day.

Throughout his tour, one question haunted him: “What does it mean?”

Richard Pena

He tried to answer that question in several ways, and suffered emotionally along with the bloodied, shattered, men he treated. In his journal Pena analyzed his relationships with fellow American soldiers and Vietnamese civilians, the latter of whom he strongly distrusted.

Pena put his thoughts and theories in his journal because “to speak out about the tragedy is said to be anti-American.” To him, Vietnam became a land of lies, betrayals, and corruption that left soldiers and civilians “angry and bitter all the time.”

Despite his emotional turmoil, Pena persevered in his duties. Near the end of his journal, he wrote: “In these last days before departing, I realize that the weight I have carried for the past eleven months will never be lifted from my shoulders.” In other words, his journal tells a story that must never be forgotten.

Having read this short book three times, I believe it has its greatest impact when read uninterrupted. The journal is divided into four parts that are interwoven with chapters by John Hagan that provide background information about the war. I therefore suggest that those familiar with the Vietnam War read Pena’s chapters first. Those unfamiliar with the war should start with Hagan’s chapters.

The collaborators reach two conclusions: First, they agree that wars such as Vietnam are destructive to America’s society and economy. Second, they emphasize the need to learn from foreign policy failures and mistakes.

Neither idea is new, but the thought processes the authors follow to reach them clearly exhume the intellectual conflict of the Vietnam War era.

The author’s website is www.lastplaneoutofsaigon.com

—Henry Zeybel

Freedom Is Your Destiny by Daniel T. Eismann

Physical warfare, spiritual warfare, and miraculously recovering from health challenges are the central issues in Freedom Is Your Destiny (Desert Sage Press, 318 pp., $14.99, paper) by VVA life member Daniel T. Eismann, a lawyer who serves as a Justice on the Idaho Supreme Court. 

This well-executed volume is a must read for anyone interested in Eismann’s topics. This decorated, two-tour Vietnam veteran Huey crew chief has written a detailed account of life aboard a UH-1, as well as pre-flight and post-mission maintenance.The organization of the chapters with transitions from riveting combat missions to biblical histories of Jesus and his apostles are generally well done. 

There are twenty-six chapters, many of which are worthwhile. The one disadvantage in this book, though, is the lack of an index. 

I recommend the chapter called “Blessed Are the Merciful,” featuring the OR Nurse Annie. It’s the one I enjoyed the most. Some chapters contain opinions that are open to discussion, but not this one. “God has anointed certain people with the Motivational gift of mercy,” Eismann writes. Annie embodied this biblical reference.

Idaho Supreme Court Justice Daniel T. Eismann

“Enjoying the Battle” is the title of the chapter devoted to the author’s health issues and those of his daughter and their “miracle” healing. This will resonate with all Vietnam veterans who have been exposed to Agent Orange, as well as with families who have experienced traumatic illness. 

The final.chapter, “Going Home,” focuses on.the Freedom Bird Vietnam veterans longed for. The author also.mentions the spiritual requirements for attaining the freedom flight to heaven. These requirements will likely be evaluated in various ways by readers.

 
—Curtis Nelson

No Place for a Lady by Thea Rosenbaum

As Thea Rosenbaum stepped from a still-moving C-130 onto the Khe Sanh runway on January 29, 1968, she was greeted with the click -click of incoming rounds. Throwing herself behind some oil drums, the young war correspondent noticed cows crossing the runway. It reminded her of the terror she had experienced as a child during World War II.

He memoir, No Place for a Lady (AuthorHouse, 194 pp., $16.95, paper), written with Chris Moore, has greater depth than many war stories. Thanks to Rosenbaum’s well-crafted writing the reader can see through her eyes as she relates her wartime experiences in Berlin and Vietnam.

After describing landing at Khe Sanh, Rosenbaum spends several chapters explaining how war was not new to her and how she and her family survived World War II in Germany.

Just as this narrative is not an ordinary book, Thea Rosenbaum was no ordinary child. At the age of five she traveled ten miles by train to enroll in school. During the final weeks of the war, she saved her mother from being raped by Russian soldiers.

Rosenbaum admits to serious feelings of inferiority. But by the age of twenty-one, she had become Germany’s only female stockbroker at Oppenheimer & Company. Later, she would become the only German female journalist covering the war in Vietnam. Her desire to produce top journalism led Rosenbaum into potentially dangerous situations, including going through Vietnamese airborne troop training.

As the reader is drawn into the Rosenbaum’s life, you can appreciate why she spends so many pages describing her youth. It becomes quite clear that her growing-up experiences brought a new kind of self-confidence. Dealing with a child-molesting grandfather, being an au pair for a family with no children, and falling madly in love with a violin player built a foundation for dealing with all kinds of people.

Thea Rosenbaum

Arriving in Khe Sanh was as fortuitous for a journalist as it was dangerous. There was no lack of action to report. It was the beginning of the Tet Offensive. Moving into Saigon later during Tet, the author writes:

“There is no battle line. Now this is true generally of the fighting in Vietnam, but during Tet, and in Saigon, if you went to an area where fighting was under way, you would have great difficulty in pointing to one side of the street or the other and say with any certainty that is where the Vietcong are and that is with the South Vietnamese are. You just couldn’t do it with any consistency.”    

Being a German citizen and a noncombatant was no guarantee of safety. While Rosenbaum was in Vietnam, a group of German doctors was taken out to a field and shot by the Viet Cong. The author writes that Americans were also guilty of atrocities, but says we were not nearly as cruel as the Viet Cong were.  

After she left Vietnam, Rosenbaum worked in the White House as a German correspondent for ARD television. She became well acquainted with Presidents Carter, Reagan, and George H. W. Bush, and interviewed people such as David Duke of the Ku Klux Klan, Jesse Jackson, and Hugh Hefner. One of the greatest experiences of her life, she writes, was seeing the Berlin Wall fallThea Rosenbaum became a U.S. citizen in 2013.

She ends her narrative with these words. “Yet sometimes I ask myself, was it more important to meet every president since Nixon or to spend time with my family? It can be difficult to choose between historically important people and taking care of your children. But would I do it again? You bet I would.”

Would this reviewer recommend this book and read it again? You bet I would.

The author’s website is www.noplaceforalday.com

—Joseph Reitz

Mekong Mud Dogs by Ed Eaton

Ed Eaton’s Mekong Mud Dogs: The Story of Sgt. Ed Eaton (Eaton, 278 pp., $17.45, paper), is a recounting of the author’s experiences with B/3/60 of the 9th Infantry Division in Vietnam. Read this book if you have the stomach to face confronting the worst of the Vietnam War on a daily basis.   

My experience was photographing the second phase of the Tet Offensive around Saigon and Cholon during early May of 1968 when  Eaton company and other 9th Infantry Division units slugged it out in house-to-house fighting in a factory complex near the edge of Cholon, as well as in rice paddies adjacent to the Kin Doi Canal ship channel, while snipers and 107mm rockets lobbed death from a distance. The American grunts, artillery, and helicopter gunships did their best to destroy them.

I was one of the hated FNG/REMFs Ed Eaton speaks not so fondly of in his book. He, on the other hand, was an 11B10, Light Weapons Infantryman, based on a spit on land next to the My Tho River deep in the Mekong Delta, serving as part of the Mobile Riverine Force.

In eighteen bruising chapters, we get almost every sight, taste, smell, instinct, comment, and attitude an infantryman shares with his buddies. They are in the business of killing at close range. We get details about sighting in on a enemy’s torso, steadying the rifle, and dropping the charge for the kill. Ed Eaton does not waste time or mince words about the experience. He fought, and he survived. That says enough.

Eaton earned his Combat Infantryman Badge the hard way—by patrolling, walking point, checking on his guys, helping medevac out the wounded and dead, surviving multiple deadly ambushes, and killing with an M-16, a M-79 grenade launcher, and later with an XM-21 match-grade sniper rifle.

Ed Eaton

Early on, Eaton survived a 55-gallon drum mine explosion on a Navy Supply Tender ship after which he was forced to swim through a river of oil, find a hatch, get through it into another compartment of oil, and then swim toward the deck of a ship that was sinking in mid-river and listing badly as she settled on the bottom.

From there, we move to multiple search and clear insertions, search and destroy missions, “recon-by-blood” probes, and chilling remain-over-night occurrences where mosquitoes, leaches, immersion foot, ringworm, sheer exhaustion, and probing VC are the only things you focus on. Ten year-old C-rats with canned fruit salad and stale pound cake are all that you eat—if you can force them down.

Ed Eaton moves up from being a basic infantryman, to point man, to sergeant, to platoon leader, to platoon sergeant, and eventually to an elite sniper school in Vietnam. It is a ghastly experience in which his humanity, his fears, his losses, and his resignation that death is near at every moment, are ever present. Yet he soldiers on. What we have here is a good man doing his best in utter hell.

As his tour progresses, Eaton’s vigilance stays focused on movement in the shadows, shapes that do not look right, distances to tree lines, booby traps and punji sticks, along with mud, the damnedest stickiest, oozing, slimy, filthy, shit-filled canal water, and utter exhaustion. Near the end of his tour he interacts with REMFs, drinks too much beer, “shines-on some bullshit” to NCOs and officers, and slides closer to a PTSD crackup.

During a brutal all-day firefight, Eaton crash-lands hard, damaging his spine, and then works feverishly to rescue a Captain who was also badly wounded. The images, smells, and emotions eat away at him in long, sleepless nights afterward.

After coming home, Eaton can no longer hunt (something he loved doing), and crashes through jobs, college, alcohol, women, and more alcohol. He damn near dies in another plane crash. After that, he begins a four-decade long recovery.

Ed Eaton, despite his feelings toward FNGs, REMFs, and dumb-ass lieutenants, has told a fine story of a tortured man who is rebuilding himself, after surviving the Vietnam War. Read it if you want to know the truth of what war can do to humans who experience it at the combat level.

The author’s web site is www.mekongmuddogs.com

—Robert M. Pacholik

 

 

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