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

The Dead Were Mine by Charles W. Honaker

Bill Honaker begins his Vietnam War memoir by telling us what he is not going to tell: “I have deliberately left out some of the events I experienced,” he says, “in part because I could not capture in words what I saw in my mind’s eye and translate into an acceptable fashion, and partly because some things were just too gruesome to try to explain.” Regardless of the self-censoring, the information Honaker  imparts in The Dead Were Mine (CreateSpace, 138 pp., $10.00, paper) fascinated me.

Honaker served two Nam tours as a Graves Registration (GRREG) Specialist: 1966-67 in the 9th Infantry Division operations area, and 1969-70 with the 243rd Field Service Company at Pleiku and Qui Nhon. He spent time in the field, leading Search and Recovery missions. During Operation Compassion Honaker humped the Central Highlands while looking for men lost going back as far as four years.

His duties entailed finding, cleaning, and identifying bodies; trying to determine cause of death; and escorting remains of those killed in action or who died otherwise in Vietnam. What Honaker describes of the destructive aftermath of combat is limited, but it also is new and grisly.

In a strangely dispassionate manner, Honaker and his coworkers’ emotions transcended the horror of their tasks. The dedication of these men who accepted such depressing duty reflected the depth of respect they felt toward those who gave their lives for our nation.

Graves Registration personnel preparing transfer cases in Vietnam for shipment home.

Honaker precisely explains the hopelessness he overcame to fulfill his responsibilities in-country where tasks were far grimmer than those he had mastered in GRREG school. He dedicated himself to “ensuring that fallen soldiers would be returned home, and [he] would be doing immeasurable good for the Next-of-Kin.” Photographs from slides he shot supplement his story.

Having enlisted in the Army in 1962, Honaker retired in 1983 as a Master Sergeant. He spent his entire career in GRREG, which now is called Memorial Activities.

Honaker tells plenty, but not everything, about collecting and processing human remains. For that consideration, some readers might thank him.

Others might wish that he had provided every gory detail from his experiences. But Honaker did not write the book as a catharsis for PTSD or other post-war emotional problems. Instead, he aimed to give credence to men and women who served in an honorable, arduous, and consuming role. What he reveals adequately proves his point.

—Henry Zeybel

A Never-Ending Battle by Howard B. Patrick

Howard B. Patrick’s A Never-Ending Battle: How Vietnam Changed Me Forever (CreateSpace, 208 pp., $10.99, paper) is a classic account of how combat in the Vietnam War resulted in many years of post-traumatic stress disorder that adversely affected his life.This book is a basic primer for anyone unfamiliar with what the combat experience was like for veterans who served in the Vietnam War.  But more importantly, Patrick published his book to help other veterans suffering from PTSD, as well as to provide their families with information, advice, and support.

Howard Patrick was a highly trained IBM computer technician when he received his draft notice in 1967. Of course, the Army ignored those skills and sent him to NCO school. Then came orders to Vietnam, where Patrick was placed in a 1st Cav Division infantry unit—Echo Recon of the 1st of the 5th—as a “new boot” squad leader.

Sgt. Patrick soon was thrust into several heavy combat, which he describes in great detail. After six months with Echo Recon, his platoon walked into an NVA ambush and half of the men were casualties, including the platoon sergeant and platoon leader. Patrick was then named platoon sergeant.

When a shiny new West Point graduate captain ordered Patrick to resume the attack with the remaining exhausted soldiers, he refused. Two weeks later, Patrick was transferred to the 2d Brigade Civil Affairs unit in An Loc. His new duties included Psyops air missions, leaflet distribution, and live audio broadcasts from the air to try to repatriate Viet Cong. Other duties included Medcaps and humanitarian and recreational activities.

Howard Patrick left the Army after serving in Vietnam and returned to his old position at IBM. But he had changed, and over the years his behavior became increasingly dysfunctional.

Howard Patrick in Vietnam

His PTSD began with repressed memories of the war surfacing in nightmares of a helicopter crash he’d survived. Then the flashbacks started. Road rage and panic attacks came next. Patrick’s work efficiency decreased and he began job hopping, eventually filing for bankruptcy. He suffered constant feelings of anxiety and hopelessness, culminating in an unsuccessful suicide attempt, which he hoped would provide a $100,000 insurance benefit to his wife who had stuck with him through it all.

Patrick’s road to recovery from PTSD started when another 1st Cav veteran urged him to get help at a Vet Center. From there, the author progressed to involvement in VA treatment over several years. Patrick lists the complete list of PTSD symptoms—he had most of them. He eventually received 100 percent service-connected disability for PTSD.

This book should be required reading for war veterans wondering if their dysfunctional, erratic behaviors might be due to PTSD. What’s more, every mental health professional who has ever treated (or could ever have) a veteran as a client, also should read this book.

The author’s website is http://howardpatrick.weebly.com

—James P. Coan

The Centurions by Jean Larteguy

11111111111111111111111111111111111111Jean Larteguy (the pen name of Jean Pierre Lucien Osty, 1920-2011) spent time in prison in Spain in 1942, the year I was born. He then joined the Free French Forces and served seven years in North Africa and Korea. In 1955, he received the Albert Landres Prize for his Indochina reporting. He is best known for his Algerian War Trilogy.

The introduction by Robert D. Kaplan to Larteguy’s 1960 novel, The Centurions (Penguin Classics, 544 pp., $18, paper), is superb. The translation by Xan Fielding, the author of several fine war books of his own, is pitch perfect.

Larteguy’s book is a masterpiece on how to fight a war of counterinsurgency. I first encountered that word in a movie I saw at Fort Benjamin Harrison during my training to become an Army stenographer, which I then practiced for more than thirteen months in South Vietnam. Fort Ben had an excellent library that included many on Southeast Asian warfare.

Jean Larteguy

One of those books was this one. I read it and then spent a couple of months wondering why the United States was involved in a ground war in Southeast Asia. President Eisenhower had warned against entering into such a war, and Larteguy makes it clear in this book that guerrilla tactics must be used against an enemy that fights without rules, “tactics out of step with the ideals of just war.”

There are powerful, well-drawn characters in this classic novel. We first meet them in an Indochina prison camp in 1954, immediately after the fall of Dien Bien Phu. Larteguy makes all of his characters come alive on the page, including the Indochinese. We see them, warts and all, and we feel for them.

I reread this book again when I was stationed at USARV headquarters in the Inspector General Section. I loved hanging out in the air-conditioned library in the compound. I read all of the books they had on the wars in Indochina. There was no indication that any one else had read these books. They seemed brand new and unopened.

Reading The Centurions in South Vietnam was a different experience than reading it in Indiana. It really hit home that if our Army leaders—for instance, Gen. William Westmoreland—had read this novel, perhaps the war would be winnable. Or at least we’d be doing better. As the casualty reports and the downed aircraft reports cycled across my desk each day, I realized that we were not pursuing this war in a way that Larteguy would approve.

About a third of the way through this book, the author tells us that the Vietnamese never ceased working to defeat the enemy. “Meanwhile,” he writes, “we were idling away in the brothels and opium dens.”  I witnessed that during the American war, too.

Larteguy called the Vietnamese way of war “termite methods,” noting that they “never fail to learn from their mistakes.” The French—and the Americans—kept making the same mistakes over and over.

It’s became an all but accepted truth—especially in books written by American Vietnam War veterans—that the U.S. “never lost a battle” in that war. But, as Larteguy tells us, “In the strategy of modern warfare, military tactics are a matter of secondary importance, politics will always take precedence.”

I highly recommend this great novel to those interested in reading about combat and the aftermath of losing a war of counterinsurgency. None better has been written.

—David Willson

Wilderness of Tigers by W. Bruce Arnold and Robert Bruce Arnold

U.S. Air Force Col. W. Bruce Arnold created Wilderness of Tigers:A Novel of Saigon (Chandelle of Sonoma, 524 pp., $17.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle) after serving in Vietnam in 1967-68 as the Chief of DARPA’s Research and Development Field Unit based in Saigon. Col. Arnold—the son of the famed U.S. Air Force Gen. Hap Arnold—was a 1943 West Point graduate who served in World War II, Korea, and in the Vietnam War. He died in 1992. His son, Robert Bruce Arnold, took on the project of publishing this novel after his father’s death.

“Warning: This book is not for sensitive readers,” the authors note. “It contains rough language, explicit sex, strong violence, and the attitudes of a time, before political correctness.” The novel’s title comes from Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, said by some to be The Bard’s most violent play.

The warning is not a false one. One of the most politically incorrect things about the book is the way ARVN troops are portrayed. They are referred to as “well-disciplined” and “hard-fighting.”  Most Vietnam War books I have read cannot say enough bad things about the ARVN troops. But not this one—a refreshing difference.

As for the sex and violence, there is plenty. I was stationed near Saigon for most of my time in-country and witnessed little violence and less sex, but I didn’t get around much.  Also, I went home before the Tet Offensive. This novel expends the first two thirds of its considerable bulk leading up to Tet 1968; the rest of the book is up its gunnels in it.

Author W. Bruce Arnold (left) and his father, Gen. Hap Arnold, in 1945

There is a huge cast of characters, and by the end I could keep most of them straight. There is a welcome table in the front of the book that helped identify the characters in my mind. The primary ones in this book do not fare well.  Most die.

The women die in especially horrible ways, particularly those who have been shown in exacting detail during their sexual prolificacy. One dies in a manner that is similar to a Jack the Ripper treatment; another is napalmed.

There is a lot of lying and spying and skulduggery in this book. Most of it is believable. There is talk of winning the hearts and minds of the populace, lots of smoking of Salems, a mention of Andre Maurois’ The Silence of Colonel Bramble (a first for me as a reader), talk of the privilege of being there for “the birth of a democracy,” and a mention of Terry and the Pirates. One smart guy observes that Vietnam is “nothing but one big goddamn whorehouse.”

There also is some silly stuff, such as the assertion that it is the nature of Oriental women to eavesdrop and that golden breasts can quiver with fear. Mostly, though, the book is well-written, well-plotted, and moves right along.

We known that the Tet Offensive is coming, but when it arrives we are not disappointed. Not for the first time I mentally patted myself on the back for leaving Vietnam just ahead of the Tet Offensive. I am content to read about it, and this book is one of the best in showing how Tet tore Saigon apart.

For more info, go to the book’s website.

—David Willson

I Came Home, But It Wasn’t Me by Bruce Wm. Taneski

Bruce Wm. Taneski’s I Came Home, But It Wasn’t Me: The Memoirs of a Vietnam Combat Veteran as a Recon Scout ‘LRRP’ (CreateSpace, 338 pp., $19.95, paper; $5.99, Kindle) comes full circle when he sits on his pack and eats a can of C-Ration spaghetti and meatballs while looking down at one of the two NVA soldiers he had shot dead a few minutes earlier.

“Don’t mean nothing,” he thought. But deep down inside, he knew it did.

Eight months earlier, as an FNG literally stained from head to foot with blood and guts, he had stared in disbelief at a gunner who casually ate a can of peaches while his helicopter lifted off with the dismembered remains of men Taneski had helped put into body bags.

Writing this book was part of Taneski’s treatment for PTSD, initially diagnosed in 1982. Along with his forty-five-year-old memories, he used after-action reports, maps, and letters he wrote home as source material. His subtitle spells out his wartime duties.

An Army enlistee, VVA life member Bruce Taneski arrived in Vietnam less than two months after he turned eighteen. By then, he had completed Basic, Infantry AIT, and parachute training. He stood five-ten and weighed 110, about the size of his field pack. Eager and a quick study, the teenager talked his way into Recon with the 199th Light Infantry Brigade, 4/12. The unit operated out of FSB Nancy, near Long Binh.

Because his story is therapeutic, Taneski explains everything in detail, down to the nuts and bolts of his P-38 can opener. At times, he writes with the innocence of a young man seeing the world for the first time. He shares the teachings of his sergeants, which Taneski took to heart to succeed in Vietnam. He particularly admired Sgt. Soakley, who mentored him. Much of this true story describes “many of the mundane missions we went on,” which involved “just humping through the jungle fighting the red ants, leeches and mosquitoes.”

Bruce Taneski

Taneski’s year peaked with two major operations. The first was the 199th’s final six-day sweep before returning to Fort Benning. The operation captured thirty-three NVA, while destroying an enemy hospital, training camp, and five hamlets. The second was a 5th Infantry Division engagement against a new NVA base camp near the DMZ, where Taneski finished his last months in-country.

Bruce Taneski’s obsession with detail occasionally flags. For example, he does not mention years as such. I worked out that he served in Vietnam in 1970 only because he mentioned the Year of the Dog, and I looked it up.

Nevertheless, the book clearly tells who Bruce Taneski is and why, which is its purpose.

—Henry Zeybel

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Titanic’s Resurrected Secret–HEW by J. Robert DiFulgo

J. Robert Di Fulgo served in the United States Navy for three years during the Vietnam War. A retired teacher, he’s the author of The Invisible Moon, a Vietnam War novel. Titanic’s Resurrected Secret—HEW (iUniverse, 184 pp., $13.95, paper; $3.99, Kindle) is what DiFulgo calls a “Post-Titanic mystery novel.”

The hero is Alexander J. Dante, a historical and mystery novelist. Now retired, he decides to devote his time and energy to a solving a Titanic puzzle. The sinking of the Titanic left behind many puzzles, but the one that captures Dante (and takes him around the world) is the mystery of the identify of the crew member who is buried in grave number 223 at Fairview Lawn Cemetery in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

The story is told that this dead crew member stole a priceless object and got caught with it. So he forfeited his identity, and presumably his life. I recommend this book to those readers hungry for more literature dealing with the Titanic.

Some of the book, though, was hard going for me. When “lips curled enigmatically,” I found myself bogged down, wondering what enigmatically curled lips would look like. I failed to imagine them.

Those readers who enjoy a blending of history and fiction, and who respect meticulous research combined with literary license, should try this book.

The author’s website is http://jrobertdifulgo.com

—David Willson

Firefights of the Mind by Ed Kugler

No writing is more important to war veterans than books such as Firefights of the Mind: When the Demons of War Follow You Home (CreateSpace, 322 pp., $15, paper; $9.99 Kindle) by Ed Kugler. And here’s why.

I served in Vietnam in my thirties, well beyond the impressionable teen years. In various jobs, I helped haul the dead, wounded, and dispossessed; re-supplied grunts in hellholes; and set convoys of NVA trucks ablaze. All of it was part of the job, neither good nor bad. Having spent ten years rehearsing those roles, I hated when they ended in 1973.

Did I suffer from PTSD? Maybe. But in the 1980s, I wrote about my Vietnam and Laos experiences, and eventually the weird dreams subsided.

Now, I read autobiographies of groundpounders and helicopter crewmen who went to Vietnam straight out of high school and I occasionally weep for them: How did they endure nearly a half century of post-traumatic stress disorder?

Ed Kugler feels the same way. He spent two consecutive years in Vietnam as a Marine sniper and wrote about it in a book called Dead Center. Firefights of the Mind examines a later time in his life—1993, twenty-five years after Kugler returned from the war. It was an eye-opening year, but Kugler still needed an additional fifteen years before he accepted help for his PTSD.

His new book is part diary, part biography, and “a guide for everyone out there with a loved one who ‘came home’ from war,” Kugler tells us. “There is life after combat,” he writes, and he’s “living proof.” He aims his advice at veterans of the wars in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

Kugler offers guidance in how to cope with the aftermath of exposure to combat. He doesn’t exactly offer a “twelve-step program” for subduing one’s demons, but he does lay out a plan to ease the transition from a war zone to the peacetime world.

The core of the book recounts Kugler’s activities for practically every day of 1993, most of which triggered flashbacks to his time in Vietnam. He was a corporate executive with a beautiful family, yet life’s trivialities often stressed him to his limit. However, he recognized this weakness and the need to fight a constant battle to maintain his psychological balance. He knew that “it’s great to be alive” even while “holding [his] own with the black that’s still hovering close like a thunderstorm about to let loose.” Kugler vividly shows that he has walked the road that he points out for others.

Ed Kugler

This is Kugler’s eighth book. He has strong opinions, as reflected by his book, Obamunism: The Enemy Within. But as I read him, Kugler’s heart and intentions are pure. Furthermore, he and I agree that America’s approach to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is wrong and psychologically crushes people who deploy there.

We also agree on the best way to fight PTSD: Tell your story and expose your demons. Once you see them, then you can pick them off, exactly like a sniper.

The author’s website is http://www.edkugler.com

—Henry Zeybel