Books in Review II

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Welcome to “Books in Review II,” a web-only 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
8719 Colesville Road
Silver Spring, MD 20910

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

–Marc Leepson, Books Editor

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Thank You For Your Service: Battling PTSD by Richard Baker

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Richard Baker served with the U.S. Army’s 4th Infantry Division Band in Vietnam from 1966-67. He and I were in Vietnam at exactly the same time, but we did very different things. He didn’t spend much time playing in the band, but learned how to fight a war he knew nothing about. He was wounded twice and has battled PTSD since he came home. Thank You for Your Service: Battling PTSD (387 pp. $15, paper; $3.99, Kindle) is about that battle and it is a very interesting one.

I didn’t expect the book to be about boxing, but that is what it largely turned out to be. It’s also about suicide, music, nightmares, and sex.

Baker is tempted to tell the Vietnamese, he writes, that he was “happy to be involved in killing over a million people from a 3rd world country who wanted the freedom to govern their own country and to help save our democracy and way of life by keeping those vicious, evil, forces from rowing across the Pacific to sling a few arrows at the West Coast. Had I not gone, I would have been sent to prison.  Such is the life in an American democracy.”

The above paragraph is a fair example of what Baker has to say in this book. He is careless with punctuation, but careful with ideas. This is a beautiful book, filled with poetry and philosophy and should be read by everyone who plans to enter the military. The book is a warning and a rant about America and how we have treated the rest of the world.

I enjoyed every page of this book, just as I enjoyed the more than a dozen other books of Baker’s that I have read that relate the American war in Vietnam. Richard Baker has written more than two dozen books, including Shellburst Pond, Janus Rising, Shattered Visage, Feast of Epiphany, Gecko, Smoke Tales, The Last Wire, The Flag, The Last Round, Siege at Dien Bien Phu and Cow Bang.

He starts off this latest book with a short essay on how boxing and war relate. Boxers and soldiers often share a common social status, he notes. They come from the middle to lower classes and occasionally constitute the bottom stratus. Food for thought.

Buy this book and Richard Baker’s other books. You will have invested your money well.

—David Willson

Autopsy of an Unwinnable War: Vietnam by William C. Haponski with Jerry J. Burcham

Retired U.S. Army Col. William C. Haponski presents his interpretation of the outcome of the Vietnam War in Autopsy of an Unwinnable War: Vietnam (Casemate, 336 pp. $32.95). “The Vietnam War,” he says, “was lost before French expeditionary corps or American combat units came ashore. Said another way, there was never a war there which could be won. The reasons lie in the history of Vietnam and the character of its people going back more than 3,000 years.”

Haponksi makes his case with a tight package of facts based on extensive research, supplemented by his experiences as a 1968-69 Vietnam War commander with the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment and 1/4 of the 1st Infantry Division.

Haponski is the author of three other Vietnam War books: One Hell of a Ride: Inside an Armored Cavalry Task Force in Vietnam, Danger’s Dragoon: The Armored Cavalry Task Force of the Big Red One in Vietnam, 1969, and An Idea and Bullets: A Rice Roots Exploration of Why No French, American, or South Vietnamese General Could Ever Have Brought Victory in Vietnam. 

Col. Jerry J. Burcham, a retired Vietnam War brigade commander, worked with Haponski on Autopsy.

In the book’s three parts, Haponski analyzes what he calls the French War, the American War, and the Vietnamese War stretching from 1945-75. He contends that independence and unification were virtually the lifeblood of the Vietnamese people during that time. “Events show that neither the French nor the Americans nor the South Vietnamese governments and militaries could ever have won a war in Vietnam regardless of who led the efforts,” he writes.

His analysis of the French War focuses on leadership. Continuity of command greatly benefited the Viet Minh, he says. From 1945-56, Ho Ch Minh and Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap controlled the North politically and militarily, while France practiced revolving-door leadership. At times, his account of French activities resembles a novel of international intrigue—except no fiction writer could have imagined the trickery he reveals.

Haponski emphasizes Ho’s opposition to colonialism by tracing his communist affiliation back to World War I. Haponski notes that Ho “was particularly enamored of Lenin,” and recognized the necessity for “revolutionary violence.”

The book’s account of the American War could be titled “Good Intentions, Poor Execution.” Haponski analyses each stage of U.S. involvement: Advisory, Search-and-Destroy, Big Unit Warfare, and Vietnamization. He describes operations written about by many other authors.

The historic value here comes from descriptions of difficulties he encountered as a commander. Problems compounded: new clear-and-hold plans reverted to search-and-destroy operations; Americans tortured prisoners during interrogations; a Vietnamese district chief refused to cooperate; American soldiers shot civilians; strategic hamlets failed to materialize; the Pacification program failed; and the MACV commander fell asleep while Haponski briefed him.

The final third of the book covers the ultimate encounter between North and South—NVA versus ARVN. Haponski describes the struggle in a fresh and straightforward style. He emphasizes that the North’s communism “was uniquely Vietnamese” and followed no monolithic control from Moscow. Yet, after the communist victory, Haponski says, a dedicated cadre of doctrinaire believers ruled the nation while “lower down” motivation was mostly patriotism produced by compulsion.

Although the book is flawlessly organized and a pleasure to read, I cannot agree with Bill Haponski’s conclusion that the North’s victory was based on a long Vietnamese desire for independence. To me, the communist takeover of the nation boiled down to another twentieth-century dictator’s success. Ho Chi Minh followed the paths of Lenin, Stalin, and Mao. Today the Vietnamese people live under ideas formulated by Karl Marx in the nineteenth century—not ones based on their three-thousand-year-old temperament.

Haponski says he presents “as succinctly as possible the essence of the contest itself inside the political and social framework that constrained and guided it on both sides—that is, within Vietnam,” and he leaves it “to the reader to discern what lessons could have been learned.” In that manner, he ignores the violent communist re-education of Southerners that followed the North’s victory.

A book of this magnitude should offer guidance for the future—at least a warning to wake up members of Congress. Otherwise, America could become entangled in another misdirected war, one lasting perhaps as long as nineteen years.

Autopsy of an Unwinnable War: Vietnam provides a challenging thesis that stirs the mind.

—Henry Zeybel

 

Dragon’s Jaw by Stephen Coonts & Barrett Tillman

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Stephen Coonts flew A-6 Intruders for the U.S. Navy in the Vietnam War. Since then, he has written sixteen bestselling aviation techno-thrilling novels, the first of which was the  Flight of the Intruder. Barrett Tillman, an authority on air warfare, has written more than forty books, including Clash of the Carriers and Whirlwind.

Coonts and Tillman’s Dragon’s Jaw: An Epic Story of Courage and Tenacity in Vietnam (Da Capo Press, 304 pp. $28, hardcover; $14.99, Kindle), is a book that editorializes about flying and Vietnam War diplomacy as much as it tells a war story.

The war story is the targeting of the strategically vital Thanh Hoa Bridge in North Vietnam by U.S. Navy and Air Force fliers. From March 1965 to the November 1968 bombing halt, the unproductive sacrifices made by these airmen—killed and missing in action, wounded, or captured as prisoners—were stunning.

The book’s title covers the flying action. In that regard, if you can imagine Sisyphus pushing a boulder up a hill in a five-gravity landscape while strangers fling sharp-edged rocks at him, you have a hint about the story’s drama. Note: A few philosophers argue that such a task made Sisyphus happy.

To complete that imagery, here’s what Coonts and Tillman’s have to say about Rolling Thunder, the bombing program to interdict supplies from North to South Vietnam: It was “fatally flawed from the start. There were a great many fool’s errands in Vietnam—arguably the entire war was one—and the pressure from the top was excruciating.”

They address that pressure by classifying the diplomacy of Lyndon Johnson and Robert McNamara as misdirected, self-serving, and ineffective. They also shred John Kennedy’s decisions about South Vietnamese leader Ngo Dinh Diem, which ended in the portentous November 1963 assassinations of Diem and his brother Nhu. Many of their arguments reference previously published sources.

Coonts and Tillman dissect Johnson’s diplomacy by comparing it to Machiavelli, Thucydides, and contemporary thinkers—a no-contest encounter.  The authors fault senior military officers who “realized that the fuel and ordnance expended on Thanh Hoa missions and the losses incurred were wasted effort” against “the most heavily defended area in the world.”

Navy and Air Force fliers faced constantly improving North Vietnamese antiaircraft artillery, surface-to-air missiles, and MiG interceptor defenses. Their improvisation in maneuvering aircraft through dangerous situations was unimaginable—until it happened. Their inability to destroy the bridge symbolized North Vietnamese resistance and American impotence, the authors say.

A major argument against the war was the fact that, afterward, it was evident that all of the reasons not to pursue it were obvious before the war began, according to Coonts and Tillman.

The authors identify both American attackers and North Vietnamese defenders and quote their oral and written testimony about battle. Dragon’s Jaw honors the lives of brave men who otherwise might be forgotten. The war can be judged as ineffective in solving an international dilemma, but the depth of dedication by participants on both sides is unquestionable, as this book plainly shows.

Along with recreating bombing and dog-fighting missions, the authors describe operations and life aboard aircraft carriers; fliers’ constant quest for better tactics, equipment, and weapons; and the ordeal of American POWs. Given their antipathy to the antiwar movement, it’s not surprising that the authors disparage Jane Fonda for her wartime visit to Hanoi. They also devote a chapter to the evolution of aircraft carrier design as planes grew larger and heavier.

The authors depict Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger as diplomatic wizards for befriending—or perhaps economically bribing—China while undermining South Vietnam in 1972. The bargaining received a boost from the development of laser-guided, three-thousand-pound bombs that finally collapsed the Thanh Hoa Bridge into the Song Ma River.

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 Tanh Hoa Bridge after American F-4 Phantom fighter bombers knocked its western end into the Song Ma River in April 1972.

The book broadened my knowledge of Navy air operations. But its arguments frequently are vitriolic, rehashing reasoning that is at least fifty years old. Old conclusions are still largely ignored, however, and I would have preferred to see the authors apply them to today’s military commitments.

In their final pages, the authors do mention the advantages of today’s guided munitions designed for the Vietnam War, and they tie an unsatisfactory Vietnam War targeting episode to Desert Storm as part of a Note.

Navy and Air Force leaders fought a “sortie war” to impress McNamara and gain personal recognition, according to the authors. The resultant lack of inter-service effort leads Coonts and Tillman to call the fighting in Vietnam a “shitty little war.”

They conclude with an idea from Henry Kissinger that they judge to be “perhaps the ultimate lesson” of the war: Victory in war is essentially meaningless unless it leads to a political settlement that will endure.

Think about it.

—Henry Zeybel

Hal Moore: A Life in Pictures by Mike Guardia

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The journalist and former Vietnam War correspondent Joe Galloway gave legendary status to Lt. Gen. Hal Moore by joining with him to write We Were Soldiers Once… and Young: Ia Drang – The Battle That Changed the War in Vietnam (1992). Hollywood turned the book into a popular movie starring Mel Gibson as the general and sanctified Moore’s leadership.

Military historian Mike Guardia, who serves as a Captain in the U.S. Army Reserve, further fortified Moore’s stature by writing  Hal Moore: A Soldier Once… And Always in 2014 and Hal Moore on Leadership: Winning when Outgunned and Outmanned in 2017. His latest book is Hal Moore: A Life in Pictures (Magnum, 192 pp. $27.95, hardcover; $25.95, paper; $7.99, Kindle).

Guardia calls his new book “the definitive biography of this revered leader,” who died in 2017, two days short of ninety-five years of life. With nearly three hundred photographs, many of them “never-before-published,” Guardia says, A Life in Pictures leads the reader through the stages of Moore’s life:

  • Childhood in rural Kentucky
  • West Point during World War II
  • Occupied Japan
  • War in Korean
  • The Vietnam War
  • Peacetime training supervision
  • Building a loving family with his wife, Julie and their five children

The nearly sixty photographs from the Vietnam War interested me the most. They primarily focus on the 1965 Battle of Ia Drang in which Moore led the 1/7th Cavalry. Captions provide concise accounts that show Moore’s commitment to his men. They also emphasize his remarkable ability of leading from the front, particularly throughout the 1966 search-and-destroy Bon Song Campaign.

The overall effect of the book created a strong admiration within me for Hal Moore’s life and career. Before opening the book, I anticipated seeing a bunch of pictures of soldiers standing around in uniforms. Instead, I met the memory of a man filled with compassion for his troops. Moore’s humility overwhelmed me. For example, the press’ comparing him to Gen. George Patton “horrified him,” according to Guardia. Perhaps best of all, Hal Moore had a sense of humor.

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LTC Moore at Ia Drang in November 1965 (U.S. Army photo)

Guardia is an avid fan of Hal Moore, but he portrays Moore’s behavior in war and peace with low-keyed vignettes that fully justify the general’s legendary recognition as a soldier’s soldier.

The author’s website is

—Henry Zeybel

In the Black by Joe Lerner

Joe Lerner’s Novel, In the Black (iUniverse, 256 pp., $16.95, paper), was inspired by the clandestine Raven Forward Air Controllers who served in Laos during the Vietnam War. Lerner’s book is entirely fictional. The Ravens, in reality, were braver than fiction could ever portray. As Lerner puts it: “The real Ravens were far grander men than any characters I could ever limn.”

Much space in the book is given to explain what the title means. As an espionage term, “in the black” denotes covert operations and actions, usually by military or paramilitary means. Lerner goes on to say that the term also can denote a state of confusion or to be excluded from knowledge.

The book’s short glossary is useful. It, for example, explains that Indochina is that part of Southeast Asia subject to the cultural influences of both India and China. Makes perfect sense if you think about it.

The fifty-seven short chapters are readable and interesting. If you have read Christopher Robbins’ book. The Ravens: The True Story of a Secret War in Laos, In the Black is not really necessary for your library. The Ravens were American FACs who directed strikes from vulnerable, low-flying spotter planes, mainly in support of a Meo general named Vang Pao. This fierce warlord fought to keep the North Vietnamese out of the Plain of Jars in Laos.

The cast of characters is a swaggering, rowdy bunch of maverick American Air Force pilots.  I’ve actually met and spent time with one of these men, and the word “hard drinking” describes him accurately. He wrote one of the best of the books about the Ravens. Late in life he became a much-respected university professor.

I spent an afternoon with him, and don’t think he would have minded me mentioning that he is John Clark Pratt, the author of  1985 novel The Laotian Fragments who died two years ago at age 84.

One of the sentences that sums up much of the flavor of this book begins, “The major forsook his usual stirrup cup of Jack Daniels. Instead, he trudged over to Doc’s clinic and sobered up by sucking pure oxygen for a full minute. When he climbed back into his black jeep, he looked as healthy as Joe had ever seen him.”

I noticed that the jeep is black—not o.d. green, orange, or red.

There is no book that presents language more salty than In the Black does—at least noone I have ever seen or read. If you are interested in reading about the Ravens, I highly recommend In the Black, as well as the Robbin’s book and John Clark Pratt’s.

I have yet to read a bad book on the Ravens.

—David Willson

The Mayaguez Crisis by Christopher J. Lamb

In the midst of the 2008 financial crisis, then White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel said: “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.”

This understanding of presidential perspective is central to The Mayaguez Crisis, Mission Command, and Civil-Military Relations (Department of Defense, Joint Chiefs of Staff, 284 pp., $66) by Christopher Lamb, who is Distinguished Research Fellow at the Center for Strategic Research at the National Defense University.

In his book Lamb examines what U.S. leaders hoped to accomplish in their response to the Mayaguez crisis, and how those motivations influenced the manner in which the ensuing drama unfolded. He believes the motives for U.S. behavior have been widely mis-characterized and their significance misunderstood.

Often cited as the last battle of the Vietnam War, the Mayaguez Crisis began on May 12, 1975, less than two weeks after the communist takeover of South Vietnam, when Cambodian Khmer Rouge gunboats seized the SS Mayaguez, an American merchant container ship carrying a crew of forty en route to Thailand, in international waters off the Cambodian coast.

In the first part of his book, Lamb lucidly provides details about the four-day crisis, highlighting the words and actions of the four principle players in the crisis: President Gerald Ford, in office nine months when the crisis started; Henry Kissinger, Ford’s Secretary of State and National Security Adviser; Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger, and Deputy National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft.

In the only such international incident managed through the National Security Council, the reaction was swift. The U.S. bombed the Cambodian coast, sank several vessels leaving the Koh Tang island, and used Marines to invade that island where we believed the crew was being held. Twenty-three Air Force police and crew were killed in a helicopter crash in Thailand, fifteen Marines died in action on Tang, and three were listed as missing in action.

After that military action, the Cambodians returned the ship and crew returned safely, and the Ford Administration demonstrated resolve in the wake of the unsatisfying end of the Vietnam War. The action was widely seen as successful.

Lamb’s historical account is both gripping in its prose and masterful, as is his command of the information. However, his primary motivation is not documenting the events in the White House, but understanding why they unfolded in the manner that they did. Lamb is uniquely qualified to undertake this assignment as he is the author of Belief Systems and Decision Making in the Mayaguez Crisis (1989), as well as many journal articles on the subject.

This analysis is accessible and thorough. The relatively brief text is backed up by more than fifty pages of notes. Lamb systematically reviews the potential motivations of the policy makers, which included:

  • a rescue mission, a use of coercive diplomacy against the Khmer Rouge
  • a use of military force to avoid a USS Pueblo-type prolonged hostage negotiation
  • an emotional catharsis in response to Vietnam, and
  • an effort to use the crisis to boost Ford’s reelection prospects.

Lamb shows that these reasons—even the rescue of the crew—all were secondary to the primary objective of Ford Administration policymakers: using overwhelming and rapid force to signal to North Korea and the international community the resolve of the United States.

Despite the agreement among leaders, the implementation of the policy was strained by a bureaucracy in which Kissinger exerted undue influence, and Schlesinger—who was chiefly responsible for saving the crew and preventing more deaths of Marines on Tang—was unfairly scapegoated for the loss of life.

Lamb suggests that this book is aimed primarily for the national security community, but I humbly disagree. This is an exemplary case study of crisis management that will be valuable for historians, analysts, political scientists, and anyone with an interest in the subject matter.

I give it my highest recommendation.

For more info and to order, go to bookstore.gpo.gov/products/mayaguez

–Daniel R. Hart

 

Memoirs of a Rotor Head by Patrick Michael Ramsey

A justifiable bitterness pervades Patrick Michael Ramsey’s Memoirs of a Rotor Head (Mennonite Press, 152 pp. $31.01, paper; $3.99, Kindle). In 1970-72, Ramsey flew back-to-back Vietnam War tours as a UH-1 pilot. He survived everything the enemy threw at him, but also saw close friends get killed. Now he is dying from cancer caused by exposure to Agent Orange and other highly toxic defoliants. And he feels betrayed.

With the draft breathing down his neck, Ramsey enlisted in the Army late in 1967, and was inducted on January 8, 1968. “First and foremost,” he says, “I am an America serviceman” who has “flown in harm’s way to protect the freedom of Americans.”

The first half of his memoir shows how Ramsey prepared for, and then participated in, the Vietnam War.  Amid a climate of hyperactivity bordering on chaos, Pat Ramsey joined the 7th Air Cavalry at the beginning of the 1970 incursion into Cambodia.

With only thirty hours of combat flying, Ramsey was upgraded from copilot to pilot. Simultaneously, he took charge of crew assignments. Furthermore, because he went through infantry AIT, Ramsey was assigned command of a twenty-man platoon and helicoptered into the field as a grunt. To my disappointment, he provides few facts in his book about that responsibility beyond expressing his joy in hearing “that wop-wop-wop of the rotor blades” of helicopters en route to extract his unit.

His view of the war reflects nervous dedication to tasks that were questionable from their beginning. He admits to living for the excitement of facing danger, but an excitement tempered by near disasters. His stories gave me the impression that his unit operated with minimal leadership. The men seemed to do whatever they thought necessary at any moment. Losses were the consequence.

Ramsey complements stories about his experiences by giving history lessons about the war. In them, he summarizes Vietnamese history and America’s role in it.

Displeased with the paperwork mentality of a peacetime Army, Pat Ramsey ended his military career as a captain in 1973. From there, he sold insurance, married, divorced, raised a daughter as a single parent, and for five days a month flew CH-54 Sky Crane helicopters for the National Guard.

After twenty years, with pension money in his pocket and a daughter off to college, he resumed his search for adventure and became a medevac pilot for Life Star. Six years of “from fully asleep to fully alert in thirty seconds,” as he puts it, was enough, so Ramsey enrolled at Kansas State and earned a second bachelor’s degree in three semesters. He then joined the Peace Corps in Nicaragua. He later worked as a National Park Service Ranger in six parks in twelve years—all of which he describes in travelogue-like language in the book’s second half.

In 2007 doctors told Ramsey he had Parkinson’s Disease, “for which there is no cure, only death,” as he puts it. Three years later, the VA conceded that his problem was the result of exposure to Agent Orange. In his memoir, Ramsey calls for accountability by the manufacturers of defoliants that were used in Vietnam.

Five pages titled “Everything I Ever Needed to Know in Life, I Learned as a Helicopter Crewman in Vietnam” summarize his war experiences and close Memoirs of a Rotor Head on a note of gallows humor.

Ramsey is donating all profits from the book’s sale to a veterans service organization.

—Henry Zeybel