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

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The American War in Viet Nam by Susan Lyn Eastman

The author of The American War in Viet Nam: Cultural Memories at the Turn of the Century (University of Tennessee Press, 238 pp., $39.95), Susan Lyn Eastman, is not a Vietnam War veteran, nor any other kind of military veteran. She was raised in a small town in New Hampshire that was off the grid, attended a two-room school house, and her father is a Vietnam War veteran. Eastman is particularly interested in the treatment of veterans following the war. I suspect that relates to her father’s decision to get far away from modern post-war America.

In her book, Eastman, an English professor at Dalton State College in Georgia, examines a wide range of cultural productions. She discusses war memorials, poetry, and cinematic and fictional narratives. Eastman begins with a short Preface in which she recounts reading thirty names at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and giving in to tears when she did so. She says that the memorial does not account for the deaths of many others caused by the war, certainly not the more than one million Vietnamese dead.

Most interesting to me was Chapter 7, “Unfinished Remembrance: Beyond the United States and Vietnam—Jessica Hagedorn’s Dream Jungle and Frances Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now Redux.” I’d read a couple of Hagedorn’s books but not this one. I ordered the book, but decided to plod forward with this review.

The most useful aspect of this fine book was that it motivated me to do more reading about the Vietnam War. I was arrogant enough to imagine that I’d not missed the paramount books written about the war. So this book was a wake-up call for me.

The few black-and-white photos in the book were useful to the extent that they helped with the analysis of Vietnam War and veterans memorials. But they are muddy and not celebratory in any way, just useful to scholarly purposes.

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The bibliography and the index are excellent. I spent much time pouring over them and then going to the references to see what I’d missed.  A book like this without an index and a bibliography is worse than useless, as all of us who have grappled with such messes will attest.

The author’s honesty about being the daughter of a Vietnam War veteran and how this affected her research and her point of view drove the book’s orientation and its power. Thanks to Susan Lyn Eastman for using her own life story to produce a useful and powerful interdisciplinary study that probes deeply where other books have only gone lightly.

–David Willson

Saddle Up by John C. Hedley

Loyalty to the men who fought alongside him in Vietnam’s Central Highlands during 1969-70 forms the core of John C. Hedley’s memoir, Saddle Up: The Story of a Red Scarf  (A15 Publishing, 286 pp.; $24.99, paper).

Operating out of Fire Support Base St. George near Pleiku, Hedley led Fox Force Reconnaissance Platoon of E Company, 1st Battalion, 14th Infantry (the Golden Dragons) of the 4th Infantry Division. The platoon spent most of its time in the jungle and “made contact with the NVA or Viet Cong almost every time they left the firebase,” Hedley says.

Commissioned after graduation from West Point in 1968, Hedley found that running patrols and ambushes quickly taught him new decision-making skills. He challenged authority and did not hesitate to put his men’s welfare ahead of his career aspirations. And he led from the front when possible. Every meeting with the enemy taught him a lesson in survival.

He shows the depth of his concern for his men by recalling the challenges of three major encounters: a night-long battle in which sappers overran St. George; the pursuit of an NVA battalion; and the discovery of a massive NVA bunker.

Hedley did a lot of soul searching in Vietnam. He recognized his inadequacies when, two hours after receiving command of his platoon, he and his men were sent to protect a village ravaged by the NVA. A sink-or-swim situation, the assignment marked the first time that he fully understood his awesome responsibility for men’s lives in combat.

Hedley was pragmatic. His willingness to pry into his own psyche gives the book a leadership manual quality. He emphasizes the skills required for success in leading small units. In portraying the psychological and physical impact of the stress of battle before, during, and after contact, he emphasizes fear and how it can hinder a leader and his men.

Training had taught him that a leader could not show fear because it was contagious, and Hedley recalls his difficulty maintaining equilibrium following a fight early in his tour. “My hands started to shake, I couldn’t light a cigarette,” he writes. “I tried to hide the shaking and it took a while before it disappeared. There was no way I could take a much-needed drink from my canteen. I found that incredible amounts of adrenaline flow through your body when you are being shot at, and that ‘adrenaline drain’ afterward was a very uncomfortable feeling.”

His accounts of atrocities and other brutalities of war leave nothing to the imagination. What Hedley saw when Fox Force rushed to a village after it was hit by the NVA—and the efforts of his unit while defending St. George—borders on the unbelievable.

Parts of the book show the futility of America’s war effort under Vietnamization. The NVA and VC moved easily around the countryside, Hedley says, and they had support from all villagers in the area. Plus, “the night belonged to Charlie” because of his familiarity with the terrain.

The frequency with which Hedley’s men found enemy living areas, campsites, and even a hospital hidden behind a waterfall made me again rethink the grunts’ world of search-and-destroy. Why were they made to continue? The North already occupied the South. Nevertheless, Hedley’s platoon continued to count bodies, sometimes based on only bloody drag marks.

Relegated to a boring headquarters job toward the end of his tour, Hedley found relief by voluntarily rejoining his former battalion for the 1970 incursion into Cambodia. But that’s another story—or book, perhaps.

The “red scarf” in the title was worn “even in the field when on combat operations,” by men who proved their merit under fire in Fox Force, Hedley says. A few years earlier, a South Vietnamese commander, whose platoon wore the scarf, presented one to Fox Force for bravery during a combined op.

Starting in 2000, the symbolism of the bright red scarf motivated Fox Force veterans to reunite. What began as a yearly reunion evolved into frequent meetings. As a result, red scarf warriors have bonded tighter than ever before.

Hedley at a Red Scarf reunion

The book contains twenty-eight pages of then-and-now color photographs of soldiers and scenes from the war. Hedley closes with vignettes about events outside of Fox Force and “A Day in the Life…”, a chapter that summarizes how men lived in the field.

After twenty-four years of military service, John Hedley retired as a lieutenant colonel and then had a seventeen-year career with Raytheon Corporation.

His website is saddleup-redscarf.com

—Henry Zeybel

Fire to Light by Charles Malone

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Charles Malone was drafted into the U. S. Army, and served a tour of duty in the Vietnam, War with the Provost Marshall’s Office in Saigon. Malone got nowhere near the jungles or rice paddies of Vietnam—along with most of the rest of us who served in Vietnam.

He spent his 1971-72 tour, Malone writes in Fire to Light: A Memoir of Family, Race, and War (Paramount Press, 316 pp., $13.99, paper; $5.99, Kindle), on “the streets of wild and woolly Saigon—a place of crazy traffic, drugs, women, music, graft and tension among the troops as America’s role in the war was winding down.”

This memoir is written like a novel, complete with elaborately reconstructed conversations from decades ago. The country was in the throes of Vietnamization, an ordeal that President Nixon claimed to place a lot of faith in. Those of us who had served in South Vietnam placed no faith in it at all. To most of us it was a con job—another way to bilk money out of the American taxpayer.

Charles Malone grew up in North Carolina in a small town where Jim Crow was a way of life. In the U. S. Army, however, there was no segregation or institutionalized discrimination against African Americans.  Thousands of southern white soldiers had to adapt to that. It wasn’t easy.

Malone includes many anecdotes in his memoir related to the struggle to accept the coming of a new age of race relations. He often marvels when he witnesses African Americans in positions of power, such as master sergeants bossing around white soldiers.

Many statements in the book rankled me, such as “the guys that wound up in Vietnam tended to be those with the least means or smarts to get out of it.” That rankled because I didn’t (and don’t) want to think of myself as that guy.

On the other hand, a few sentences later Malone writes that “None were craftier in figuring out how to stay out of harm’s way than the future chickenhawks, neoconservatives and other ferocious noncombatants who would in the future have no problem pushing other people besides themselves—or their own kids—into the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.” No way I’d argue with that.

Charles Malone

Charles Malone

This is an enjoyable, readable book that could have benefited from some judicious editing. Malone says some things twice and some three times. Once was enough.

Still, it was pleasant to encounter a mention of Arlo Guthrie, and also a frank admission that Saigon was “the rear” and a far safer place to spend the war than in the field. It’s brave to say that straight out.

So thanks for this book and thanks for a look at Vietnam War as it wound down.

Early on, Malone makes the point that Vietnam is a stinky place. But to his credit, unlike most authors, he goes on to say that the Vietnamese no doubt thought of Americans as stinky, too.

I’m sure they did, and not just in the way he means.

Malone’s website is charlesmalonewrites.com

—David Willson

Some Gave It All by Danny Lane and Mark Bowser

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Danny Lane is a Vietnam War Marine veteran whose decorations include two Purple Hearts. In his biography, Some Gave It All: Through the Fire of the Vietnam War (Made for Success, 230 pp., $16.75, paper; $8.99, Kindle; $24.95, recorded), Lane and co-author Mark Bowser write: “It was November 20, 1968, and Danny and his fellow Marines sat on the cold, wet tarmac in full combat gear awaiting liftoff.”

That’s a sentence filled with mystery and malice—foreboding, too.

Lane writes that he found himself wondering what he had got himself into. He was nineteen years old. Two days earlier he had been home, in total security. Now he and his fire team were about to enter the dense jungle of Southeast Asia where the Viet Cong would pursue them relentlessly.

It took Danny Lane forty-five years to decide to tell his story. Now here it is for all of us to appreciate and dwell upon, including those of us who served in the Vietnam War but never got near the jungle. Having your helicopter shot down is a decisive way to come into contact with the jungle and with the NVA.

This book reads like the draft for a blockbuster Hollywood movie, packed with action and adventure. The reader has a front-row seat to follow Lane and his comrades into the intense life of all-but endless combat that these young men endured.

The men were participating in Operation Meade River. It was late 1968, and Danny Lane was a grunt with the 3rd Battalion/5th Marines in the 1st Marine Division. His book ricochets back and forth between modern day and the war, and Lane tosses some curves that we could not begin to predict.

The book is smoothly written, and free from most of the usual Vietnam War memoir clichés. And it’s a spellbinder with a roller-coaster action plot.

Those of us who enjoy and seek out infantry stories filled with action have nothing to complain about with this fine book. Danny Lane has done himself proud. He and his co-author, Mark Bowser, have concocted a winner. I recommend you get a copy of this fine book.

There are some things in this book, though, that I’d never encountered before in any Vietnam War infantry memoir. Things that the authors ask us to believe on faith that sometimes are hard to swallow.

I had no trouble believing the book’s accounts of fragging, the showing of movie “The Green Beret” on the trip home, the singing of “We Gotta Get Out of This Place,” the accusations of murdering little kids, the comparisons of the enemy to animals—especially rats—or the constant presence of mosquitoes, leeches, and jungle rot. But I believe the authors went too far in asking me to believe that the VC trained what they call rock apes in combat, specifically throwing hand grenades.

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Danny Lane & fellow Marine Sotere Karas at Fire Base Tomahawk, March 1969

“The Marines hated these crazy, grenade throwing monsters of terror,” Lane and Bowser write. They go on to attest that the rock apes “are descendants of the mythological Big Foot.” The capper is this conclusion: “That was the kind of war that was being waged against us in Vietnam.”

Now I’ve heard everything. I’d love to see the movie, though. Sort of a “Planet of the Apes” meets “Full Metal Jacket.”  I’d buy a ticket. Plenty of others would, too. Americans love a show, especially if it features apes.

The author’s website is dannylane.com

—David Willson

Shot At & Missed By Neal E. Morgan

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Introducing his book of thirteen and a half months of memories about his time in the Vietnam War, Neal E. Morgan writes: “This story revolves around the perspective of a payroll clerk doing a mundane job in insane circumstances. If you are expecting an action-packed battlefield diary or intense account of heroic exploits, you will have to look elsewhere.”

Morgan goes on to temper his warning by saying, “We were all in harm’s way.” A somewhat innocent draftee, Neal Morgan learned to hate the war back then and still does so today.

Morgan, a member of Vientam Veterans of America, writes that he spent “7 days a week in the ‘office’ for 8 to 12 hours” at Di An, the headquarters of the Big Red One, the 1st Infantry Division. When outside the office, he experienced “a lifetime of memories” as he writes in Shot At & Missed: Vietnam October 1967 to November 1968 (CreateSpace, 294 pp. $12.95, paper; $4.99, Kindle).

Morgan’s tour exposed him to the rigors of grunt life starting with the Tet Offensive when admin personnel manned the base perimeter (but remained unscathed) while, within their sight, Saigon and an ARVN camp went up in smoke.

He offers an insightful thesis on his love-hate relationship with guard duty based on unpredictable dangers inherent in a relatively routine task. He validates his emotions by recalling a morning base perimeter sweep as the point man who confronted two NVA soldiers, practically face to face. He also describes his one mission as a door gunner on a UH-1.

Morgan tells equally good stories about unusual actions such as a Rome plow leveling a town’s black market and red-light district, and a lightning strike that detonated every hard-wire device around him—including “foo gas” [fougasse] cannons.

Adding to the lore of Vietnam War oddities, he describes thirty fellow REMFs who, in response to Tet, formed a volunteer search-and-destroy team—”The Admin Badmen.” They trained during off-duty hours and eventually conducted night patrols, but never engaged in a firefight.

“I thought they were nuts,” Morgan says, “but admired their courage and dedication.”

Morgan intersperses entertaining stories with accounts of day-by-day routines that include detailed explanations of things that are now common Vietnam War knowledge, such as Claymore mines, C-rations, pink malaria pills, and ao dai dresses. That writing slows the pace of the book.

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First Infantry Division HQ at Di An, 1967

He adds historical perspective with chapters about Vietnamese history from 500,000 B.C. to 1975. In his epilogue, Morgan says he is “not a historian,” and excuses himself for including “names, events, and references [that] are exaggerated or incorrect, [because] none of those things were the real goal of this work.”

Morgan says that his “real purpose” was “a need to reveal the sad history that dragged America down a spiraling path into the painful and deadly bedlam that resulted in the Vietnam War.”

All things considered, Neal Morgan presents an interesting view of his involvement in the war as a twenty-two-year-old. His sincerity and his message’s relevance are unquestionable. Plus, he knows how to tell a story.  His focus and organization, however, blur at times.

Still, Shot At & Missed is his first book, and as he says, “This chronicle was simply something I needed to do for and by myself.”

—Henry Zeybel

A Shadow on our Hearts by Adam Gilbert

Writer and historian Adam Gilbert’s purpose in A Shadow on Our Hearts: Soldier-Poetry, Morality and the American War in Vietnam (University of Massachusetts Press, 304 pp., $90, hardcover; $32.95, paper) is to deepen our knowledge and understanding of the Vietnam War through an examination of the poetry produced by those who fought in the conflict. Looking at the poetry “through the lens of moral philosophy,” Gilbert notes how historians of the war have all but neglected it.

He quotes from almost 400 poems by more than sixty “soldier-poets.” I know many of the poets and have met many of the others. I should note that I am predisposed to love this book as my name is in the index, and the author writes positive things about poets and poetry I have a high opinion of.

With a book of this sort, I always first go to the index and look for my name. And there I was. Next, I look for the name of my closest friend, a poet of the finest sort, but one often overlooked because he is a novelist and poet-novelists often are unfairly given short shrift.

Gilbert makes the point that he deliberately has not included certain sorts of poets, and I am one of them. I was not a “soldier” according to his standards, even though I was drafted into the U.S. Army and served in the Vietnam War. But I was a REMF. In his eyes, I was far removed from the role of soldier. It hurts my feelings, but I won’t let that cause me to say bad things about this fine book.

Few “real soldiers” have suffered more pain that I have during the last ten years while I’ve been dying from Multiple Myeloma, but I was not in combat in Vietnam. Agent Orange, which caused my bone cancer, was there in Vietnam during the war for all of us.

I found it pure joy to read what Gilbert has to say about DS Lliteras, W.D. Ehrhart, R.L. Barth, Horace Coleman, David Connolly, Yusef Komunyakaa, Leroy Quintana, Dale Ritterbusch, Bruce Weigl, and many other poets I have met, spent time with, eaten dinner with, given readings with, and so on. I loved this book and think others will too, while learning a lot about the Vietnam War and about what its veterans think about it while we are seriously reflecting and pondering upon it.

Vietnam War veteran Bill McCloud recently reading his poetry to a veterans group at an Oklahoma Corrections Center

I apologize for making this review so personal, but I fear that if I don’t, potential readers will turn away from the book, thinking it too scholarly and serious to be fun to read. Yes, much of this book was far from fun to read—and wasn’t intended to be fun—but the book still is engrossing and even enthralling in parts.

I highly recommend A Shadow on Our Hearts to all who have a serious interest in learning more about the Vietnam War and about the people who went off to that war, not knowing what to expect, but dealing with it when they got there the best they could.

—David Willson

Vietnumb: Poems by Fred Rosenblum

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Fred Rosenblum served in the Vietnam War with the 1st Marines. He says that his first book of poetry, Hollow Tin Jingles, “began as an exercise in expurgation.” His new book, Vietnumb: Poems (Fomite, 104 pp., $15, paper),  is a result, he says, “of my inability to retch-up and rid myself of that entire toxic mass that’s kept me bellyaching all these years.”

Rosenbloom sees his poems as “a lyrical analgesic to others who bear some degree of residual shame for that era.” He goes on to write that “the war machine thrives today as it has never thrived before.” I can’t argue with that.

This short page book of short poems deals with many of the same issues Rosenblum dealt with in Hollow Tin Jingles, but it is well worth reading and revisiting those subjects. I started noting my favorite poems as I read the book, until I realized that I had marked most of the poems in the book. Finally, I winnowed out poems until I had just two favorites:  “Confessions of a Recluse” and “The S.O.B. Was Just Like Me.”

“Confessions of a Recluse” grabbed me because of the lines “I am a bearded man/with a long moustache that collects debris from meals

My hair (what’s left of it)

Is in a constant state of dishevelment

I wear overalls that are filthy

And grimy from my war in the woods

With the beavers who are trying to flood my property

My wife hounds me about my slovenly nature

And if I am not wasted I will submit to her requests to clean-up

Brush my teeth,

whatever

She keeps records of my medications and dispenses them

Per the prescribed instructions

It is too difficult for me to remember what pill and when

It should be taken

 

The man in this poem is not exactly me, but he’s close enough so that I don’t need to write that poem myself.

The other poem deals with the Seattle VA, a place where I’ve spent a lot of time having my head examined—and if not my head, what’s left of my feet. Fred Rosenblum says that the place is “sort of institutional dump that had the feel of incarceration.” He nailed it, for sure.

In his poem, he runs into a friend from the past, just as I have several times. I was born in Seattle, educated in Seattle, and drafted in Seattle, so it’s no kind of miracle that I’d bump into folks at the VA that I’ve known off and on for fifty years.

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Rosenblum

Rosenblum describes a mutual acquaintance of ours: “Lester was mad as a hatter/and had croaked from the fusion/of alcohol and pharmaceutical inclusion/that one might imbibe and ingest in those days

The concluding stanza is:  “a kid I’d known/yet the S.O.B. was just like me/ancient, anhedonic, Vietnumb

There it is.

Thank you, Fred Rosenblum, for writing these poems.

He refers to “the Duke” in these pages, the man that many young men sought to emulate by becoming Marines. Sad fate for them, which reminds me that Lee Ermey just died—the Drill Instructor  in Full Metal Jacket, from the book by Gus Hasford, a man I’ll never run into at the Seattle VA, as he’s long since dead.  RIP Lee and Gus.

—David Willson