Welcome to “Books in Review II,” a web-only feature 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 Dan Hart, Bill McCloud, David Willson, Tom Werzyn, and Henry Zeybel.
Our goal is to review every newly published book of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry that deals with the Vietnam War and Vietnam War veterans. Publishers and self-published authors may mail review copies to:
Arts Editor, The VVA Veteran
8719 Colesville Road
Silver Spring, MD 20910
Marc Levy’s The Best of Medic in the Green Time: Writings from the Vietnam War and Its Aftermath (Winter Street Press, 563 pp. $24, paper) is a kaleidoscopic book of stories written by Levy and others. Kaleidoscopically, these colorful stories burst out in all directions. They’re collected from a website that Levy, who served as a medic with the First Cavalry Division in the Vietnam War, started in 2007.
The stories, poems, essays, recollections, and reflections are divided into three sections: War, Poetry, and Postwar. There are more than seventy stories in all, three-fourths written by Levy.
Here is some of what we encounter in the opening section on the Vietnam War. A casualty of friendly fire, the first man Levy has to patch up. How to make morning GI coffee. Inflated body counts. Souvenirs taken from the dead. Medals awarded to appease grieving families. Coincidences that save lives. Men voluntarily returning to the war because they missed the adrenaline rush.
Several stories describe extreme combat at a personal level. A buddy dying in Levy’s arms. The attacking Viet Cong dressed only in loin cloths. Men giving themselves self-inflicted wounds to try to keep from returning to combat.
The poems are a mixed bag; some of the best are written by Levy. In “He Would Tell You,” for example, he writes:
Let me never tell you
Things you cannot know
Let me never tell you
Things that won’t let go.
“Portrait of a Young Girl at Dawn” ends with:
They haul her in.
Beneath the whirling blades
She is spinning, spinning
She is floating away.
“Dead Letter Day,” begins: “He sent the letter to the guy’s wife/The same day,/Leaving out the following:”
We then learn the truth of the man’s death. Things his widow must never know.
One of the best poems, by Tom Laaser, is “Things I Think About at 11:11 on November the 11th”. In it, a man is attending yet another program for vets in a high-school auditorium and he’s conflicted. He senses that he does not want to be a veteran,
But the second that god damn flag is unfurled
And that crappy high school band strikes up you
Give way to unyielding patriotism of the highest degree.
I bled for this
You want to scream.
I am a veteran. This is MY country. I earned this freedom.
The third part, “Postwar,” includes a small section on combat humor, as well as one on how to talk to college students about the war, and one on the symptoms and treatments of PTSD because, as Levy writes, “Whatever you did in war will always be with you.” An especially interesting section includes comments from dozens of veterans describing what they think when some well-meaning person says, “Thank you for your service.”
It’s a phrase Levy considers to be “petty.”
This is a great book because of the well-written variety of stories and topics Levy covers. It’s also great because of how it’s put together. There is no reason to read the more than seventy chapters in order. Dig in and skip around any way you choose.
The U.S. Army sent twenty-two-year-old David Noble, a recent Yale University graduate, to Intelligence school and then to Vietnam as a member of the 704th Intelligence Corps Detachment in May 1962. At the time, according to Noble, American forces in Vietnam numbered barely 4,000, mainly advisers working with the South Vietnamese to save that nation from communist control. Starting as a believer in the cause, draftee Noble describes his transformation into a dissenter in Saigon to Pleiku: A Counterintelligence Agent in Vietnam’s Central Highlands, 1962-63 (McFarland, 204 pp. $29.95, paper; $17.99, Kindle).
An ability to speak French fluently offered Noble—a photographer and writer—the chance to pass as a civilian translator in Vietnam. More importantly, knowing the language allowed him to converse with many Vietnamese who had learned the language during French colonial times. None of the Americans Noble met, including his detachment head, spoke Vietnamese. And few Americans knew anything about the country.
Noble spent the first half of his tour in Saigon. His description of the city captures its mood and pace, which caused me to recollect and want to relive events I experienced there. He also tells fascinating stories about his achievements as a greenhorn spy. In particular, he developed friendships with a Vietnamese police chief and an Indian Army major who worked for the International Control Commission helping supervise the 1954 Geneva Accords. Information gathered from these sources elevated Noble’s stature with a hard-nosed commander who had initially belittled him.
Accordingly, the commander chose Noble and a master sergeant nearing retirement to start a branch of the detachment at Pleiku, the first of its kind in II Corps. The sergeant turned out to be a homesick alcoholic and soon allowed Noble to run the operation, which he did with enthusiasm.
Noble befriended civilian officials, businessmen, and Central Highland Montagnard tribesmen. He traveled extensively outside of Pleiku. He describes in detail the creation and dedication ceremony of Plei Mrong, part of a new Montagnard Strategic Hamlet program; a Viet Cong attack there two weeks later that killed and kidnapped villagers and burned down their homes; and the interrogation of 21 VC soldiers captured during the attack—another learn-as-you-go task he had to deal with.
Timely actions and informative written reports earned Noble a letter of commendation from his hard-nosed commander, who praised him for producing “consistently outstanding results.” He later received the Army Commendation Medal.
The book’s stories are beyond the norm. Noble leans heavily on about 60 letters he sent home and his mother saved. He uses long quotes from the letters to buttress his storytelling. The quotes often repeat what he has already written. This redundancy is acceptable, though, because the letters are highly informative.
He emphasizes that Saigon to Pleiku is a memoir about “what happened to me” and “not the story, whatever that may be.” He mentions, however, that in the pre-Gulf-of-Tonkin-Resolution days, secrets were secrets, and some are still secret today. The powers that be stymied Noble’s recent searches for reports he wrote.
Noble ends the book with a look at “The War at Home.” The section contains his thoughts about the peace movement, which he presents using newspaper articles, additional personal letters, journal entries, and even a caustic letter he wrote to President Richard Nixon. By then, Noble had become a dedicated opponent of the war and had attended many antiwar rallies and marches.
In my mind, the final section may have been unnecessary. Earlier in the book Noble had declared that Vietnam was “a land of peasant farmers caught in a political drama beyond their control,” and for me that says it all.
Many excellent photographs Noble took of people and places in Vietnam in 1962 appear throughout the book.
D.L. Curtis’ Bullets, Blades and Badges: Adventures of an Adrenaline Junkie (Chevalier Publishing, 130 pp. $7.99, paper; $3.99, Kindle) is a neat little book. Curtis brings us an upbeat series of stories and anecdotes tied together with an account of his multi-pronged careers: as an Army airborne paratrooper in the Dominican Republic and later in South Vietnam, then as a helicopter pilot in Vietnam, an off-shore helicopter pilot serving oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico, and lastly as a Dallas Police Department officer.
In an obvious labor of love, Curtis takes the reader along for a ride through reminiscences that start with his birth, literally, and end with his retirement as a decorated beat cop. It’s a true and interesting story of one man’s life experiences that doesn’t contain lots of blood and gore or a phalanx of curse words. Plus, you can easily finish reading it in an afternoon.
After his first Vietnam War tour as an infantryman, Donald Curtis mustered out of the Army. But he soon rejoined to pursue a career as a helicopter pilot. His accounts of his tours of duty in the war are light on battlefield specifics, but this broad-brush presentation carries the spirit of his exploits.
Curtis’s first literary effort is a well-edited and executed stream-of-consciousness book. It’s also truly enjoyable.
In the seminal work on warfare, The Art of War, the Chinese philosopher-general Sun Tzu devotes a full chapter to the importance of terrain. French historian Fernand Braudel conceptualized history as the longue durée, (“long duration”), arguing that continuities in the deepest structures of society—including a geographical determinism—are central to history. Prussian Gen. Carl von Clausewitz and Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter proffered that military actions produce creative destruction, imposing empty footprints that permit new spaces for development.
In Footprints of War: Militarized Landscapes in Vietnam (University of Washington, 288 pp. $39.95, hardcover and Kindle) David Biggs weaves the concepts of Tzu, Braudel, Clausewitz and others together with an impressive array of aerial photography and maps to present a regional history of central Vietnam as a form of stratigraphy, with layers of foreign and domestic militarization and cultural iconography.
David Biggs is a professor of history at the University of California at Riverside. His award-winning 2011 book, Quagmire: Nation-Building and Nature in the Mekong Delta, examined the environmental history of Vietnam in the 20th century. The genesis of his new work was a request from the Vietnamese government to use U.S. archival sources to locate potential environmental hazards resulting from the storage and deployment of chemicals and weaponry during the American war.
This innovative applied environmental history focuses on the narrow central coast around Hue, the former imperial capital of the Nguyen dynasty in Annam, now Thua Thien Province. Though Hue is most recognizable to Americans as the scene of vicious fighting during the 1968 Tet Offensive, the area also was the subject of Bernard Fall’s 1963 renowned book about the French Indochina War, Street Without Joy.
Biggs goal is to understand how military processes become embedded and woven into multiple landscapes. The six chapters of the book are organized chronologically, starting with a history of the area through 1885, followed by chapters covering the end of World War II, the French War, the Viet Minh era, the American War, and concluding from 1973 to present day.
The crux of the book is the American involvement in Vietnam as Biggs seeks to use the environment as an archive to contextualize the war. He contends that landscapes, like people, preserve memories of the devastation that was reaped upon them long after the fact. Biggs returns to the titular “footprints” often, employing the term literally and metaphorically. He argues that while an environmental footprint can be measured and analyzed, a socio-cultural footprint is as important, but infinitely more difficult, to discern.
Biggs outlines the guerrilla activity in the region dating back to the 1400s and the Tay Son Rebellion, a devastating late 18th century civil war that included for the first time a legion of French advisers. The French invaded the region in 1883 and ruled until World War II. World Wars I and II and communist revolutions in Russia and China spurred a generation of Vietnamese nationalists, including Ho Chi Minh, who fought alongside the Allies in World War II.
New technologies, including airplanes, aerial photography, and radios, were used for social and ecological engineering. A leitmotif of the book is how the Vietnamese used technology to enhance their enviro-social networks—using radios to establish an underground community, for example—when the French (and later the Americans) believed that technology could overcome the terrain.
The American response to the historic spatial limitations of Vietnam was to ramp up bombing, and, when that was ineffective, to send in more troops and helicopters. The futile efforts of the Americans to mold the environment proved to be a bitter irony.
The spaces the U.S. military cleared allowed North Vietnamese Soviet-built tanks unfettered access to Saigon in 1975. The book ends on a hopeful note outlining attempts to regreen, redevelop, and reclaim landscapes long devastated by war.
The book can be periodically dense and assumes the reader has a degree of understanding of Southeast Asian history. But these are minor quibbles.
This is a pioneering study written with great enthusiasm.
Tim Rezac dedicates his spiritually based Vietnam War memoir, The Soul of a Warrior: Spiritual Reflections from the Battlefields of Vietnam (Christian Faith Publishing, 168 pp. $22.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle), to his wife Patty. The book, written from a Christian biblical perspective, aims to fortify the beliefs of fellow Christians and to enlist non-believers into their ranks.
Rezac was drafted into the Army in 1966 and served as a rifleman with the 25th Infantry Division in 1967-68. He took part in actions against the Viet Cong during many daylight search-and-destroy missions and nightly ambushes. He witnessed the deaths of many comrades. Rezac’s wartime experiences provided a foundation for preaching the benefits of believing in Jesus and the teachings of the Bible.
“I am extremely grateful for my year of combat in Vietnam,” he writes. “Some of the most prayerful, peaceful, worshipful moments of my life happened while sitting on a rice paddy dike in Vietnam.”
Each chapter of The Soul of a Warrior begins with a photograph. Then comes a war story related to the picture, after which Rezac reflects on Bible passages that relate to his war experiences. He ends each by suggesting practical applications for living a meaningful life.
Within twenty chapters, Rezac examines comradeship, fear, dreadful times, abiding peace, self-sacrifice, joy, grief, vengeance, gratitude, and more.
After the war, Rezac married Patty, his high school sweetheart who wrote to him daily when he was in Vietnam. They raised two children. Rezac worked as a layout designer for General Motors for twenty years. Answering God’s call, he attended Divinity School and served as a pastor for twenty-four years.
Tim Rezac’s experiences in war and peace provide lucid arguments for his aims and give credibility to his suggested paths through life—even if a reader does not accept Jesus. At the same time, Rezac makes every effort to enlist his readers in the Lord’s army.
Former Army Sgt. James Horne’s The A Shau Valley of Death (213 pp., paper), a truly cathartic book, is a tribute to his fellow 101st Airborne Division’s Sky Soldiers. Horne writes briefly about his Army stateside training, including NCO Shake and Bake school at Fort Benning, then dives into the story of his deployment into the A Shau Valley as a squad leader with B Company of the 101’s 2nd/506th in Vietnam in 1968-69.
He introduces us to the members of his squad and company, and notes their comings and goings from the unit as the daily grind of patrols and ambushes takes its inevitable toll on men and equipment. In constructing this book Horne operated mainly from memory, although he researched his unit’s daily and after-action-reports, which are available on line.
Victor Hugo, deep within Les Miserables, has a chapter titled, “Cemeteries Take What is Given Them.” All too often, self-published books can be similarly referred to. James Horne’s book—and his story—would have benefited hugely from some editing and proofing. What’s more, the book’s changing font sizes and photo placements serve to confuse and jar the reader, distracting from the story line. And the references to information that can be found on web, which come within lines of text, further tend to fragment his book.
I say this only to point to the fact that Jim Horne’s tribute could have been much greater and grander if he’d had some literary help and guidance.
Still, this is a good memoir full of love, respect, and tenderness for long-ago former comrades.
J. Keith Saliba’s Death in the Highlands: The Siege of Special Forces Camp Plei Me (Stackpole, 280 pp. $29.95, hardcover; $15.39, Kindle) is a well-written book does not begin with the title’s October 1965 siege by North Vietnamese Army on a remote U.S. Special Forces camp. Rather, Saliba starts with the siege’s back story, which more fully explains the event from a wider perspective of all the participants and at all levels of strategic thinking.
Saliba, a journalism professor at Jacksonville University who has specialized in writing about the Vietnam War for two decades, starts with these questions: Why this battle when Plei Me was so far away from much more important South Vietnamese population centers? Why was a Special Forces camp even built at Plei Me? What was Hanoi’s greater goal beyond eliminating a small, remote camp?
To answer these questions Saliba steps back to give the long view of the war and the strategic goals of the North Vietnamese. Paralleling this, he examines the Cold War policies of the Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson presidencies and how they led to deploying American Special Forces troops early in the Vietnam War.
U.S. Special Forces arrived in Southeast Asia in 1961, and once there, Saliba explains why they developed the CIDG (Civil Irregular Defense Group) concept using fighters from local indigenous tribes. Ultimately, these camps become a thorn in the side of the enemy. Their presence thwarted the North’s goal of cutting South Vietnam in half.
Consequently, the North Vietnamese decided that the camps had to be eliminated. They also believed assaulting these remote camps would enable the NVA to draw American and South Vietnamese troops into a meat grinder and strip away the forces needed to defend far-more-important urban centers.
After laying out the background, Saliba describes the operational and tactical levels of the North Vietnamese 1965 Monsoon Offensive in the Central Highlands and their Tay Nguyen (Western Plateau) Campaign. The core of the book is Saliba’s detailed account of the attackers and how Americans and CIDG fighters at Plei Me defended the camp.
We learn that the NVA commanders and their units arrived at Plei Me after a long and difficult march south, and how they planned to annihilate the camp. I came away impressed with the enemy’s detailed planning, including using sand-box models of targeted sites and rehearsal exercises. Paralleling that, the book identifies the Special Forces team members and aviators who showed incredible leadership, courage, and determination defending the camp.
Several people who became famous after the Vietnam War appear in the book. Norman Schwarzkopf, an adviser to South Vietnamese airborne units in 1965, would become the commanding general of American forces in the Persian Gulf War. Two months prior to the Plei Me Siege, Schwarzkopf had been involved in the defense of a CIDG camp at Duc Co against an equally ferocious attack.
Charlie Beckwith, who later led a Delta Force unit and was ground commander of the failed attempt to rescue hostages in Iran, was directly involved in Plei Me’s fight for survival. Beckwith was, according to Saliba, a flawed and thin-skinned leader who was greatly impressed with himself.
The portrayal of the actual battle is rich in detail and never tedious. Saliba captures all the action. He describes sustained close air support missions coordinated by low-flying forward air controllers with flare ships overhead to light up the enemy positions, along with heroic work by the medevac and resupply crews who flew through intense ground fire.
On the ground, Beckwith arrived as the leader of a small relief force to augment the camp team and take command. A much-delayed South Vietnamese relief column reached the camp just as the mauled NVA regiments withdrew and the siege ended.
The book closes with the 1st Cavalry Division, newly arrived in Vietnam, pursuing the remnants of the NVA units. This is at the beginning of escalation of the American war in Vietnam, and anticipates the Cav’s famed Battle of the Ia Drang Valley, which took place less than a month later.
Death in the Highlands is great book—not just because of the depictions of heroism on all sides, but because it also shows what the war was like before half a million U.S. troops arrived and changed the nature of the Vietnam War.
Kudos to J. Keith Saliba for writing an easy-to-read and informative book.
The Eagle On My Arm: How the Wilderness and Birds of Prey Saved a Veteran’s Life (University Press of Kentucky, 218 pp. $26.95, hardcover and e book) by Dava Guerin and the late Terry Bivens is the story of the life of Patrick Bradley. And what a story it is.
Bradley, who is in his early 70s, is one of the founders of the Avian Veteran Alliance, a program that uses birds of prey as a form of therapy for military veterans and others coping with chronic physical and emotional trauma. This type of animal-assisted therapy often uses large birds that have been seriously injured, making them wounded warriors as well.
Bradley served in the Vietnam War as a Green Beret in a team whose main job was to infiltrate enemy lines for information-gathering purposes. The authors describe how his team experienced high casualty rates on its dangerous forays into North Vietnam. “Out of his original team of sixteen, only three would survive, and two of them would commit suicide within a few years.”
Bradley returned from Vietnam as an explosively angry young man. Several incidents nearly landed him in the stockade at Fort Leavenworth. His first post-military job involved counting bald eagles in the Canadian wilderness. For three years he worked alone, using his Army survival training and experience in Vietnam as he lived off the land. Only a few weeks after he started observing the eagles Patrick Bradley found his anger issues had dissipated.
He moved on, and spent a few years working odd jobs at wildlife centers and preserves, where he found himself drawn to hawks. Bradley noted that working with a wounded bird seemed to calm both him and the animal. His personal life didn’t improve, though, as he continued to experience occasional violent, PTSD-fueled outbursts. Each failed relationship would cause him to get closer to his birds as he tried to fight the demons he continued to face.
As Bradley eventually felt a sense of healing from his relationships with several large birds, he began working with a VA hospital and became one of the founders of the Avian Veteran Alliance in Florida. That program has helped helping thousands of veterans with PTSD and others who have been through major illnesses.
The authors wrap up their book with the following words: “To live one’s life on one’s own terms, to touch others through passion and perseverance, to be fearless of rejection and hopeful that our better angels will prevail: that is the story of Patrick Bradley’s life.”
It was great to read a story about a man who was filled with anger and fear upon his return from the war in Vietnam, but learned to harness his emotions and go on to help thousands come to terms with the darkest times in their lives.
Bison Books at the University Nebraska Press’ American Indian Lives series contains autobiographies, biographies, and memoirs of Native Americans selected for their anthropological and historical interest and literary merit. The latest addition to this treasure trove is Too Strong to Be Broken: The Life of Edward J. Driving Hawk by Edward J. Driving Hawk and Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve (Bison Books/University of Nebraska Press, 200 pp. $27.95, hardcover and Kindle).
The authors—brother and sister—wrote the book five years ago when Edward Driving Hawk reached the age of 80. They tell the story of his life in three psychologically and physically demanding sections.
A Lakota Indiana born in South Dakota in 1935, two years after his sister’s birth, Edward Driving Hawk lived an outdoor boyhood with plenty of hunting, fishing, and trapping. Accepting Great Depression hardships and periodic segregation from white people, Edward fondly remembers close relationships with his parents and grandparents who taught him tribal traditions that guided his behavior. He primarily attended federal government schools until the age of seventeen, then enlisted in the Air Force.
Twenty years of military service filled the middle of his life. Trained as a Forward Observer, he saw action in both the Korean and Vietnam Wars. He loved guiding B29s and fighter-bombers from a front-line position against masses of North Korean troops—until they shot him through the leg.
Edward returned to the United States in 1955 and married Carmen Boyd, his high school sweetheart. They raised four sons and a daughter.
During the Cold War, he worked Distant Early Warning (DEW) lines at NORAD operations from Alaska to Ontario, Canada. He attained flying status and engaged in low-level EC-121 missions over Cuba during the 1962 missile crisis, and special flights over Panama, Hawaii, and Alaska.
His account of the 156 missions he flew in EC-121 surveillance aircraft during three six-month tours in Vietnam provided new information for me and made exceptionally interesting reading.
In referencing those years, Edward repeatedly says, “I drank but was still able to do my job.” Yet he also writes of “uncountable blackouts.”
He was not a special case. According to my recollections of the USAF in the fifties and sixties, drinking was the favorite pastime among military personnel. Too many simply did not know what else to do during off-duty hours, and officer, NCO, and airman clubs became second homes. After 14 years of alcoholism—and under the threat of being discharged from the Air Force— Edward Driving Hawk joined Alcoholics Anonymous. He’s been sober for more than 40 years.
Events of his post-military life back in South Dakota comprise the most dynamic section of his memoir. He attained the rank of Chief in the Roseland Sioux tribe and then chairman of the National Congress of American Indians—a united voice for all the tribes of the United States. He befriended senators; presidents befriended him.
He details his vigorous work on behalf of Indian causes, although too often with limited success. He ran afoul of the FBI, was undercut by his associates, and wound up serving eight months in federal prison. At the same time, Edward endured bouts of Post-traumatic stress disorder and developed cancer as a result of exposure to Agent Orange. After many operations, today he must use a wheelchair.
The value of this book is that it offers a broad view of American society from a member of a small minority. Edward and Virginia recount the good and bad aspects of an unusual life and he takes responsibility for his actions, including those that he most regrets. A dozen photographs and a Driving Hawk family tree enhance his narrative.
Eileen A. Bjorkman’s Unforgotten in the Gulf: A Story of the U.S. Military’s Commitment to Leave No One Behind (Potomac Books, 256 pp., $34.95) is a well-written, meticulously researched and annotated story of the history and development of air rescue and retrieval from World War I to the present day.
Bjorkman, a civilian flight test engineer and aviator, skillfully weaves the story of one rescue—of Navy aviator Willi Sharp from the Gulf of Tonkin after his F-8 Crusader was downed by enemy fire on November 18, 1965—throughout the book.
We don’t see 1st Lt. Sharp in the water until about three-fourths of the way through the book, yet his story provides the thread upon which Bjorkman builds the entire fabric of the book. Bjorkman writes about Sharp’s pilot training, first flights, and carrier deployments, and weaves in a well-developed picture of the history of air-rescue missions.
As worldwide U.S. military involvement waxed and waned over the 20th century, so did the need for airborne combat search and rescue (CSAR). The concept was developed during World War II, re-engaged during the Korean War, and honed during the Vietnam War. The introduction of helicopters into war theaters as a weapon and a rescue vehicle has defined current CSAR operations.
Throughout this book Bjorkman writes about gallows humor, the terror and elation involved in successful missions, and the sorrow of losing comrades. She notes that the vast majority of Vietnam War rescues involved aviators—and notes that the possibility of capture always lurked in the minds those who flew combat and rescue missions.
She speaks as well of the successes of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency and its continued operations repatriating the missing from all conflicts, even though the focus tends to be on pilots from the Vietnam War.
Bjorkman devotes a well-reasoned chapter to PTSD, even among aviators who seldom saw the devastation their efforts caused. Her interviews with Sharp and his fellow fliers are telling in the simplicity of their messages. All of them spoke volumes within their short answers.
This is a well-written and edited book that I strongly recommend.