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

Three Days Past Yesterday by Doris I. “Lucki” Allen

Doris I. “Lucki” Allen’s Three Days Past Yesterday: A Black Woman’s Journey Through Incredibility (CreateSpace, 72 pp., $10, paper) lives up to its subtitle: It tells the story of an incredible journey by a black woman in the United States Army. There are passages worthy of note and respect in every chapter and in every poem. This is an honest and clear presentation of Allen’s three tours in the Vietnam War and her ongoing struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Allen, a member of Vietnam Veterans of America, writes that her three Bronze Stars and other career honors in no way make her a hero, nor do they ameliorate her PTSD symptoms. “‘Why are you laughing Lucki?’, they ask me. My reply, ‘I’m laughing just to keep from crying.’ Will this feeling of helplessness ever go away? I’m still stuck in Vietnam.”

Allen’s prose and poetry are filled with examples of how she was changed by the Vietnam War. For example: “I still can’t understand why people kill people to show people that killing people is wrong.”

This concise compendium illustrates that Allen’s ability to handle life in a combat zone and deal with her post-war emotional problems are due in great measure to the support she had from her parents growing up. “I knew that I was unique,” she writes. “Mom and Dad saw to that. Mom assured me that no matter what risks I took in life she and Dad would always be there to help guide me. And so it goes—I have never been ordinary.”

Keeping her parents’ encouraging words in mind as she served in Vietnam War from 1967-70 helped Allen (in Vietnam in the photo below) through many tough times. However, while seeking the safety of bunkers during rocket attacks she found other sources of security. As she writes: “Between God and my bottle of Crown Royal, I knew I could make it through each day.”

Despite the brevity of this work, much wisdom is revealed. It’s akin to what might be found in a cleric’s daily breviary. In this case, the book provides veterans with valuable methods of managing some of combat’s unresolved remnants.

I plan on keeping this book within reach at my desk and I recommend it to any veteran.

Since April is National Poetry Month, here is Allen’s poem, “Help”:

Little girl–war

All she knew was the word Help…

Didn’t know what help

She wanted cause she couldn’t explain what

Help she needed.

So the medic came and asked

” What’s the matter?”

All she could say was “I don’t know”

—Curt Nelson

Fear Was My Only Weapon by Dennis Papp

Neil Simon’s Biloxi Blues tells a comedic World War II barracks story about a twenty-year-old draftee who learns to cope with a diverse assortment of soldiers during basic training while enduring the wrath a bullying superior.

J. Dennis Papp updates the theme in Fear Was My Only Weapon: Can a Personnel Clerk Maintain His Sanity and Survive Vietnam When He’s Forbidden to Have Any Bullets for His M16? (CreateSpace, 233 pp., $8.96 paper; $2.99, Kindle). Papp’s story takes place at Bear Cat outside of Long Thanh in Vietnam during the first nine months of 1968. Married and twenty-three years old, Papp had been cruising through administrative duty at Fort Sill when he received orders for Nam with only nine months of service remaining.

Papp joined Personnel Actions Team 4 at Bear Cat. He still had a lot to learn, and his bosses picked on him. His friends were the usual supportive suspects: Clyde, Smiles, Numbers,The Face, Boomerang, and Incoming. Papp’s nickname was Pinky. Naturally, each name had a story behind it. Bear Cat went untouched during the Tet Offensive.

Papp and his buddies solved administrative problems, went on R&Rs (Papp took three), and roamed the base (below), which had tents, a mess hall, a PX, and a barber shop. While bonding, they cracked old jokes that still bring smiles and they drank as if tomorrow didn’t exist.

His Top Sergeant chose Papp to be his whipping boy. The abuse culminated with an Article 15 for Papp that carried a fine, plus a fourteen-day restriction with laborious extra duty. Papp’s only revenge was to out-shout the Top during a Red Alert without suffering consequences.Papp describes a lifetime-quota of mental turmoil over the possibility of not making it home. But the life-ending threats he experienced were mainly in his mind until late in his tour. Then he went to Dong Tam as part of an advance party. There, “the days were physically draining; the nights, emotionally so,” Papp writes. He mixed concrete all day and went through Red Alerts at night.

The book’s title is based on the fact that Papp had no infantry training; therefore, on his first guard duty in Nam, he was not permitted to lock and load a bullet into the chamber of his rifle. Thereafter, an “impotent” M16 became his trademark.

Papp is a witty writer. But he might reconsider his style. He doesn’t need to explain how to button each button when a character puts on a shirt. And when it comes to dialogue, every comment doesn’t merit a response.

—Henry Zeybel

Who Cares? I Do by Jack Moser

Jack Moser entered the Navy in 1958. He served as an intelligence officer in the Vietnam War, and holds a doctorate in psychology.

A few of the poems in Who Cares? I Do: Poems  (Fithian Press, 128 pp., $14, paper) deal with the Vietnam War:  “Kill Everything That Moves,” “My Queen of Vietnam,” and “The Phu Qui Island Chorus.”  Lots of the poems deal with God and Ireland. I’ll quote from “Kill Everything That Moves” to provide a sense of the book.

It is thirty-eight years since the Vietnam War ended.

The sordid stories of American atrocities

Are just starting to raise their bloody heads.

We now know that U.S. military forces

Killed millions of innocent civilians in cold blood

We were all so obsessed with the “body count”

That everyone we killed was the enemy

From the one-month old baby

To the ninety-year-old man planting rice,

The orders were clear, “Kill everything that moves”

That meant everything:

Women

Children

Water buffalo

Americans “killing millions of innocent civilians in cold blood”? This is not the war that I knew in Vietnam—and it is nothing close to the truth. Even books that claim that Americans committed unending atrocities in the Vietnam War, such as Nick Turse’s deeply flawed Kill Everything That Moves (2013), don’t come close to contending that we killed millions of innocents in cold blood.

This book of poetry is not for me, but perhaps it might be for you.

—David Willson

A Hard Decision by Westley Thomas

Westley Thomas served with the U. S. Marines in Vietnam from 1966-68 and in the Marine Reserves from 1975-77. The action in his book, A Hard Decision (AuthorHouse, 136 pp., $23.99, hardcover; $14.95, paper; $$3.99, Kindle), we are told, “takes place during and after the Vietnam War era, on Staten Island in the North Shore area.” This is a two-act play with many short scenes.

One of my favorite scenes is the one in which a captured American is interrogated by a VC, who—in the most astonishing coincidence of all time—happens to be the guy who used to be his barber. I’ve encountered the trope of the VC barber again and again in Vietnam War fiction, but Thomas takes this to an illogical extreme. I enjoyed it—in a perverse way.

Here’s some dialogue, illustrating the disconnect between the American troops in Vietnam and the Viet Cong fighters:

VC soldier #1:  (yanking Captain Dickenson from the chair) Get up you bastard, hold still. This is how we treat American prisoners. Move, I’m no longer your barber, you bastard. I am your enemy and you are my prisoner.

(VC interrogator and VC soldier #1, laughing)  

Captain Dickenson: “How could you? You who have cut my hair so many times and given me shaves as my own personal barber and houseboy? I thought we were friends!”

This short play is filled with bad things that happen to Vietnam veterans, and it ends in terrible violence. I can’t imagine how this play would be staged, but I would love to see it to find out.

Plays don’t benefit from being read, in my opinion, but should be seen when performed. But A Hard Decision held my attention to the very end.

—David Willson

Small Fires in the Sun by Herbert R. Metoyer, Jr.

Small Fires in the Sun by Herbert R. Metoyer, Jr. (Cane River Media, 412 pp., $25, paper) is a novel based on historical events, but is wholly fictitious. The book centers on the life of Louis Juchereau de St. Denis, the founder of Natchitoches, the oldest city in Louisiana.

This is a complex and lengthy historical novel. The cover tells us that it is “a historical, romantically enhanced adventure novel” dealing with the three primary cultures of colonial Louisiana: The French, the Natchez—an Indian tribe—and the slaves. 

The author is a retired military officer and a helicopter pilot who served all over the world, including in Vietnam. I’m sure that the experience and wisdom he gained during his military career informed and influenced this novel, but it never gets anywhere near the Vietnam War.

Herbert Metoyer

It should be read by those who love colonial adventure and have an interest in the interaction of a variety of cultural and racial forces in America. This novel tells an interesting and spell-binding story and makes those three cultures of Louisiana come alive.

Fans of the Benjamin January novels of Barbara Hambly set in 19th century New Orleans are likely to enjoy this historical novel, too.

It is refreshing for this reader occasionally to step away from reading about the Vietnam War.

—David Willson

To Hear Silence by Ronald W. Hoffman

In To Hear Silence (CreateSpace, 412 pp., $16.99 paper; $9.99, Kindle), Ronald W. Hoffman says, “If you were to investigate Charlie Battery 1/13, you would find this unit at the Battle of Khe Sanh in 1968. Before that—and before this book—little to nothing has been published about this unit.” His subtitle clearly explains his book’s purpose: Charlie Battery, 1st Battalion 13th Marines, The First 15 Months (July 1, 1966-October 5, 1967): The True Vietnam Experience in Support of the 3rd Battalion, 26th Marines.

Along with teaching a history lesson, Hoffman offers a look at his Vietnam War experience with Charlie Battery 1/13. He smoothly ties together his diary entries, declassified Marine Corps documents, memories of fellow Marines, and letters he sent home to his mother.

A 1966 draftee, Hoffman opted to serve as a Marine. Two years earlier, poor eyesight had prevented him from enlisting in the Corps. He trained as a radio operator on a Forward Observer Team.

Along with 3/26, Charlie Battery traveled from San Diego to Vietnam aboard the USS Lenawee on her final deployment. With layovers at Hawaii, Okinawa, and the Philippines, the voyage took from September 4 to December 11, time that included combat training exercises. Hoffman’s account of the unit riding out a typhoon in the disintegrating twenty-two-year-old ship could make a book by itself.

Dong Ha was the unit’s first stop in Vietnam. Hoffman’s description of the base exactly matched my recollection of the place: an absolute shit hole. Shortly after arriving, 3/26 took part in Operation Chinook and spent seventy-nine consecutive days in the field.

Following Operations Chinook I and II, Charlie Battery accompanied 3/26 to Phu Bai to Leatherneck Square on the south edge of the DMZ, and finally into Khe Sanh—another part of the book that could stand alone. The mission was the same everywhere: find and destroy the enemy.

Hoffman recites Marine activities as day-by-day events of entire units. For example, he reports that “Kilo Company was hit with sniper fire from across the river” and “India detected a column of some three hundred VC troops that they engaged with mortar fire.” Generally, he identifies individual Marines only when they are killed.

The companies of 3/26 used Charlie’s 105-mm howitzers against practically everything they encountered. They even called for rounds on a single enemy soldier who loitered beyond rifle range. More often than not, the difficulty of verifying results created frustration for everyone because Gen. William Westmoreland demanded body counts. Time after time, Charlie Battery unloaded dozens of rounds on target areas with outstanding coverage, and then the men in the field found traces of blood but no bodies.

“Probable” kills outnumbered verified kills. So, digging up enemy bodies to determine the cause of death became a common practice to increase the number of confirmed kills. After one encounter, American forces hunted well into the night with artillery illumination to find dead enemy soldiers and try to double a body count.

Practically every day, Marines triggered booby traps. At one point, because of more casualties to the Marines than to the enemy, daytime missions were said to end; instead, companies were assigned sectors and expected to wait in ambush. Nobody followed the new plan and the tactics remained unchanged.

At the time, Hoffman wrote: “This isn’t at all what any of us thought war would be like.”

Meanwhile, the NVA largely switched from conventional warfare to guerrilla tactics. In small groups they hit and ran. When they had the numbers, though, the NVA employed human wave attacks against isolated American units.

Hoffman did plenty of homework. His meshing of different sources provides reams of facts to help readers reach their own conclusions about the effectiveness of American efforts during the early stages of the Vietnam War. Some might view Hoffman’s research as a study in frustration.

The book contains photographs, maps, and five appendices: The Vietnam War by the Numbers (a summation of all Vietnam casualties); September 1966 Convoy Ships; a Roster of Charlie Battery 1/13; Original 3/26 Members Killed in Action; Replacement 3/26 Members Killed in Action; and Marine Corps Acronyms and Definitions.

—Henry Zeybel

 

 

 

Everything Changed by Heyward A. Macdonald

Heyward Hunter Macdonald was commissioned a lieutenant of Artillery in the U.S. Army upon graduation from University of Virginia in 1964. He served as an  ordinance officer in Vietnam at a First Infantry Division fire base during his 1966-67 tour of duty.

Dr. Macdonald (he holds a doctorate from the Virginia Theological Seminary), a life member of Vietnam Veterans of America, has worked through the VA to help veterans come to terms with their issues resulting from their Vietnam War service. He traveled with his eldest son to Vietnam for a month in 1999 where he was “welcomed by old adversaries, literally with open arms,” he notes in Everything Changed: The Vietnam War and American Culture, Lessons Not Learned  (Amazon Digital Services, 141 pp., $8.99, Kindle).

This philosophical book is small, but contains huge ideas. It is arranged into nine sections, beginning with a chapter called  “The Wakening of Memory,” followed by “Our Culture and the Path to War.”  If our national leaders read this book and took it to heart, perhaps we could avoid past mistakes in the future. I have my doubts, but wish it could be so. 

Macdonald makes a great case for learning from our past sins, such as Manifest Destiny, and thinking of ourselves as that shining city on the hill that God has singled out to lead the world to eternal truth.

He covers some of the ground that gets trod heavily upon in most books about the war, fiction and nonfiction. REMF’s, for example, come in for discussion. John Wayne is given some space. Gene Autry comes in for a name check. We also get Agent Orange, CCR’s “Running through the Jungle” and the Animals’ “We Gotta Get Outta This Place,” and there is an extended section about the sins of Jane Fonda.

The author quotes a bumper sticker, “Jane Fonda American Traitor Bitch,” and says he understands that anger. I do not, especially after all this time.  Perhaps toward Gen. Westmoreland, and maybe even toward John Wayne, but Jane Fonda?  Wayne’s silly movie, The Green Berets, did more harm, I believe.

If you are looking for a short book, (I read it in one sitting), that delineates all of the things America should have learned from the Vietnam War but did not, this is the one for you. It is clearly written, compact, and a very quick read. I enjoyed it.

—David Willson