Books in Review II

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Welcome to “Books in Review II,” the online-only column that complements “Books in Review,” which runs in The VVA Veteran, the bimonthly print magazine published by Vietnam Veterans of America.

That column and this site contain book reviews by writers who specialize in the Vietnam War and Vietnam War veterans. Our regular Books in Review II reviewers are John Cirafici, Dan Hart, Bill McCloud, Bob Wartman, Tom Werzyn, and Henry Zeybel. The late David Willson wrote hundreds of reviews for Books in Review II from its inception in 2011 through the spring of 2021.

Our goal is to review every newly published book of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry that deals with the Vietnam War and Vietnam War 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

We welcome comments, questions, and suggestions at mleepson@vva.org

–Marc Leepson, Books in Review II Editor

The Deacon and the Shield by John E. Howard

The Deacon and the Shield (Austin Macauley Publishers, 174 pp. $24.95, hardcover; $11.95, paper; $4.50, e book) by John E. Howard, is a fictional story infused with religious testimony. Howard served a 1967-68 tour of duty in Vietnam with the 198th Light Infantry Brigade’s 1st Battalion/14th Artillery in the Americal Division in Chu Lai.

In an author’s note Howard writes of learning about the “horrific event” known as the My Lai Massacre in mid-March 1968. He suggests that what happened there led to a general sense of PTSD among U.S. troops in country. He also, intriguingly, suggests that PTSD may also be caused by the fact that after finishing their tours of active duty, Vietnam War veterans were still in the inactive reserves and could be called back to military service at any time.

The novel centers on twenty-two-year-old Eddy Riffle, who is married when he is drafted into the Army. When the guys in his unit learn he was a church deacon back home, that becomes his nickname. In his last combat action in Vietnam he feels that he was saved from death by an angel. After coming home from the war, he frequently has nightmares about which his wife says, “It seems that he just goes back to the jungles.”

Riffle’s family grows as he becomes a successful attorney. After being caught in a compromising situation with a co-worker, he loses his job, and becomes estranged from his family. His life spirals out of control as a new sense of failure and unworthiness combines with his PTSD. He regrets and fears all the things that might be said about him on the judgement day. To boost his income, he becomes a licensed, wise-cracking private detective.

The story goes on to include a physical fight with an angel who appears on horseback in which Riffle pits his “military training against his angel training,” as well as money laundering, undercover assignments, classic double-crosses, the antichrist, alluring women, and near-death experiences.

The Deacon and the Shield is difficult to classify. It’s not a fantasy because it’s based on a sense of spiritual reality. Basically, it’s a religious tract with a fictional story supported by many biblical verses.

The book might work for a men’s church group. Although it deals with the Vietnam War, its veterans, and PTSD, the main subject is the Deacon and his Christian faith.

–Bill McCloud

Combat to Conservation by F.J. Fitzgerald

F.J. Fitzgerald’s Combat To Conservation: A Marine’s Journey through Darkness into Nature’s Light (Koehler Books, 166 pp. $23.95, hardcover; $15.92, paper; $7.49, Kindle), is both haunting and inspiring. Fitzgerald presents an account of the horror of combat tempered with the beauty of nature with his life story beginning with a happy childhood and including details of his tour of duty as a Marine with the 2nd Battalion, 7th Infantry Regiment of the 1st Marine Division in Vietnam.

Growing up in Southeast Minnesota farm country, Francis Fitzgerald loved the tranquility of the fields and woods. Walking and often sitting for hours, he came to love every animal, plant, and tree, especially white pines. His accounts are so compelling that readers can readily see themselves traveling the back country with the author.

Exceptionally bright and talented, Fitzgerald wanted a college degree and a career as a game warden. Yet doubts about his youth and his lack of experience, combined with a yearning for action and adventure, inspired him to join the U.S. Marine Corps after graduating from high school in the summer of 1969. He arrived at LZ Baldy, a fire support base in the hills south of Danang, in the spring of 1970.

Fitzgerald writes with exceptional style; his descriptions are at once spare and poetic. With tight sentences and concise accounts of what he saw and endured, he presents a stark picture of the environment in which the Marines operated. He includes one eerie anecdote after another from patrols in dense jungle, as he strained to find his way through a claustrophobic world too often dark—and always wet.

Particularly striking are his graphic depictions of the misery of trench foot and the difficulty of treating it in a place where dry feet were every Marine’s futile wish; of sitting next to a tree limb and finding himself face to face with a poisonous snake and realizing he was an intruder in the animal’s world. And of sighting and killing an elusive enemy, then feeling little afterward, except that it was a consequence of war, as certain as night following day.

Then there is Fitzgerald’s account of coming to grips with post-traumatic stress disorder. As a way to try to fight it, Fitzgerald returned to nature when he returned to civilian life. He found that every waking moment he spent in the great outdoors was a balm for his troubled spirit. To move and breathe in the air and the light—to be continually reminded of the beauty of the world—empowered him. It continues to sustain and heal him.

Combat to Conservation is an excellent read; it’s a book as subtle as it is inspiring.

Fitzgerald’s website is www.fjfitzgerald.com

–Mike McLaughlin

Dinosaur on an Island by Walter McAuliffe

Dinosaur on an Island (BookBaby, 238 pp., paperback) is a novel by Vietnam War veteran Walter McAuliffe. The title refers to a person who is orphaned, has to survive on his own, and is not at home in this technological world.

McAuliffe, a member of Vietnam Veterans of America, opens with a warning that the book may be funny, scary, and aggravating. The first chapter revolves around a social worker helping a veteran named Greg, who is disabled and has PTSD. 

What follows are Greg’s stories. They have the common theme of “brutal reality,” including a list of the “Brutal Reality Rules of Life.” One is, “Don’t put a loaf in the oven, unless you own the bakery.” The rest are equally meme-worthy.

The first half of the novel tells Greg’s story. Being from a fractured family, Greg becomes a member of several of his friends’ families. The core group has adventures that are sometimes fueled by alcohol and fall in the category of juvenile delinquency. 

The second half of the book starts with Greg getting drafted and arriving in Vietnam. Then, suddenly, McAuliffe switches to commenting on what he sees as America’s social and political ills. McAuliffe is particularly incensed about “unauthorized military actions,” wars such as the one in Vietnam that were not approved by Congress. He’s also unhappy about government bailouts.

This unusual novel reads like a long civics lesson from an old man sitting on his porch. The first half contains fairly interesting vignettes about teenagers doing naughty things. The second, though, half took me by surprise. I was expecting to read about Greg’s tour of duty. But we mainly get McAuliffe’s thoughts and opinions about political issues.

He’s not clearly a conservative or a liberal, and seems to understand the issues well. But most of his solutions, even if sensible, are not doable. And his opinions will turn off a large segment of the population. Others might be turned off by his breaking the fourth wall to address teenagers.

Despite the book’s obvious passion, some of it is diluted misspellings and grammatical errors. McAuliffe, for examples, misspells “cavalry” and “lightning.” He capitalizes “war” and doesn’t capitalize “White House.”  He uses “misconstrued” when he means “confused.”   

He also is hazy on history. He writes that George H.W. Bush said, “Watch my lips.” He says that America invaded Korea at the beginning of that war. He overuses slang terms like “pant load,” “dirt nap,” and “bed bug.” The funniest and most-informative part of the book is the glossary of his slang.

The first half of Dinosaur on an Island is imaginative, but what you’ll think about the second half depends on whether you believe America has the problems that McAuliffe writes about. Readers will find some red meat here, but might also do some head-scratching.

–Kevin Hardy

The Patriarch by Larry Freeland

Larry Freeland’s new novel, The Patriarch (Publish Authority, 390 pp. $16.95, paper; $7.99 e book), is the first volume of Legacy of Honor, a proposed trilogy. The three books will contain the military experiences of Sam McCormick in the Great War, his son in World War II, and his grandsons in subsequent actions, including the Vietnam War.

Freeland served in Vietnam with the Army’s 101st Airborne Division as an officer and CH-47 helicopter pilot. His previous book, Chariots in the Sky, is a riveting look at air combat during the Vietnam War.

The Patriarch begins in early August 1918. Sgt. McCormick is in trench in Europe getting ready to lead his men over the top and engage Germans at the other end of a 300-yard killing field. As he and his men advance through no man’s land, McCormick says, “I’m in Dante’s seventh circle of hell: violence.”

McCormick’s troops are frequently shelled; they suffer a “truly terrifying” gas attack; and McCormick is wounded. While recovering in a field hospital McCormick falls in love at first sight with a French nurse.

Freeland does a good job painting the picture as we move from scene to scene. One example is the excellent transition McCormick goes through starting with a flirtation in the hospital, a few days of recuperation with baths and a clean uniform, a truck ride back to his unit, and then: “Jumping from the back of our truck, I land in mud almost up to the top of my trench boots.” Freeland takes us immediately back to the front and all that entails.

We follow McCormick’s story until the war ends. He survives, comes home, has difficulty finding work, and then struggles during the Great Depression. The book ends with McCormick’s son entering the military after Pearl Harbor.

Freeland writes in nearly encyclopedic fashion as he includes background information about the World War I trenches, the history of the nursing corps, the big increase of cigarette use among American military personnel, the history of “Reveille,” and the meaning of “buying the farm,” among many other things. He also takes the reader on a 30,000-foot overview of a battle about to take place before dropping us down into the action.

Freeland’s aim is for his trilogy to explore how this country treats its warriors and veterans during and after our wars. With Book One, The Patriarch, he’s off to a good start.

Freeland’s website is http://larryfreeland.com

–Bill McCloud

The First Door is the Final Exit by Timothy Kenneth O’Neil

The First Door is the Final Exit (235 pp. $19.99, hardcover; $13.99, paper; $6.99, Kindle) is the debut novel by Timothy Kenneth O’Neil. A veteran of the Vietnam War, Tim O’Neil spent the entire year of 1969 in South Vietnam. He was assigned to the 25th Infantry Division, the Wolfhounds, and dedicates the book to “the men that died and the women who tragically suffered.” 

The novel has a tri-part structure. The plot follows Winson, the book’s protagonist, Winston, a 25th Division grunt, and his squad through their year in South Vietnam. Their in-country experiences are intertwined with those of Winston’s girlfriend Veronica, who is in nursing school back home. Occasionally O’Neil throws in current events to remind the reader what was happening on the home front.

Winston is an all-American boy. As soon as he graduates from college, he is drafted. He is a reluctant warrior, but not a troublemaker. He gets through his tour of duty by reminding himself that it’s just one year and then he can start his real life back home with Veronica. 

He goes to Nam as naïve as most cherries. He is put into a heterogeneous squad whose “complexion was the opposite of those who created the war.” Winston fits in immediately and befriends a like-minded guy named Rufus. They share a love of weed; in fact, the platoon has a reputation for being a unit of heads. 

Between bull sessions and toking, the squad is sent on missions typical of the war in 1969. The first is to the Michelin Rubber Plantation where they search a few abandoned huts and then return. They wonder why they had to wade through a leech-infested swamp just to be picked up on the other side.  

Questioning the war, in fact, is a theme of the book, but the novel is more anti-tactics than antiwar. The squad goes through a variety of leaders, ranging from the gung-ho to the cautious. The grunts are seldom told why they are doing things that can and do get them killed. 

Meanwhile, Veronica is waiting for the return of her man. Her chats with her friends parallel Winston’s with his buddies. For drama, she is being stalked by a Casanova.

There are countless good memoirs about the war. O’Neil takes that genre and fictionalizes it into a story of a grunt’s tour, adding a girlfriend back home to give a taste of how the war affected women and their boyfriends in Vietnam. And he throws in snippets of 1969 events showing the country going through some seismic social and political shifts.

U.S. infantrymen in the Michelin Rubber Plantation

The main focus, though, is on Winston and his squad. The characters are well-developed and each has a distinct personality. The book has a lot of dialogue, all well-written, and the jargon is appropriate for grunts. O’Neil enhances the story with grammatical flourishes. He is creative with his similes, such as describing the plane Winston arrived in county on as being like a womb. One distracting element is that the book could have used better editing.

If you haven’t read any Vietnam War memoirs, you might want to try this novel centered on a soldier counting down the days to the Freedom Bird. The First Door is the Final Exit is a realistic tale of a typical grunt and his comrades. Although the combat scenes are visceral, O’Neil avoids the temptation to give his readers combat porn. Winston is no Rambo. He is just trying to survive, a theme of the book.

Another theme is that squad members are pawns at the mercy of higher ups whose goals are the almighty body count and the “glory count” of dead GIs. Overall, the novel rings true as far as putting the reader in the boots of an American soldier in South Vietnam in 1969.   

O’Neil’s website is tkomynovels.com

–Kevin Hardy

The Sand God by Jan E. Housley

The Sand God (iUniverse, 316 pp. $20.99, paper; $3.99, Kindle) by Jan E. Housley is a mysterious, mystical, pulp-like murder mystery set in the American Southwest.

You have to love a story that begins with this sentence: “I don’t know if all of what I think I remember going through really happened to me.” The novel covers five years, and following a series of traumatic events that main character Andy Bling went through in 1980.It’s a story Bling says, “that no one believes.” Bling, by the way, readily admits that he’s voluntarily living in a mental health facility.

Though he’s an Anglo, Bling works at the Indian Desk of The Albuquerque Journal in New Mexico, reporting on Native American affairs. He served three years as a Military Policeman in the Army, and his parents were internationally renowned archaeologists. Housely, a member of Vietnam Veterans of America, served in the U.S. Army in Vietnam, Germany, Japan, and elsewhere.

Bling is assigned to cover the disappearance of a young woman from a small town. He decides to fictionalize the name of the town, in this already fictional story, making the unfortunate decision to refer to it as Bullsnort. “It was a place represented by a dot on the map that looked like the period at the end of this sentence,” Housely cleverly writes.

On his drive to Bullsnort Bling is “mesmerized,” loses track of time, and senses “that something had happened to me.” Pulling into the town, he feels as though he is outside of reality in the place, which “looks to be near perfect with its beautifully painted buildings and very little traffic.” He checks into a motor court that used to be a jail, planning to stay a few days. But that turns into several weeks as Bling finds himself drawn into the mystery of the girl’s disappearance. The townspeople seem strangely unconcerned that she’s missing.

Before long, Bling is getting headaches and receiving messages from disembodied voices encouraging him to keep seeking the truth, while also steering him away from danger. Housely writes about Kachina dolls, dream catchers, premonitions, Indian naming ceremonies, dust devils, sweat lodges, Bureau of Indian Affairs schools, carnivorous plants, and a secret group called The Brotherhood.

Reading this novel will not change your life, but it will giver you a fun, intriguing way to spend a few hours. On hot summer afternoons that’s often enough.

–Bill McCloud

The Spirit to Soar by Jim Petersen

Jim Petersen’s The Spirit to Soar: Life Lessons and Values for a Victorious Life (Morgan James Publishing, 246 pp. $29.95, hardcover; $9.99, Kindle) revolves around the themes of what sustains a person and allowing happiness to come from inside you.

Petersen, a retired Navy submarine officer who heads his own business coaching firm, tells the life story of retired USAF Lt. Col. Barry Bridger, a friend and colleague. The story begins when Bridger became an orphan at age six, and continued through a love-filled adoption, Bridger’s military service as a fighter pilot, his six years (1967-73) as a POW in the Hanoi Hilton, and his post-military career as a successful family man and businessman. It’s quite a story.

The 18 chapters are filled with wisdom, positive thinking, and anecdotes that illustrate the theme of success and self-directed, positive reactions to the events surrounding you daily life. Petersen’s recounting of Bridger’s life experiences contain a solid message. That includes the need for a spiritual grounding, even though there are no chapters devoted to that subject in the book nor is there any pulpit-thumping rhetoric.

Each chapter begins with a different topic and continues with Bridger bringing his message. Themes frequently overlap—including a few repetitions of an entire paragraph.  Reading much of Bridger’s comments feels like listening to a conversation or a reminiscence containing good information. If you let it, and are open to it, the positive message in this book will grow on you as you continue to read

This is a wonderfully positive book with a genuine hero as its subject and lives up to the subtitle—plus, it‘s readable and begging to be shared with others.

The book’s website is thespirittosoar.com

–Tom Werzyn

The Price of Loyalty by Andrew Johns

John Nance Garner, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s vice president from 1933-41, famously described his office as “not worth a bucket of warm piss.” To the engaging, optimistic, and dedicated Minnesota Senator Hubert H. Humphrey, a beguiling and tragic figure of the Cold War, being Lyndon Johnson’s vice president from 1965-69 proved to be worth even less than that.

For if that warm bucket is worthless, at least it does not cost anything. For Humphrey, being Johnson’s vice president cost him just about everything.

That is the argument set forth by the historian Andrew Johns in The Price of Loyalty: Humbert Humphrey’s Vietnam Conflict (Rowman and Littlefield, 186 pp., $48, hardcover; $45.50, Kindle). Johns, a professor of history at Brigham Young University, is one of the leading practitioners of the study of American Cold War foreign policy and the author or editor of six books, including Vietnam’s Second Front: Domestic Politics, the Republican Party, and the War. The Price of Loyalty is a meticulously researched, concise book.

In February 1965, just one month into the Johnson-Humphrey administration, Vice President Humphrey wrote LBJ a memorandum that set out his thoughts on why the new government should extricate itself from the burgeoning conflict in Vietnam. Though the topic was foreign policy, the memorandum was rooted in domestic politics, as Humphrey argued that 1965—following the ticket’s landslide triumph at the polls the previous November—would be the year in which there would be minimal political risk in withdrawing U.S. forces from Vietnam. 

Though the memo would prove to be sagacious and prescient, there were two big problems: Humphrey had been told not to write such policy memoranda and the policy Humphrey espoused was in conflict with Johnson and his chief advisers. After he read the memo Johnson exiled Humphrey from all the big debates on the Vietnam War. Considerably chastened, and in an effort to gain favor with the President, Humphrey became one of the leading spokesmen for LBJ’s Vietnam War policies.

Johns sketches Humphrey’s metamorphosis from “apostate to apostle” on the Vietnam War, from a skeptic in 1964, that is, to a hawk in 1966. This transformation is the central thesis of the book, as Johns attempts to understand why Humphrey, after having his advice rejected and suffering personal humiliation at the hands of Johnson, would attach himself so closely to the President and his war policies. Johns contends that Humphrey ignored his own principles out of a combination of political expediency, ambition, and allegiance.

When Lyndon Johnson decided not to run for re-election in 1968, Hubert Humphrey became the Democratic Party frontrunner for the nomination, but during the campaign he struggled to convey a coherent political strategy on Vietnam. Johnson was of no help to his beleaguered Vice President, believing Richard Nixon would be a better successor.

Johns describes Johnson’s behavior toward Humphrey as part of the “Johnson treatment,” LBJ’s proclivity to humiliate his subordinates. But Johnson did not treat his inherited staff that way, underscoring that the “treatment” may have had more to do with Humphrey’s willingness to take the abuse.

Johns also posits that it is a “great irony” that Humphrey struggled so mightily with the war, when two other liberal anticommunist Democrats, Kennedy and Johnson, escalated the war and sent in the first U.S. combat troops. Earlier in the book, Johns astutely notes that these two impulses, liberalism and anticommunism, created a disconnect when the they conflicted. It was not ironic, but endemic.

President Johnson and Vice President Humphrey in 1968

In his conclusion, Johns, in an effort to provide a foil to Humphrey, makes a case for Pete McCloskey, a liberal Republican first elected to Congress in 1967, being an exemplar of placing principle over politics. But that is an iffy comparison. Though an admirable politician, McCloskey never wavered about his position on the war after being elected as an antiwar candidate. McCloskey was also one of 435 Representatives, so–unlike Humphrey–he had little risk of overexpressing his views and no practical responsibility in shaping foreign policy.

Johns’ work is an overdue, a significant addition to the historiography of the Vietnam War, and one that elucidates a relevant lesson for contemporary politics on the struggle over virtue and loyalty. Only someone as skilled as Andrew Johns could have written such an accessible and compelling book in such a succinct manner.

“Dump the Hump?” Perhaps, but first read the book.

–Daniel R. Hart

Rebecca Benson’s War by Patti Rudin Albaugh

Rebecca Benson’s War (Rudin Press, 300 pp. $10.95, paper; $5.99, Kindle) by Patti Rudin Albaugh is a beautifully written novel about a young woman dealing with the Vietnam War and patriotism, told through the prism of her husband’s death during the early years of that war.

The book’s opening paragraph is a stunner that takes us back to 1943. “On a blood-soaked French battlefield under a gun-metal gray sky, a forgotten arm with a magic tattoo lay in the mud. The tattoo would never again comfort a little girl back in Ohio, but it would haunt the woman she became,” Albaugh writes about her protagonist, Rebecca Benson, who grows up thinking that wars “put daddies to sleep.”

In July 1965 a mailman walks along Elm Street in an all-American town, a street that includes “the no-flag house.” It’s the house where Rebecca Benson lives with her husband, Adam, a police officer who served in the Korean War. He has a scar on his back that he won’t explain and refuses to go along with his wife’s desire to have children. A dutiful wife, the highlight of Rebecca Benson’s day is when her husband comes home from work.

One of those days Adam breaks the news that he is joining the Marine Corps to be an adviser to the South Vietnamese in what he tells Rebecca will be a one-year re-enlistment. Having lost her father in World War II, Rebecca hates the idea but can’t deny that he has “soldier eyes.” In addition to that, she’s beginning to question the American involvement in the Vietnam War.

After training at Ft. Bragg Adam goes directly to Vietnam while his wife sits at home, refusing to watch war movies on TV—and still not flying the flag. She’s marking off the days on a calendar when she learns that her husband has been killed.

Soon thereafter, Rebecca receives a footlocker containing all of Adam’s belongings, and only after months of struggling with her emotions decides to open it. She soon decides to sell her house and dabbles in antiwar activities.

Rebecca Benson’s War is the story of a woman coming to the realization that there’s not a lot she can do to control things in life, but that she can begin to make peace with the world by making peace with her own feelings. This heartfelt, well-researched and written novel helps remind us that during the Vietnam War there were hearts and minds in America that needed to be won over as much as those of the South Vietnamese people fighting communism.   

–Bill McCloud

LZ Sitting Duck by John Arsenault

Many Vietnam War veterans well remember what it was like to be thrown into battle in a remote corner of South Vietnam, fighting for their lives in combat that ultimately would made absolutely no sense. Fire Support Base Argonne on the Laotian border just below the DMZ in Quang Tri Province was one of those places.    

In defiance of common sense, the men of the 1st Battalion, 4th Marines in the 3rd Marine Division were compelled to attack Argonne, a former U.S. fire support base. The North Vietnamese Army always prepared defenses on abandoned bases, including booby traps, in anticipation of returning American troops. What happened at FSB Argonne was no different.  

Retired U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Col. John Arsenault’s LZ Sitting Duck: The Fight for FSB Argonne (Liberty Hill Press, 272 pp. ($32.49, hardcover; $17.40, paper; $8.99; Kindle) is a collection of vignettes taken from nearly two dozen Marines who went through hell just trying to survive as they fought tenaciously against a determined foe.    

From the moment the Marines assaulted the LZ they named Sitting Duck, they came under intense fire and began taking heavy casualties. That situation would not change much for the entire time they conducted operations. Snipers picked them off, mortar rounds rained down on them, and just when it seemed things couldn’t get worse, an artillery round intended for the North Vietnamese fell short, leaving no one unscathed.     

The highly regarded battalion CO, seemly invincible as he stood up to lead his men, became just one more KIA. That was one of many scary moments for a lieutenant who describes watching his CO take a direct hit to the head.

The Marines performed feats of pure heroism. Again and again, as one reads their accounts at Argonne there is a real feeling of being there amid the incoming fire, the chaos, and the confusion. The Marines fought in rugged terrain with little water to combat their dehydration from the overwhelming heat, all while attacking the enemy troops ensconced in well-prepared fighting positions.

Many of the book’s twenty-four vignettes describe the same battle scenes; but each one offers something new from a different Marine’s perspective. Their individual accounts are almost like reading a murder mystery in which different witnesses describe a crime scene with each one seeing things differently.

Collectively, this book adds up to an astounding account of perseverance, hardship, heroism, and endurance. One can’t help but coming away from reading these battle stories with admiration for the Marines who fought at Argonne.   

This is a sobering account of combat that should be read.

–John Cirafici