Books in Review II

Featured

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

Cherubs 2 by Marc Liebman

41zb7ux-rnl-_sx331_bo1204203200_

Marc Liebman was commissioned as an ensign in the U. S. Navy in 1968.  He entered the Naval Aviation Training Command and put in a twenty-four year Navy career, retiring as a captain.  He’s a Vietnam War veteran and also served in the first Persian Gulf War. He’s the author of several military thrillers, of which Cherubs 2 (Fireship Press, 464 pp., $19.99, paper, $9.99, Kindle) is the more recent.

For non-Navy veterans (like me), “Cherubs” refers to altitude increments of 100 feet. Cherubs 2 means that the aircraft is at 200 feet. “During a combat rescue, there are four main elements: the survivor, the helicopter or helicopters tasked to pick up the survivor, the airplanes flying close air support, and the individual coordinating the rescue effort,” Liebman explains.

He brings alive the above schematic for helicopter rescues of downed flyers. Such rescues provide much opportunity for character conflict and dynamic scenes of conflict. You need one good guy who stands above the others, and you also need a bad guy, or at least a flawed character who will be in conflict with the hero.

Our hero is easy to spot as this book is among a series named after him. Josh Haman is the guy.  The fellow he is most often in conflict with is Lt. Steve Higgins, Naval Acadamy graduate, class of ’66, “and don’t you forget it.”  Lt. Jr. Grade Josh Haman, on the other hand, is a ROTC product. Higgins has everything going for him, but he is fatally flawed. He is risk averse.

Being risk averse in a combat situation, especially when an important part of your job is to go into harm’s way to rescue downed flyers, is a recipe for being labeled a coward. The novel’s plot boils down to striking a balance between labeled insanely reckless or being so cautious as to be thought of as yellow to the bone.

There is a lot more to this novel than that. Josh Haman is Jewish, which leaves him open to name calling from Higgins, including “Jew bastard,” and “Kike bastard.” Being an officer in the military during an unpopular war leaves them both open to being egged and spat upon. We also encounter REMFs, the body count, almost overwhelming military gobbledygook, and complaints about trying to fight a war “with our hands tied behind our backs.”

“Indian Country” is the place that downed flyers are retrieved from. It also is the place where real-life flyer Dieter Dengler spent most of a month evading capture by the enemy.

I found this novel engrossing, and eagerly await the next one in this series. The series is literate and witty and historical enough to teach me stuff I’m interested in, but without ever being boring. I highly recommend it.

The author’s website is MarcLiebman.com

—David Willson

On the Frontlines of the Television War by Yasutsune Hirashiki

51itdvdypdl-_sx332_bo1204203200_

In On the Frontlines of the Television War: A Legendary War Cameraman in Vietnam (Casemate, 304 pp., $32.95; $9.99, Kindle), Yasutsune “Tony” Hirashiki describes his experience in the Vietnam War from 1966 to the communist takeover in 1975 working behind the camera for ABC News. The eyewitness accounts of the many phases of the war in this memoir bring events to life as if they had happened yesterday.

In his quest “to become as good as [the famed photojournalist] Robert Capa,” Hirashiki chose to cover the most dangerous assignments in the war. “Many of us dreamed that war reporting would find us fame and recognition within our profession,” he says. For Hirashiki, the dream materialized in the form of a forty-year career with ABC News.

The uncertainty of survival loomed as the primary obstacle to fulfilling that wish. “In many ways, we all felt that we were pushing our luck every time we tried to cover a story,” Hirashiki says. He talks about correspondents who died or disappeared in the war, particularly freelancers.

Hirashiki worked with many famous correspondents. The list includes Sam Donaldson, Peter Jennings, Ted Koppel (who wrote the book’s Introduction), and Drew Pearson. Without a school for combat photography, Hirashiki mastered his skills on the job. Reporters normally operated as a three-man team—photographer, sound man, and correspondent. Hirashiki tells dramatic stories that involve a long list of teammates. He frequently cites these men as teachers and heroes who taught him the finer points of journalism.

His stories are interesting because Hirashiki complements his views with observations by other people who were involved in each incident. Often, this comes from post-war letters that deepen the significance of an event. The acute details of his recollections of a battle in Happy Valley and the chaos leading to the war’s end—which open and close the book—provide highly informative and enjoyable reading.

Following the 1973 ceasefire in Vietnam, Hirashiki temporarily moved to Phnom Penh. He describes the Khmer Rouge assault on that city’s civilians as “scenes from hell.” This gave me the impression that this action was more horrendous than what Hirashiki had seen in Vietnam.

unnamed

Tony Hirashiki filming ABC News correspondent Don North during Operation Junction City in 1967

The book’s importance lies in its neutrality. Many people have criticized Vietnam War correspondents, especially television reporters, for promoting antiwar sentiments. On the Frontlines of the Television War, which was edited by Terry Irving, contradicts that opinion by telling the story of a closely knit group of professionals who strove to report what they saw as accurately as possible.

In other words, any distortion in television reporting did not originate in the field.

—Henry Zeybel

 

Norwegian by Night by Derek B. Miller

14392921-_sy540_

Derek B. Miller’s Norwegian by Night (Mariner Books, 304 pp., $14.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle) is a novel that features Sheldon Horowitz, an 82-year-old Jewish Korean War veteran. His Jewish identity is important to the book and to the plot. Horowitz uses his ancient military skills to pursue a vicious killer after the guy murders a small boy’s mother by strangling her.

The novel takes place in Oslo and its environs. Best-selling American novelist Miller lives in Norway with his family, so the picture he draws of Oslo is totally believable. Horowitz’s wife has died, and his children wrongly think he is slipping mentally, which is why he was brought to live with them in Oslo.

His main demon is that his son, Saul, died in the Vietnam War, and Horowitz blames himself as he encouraged his son to join the military. He was a much-decorated sniper, a hero of the Korean War.

The son spent an R&R with his wife where they conceived Horowitz’s granddaughter Rhea. The next day he went back to Vietnam, “where two months after he landed, a Vietcong booby trap blew off his legs while he was looking for a downed pilot on a routine search-and-rescue. Saul bled to death on the boat before reaching the hospital.”

This beautiful book uses some magical realism to bring alive the wars of father and his son, but does not go overboard with it. Even though Horowitz’s relatives suspect he is slipping mentally,  the author makes it clear that he is not. He does battle with Serbian bad guys and is able to hold his own. He is physically weak, although mentally still strong. The little boy, Paul, whom he protects from further evil, is well characterized.

Sheldon Horowitz’s secret is that he told his family he was an Army clerk who sat out the Korean War at a desk. So when he confesses he was a sniper, they take that that as further evidence of senility.

derek_miller1

Derek Miller

Although this is a literary novel, Miller still manages to mention Jane Fonda and war demonstrators spitting on Vietnam vets and calling them baby killers. He refers to a hippie planting “a wet one on Jane Fonda’s misguided ass.” I hadn’t heard that one before.

This book is one of the best novels I’ve read during the many years I’ve been reviewing Vietnam War fiction for The VVA Veteran. It may be the best one. It’s certainly the only Norwegian Vietnam War novel I’ve read, and was originally published in Norwegian. Imagine that.

I highly recommend Norwegian by Night. Read it. You won’t be disappointed.

—David Willson

Arlington by James Gindlesperger

James Gindlespperger’s Arlington: A Color Guide to America’s Most Famous Cemetery (John F. Bair, 242 pp., $24.95, paper) is a handsomely produced book built around gravestone photos and information on 250 veterans buried in Arlington National Cemetery. The book includes info on otherwise unsung veterans–as well as many who achieved renown for their military or civilian exploits.

The latter group includes Joe Louis, Francis Gary Powers of U-2 fame, Audie Murphy, Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, the actor Lee Marvin, and Ira Hayes, the Marine who is immortalized on the Iwo Jima statue.

The relatively few Vietnam veterans include Medal of Honor recipients Michael Novosel and John Levitow, former POW James “Nick” Rowe, and Dieter Dengler.

The book also contains a brief history of the cemetery and imaps and navigating instructions, including grave sites’ GPS coordinates.

—Marc Leepson

MIA: A Hero’s Return by Frank Charles Pisani

51qpt9rjpil-_sx311_bo1204203200_

In Frank Charles Pisani’s novel MIA: A Hero’s Return (CreateSpace, 308 pp., $11.99, paper; $3.99, Kindle) Army Sgt. Harry Archer has been kept prisoner by the North Vietnamese for more than forty years because he and a few hundred other Americans were considered being of worth as captives. The POWs live quiet lives in Vietnamese villages, using their farming or engineering skills to help the victorious North Vietnamese.

They are given wives and huts to live in and jobs to do. Archer plans to escape when he gets the chance. Finally it comes and he makes his move. It’s up to the reader to suspend disbelief as much of the story is not very believable. If you read it rapidly, on the other hand, it does roughly hang together.

Among other things, Pisani has the captives cling to their aversion to fish and the smell of fish longer than seemed likely, but that is what they do. There also is complaining among the men about not having received the recognition they deserve; Jane Fonda is cursed; and the North Vietnamese are shown murdering a baby, a turnaround of the “baby killer” myth that American Vietnam veterans were made to suffer for.

There is a section about “The Wall in Washington” and ranting about long-haired commie symps being traitors and running to Canada to avoid the draft.

Harry Archer escapes to America and seeks retribution from those who run the country for all the harm that was done to him. I won’t relate what that looks like, but it isn’t very satisfying.

Pisani does tell an engrossing story and his characters are interesting and believable—to a point. If you are hungry for yet another Vietnam War POW novel, but one that is a little bit different, try this one. It held my interest.

I was disappointed that no mention was made of John Wayne, but you can’t have everything.

—David Willson

The Vietnam War: The Definitive Illustrated History

The Vietnam War: The Definitive Illustrated History (DK, 360 pp., $40) is a coffee-table book that probably is not “the definitive” history of the war in words and pictures–but it comes close. Long on photos and other images (more than 500) and relatively short on words, the book (written by a group of historians in association with the Smithsonian Institution) concisely covers just about every political and military event associated with the Vietnam conflict from the French War in the 1950s to Indochina in the 21st century.

In between, chronologically presented, concisely written, profusely illustrated chapters zero in virtually every conceivable component of the war. Most of the short chapters deal with military and political history. But there also are images of war hardware (infantry weapons, artillery, aircraft, and armored vehicles), along with diagrams and maps.

Near the end there’s a two-page chapter, “American Homecoming,” that looks at Vietnam veterans’ homecoming. As is the case with the book’s other chapters, this one is concise and accurate. It includes a picture of a Vietnam veteran in a wheelchair panhandling, an image of the Purple Heart, an iconic shot of the big crowd at The Wall in Washington when it was dedicated in 1992, and a picture of a Desert Storm victory parade.

And this closing sentence:

“Vietnam veterans today stand alongside those who have served in the various theaters of the war on terrorism as worthy heroes—however shocking the new mantra of “Thank you for your service” may be to Vietnam veterans who experienced a totally different reception when they came home.”

The book’s inside covers are made up of collages of more than a hundred photos of photos submitted by Vietnam veterans.

—Marc Leepson

The American War in Vietnam by John Marciano

51wvhv8jc3l-_sx331_bo1204203200_

During a soliloquy in Julius Caesar, Brutus says, “The abuse of greatness is when it disjoins remorse from power.” His words clearly apply to John Marciano’s book, The American War in Vietnam: Crime or Commemoration? (Monthly Review Press, 196 pp., $56.62, hardcover; $14.61, paper; $9.99, Kindle). Whereas Brutus speaks of Caesar’s use of power, Marciano addresses the misuse of the Noble Cause principle espoused by the United States in the Vietnam War.

Marciano, a Professor Emeritus at the State University of New York at Cortland, relates this principle to America’s employing military power in general—and in particular to what he calls the “staggering human and ecological losses” resulting from ignoring remorse relative to the Vietnam War.

Marciano starts by discussing how the United States has applied military power going back to the European settlement in America. He finds a close connection between Colonial “Indian hating” based on “white hostility” to exterminate “savages” and massacres committed “in Vietnam’s ‘Indian country.'” He cites what, in essence, is ethnic cleansing based on Noble Cause as the justification for U.S. foreign policy due to our “powerful and fundamental belief” that we are “the ‘exceptional’ nation chosen to lead the world.”

According to Marciano, the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War was based on trickery and lies. He cites political and military machinations that stretch from a French naval squadron’s attack on DaNang in 1850 through the end of the American War. He vilifies Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon.

Marciano does an excellent job clarifying the past by citing sources that contradict “powerful government officials, the corporate mass media, influential intellectuals, and the educational system,” which, he says, are “long on passionate belief and empty of evidence.”

The most interesting part of Marciano’s argument is the final chapter in which he seeks to “examine and expand upon issues raised in the book.” He first offers conclusions based on his re-examining of imperialism, war crimes, protests, and thirteen other controversial issues that people have debated for more than half a century.

He next establishes criteria for analyzing facts presented in textbooks written between 2001 and 2011. He then offers “qualitative thoughts” on textbooks’ topics such as My Lai, Vietnamese death tolls, chemical warfare, and the POW/MIA issue that prolonged America’s war against Vietnam long after the fighting stopped.

The American War in Vietnam should serve as the syllabus for classroom teaching of the war, Marciano says. In reality, the book is a revision of Teaching the Vietnam War, which he co-wrote in 1979 with William Griffin (who died in 2007).

Marciano’s subtitle, “Crime or Commemoration?” might offend American Vietnam War veterans. “Can a war be honorable if it was a violation of international law, a criminal act of aggression?” He asks, “If so, can the warrior be separated from the war, and act with honor in a criminal cause?”

His point is: “Did we even care?” Marciano contends that our engagement in Vietnam caused massive devastation for which we have displayed no remorse. Plus, ignoring remorse toward our victims and the environment in Vietnam continues today. We must question ourselves, he says, as to whether our Noble Cause principle and our abuse of greatness are justifiable in ongoing military operations.

john-marcianoportrait

John Marciano

Recently I have read several books that deliver messages similar to Marciano’s. In Aid Under Fire, Jessica Elkind describes America as “a rich man with a head full of racial prejudice” fighting a war “doomed from the start.” In Losing Binh Dinh, Kevin M. Boylan strives to determine if the Vietnam War ended in victory or defeat. And in the memoir, Vietnam Doc, William Clayton Petty, M.D., spells out the daily task of saving lives of troops who did not see a need to be in Vietnam.

I can only conclude that the big problem appears to be how to get powerful people to read, comprehend, and apply lessons taught by The American War in Vietnam and similar books.

—Henry Zeybel