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

Yesterday’s Soldier by Tom Keating

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After graduating from Stonehill College’s Holy Cross Seminary in Massachusetts, but denied further advancement to ordination as a Catholic priest, Tom Keating surrendered to the inevitable and volunteered for the draft in 1968. Army Basic Training and Infantry AIT, along with his superior skill with weapons, overpowered Keating’s semi-monastic religious life style. And he began to concentrate on “how to survive and kill in battle,” Keating writes in his memoir, Yesterday’s Soldier (153 pp., $16.99, paper), and he moved on to Officer Candidate School.

As his infantry training continued, Keating re-evaluated this character transformation, and once again followed his religious training. Not wanting to kill people or order others to do so, he sought conscientious objector status.

In the first half of Yesterday’s Soldier Tom Keating does an excellent job explaining the dynamics of attaining conscientious objector status as an active-duty soldier during the Vietnam War. His recollections provided me with new knowledge and insights about a punishing, tedious, and sinister process. How sinister? Keating’s best friend became an Army Criminal Investigation Division agent assigned to evaluate the sincerity of his religious beliefs.

Although a Defense Department policy limited the number of conscientious objectors serving in the armed forces, Keating won his case: He would not be assigned a combat role or issued a weapon for the rest of his tour in the Army.

Nevertheless, he owed the military one more year of active-duty service. Without a job specialty, he was sent to Vietnam. On his arrival, Keating lucked out when a college friend classified him as an administrator and assigned him to a job with the 1st Logistical Command at Long Binh.

Keating’s writing style flows smoothly. I enjoyed reading his stories about the Vietnam War. But his book offers little new information about life behind the lines.

There are descriptions of surviving close calls during rocket, mortar, and sapper attacks on Long Binh. He tells of giving up his “seminarian virginity” in a Saigon bathhouse. Issued a Jeep, he chauffeured officers and performed other minor chores. He befriended a housemaid who was Catholic. R&R in Australia was a highlight of his tour. And then he came home.

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Tom Keating

Tom Keating found a different world than the one he had left two years earlier, especially within the Catholic Church. As part of a continuing evolution of character, his limited exposure to death had magnified his perception of the past. He determined he “could never return to that world, not after Vietnam. That world had collapsed.”

So he began a new life, earning a master’s degree in education and teaching high school for eight years before starting a long career in corporate communications.

The author’s website is tomkeatingwriter.com

—Henry Zeybel

Weapons of War by Robert E. Wright

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Weapons of War: A Compilation of Letters Recounting a Soldier’s Story of Service, Love, and Faith (AuthorHouse, 212 pp. $23.99, hardcover; $12.99, paper; $3.99, Kindle) tells a love story far greater than a war story. In it, Robert E. Wright gives us letters he sent to Barbara Hampton during his two years in the U.S. Army, which included a 1969-70 tour in Vietnam as an infantryman with the 101st Airborne Division, the Screaming Eagles.

The book works as a love story because Wright’s weapons of war were his M-16 to fight the NVA and Viet Cong; his pen to fight the loneliness and separation he felt; and his faith in God to fight fear and doubt. The power of the latter two exceeded that of the first. His letters concentrated on convincing Hampton that she was his one-and-only love forever.

As a grunt, Wright repeatedly walked point on lengthy search-and-destroy missions; turned a VC defector into a Kit Carson Scout; and cleared remote landing zones. His awards included the Bronze Star, two Air Medals, and the Army Commendation Medal.

I enjoyed reading his accounts of military life, but wanted more. That’s because Wright’s desire not to upset his high school sweetheart and their families with his combat experiences made him temper what he wrote. I respected his deep love for Hampton, which he pledged for eternity in every letter, but the memoir would have greater appeal for military history fans if, between letters, he had injected detailed notes about the actions that he otherwise quickly passes over.

The Army drafted Wright while he was still a teenager, and he quietly answered the call. He says military duty made him into “a mature man who is not afraid to make decisions and take on responsibility.” His personal motto of “Stay Focused on the Future” carried him through the war.

I admired Robert Wright’s integrity, particularly denying himself R&R to avoid temptations of the flesh. Best of all, his commanders appeared to respect his certitude about life by assigning him leadership roles above his rank.

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Robert E. Wright

Barbara Hampton and Robert Wright married in 1972 and raised two daughters, who like their mother graduated from Ball State University. Barbara died in 2002 at the age of fifty-two. Robert worked twenty-six years for the Indiana Bell Telephone, followed by twenty-one years of full-time ministry with the Eastern Star Church in Indianapolis.

His memoir teaches excellent lessons in self-restraint and perseverance. It includes photographs with many of the letters.

Wright’s website is weaponsofwar-indy.com/home

—Henry Zeybel

The Reunion by Thomas Conrad

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Thomas Conrad served in the U.S. Army in the Vietnam War. I read his novel, The Reunion (Page Publishing, 256 pp., $14.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle), in the handsomely produced paperback edition. The book has an in-country photograph on the back cover of a young man in jungle fatigues standing on a laterite landscape with a hand-lettered sign that includes the words “Fixed Wing Aircraft Prohibited.”

The Reunion tells the story of Bobby Gallagher, who returns to his hometown of Kalamazoo, Michigan, after thirty years to bid farewell to his dying mother. Bobby wound up serving in the Army in Vietnam due to the actions of a corrupt court judge during the trial process. Bobby has a serious score to settle with that judge, as well as with the father of his girlfriend who died in a car wreck.

Bobby resents that his girlfriend’s father framed him for the accident, when, in fact, the wreck was due to his girlfriend’s drunkenness. Much of this book is about Bobby figuring out a way to even the score with his ex-girlfriend’s father.

There is substantial in-country action in this novel demonstrating what Bobby spent his time in doing in the Vietnam War. He served with a Recon team and indulged in the dangerous and often out-of-control life of a 1969 Army infantry soldier.

There are many scenes involving drug dealing and combat action. If the reader is seeking a Vietnam War combat novel, this book will not disappoint.

This is a literate, well-written novel. It works well as a book of action and as a book about a family that has fallen apart.

–David Willson

There Comes a Time by Jack Nolan

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Jack Nolan’s novel, There Comes a Time (Stillwater River, 306 pp. $16, paper; $7.99, Kindle), deals with the exploits of a group of men who refer to themselves as “The Greyhawk Six.” The guys trained together at fictional Fort Greyhawk Intelligence School and arrived together in Vietnam in September 1967 in Army intel. Nolan himself did a tour of duty in Army intelligence in the war.

The men wear civilian clothes and work different types of special operations, functioning as soldier-spies. A lot of their work involves typing and filing, but some sometimes they get involved in matters the CIA is supposed to be doing.

The sequel to his 2018 novel, Vietnam Remix, this is a tale of agents and double-agents. One of the men uses a cover in which he’s an employee of Goodyear Tire and Rubber. He also has a different, phony photo-ID and paperwork in case he needs an escape cover.

The nine chapters in this book are written as if they were individual short stories. Most could stand on their own. That includes the chapter involving one of the men who, after having his life saved, undergoes a religious transformation. It’s reminiscent of something that could have been in Catch-22.

The characters do not get involved in jungle fighting, though one survives being in a Jeep “shot to pieces,” and another witnesses a friend being shot and killed. The men frequently take Vietnamese mistresses, some in their early teens. As Nolan puts it: “In the pseudo-military realm of civilian-cover Intelligence, cohabitation with a Vietnamese woman was forbidden and, also, not uncommon.”

One of the men uses a position with the Catholic Church as his cover. Another opens an office supply store. All of them end up loving some of the Vietnamese people they come into contact with, hating others, and fearing a few.

Most of the story takes place around a fictional Military Intelligence Company’s headquarters in Saigon and at a big field station in the coastal city of Vung Tau, which Nolan describes as a “place that was immune to war by virtue of being a narrow peninsula surrounded by warships.” One of the men, upon returning home, continues to dream of the “pretty girls on the beach at Vung Tau.”

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Jack Nolan in-country

The plot also includes Vietnamese twin brothers who chose different sides in the war, but continue to love each other. In many ways, they represent the history of the divided people of their country.

This is a dense novel—not in page numbers, but in the depth of the story. It is not an action-adventure pulp-ish war novel. Written more in the style of Graham Greene, There Comes A Time was a joy to read.

–Bill McCloud

A Wolf by the Ears by Wayne Karlin

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I’ve lost count of the number of Vietnam War-themed novels I’ve read. On the other hand, I don’t believe I’d ever read a War of 1812 novel until now, having just finished A Wolf by the Ears (University of Massachusetts Press, 320 pp. $22.95, paper and Kindle), a compelling, well-crafted tale by Wayne Karlin.

In this exceptional book—a 2019 winner of the Juniper Prize for Fiction—Karlin deftly weaves the fictional story of escaped enslaved people from Southern Maryland into a key part of the 1812-15 war: British Adm. George Cockburn’s raids along the Chesapeake Bay. That series of events culminated with the August 1814 Battle of Bladensburg, the burning of Washington, D.C., and the tide-turning Battle of Baltimore in September.

This book is filled with memorable characters—real and imagined. The star of the show is the unlikely named Towerhill, a smart, driven young man who devises a plan to deliver a group of fellow enslaved African Americans into the arms of the British. After a dangerous, eventful escape, Towerhill becomes a sergeant in the Royal Marines.

He leads his men (and several women) in action as part of Royal Navy and Marine forces that wreaked havoc on slave-holding Southern Maryland plantations, then defeated a ragtag group of militia at Bladensburg just outside Washington. Then came the British move into Washington, replete with the infamous burning and looting of the White House, the Congressional Library and other government buildings, and then the events in Baltimore Harbor.

Karlin does an exceptional job recreating the action at Bladensburg, Washington, and Baltimore from the British point of view. That includes an evocative, well-rendered look at the fighting on land at North Point outside Baltimore during which the flamboyant British general Robert Ross was shot off his horse and killed, as well as the massive bombardment of Fort McHenry of Francis Scott Key and “Star-Spangled Banner” fame. And the fateful decision by the British commander, Adm. Thomas Cochrane, to order a withdrawal from Baltimore Harbor in the early hours of September 14.

Karlin—who served as a Marine Corps helicopter door gunner in the Vietnam War—has written seven novels, nearly all of them dealing in some way with that war. That includes Lost Armies, one of the best literary treatments of the Vietnam War’s psychological aftermath.

A Wolf by the Ears has nothing to do with that conflict. But in this book Karlin shows that he also can evocatively and effectively write about a long-ago war and the institution of slavery. He draws a brilliant and forceful portrait of plantation life in Southern Maryland in the early 19th century. It’s not a pretty picture. There is violence and psychological abuse aplenty, which Karlin describes in detail throughout the book. That’s also true with the battle scenes. That is to his credit as no one benefits from sanitized fictional portrayals of war or slavery.

The book’s title—from an 1820 quote by Thomas Jefferson on slavery—is a theme throughout. “We can neither hold him, nor let him safely go,” Jefferson wrote about enslaved African Americans. Karlin shows the truth of those words as he presents the life-altering, wrenching decisions that enslaved people in Southern Maryland went through before choosing to join the British. And what they metaphorically became once they began actively fighting their former masters—and other Americans.

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Wayne Karlin

Here’s Karlin’s typically lyrical prose evoking Towerhill’s thoughts as he is about to order his men into battle, former slaves sharply dressed in redcoat British uniforms and armed with Baker rifles with “two foot long bayonets.”

The company, he writes, “looks as sharp and dangerous as those bayonets. Something swells in him. A short time ago, these fighters had been stooped, shuffling wraiths, shadows of men, their rebellious, free natures expressed only in furtive mutters, the subtle camouflage of song and the equally subtle ways in which they would sabotage their labor, a sharp clandestine mockery of their masters. Now they are wolves. His people.”

–Marc Leepson

VVA Veteran Arts Editor Marc Leepson’s profile of Wayne Karlin appeared in the July/August 2005 print issue—just before Karlin received the VVA Excellence in the Arts Award at that summer’s Vietnam Veterans of America National Convention.

My War & Welcome to It by Tom Copeland

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Like most teenagers of the time, Tom Copeland had no burning desire to fight in the Vietnam War. But he was drafted into the Army and served for a year in Vietnam with the 1st First Infantry Division. His tour of duty in the war is the centerpiece of  My War and Welcome To It (Sunbury Press, 191 pp. $$19.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle), which is written in a voice ranging from youthful humor and wonderment to one of great fear of being killed. He prefaces this autobiography by saying: “I was aged beyond my years. I became an old man before my time.”

Copeland describes his life growing up in Southeastern New Mexico, mostly outdoors; getting drafted in August 1966; going through infantry AIT; operating from Lai Khe with a ground surveillance team with the Big Red One’s 2nd Battalion/2nd Regiment in 1967-68; and returning home and working his way up a corporate ladder. The last part was the most difficult.

He  describes military life largely by concentrating on the good and bad behavior of men of all ranks. Copeland highlights individualists such as a trainee who got away with impersonating the boot camp commander and drill sergeants, even in their presence.

He saw plenty of action, including fighting Viet Cong forces at Prek Loc II and Phu Loi, in the Ong Dong Jungle during Operation Paul Bunyan, and at Ong Thanh. Copeland writes in detail about the wounded and dead-and-maimed bodies in only one of those operations, Ong Thanh. That battle, he says, “marked a change in the way I saw the war and the value of human life.”

After the war, Copeland suffered decades of emotional stress involving his family, work, and schools without recognizing that he had post-traumatic stress disorder. In 2003, his nephew displayed PTSD symptoms following three deployments to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Copeland forced the young man to seek medical help. That’s when he realized he had the same emotional problems and went to the VA for treatment.

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Tom Copeland in country

In 2013, Tom Copeland went back to Vietnam to try to ameliorate the negative effects of combat that lingered within him. He and other Vietnam War veterans placed commemorative plaques and flowers at battle sites where friends had been killed.

The book’s concluding chapter is a deeply insightful distillation of the trauma serving in the Vietnam War inflicted on him. He closes that section—and the book—by letting us know that the war is still with him.

“Don’t think for a minute I have forgotten those things that took place years ago,” he writes, “They have just become easier to live with.”

—Henry Zeybel

 

 

Crooked Bamboo by Nguyen Thai

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Thank God for young historians who work with aged diplomats on their memoirs dealing with important world events. A short while ago, I read Japanese ambassador Saburo Kurusu’s The Desperate Diplomat, an account of his dealings with Americans in Washington during the weeks immediately prior to World War II. His book might never have been available for Western eyes without help from Masako R. Okura, a professor who finished editing it after a much-older historian died on the job.

Which brings us to Crooked Bamboo: A Memoir from Inside the Diem Regime (Texas Tech University Press, 272 pp., $29.95) written by ninety-year-old Nguyen Thai and edited by Texas Tech University history professor Justin Simundson. Thai was something of a favorite adopted son of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem and was privy to a deep-inside look at his government. The book confirms that Diem’s regime overflowed with problems and should have collapsed after the first coup against it in 1960, rather than survive to 1963.

Simundson accepted the task of studying hundreds of pages of free-flowing thoughts and observations Thai made over many decades. As the Vietnam War historian Larry Berman notes in the book’s forward, Simundson’s prodigious editorial skills give shape to insights on crucial points in history. He is exceptionally helpful in introducing personalities and explaining their roles. 

Thai’s recollections fill gaps in the history of Diem’s misdirected leadership, and they also recreate Thai’s personal life. Simundson closely consulted with Thai while editing his notes and frequently relied on facts from Thai’s Is South Vietnam Viable?, a 1962 anti-Diem book published in a limited edition in the Philippines and nearly inaccessible today. Crooked Bamboo contains only two pages of end notes.

By 1959, corruption and authoritarianism in Diem’s government was overwhelmingly evident. The gross mismanagement had started within two years of his election in 1955. As Vietnam Press’s Director General, Thai’s close relationship with Diem compelled him to compromise the truth behind political maneuvers. 

Three chapters constitute the heart of the memoir. “The Convincing Test—Elections of 1959” shows how a rigged count kept Diem and his cronies in office. “The Aborted 1960 Coup D’etat” analyzes the political implications of in-fighting between Diem and high-ranking military officers that brought only minor changes to the government’s structure. Diem learned nothing from the unsuccessful coup, Thai says.

“Diem’s Overthrow” and assassination caused the most-bitter disappointment in Thai’s life. Thereafter, it was every man of rank for himself.

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Justin Simundson & Nguyen Thai

The book leaves many questions unanswered. For example: Who—Vietnam or America—was responsible for the war’s outcome? How important was democracy to the Vietnamese? Who should have replaced Diem?

Thai’s inconsistencies reveal the difficulty of resolving the Vietnam War dilemma even today. Simundson intensely examines these issues and others.

Crooked Bamboo is a great source for young people to begin studying South Vietnam’s early tragic political unrest—and for old timers to recall a once-familiar past.   

—Henry Zeybel