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

Fighting for Freedom by Charles F. Bolden Jr. and Gail Lumet Buckley

Charles F. Bolden Jr., and Gail Lumet Buckley’s Fighting for Freedom (D Giles, 80 pp., $16.95, paper) is the fifth in the National Museum of African American History and Culture’s “Double Exposure” series. The book contains a series of captivating photos from the Civil War to the present day of men and women in uniform.

Though the writing is brief, tantalizing details emerge about African American military history most of us know nothing about. The writing accompanying the images is succinct and clear, adding enticing details.

The photos themselves, all sixty-two of them, are stunning in their beauty and power. There are many of groups of African American men and women troops, as well as single portraits and snapshots. It is striking to see photos of handsome young men, smiling with pride on the way to war. They are healthy and dignified, knowing they are going to serve their country. Then there are the images of men back from battle, their faces haunted, their shoulders slumped, exhaustion and pain etched in their faces.

Quite a few women are included, such Capt. Della Raney, who in 1942 became the first African American nurse accepted into the Army Nurse Corps, and all of the female members of the all-black, World War II 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion.

There is a photo of military training at Tuskegee, as well as one of a smaller group of Tuskegee airmen; a stereoscopic image of African American volunteers in the Philippines in 1899; a shot of Gen. Lloyd Austin III, the former Commanding General of American forces in Iraq; and one of two unidentified soldiers giving the soul power salute in Vietnam in 1967.

There are also a few photos of African American people going about their everyday lives—a wedding, a woman in a park in Washington, D.C.—that remind us that before and after war many black people had to fight for their own freedoms here at home. And that they had lives like everyone else— memories, pain, glories, and joys.

The book contains no preaching or proselytizing, making it even an even more powerful look at African Americans’ military experiences.

—Loana Hoylman

The Mighty Jungle by John A. Bercaw

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John A. Bercaw served in the U. S. Army, as well as in the Marine Corps and the National Guard. He spent a year in South Vietnam as a helicopter pilot and his experiences form the background of The Mighty Jungle (CreateSpace, 154 pp., $8.75, paper; $2.99, Kindle). In addition to this thriller, Bercaw is the author of Pink Mist, a memoir of his tour of duty in Vietnam.

This novel has two main characters: a warrant officer pilot near the end of his time in the Vietnam War, and a young and very green infantry lieutenant. When their helicopter is shot down and crashes in the jungle, all the others are killed and these two characters are thrown together to attempt to evade capture and survive in that very hostile environment.

Bercaw is very graphic about what they encounter in the “mighty jungle.” Insects and other creepy crawlies the least of it. Spoiler warning: The green lieutenant does not make it. The warrant officer manages to barely survive capture (and torture) by the enemy, and ends up back in the safety of the U.S. Army. He is treated fairly and with compassion, which surprised me.

Dieter Dengler—the Navy pilot who was shot down, captured, and escaped his captivity in Laos—is cited. The Mighty Jungle has much of the flavor of Dengler’s classic book, Escape from Laos, and I was impressed that Bercaw had done his research so well.

This is an engrossing and exciting thriller and I very much enjoyed reading it. The song, “We Gotta Get Out of this Place,” is quoted and never has it been more appropriate. The extreme misery of being lost in a jungle has never been portrayed with more intensity and realism. I put the book down with gratitude that my tour of duty in Vietnam did not involve any such adventure or risk.

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Bercaw in country

The aspect of the novel that unnerved me the most was the worms. The two characters eat worms and also produce them from both ends of their bodies.

I figured that the worms would do them in. I was half right. The medical personnel who work on the survivor are much focused on the small creatures who inhabited his body.

Showers, soap, and poison soon bring them under control, but the psychic trauma is not so easily dealt with.  Time and the love of a good woman helped some.

There’s a lesson in that.

—David Willson

In-Country by Phillip B. Fehrenbacher

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Bill Mauldin’s cartoons immortalized infantrymen Willie and Joe who fought in Europe during World War II. In Up Front, which contains a collection of those cartoons, Mauldin calls his drawings “pictures of an army full of blunders and efficiency, irritations and comradeship.” His basic criterion for humor insists that men of purpose have the capacity to “still grin at themselves.”

In a similar manner, Phillip B. Fehrenbacher drew more than a hundred cartoons based on the Vietnam War. He served nearly two years in Vietnam, in 1968-69, but only began producing cartoons in 2015. He collects them in In-Country: Memories of a Tour of Duty in South Vietnam (CreateSpace, 116 pp. $16.95, paper).

In explaining the long delay, Fehrenbacher might cite Mauldin who said, as a cartoonist, “maybe I can be funny after the war, but nobody who has seen this war can be cute about it while it’s going on.”

Books by the two men share a commonality in that they depict the average GI as a pawn fighting for survival on multiple levels in an arena not of his choice. Their humor derives from situations in which life could hardly be more miserable, but it is.

Fehrenbacher nails the plight of soldiers in a combat zone, but his humor could benefit from tighter unity. His cartoons would be more effective if he had arranged them chronologically. In other words, he should have started with those about new arrivals, then featured experienced troops, then short timers, and finally men ending a tour. In the middle of the book, for example, he depicts a departure of a Freedom Bird, which just does not fit there. Chronology would build a story-telling continuity.

Fehrenbacher also oversells his humor. Above many cartoons, he explains the situation. Below the cartoons, he presents titles that repeat the explanation. But his cartoons are strong enough to stand alone and speak for themselves.

Because Fehrenbacher had nearly half a century for reflection, I expected deeper insights and criticisms of the war to emerge from his drawings. Nevertheless, his final cartoon makes the book’s strongest political statement. In it, a lieutenant asks, “So then…what would the colonel like the body count to be?” A seated colonel looks puzzled and says, “Hmmm….”

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On the other hand, I might have expected too much from the book.  “The cartoons are not always funny,” Fehrenbacher says, “but hopefully jog the memories of those who were there and inform those who were not.”

Undoubtedly, he fulfills that goal.

—Henry Zeybel

Dak To and the Border Battles of Vietnam, 1967-1968 by Michael A. Eggleston

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After a thirty-year career in the U.S. Army, Michael A. Eggleston became a historian. His first five books focused on the American Civil War, U.S. Marines in World War I, and Vietnamization. He addresses a different aspect of the Vietnam War in Dak To and the Border Battles of Vietnam, 1967-1968 (McFarland, 224 pp. $35, paper;  $9.99, Kindle).

The North Vietnamese designed an offensive in and around Dak To, Eggleston writes, to try to draw U.S. and South Vietnamese forces away from the large cities, thereby setting the stage for the 1968 Tet Offensive. What’s called “Hanoi’s Plan” changed the enemy’s strategy from replying primarily on Viet Cong guerrilla warfare to a conventional North Vietnamese Army offensive designed to “cause a spontaneous uprising [among South Vietnamese] in order to win a decisive victory in the shortest possible time.”

Con Thien, Dak To, and Khe Sanh were the primary NVA targets. In other words, the North expected to “win in a single stroke,” Eggleston says.

The plan appeared unrealistic and did not work, as Eggleston notes. At the same time, he explains a disparity in American strategic thinking regarding a choice between pacification and attrition programs. In the end, Gen. William Westmoreland’s costly body-counting war of attrition strategy prevailed.

The core of the book is a long chapter about the many battles fought along the Cambodian and Laotian borders near Dak To. This chapter alone—in which Eggleston recreates a series of hill battles—is worth the price of the book.

“Vietnam’s bloodiest campaign started on 15 June [1967], when the 24th NVA Regiment annihilated a CDIG [Civilian Irregular Defense Group] patrol led by two U.S. Special Forces advisors near Dak To,” he writes. After that, the men of the 4th Infantry Division and the 173rd Airborne Brigade did the brunt of the fighting. The combat lasted until Thanksgiving.

The recounting of five days of fighting for Hill 875 tells as much about the horror of war as anything I have read. Eggleston calls this engagement “the costliest fight of the Vietnam War.”

Eggleston’s most informative research comes from unpublished memoirs written by infantrymen who fought in the battles. Their actions and observations fascinated me; among them the fact that the extraordinary became routine. Additionally, Eggleston uses published memoirs by infantrymen, Combat Operations After Action Reports, secondary sources, magazine and newspaper articles, newsletter excerpts, TV reports, and other video sources. He also relies on personal knowledge gained during his two tours at Pleiku.

He concludes with a chapter, “Aftermath,” that summarizes what happened during the 1968 Tet Offensive and follow-on action across South Vietnam. And he takes the narrative up to 1975 when the North finally prevailed.

Eggleston is opinionated and readily points fingers at those he believes were responsible for America’s failure to keep South Vietnam out of communist hands. “If any single person can be blamed for precipitating our full involvement in the war in Vietnam,” he writes, for example, “it was [Secretary of Defense] Robert McNamara.” Eggleston also faults Gen. Westmoreland failing to see the war’s big picture. Additionally, he names and blames lower-level commanders who put their careers ahead of the lives of the men they led.

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Michael Eggleston

Along with a list of definitions for acronyms, he includes biographical sketches of key participants in the book, a chronology of Vietnamese history from 1930-77, unit organizations, and a list covering nineteen pages of the names of U.S. personnel killed in the Dak To fight.

Eggleston labels the organizational style of his writing a hybrid because it “merges the official history of the war with the oral history of people who were there.”

The depth of his research provides personalities for each of his accounts of battle. He delivers an extremely interesting approach to history.

—Henry Zeybel

Broadcasters: Untold Chaos by Rick Fredericksen

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Rick Fredericksen, the author of Broadcasters: Untold Chaos (Amazon Digital, 207 pp., $4.99, Kindle), is a Marine Corps veteran of the Vietnam War. Fredericksen, a veteran journalist and author, has written an interesting and readable book about the many years he spent in Southeast as a foreign correspondent, including a stint as CBS News’ Bangkok bureau chief. Broadcasters is sort of all over the place, which is fine with me as it is written in easy-to-read sections and deals with subjects I enjoyed reading about.

The one I found the most interesting was the fairly long section on Agent Orange. Because I have Multiple Myeloma, which is associated with exposure to dioxin among Vietnam War veterans, I was eager to read what he had to say.

In contrast to nearly everything else I’ve read about dioxin, Fredericksen focuses on what Agent Orange and the other dioxins the U.S. military sprayed in Southeast Asia have done to the people who live there. Most books and articles about AO published in this country tend to start with the havoc that the spraying and exposure has wrought on veterans and all but ignore the citizens of Vietnam and other parts of Southeast Asia.

Fredericksen includes photos of the displays in Vietnam that are available for tourists to view that show how dioxin affects the fetus. Horrible, scary stuff. I actually felt lucky that AO has done so little to me by comparison. And to my offspring.

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Rick Fredericksen during the Vietnam War

I recommend this book to those who want to dip into some readable and interesting essays by a man who has spent much of his life in Southeast Asia writing and thinking about what the American presence there has meant. Not all of it is good and not all of it is popular among the folks who live there.

Even Filipinos have some bad things to say about Americans in this book. I enjoyed reading about Imelda Marcos and her 3,000 pairs of shoes.

So there is some fun in this book. Quite a bit, actually. Buy it and read it.

—David Willson

The Reason You’re Alive by Matthew Quick

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Matthew Quick is best known for his big-selling 2008 novel, The Silver Linings Playbook, and the even bigger Hollywood movie it spawned in 2012. The book and film received generally positive reviews. More than one critic, however, has pointed out that the plot—about a young man overcoming mental illness—strains credibility (to the breaking point) and the characters bear little resemblance to real human beings.

In his new novel, The Reason You’re Alive (Harper, 240 pp., $25.99, Quick again deals with a main character with serious mental problems. The reason you’re reading this review on this web page is that the character is a Vietnam War veteran.  Said veteran is “an opinionated and good-hearted American patriot fighting like hell to stay true to his red, white and blue heart,” Quick’s publisher says, “even as the country he loves rapidly changes in ways he doesn’t always like or understand.”

There’s little doubt the guy (who narrates the story) is opinionated and patriotic. But good-hearted? I couldn’t get that word out of my mind as I read page after page after page of the veteran spouting anything but “good-hearted” words. For example, throughout the book he refers to Vietnamese as “gooks” and “little yellow” people. Doctors are “fucking moron[s] and nurses are “cold bitch[es].”

I guess some of this crude, offensive spouting off can be classified as “opinionated.” And I am sure there are people who agree with some or all of this. But why center a novel on a character who is a mean-spirted, bigoted, misogynist, racist boor?

Some reviewers (and the publisher) talk about the humor in the book. Perhaps some of this Archie-Bunker stuff tickles some people’s funny bones. But I didn’t find anything close to humor on one page of the novel.

Another distressing aspect of the book is Quick’s ultra-clichéd depiction of his central character. The guy is little more than a one-dimensional stereotype: a mentally unbalanced, cammie-wearing, gun-loving Nam vet haunted by the dozens of men, women, and children he offed in the war. How do we know this? Quick has the guy conveniently tell us that he and his buddies “did things you can’t even imagine” in Vietnam, killing maybe “hundreds of gooks,” many of them civilians, and “burning so many villages.”

Then there are the credibility-stretching plot details, including the fact that the narrator somehow amassed a fortune in the world of finance after the war and his best friend in a multi-billionaire. And that in Vietnam the guy is ordered to “break” a fellow grunt, an American Indian, who scalped dead enemy soldiers and kept them on his belt. He “breaks” the guy by humiliating him in front of the platoon, forcing him to crawl all but naked on the ground and pick up cigarette butts with his teeth.

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Mathew Quick

Spoiler alert: The book’s penultimate extended scene is another piece of preposterousness: a meeting arranged by the vet’s billionaire friend with the guy he “broke” at the latter’s mansion in Vegas. All goes swimmingly well—including what’s meant to be a shocking disclosure but is lamely predictable.

Before reading this book, I had thought that the tired, stereotypical image of the Vietnam veteran as a one-time merciless killing machine turned mentally damaged and violently dangerous was a thing of the past. Sad to say, its alive (and not well) in this book.

—Marc Leepson

Vietnam War River Patrol by Richard H. Kirshen

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Second Class Petty Officer Richard H. Kirshen was a three-year Navy enlistee who served eighteen months in Vietnam in 1969-70. For much of that time he captained a Landing Craft, Mechanical (LCM) along the waterways near Nha Be and Cam Ranh Bay.

An LCM, he says, “is the boat you see in all the World War II movies where the soldiers run off the front onto the beach after the ramp is dropped.” In Vietnam, however, Kirshen and his three-man crew used the gunboat primarily to deliver supplies and troops to support bases. Another difference: Their LCM was a true gunboat; it carried two 50-caliber and two M-60 machine guns, along with an M-79 grenade launcher.

Ambushes and brief but furious firefights were a common part of life. Kirshen’s accounts of his crew’s experiences in Vietnam War River Patrol: A U.S. Gunboat Captain Returns to the Mekong Delta (McFarland, 260 pp; $29.95, paperback; $9.99, Kindle) make good reading. Among the most riveting: the section on what happened the night two enemy B-40 rockets hit the boat “right at the waterline” and blew the men into the water, after which the boat sank in “a matter of minutes.”

Kirshen, a long-time member of Vietnam Veterans of America, also talks about relatively under-reported war activities, such as his underwater duty as a diver, one of the few in-country, during the final six months of his tour.

These events comprise about half of the book. Kirshen intersperses his war memories with what he saw and did forty years later as a tourist on a vacation highlighted by eight days on the Mekong River aboard a luxury cruise ship.

Kirshen, his wife, and friends went to—among other places—Phnom Penh, the Cambodian Killing Fields, and Angkor Wat. In these sections he provides interesting historical background info, including detailed descriptions of the atrocities that took place during the 1975 Khmer Rouge holocaust.

At the same time, he repeatedly emphasizes the quality of food and service provided by the trip coordinators. These passages could be a sales pitch for the ship and the hotels where Kirshen and his party stayed.

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In general, Kirshen has a keen eye for detail, a ready sense of humor, and the skill to turn a phrase. One of his best lines: “That was a venue where M-16s and side arms were as common as a crooked politician or a sun visor in Miami.”

He includes an outstanding collection of photographs of both wartime and tourist subjects. Overall, the war stories top the vacation trip in interest, but Richard Kirshen gives the best he has in the latter case.

—Henry Zeybel