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 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:

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

Set the Night on Fire by Mike Davis and Jon Wiener

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Set the Night on Fire: L.A. in the Sixties (Verso, 800 pp. $34.95) is a history of the social and political struggles of the 1960s unlike most others. For one thing, Jane Fonda is mentioned only six times in 640 pages of text. What authors Mike Davis and Jon Wiener do, instead, is probe and dissect diverse communities in Los Angeles deeply below the surface of the usual panorama.

A special ideological perspective or historical interest is needed to read it. Even its vocabulary is different. Davis, an author and MacArthur Fellowship recipient, and Wiener, a history professor and longtime contributing editor to The Nation magazine, for example, write about “uprisings” against “grinding forces of oppression.”

Black revolts against racism and inequity are at the book’s core, but the authors also cover “reciprocal influences and interactions.”  Formal and informal alliances include the Vietnam War antiwar movement. There are competing or conflicting cultural outlooks, strategies, tactics, and agendas.

In 1965, Los Angeles’ police chief compared a Black uprising in Watts, one of the poorest sections of the city with 8,000 people and 20 percent unemployment, to the fighting in Vietnam. Thirty-four people died. More than 1,000 suffered major injuries. A National Guard report claimed that the Viet Cong were involved. (In fact, the “bungled” police arrest of a drunk driver on a hot summer’s night sparked the violence.)

In June 1967, President Lyndon Johnson arrived in L.A. for a $1,000-a-plate Democratic Party fundraising dinner at the Century City Plaza Hotel. A thousand police officers faced off outside against 10,000 protesters. Ensuing violence caused the Secret Service to prepare—if necessary–to evacuate the president by helicopter from the roof of the hotel. The organizers had a legal march permit, but some sat down and halted it in a show of civil disobedience.

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Antiwar protesters in front of the Century City Plaza Hotel

Century City was a turning point. White middle class participation in the protest convinced Johnson he was unlikely to win the 1968 presidential election. In March he announced he would not run after Sen. Eugene McCarthy’s strong showing in the Democratic primary in New Hampshire was followed by Sen. Robert Kennedy’s entry into the race.

McCarthy and Kennedy had similar plans to end the war, premised on negotiations, but the Left wanted an immediate American military withdrawal. By 1967, its leaders already had launched a third-party strategy, organizing the Peace and Freedom Party.

Their desired presidential candidate was Martin Luther King, Jr., who declined the honor. The Black Panthers and White radicals then went after comedian and Civil Rights activist Dick Gregory. Black nationalists wanted Eldridge Cleaver, a former convict and author who called for “a second front” on the West Coast to support the Viet Cong.

Cleaver was two years short of the U.S. Constitution’s minimum age requirement to run for president, but in August 1967, the PFP state convention in L.A. voted 161-54 to endorse him. On Labor Day the national convention nominated him.

In April 1968 Cleaver was involved in a shoot out with Oakland police, and charged with attempted murder. Protests by leading liberal writers and intellectuals led to his release on bail. Cleaver then “lost interest.” On Election Day, he endorsed a pig whom protesters at the Democratic National Cconvention in August had nominated as their candidate. Three weeks later he fled to Algeria.

Bitterly critical of Eldridge and the PFP division, Set the Night on Fire nonetheless heralds the registration drive to get the party on the ballot in California as “a triumph of historic proportions.” The PFP become the first left-wing party to win official recognition in 20 years.  The authors credit it as “the first evidence anywhere in the country of LBJ’s vulnerability to an electoral challenge.”

The book has eight sections and 36 chapters. Overlapping events make the chronology difficult to follow. Mexican Americans and Chicano Moratorium demonstrations are covered in the seventh section. Asian Americans and “other liberations” in the last. One of the most interesting chapters deals with draft resistance and the sanctuary movement.

Occasionally, police, prosecutors, or judges sympathized with draft resisters and deserters. One soldier from Fort Ord asked his girlfriend to marry him while taking refuge in a Quaker meeting house. Their wedding took place during a recess in his later court-martial for desertion. The Army prosecutor spoke at the ceremony. He wished the bride and groom happiness, and said he had “nothing personal” against him. The deserter received a dishonorable discharge, but no prison time.

Set the Night on Fire is a valuable doorstop reference book, but will never reach a popular audience. Which is perhaps unfortunate. Insights and lessons are buried in its many pages. Some would be useful to recall as resurgent waves of Black and White protest today seek to overcome fault lines in the American Dream.

–Bob Carolla

The Wars Among the Paines by John M. Millar

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The Wars Among the Paines (KoehlerBooks, 616 pp., $39.95, hardcover; $26.95, paper; $7.99, e book) is a work of historical fiction by John M. Millar, who served as a first lieutenant with the 1st Infantry Division in Vietnam in 1968-69. The novel looks at the effects that fifty-five years of war (1918-1973) had on the nation as seen through the eyes of one family, the Paines. They are proud citizen-soldiers who served when called to wars. They haven’t missed one, reporting for duty in World Wars I and II and the Korean and Vietnam Wars.

The main character, Treat Paine II, refers to his younger sister as “the martyr,” while his older brother is “the prick,” his mother “a drunk” and his father “a bastard.” For decades the family has famously owned several non-union munitions plants. Paine says his family seemed to have it all, yet ended up being dysfunctional, and he wonders how much the pressure of family members fighting in four wars contributed to that.

Within the first few pages we learn that Treat’s brother was killed in Vietnam in 1965 in the Ia Drang Valley and his sister was a leader in the antiwar movement who died by carrying a hunger-strike to its fatal conclusion. After that, his mother went into a catatonic state from which she never recovered. His father, a World War II veteran, would die from a heart attack.

A grandfather survived World War I and the 1918-19 flu pandemic. An uncle was killed in Korea. “We were a family that answered our country’s call every time,” Paine says, “right or wrong.” He tells the stories of his relatives by using journals each kept during their time in service.

After Treat Paine graduates from college in 1966 he volunteers for the Army because he wants to fight in the Vietnam War. Why? Not because of his brother’s death there but because, as he says, he “worshiped Hemingway.” His “purpose for going was complicated by my desire to be a famous writer. I knew that, if I did not go to Vietnam, I would not have the grist to create meaningful stories.”

He volunteers for Army Officer Candidate School and arrives in Vietnam in early 1968. He left the war after serving two tours, with a promise to himself that his writing would never glorify the things he witnessed there.

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John Millar

In preparing to write the historical parts of this novel Millar used an impressive amount of reference materials that are listed on three pages at the back of the book. For the ficttion parts we get a ton of details about Paine’s school years—all of them: subjects he studied, classes he took, his thoughts about his instructors, and final grades he made.

The fact that Millar makes those parts nearly as interesting as military combat shows what skills he has as a writer.

Considering a nation’s history by looking at the personal history of generations in one family is not a new idea. But John Millar has done it as well as anyone.

The book’s website is thewarsamongthepaines.com

–Bill McCloud

A Final Valiant Act by John B. Lang

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In A Final Valiant Act: The Story of Doug Dickey, Medal of Honor (Casemate, 296 pp. $23.92, hardcover; $17.99 Kindle) retired Marine Lt. Col. John B. Lang presents spellbinding accounts of the ferocity of fighting during Operations Deckhouse VI and Beacon Hill in early 1967 in Vietnam. His stories form the centerpiece of this biography of PFC Douglas Eugene Dickey, a Medal of Honor recipient who sacrificed his life by smothering the blast of a hand grenade with his body to save his fellow Marines.

In this deeply researched book Lang re-creates Dickey’s upbringing in Ohio, his military training and service in Asia, and the aftereffects of his sacrifice. Lang also includes Marine Corps history back to China and during World War II and the Korean War. The book’s 24 pages of photographs relate mostly to Dickey.

During the Vietnam War, fifty-eight Marines received the Medal of Honor, forty-four of them posthumously. Those medals went to young men who, like Doug Dickey, died saving their buddies, Lang says.

Lang graduated from U.S. Naval Academy with a BA in history and an MA in international relations, and served in the first Persian Gulf War and in Somalia, and Iraq during twenty-two years with the Marines. He considers Vietnam War veterans his leaders, mentors, and friends. 

The portrayal of Doug Dickey, the oldest of four sons, reveals more than the details of his daily life as Lang provides touches of cerebral insight from letters Dickey frequently wrote to his mother and other relatives during his Marine Corps service. Lang’s many interviews with men who trained and fought alongside Dickey further show the depth of his subject’s character.

After graduating from high school and expecting to be drafted, Doug Dickey and four friends enlisted in the Marine Corps for two years under the Buddy Plan. The physical demands of basic training challenged Dickey to his limits, but he persevered. He breezed through the follow-on Infantry Training Regiment course.

Men of the Dickey’s platoon in the Third Marine Division’s First Battalion, Fourth Regiment comprise the core of manpower cited in the book. With them, Dickey engaged in the Combined Action Program, search-and-destroy missions, and amphibious operations of Marine Special Landing Forces against Viet Cong units around Duc Pho and the North Vietnamese Army along the DMZ. Both sides suffered high casualty counts in every encounter.

To better explain the amphibious operations, Lang includes a series of maps that show the company’s actions virtually day by day. This technique clarifies the Battalion Landing Team maneuver of striking the flank of the North Vietnamese Army invading across the DMZ, the operation in which Dickey died.   

The last third of A Final Valiant Act examines the post-war lives of Second Platoon Marines by recounting their unwelcoming homecomings, their fortitude during prolonged and painful hospitalizations, post-traumatic stress issues, and suicides. The book also examines the emotional toll within Gold Star families.

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Members of Dickey’s platoon at the 2014 opening of his Medal of Honor exhibit at the Garst House, a local history museum  in Greenville, Ohio

In 1997 in honor of Dickey, Second Platoon members held their initial reunion, which became an annual affair. Lang first attended in 2006, and he retells stories of bitter combat and heartwarming friendships collected from attendees. The platoon made Lang an honorary member in 2009.    

A Final Valiant Act leaves the reader with a definitive image of Doug Dickey: A selfless young man who loved his family, respected other people, and felt great responsibility toward his country.

—Henry Zeybel

A Trucker’s Tale by Ed Miller

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Ed Miller’s A Trucker’s Tale: Wit Wisdom, and True Stories from 60 Years on the Road (Apollo Publishers, 186 pp., $22, hardcover; $9.99, Kindle) is a notably refreshing little book.  Over the years, I’ve spoken to any number of folks who have riding in a big rig on their bucket lists; Miller’s book is a wonderful opportunity to vicariously clear that item off your list.

Miller begins his 18-wheeler tales of adventure as a youngster on the family farm in rural North Carolina. Then he brings us along with a breezy, conversational, and at times delicately profane story that reads like an extended bar-stool homily.

Reared by a family of truckers, Miller recounts dozens of anecdotes from a group of folks right out of central casting: neighbors, parents, grandparents, siblings.

In the late 1960s, after a halfhearted college effort, Ed Miller tells us, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy and volunteered for the Seabees based in part on his familiarity with trucks and heavy equipment. He hoped the Navy would help to further his training and experience with trucks.

Miller soon found himself in the Vietnam War sitting in the driver’s seat of a semi-truck in Da Nang.  His chapter on boot camp and advanced training with his Seabee battalion alone is worth the price of admission. The antics he relates are well worth reading. His in-country stories are as fun as they can be in a war zone, and certainly are an interesting view of a side of the war that most of us are unfamiliar with.  

Returning from the service and moving through his work in  the trucking industry, Miller keeps us turning pages—if only to see if he can outdo himself describing yet another on-the-road incident.

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Ed Miller

Interestingly, laced through most of the stories is a subtle undercurrent of personal honesty, and a sense of honor and performing good deeds. Miller is a Knight of the Highway because of his helpfulness and can-do spirit. He briefly addresses the decline of that sense of duty and service today.

In this, his first book, Ed Miller has come up with a well-written and well-edited one. It moves along nicely; you can read it in just about one sitting.

If you’ve ever driven trucks, or wanted to, you’ll be nodding in agreement all the way through this one.

–Tom Werzyn

Fragments by Bruce K. Berger

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Fragments: The Long Coming Home from Vietnam (Wordworthy Press, 92 pp. $12.95, paper; $11, Kindle) is a poetry chapbook by Bruce K. Berger. Berger served with the 101st Airborne Division in Vietnam in 1970, writing sympathy letters to hundreds of families. This chapbook is as good a collection of poetry dealing with the Vietnam War as I’ve read.

There’s no dipping a toe in the water here. In the first section of the first poem Berger references the My Lai massacre, napalm, Agent Orange, AWOLs and “Dinks and Gooks.”

Berger writes of the “bloody mathematics” involved in taking, abandoning, then re-taking territory. Men around him wonder why they were there. “Why the hell were we, where the hell we were?” At one point he notes that “The long war symbolized so many lies/some of them true.”

Elsewhere he writes about the sympathy letters: “What more could he write/without deepening their pain?” He also writes of holding buddies while their lives slip away and remembering one soldier who died with a smile on his face. You don’t realize at the time that being “Impregnated by orange rain” means you were killed in Vietnam, though you won’t die until thirty years later.

He addresses the times on guard-duty when you have a chance to note the country’s fleeting moments of beauty. Then the rain and other natural sounds seem to combine to create “the jungle band.” Eventually there’s “The precious gift of sunrise in Vietnam.”

He shares in the comfort that can be found in a stray dog. Then there’s the “contagious smile” of the young boy with a “missing foot.” There’s also an old woman who continues to look for her grandson, although he died months earlier after being “shot by Aaron from Akron.” A young girl has “tiny breasts” that recall “two little sparrows/poking just barely/under her tee-shirt.”

Returning home from the war means “picking up where they left off/one year a century ago.” Then memories began to hit like “hot grease spattering his brain.” Memories that you begin to think of as “just dead life.” There is some evidence of healing once you are “no longer drinking suicide” and have started doing “drive bys” of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

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Berger in Vietnam

The stories told in these poems are the memories of one American Vietnam War veteran. The collection is not all-encompassing. It doesn’t try to explain the causes of the war or the motives of the people fighting on the other side. It’s personal, and poetry may be the most personal form of written expression.

There are 34 poems in this book. None of them is a throw-away. Each brings something to the table. The inclusion of 24 illustrations creates a complete package.

This is an unflinching look at the horrors of war and one man’s life-long efforts to escape its memories told in the form of poetry. Berger is a true word-artist.

The book’s Facebook page is facebook.com/fragmentspoems

Bruce Berger is donating profits from book sales to Vietnam Veterans of America.

–Bill McCloud

Cambodia and Kent State by James A. Tyner and Mindy Farmer

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“If, when the chips are down, the world’s most powerful nation, the United States of America, acts like a pitiful, helpless giant,” President Richard Nixon famously said in an April 30, 1970, address to the nation, “the forces of totalitarianism and anarchy will threaten free nations and free institutions throughout the world.”

During that speech Nixon announced plans for a joint South Vietnamese-American operation into Cambodia to confront the North Vietnamese Army, which had long used the territory as a sanctuary to launch missions into South Vietnam. The address spurred an immediate reaction from antiwar activists across college campuses, culminating in confrontations that led to Ohio National Guard troops shooting to death four students at Kent State University in Ohio on May 4, and Mississippi state police officers killing two students at Jackson State College on May 15.

In their book, Cambodia and Kent State: In the Aftermath of Nixon’s Expansion of the Vietnam War (Kent State University Press, 88 pp. $12.95, paper) Kent State professors James A. Tyner and Mindy Farmer provide a concise introduction to the domestic and international context of the shootings, as well as an overview of the historical memory in Kent and Cambodia. The book relies on secondary sources and the authors’ knowledge of the university where Farmer serves as the director of the May 4 Visitors Center.

The book’s thesis—connecting the incursion into Cambodia and the ensuing domestic protests to the rise of the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime, while also examining the collective memory in both countries—is laudatory. It is a helpful primer on both topics, and its strength is the closing chapter on the commemorations of the four victims in Kent and the millions in Cambodia.

But the book’s brevity does not account for curious unforced errors or reductive analysis. The world’s previous conflict was not World War II, as the author say, but the Korean War. What’s more, Kissinger and Nixon did not create realpolitik; it was a 100-year old political philosophy. And the South Vietnamese Army was a full participant in the operation, committing more than 60,000 troops and suffering some 600 killed in action.

“Nixon’s Expansion of the Vietnam War,” as the subtitle puts it, is important to the authors’ conception of the incident, but the context of the decision is more nuanced than the familiar Nixonian caricature. As the authors document, the North Vietnamese had long violated Cambodia’s neutrality, and when Prince Sihanouk was deposed in mid-March 1970 and replaced by the pro-Western Lon Nol, who welcomed the incursion, it provided the opportunity for something that the American military had long yearned.

Though Nixon’s Secretaries of Defense and State opposed the plan, there were no “fierce objections,” and the incursion had the support of the Joint Chiefs, the CIA, the South Vietnamese Embassy, and the National Security Adviser. The pacing of the book can be frenetic, jumping between the administrations of Nixon, Ford, and Carter with alacrity.

The Nixon Administration anticipated domestic fallout from the Cambodian action, but they underestimated how severe that reaction would be. In Kent, the protests were marked by an escalating level of violence, including burning the campus ROTC building. A Gallup poll showed that 58 percent of Americans blamed the students for the killings.

Not explored in this book, but important to the historical context, is the infamous New York City “Hard Hat Riot” that occurred four days after the shootings, and the subsequent May 20 rally that drew some 100,000 Nixon supporters. In 1972, Nixon won reelection by more than 18 million votes.

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Four Dead in Ohio

The coda of the book is an appropriate elegy to the senseless deaths of four students on a beautiful Monday afternoon in Ohio, and to the millions who perished at the hands of the genocidal Khmer Rouge.

In the year of the fiftieth anniversary of the tragedy, this succinct treatment is a welcome addition to the historiography of the “end of the Sixties.”

–Daniel R. Hart

United States Marine Corps in Vietnam by Michael Green

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Michael Green uses images as his building blocks for United States Marine Corps in Vietnam: Rare Photographs from Wartime Archives (Pen & Sword, 205 pp. $2.95, paper; $13.99, Kindle) and cements them together with a definitive narrative. Green, a prolific military historian, offers his version of the Vietnam War’s history in four sections: “The Opening Act” (1965), “The Fighting Increases in Scope” (1966-67), “The Defining Year” (1968), and “Coming to an End” (1969-75).

Green gleaned the photos and facts primarily from the Marine Corps Historical Center. His 150 pages of pictures alternate with 50 pages of analysis of combat from the American war’s start to its finish. Eight pages of photographs are in color.

The images include practically every weapon employed on each side of the battlefield: artillery, mortars, rifles, machine guns, pistols, flamethrowers, hand grenades, close support jet aircraft, helicopters, cargo planes, tanks, and other seldom-seen vehicles with tracks. The captions expand on what’s mentioned in the narrative and add finer details about the ebb and flow of the Marines’ war.

That said, the photographs convey little of the destructiveness of the weapons. They more resemble a catalog of military equipment.

Along with the weapons, personnel—mainly Marines, along with a few Vietnamese from North and South—appear in most of the pictures. They usually show Marines firing weapons or advancing through the bush. Green includes a handful of photos of the wounded and dead, but they are not horrifying images.

Although the images do not convey the intensity of combat, Green’s narrative does deliver that message. Citing archival accounts, he emphasizes the determination of troops on both sides and memorializes Marine Medal of Honor recipients.

His narrative discusses the difficulty of constant face-to-face encounters with the North Vietnamese Army along the DMZ, a major part of the Marines’ responsibility in northernmost I Corps. He deplores the high casualty count resulting from search-and-destroy missions. Things would have been much worse, he says, if not for “Marine supporting arms that turned the tide of battle as almost always.”

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The first Marines landing in Vietnam, March 1965, Da Nang

Green takes a hard look at the pros and cons of contentious issues between Marine Corps leaders and Army MACV commanders who usually had the final word. He concludes that Army generals generally underappreciated the Marines.

The book would be an excellent starting point for those unfamiliar with the Vietnam War’s tactics, strategy, and equipment. Old timers might enjoy finding the faces of former friends.

I was not a Marine, but I flew many C-130 support sorties for them during Tet in 1968. The chapter covering that period brought back sad memories for me. Nobody had it tougher than the Marines.

United States Marine Corps in Vietnam is Michael Green’s twenty-first book in the Pen & Sword Images of War series.

—Henry Zeybel

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

No Where Man by Stephen J. Piotrowski

 

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As Stephen Piotrowski makes clear in No Where Man: One Soldier’s Journey Home from Vietnam (450 pp. $19.95, paper; $4.99, Kindle) being in combat for a year is emotionally and physically draining, and the experience of coming home can be no less traumatic and stressful. Piotrowski’s story is like that of countless young veterans who have returned home from a war and found it nearly impossible to let go of what had been an all-consuming time in their lives.

As I read about his struggles I thought that this is what many war veterans need to write, even if it’s just a personal journal, to externalize the emotions and get them out in the open to be dealt with, and ultimately put to rest.

The book starts during the author’s final days as an RTO with the 173rd Airborne Brigade in Vietnam in 1970, and the beginnings of his alienation as he finds it difficult to decompress in the rear at his battalion’s base camp. From there, his emotions continually erupt as he transitions in little more than twenty-four hours from the war zone to a very, very different world back home.

Anyone coming home from war will recall many of the same feelings and experiences Piotrowski, a life member of Vietnam Veterans of America, describes as he reluctantly prepared to leave his combat buddies and return to a country where he no longer fit in. Adding to the confusion back home were family and friends who appeared to have little or no interest in what he had undergone or was now going through.

An RTO in the field in Vietnam

One of the most mindless questions he heard again and again—just as many of us have—was, “Did you kill anybody?”

Aside from a brother who had returned from combat the year before, there was practically no one to help him sort out his confusion and alienation. A car mechanic who had been in the Korean War said it was the same for him when he returned. What made it worse was the contemptuous attitude of many World War II veterans who dismissed Korea as a nothing war. That same attitude would be experienced by many of us coming home from Vietnam; hence the founding principle of Vietnam Veterans of America: Never Again Will One Generation of Veterans Abandon Another.

It’s difficult to believe that those who had known war would reject returning war veterans who needed their support. For the author nearly everything seemed so bewildering. Even everyday sounds and sights took on ominous meanings in his mind.

I read each page carefully to catch all his take-aways as confusing sensations arose from things happening to and around him. I kept recalling similar moments that I had when I came home from my war. I can still remember well my involuntary reaction when I was walking to college classes and heard the high-pitched noise of metal on metal made by worn-out brakes. The sound was nearly identical to the final seconds of incoming North Vietnamese artillery rounds fired at us day and night during the battle for Khe Sanh. Who on campus could possibly imagine what was going through my mind at that moment?

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Piotrowski in country

 

This book doesn’t attempt to explain the Vietnam War or describe the battles that were fought. It’s an every-man’s account of one young soldier trying to come to grips with his war and then struggling to bring closure to it.

In the end, Stephen Piotrowski realized that the first giant step for him to leave the war behind was to take control of his life and not wait for others to make the decisions.

It is on that positive note that the book ends.

–John Cirafici

Snow in Vietnam by Amy M. Le

Snow in Vietnam (Mercury West Publishing, 229 pp. $26.99, hardcover; 16.99, paper; $3.99, Kindle) is a debut novel by Amy M. Le. The author was born in Vietnam and immigrated to the United States at the age of five. She now considers both the Pacific Northwest and Oklahoma to be her homes. 

I love the title, even if it is somewhat gimmicky. I also loved the novel. “Snow” is the name of the main character, a woman who is the youngest of seven children. Within the family she is called “Eight” because her parents are “One.” In May 1973 she is a 34-year-old virgin living with her family in Vinh Binh Province in the Mekong Delta, and is about to marry a Vietnamese man she hardly knows. She’s a former schoolteacher who now works for a bank. The Paris Peace Treaty has been signed, bringing hope that normalcy will come to Vietnam.

She marries and gives birth to a daughter a year later. Shortly afterward she learns that her husband has been living another life with another woman. It’s a deceit that Snow refers to as “a Nixonian blow.” With her life falling apart, she strikes out with her daughter in a bold move of independence. Before long, though, she returns to the home of her parents and siblings.

By early 1975 communist troops, which Le refers to as the “northern army,” are moving on Saigon and pretty quickly the city falls. As the communists gain control over all of the former South Vietnam western books and clothes are burned and families are encouraged to spy on their neighbors. By the end of 1976 Snow has missed three opportunities to escape this oppressive society—in which, she notes, even the sunlight seems to shine differently—and flee to the U.S.A. She saves money for years to try to buy freedom for herself and her young daughter.

But time marches on. Her child seems to be suffering from a serious heart condition. There are fears of a war with Cambodia and China. She wants to be able to give her daughter the life that she used to dream of for herself. With 1977 coming to a close, any possible escape still seems “light years away.”

Then in early 1979 she seizes what may be her last opportunity and faces the dangers involved in getting herself, her daughter, and a nephew onto a small fishing boat with forty other people. There’s no turning back as the boat sails into the South China Sea.

The final chapters continue Snow’s story, telling of storms, pirates, and many months in Indonesia before receiving the news she has waited years to hear.

This novel is dedicated to “the boat people of Vietnam and the refugees who left Vietnam after the fall of Saigon.” Le wrote it as a tribute to her late mother’s bravery and selflessness.

Amy Le should be pleased with her work and know that her mother’s memory has been well served.

The author’s website is amy-m-le.com

–Bill McCloud

Fury by Joe Myles

Joe Myles wrote Fury: A Soldier’s Journey (Salt Water Media, 174 pp. $19.95, paper) to record his military experiences for his sons and grandchildren. In the book Myles describes his life as an infantryman with the Big Red One, the U.S. Army’s 1st Infantry Division, in the Vietnam War during his 1968-69 tour of duty. He also uses the book to teach his offspring lessons from experiences far beyond ordinary life.           

For example, after witnessing several members of his platoon die in combat, Myles says that he stopped dwelling on the loss of life. “I don’t feel I had become insensitive,” he writes. “I just shut down in some way, just to be able to cope. Our wonderful minds have a way of protecting us by putting us on automatic pilot to allow us to continue to function.”

As a draftee a year out of high school, Myles rapidly adapted to the Army’s demands. He demonstrated leadership skills and facility with weapons in infantry AIT and the accelerated NCO candidate course (AKA “Shake ‘n Bake School) at Fort Benning’s Infantry School, and during his brief duty as a drill instructor at Fort Polk. After less than a year on active duty, Myles was promoted to Staff Sergeant, E-6.          

How Joe Myles accomplished that feat is a marvelous story that takes up the first half of the book.           

Old timers resented his rapid rise through the ranks and questioned his abilities, which he more than adequately repeatedly proved to them while conducting search-and-destroy missions from Lai Khe Base Camp in South Vietnam. Assigned to a brigade woefully undermanned because of casualties, Myles was chosen to lead a platoon, a position normally filled by a lieutenant. Employing tactics he learned at Fort Benning made him more than the equal of OCS graduates. When a replacement lieutenant arrived, Myles’ company commander assigned him elsewhere and Myles kept his platoon leader slot.

Eventually, a glut of new lieutenants reduced Myles to the position of platoon sergeant. Soon after, however, the company commander called on him to pick a squad and lead a difficult rescue mission, a success for which Myles received a Bronze Star.                         

His strangest encounter occurred after his point men got lost in a rainstorm. His unit then walked into a firefight with NVA troops—at their Cambodian R&R camp. “We couldn’t report the battle results,” Myles says, “because we were out of country.”

After being hit by an RPG during an attack on Hill 178, his company commander’s last words appointed Myles to lead the company, which Myles did until his men reached the plateau and a lieutenant colonel replaced him. That’s when Myles suffered a horrendous chest wound. He survived and returned to his unit with four months left to serve in Vietnam. 

Myles’ accounts of combat make interesting reading because he experienced the Vietnam War from both the level of a grunt and that of a commander. Regardless of his leadership status or the task, Myles took part in everything his men did.

Despite an offer to remain on active duty with a choice between a commission as a second lieutenant or a promotion to Sergeant First Class, E-7—which would have made him the youngest SFC in the Army—Myles decided to accepted a discharge after arriving home in July 1969.

Big Red One troops in Vietnam

His final lesson to his offspring appears in an epilogue, and compares life to a roller-coaster ride.  As Myles puts it: “When you’re at the top of your game and taking a dive toward the bottom, throw your arms up above your head and enjoy the ride, because you won’t be at the bottom long.”

The book closes with twelve pages of color photographs. Their arrangement triggered flashbacks to the book’s major episodes, making them a perfect conclusion to the memoir of an exceptional warrior. 

—Henry Zeybel