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

Losing the Will to Live by Arnie Burzynski

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Rising above depression, personal tragedy, and alcoholism is central to Arnie Burzynski in his book, Losing the Will to Live: Why?!! (Xlibris, 145 pp., $29.99, hardcover; $19.99, paper; $3.99, Kindle), but it is not directly related to his Vietnam War service.

Burzynski devotes the first chapter to his father’s service in the Korean War. In the next chapter he enumerates the ever-present  tragedies he lives with daily, making  his psychological treatment in a VA Hospital in Minnesota necessary after his hardship discharge from the Navy in 1975. He married  in 1977 but the  marriage failed.

In February 2006, Burzynski writes, “I went to see the doctor and I was diagnosed as depressed.” That summer he began drinking. “I remember at work, I was asking an older man, he was 74 at the time, ‘What happens when you lose the will to live?’ There was no answer.” This stayed with Burzynski “a long time,” and perhaps led to his trying to find the answer for himself.

In 2008 Burzynski started his treatment at the VA, and he started keeping a journal. He includes transcripts of his counseling sessions in this book. Burzynski records his lapses into drinking, attributing them to events such as his father’s death or partying with friends with drinking problems.

His journal describes his impending divorce and the difficulty he has had finding and keeping meaningful work. He keeps his Alcoholics Anonymous and VA appointments but has continuous trouble with friends taking advantage of his good nature. VA psychological testing discovered that he “carried around the burden of many family conflicts, suicidal attempts, and losses for many years, trying to maintain his emotional center and keep himself together.”

Burzynski occasionally begged people to end his life out of frustration but with the help of counseling from a VA priest, his veterans disability benefits being approved, and maintaining his sobriety, he rose above a troubled life, completing his valuable self-help project.

His artwork on the cover illustrates the climb from depression’s depths to regaining his will to live.

The author’s website is www.arnieburzynski.com

—Curt Nelson

Storming the City by Alec Wahlman

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For readers interested in Vietnam War strategy, the battle for Hue should be the highlight of Storming the City: U.S. Military Performance in Urban Warfare from World War II to Vietnam (University of North Texas Press, 400 pp., $29.95, hardcover; $13.99, Kindle) by Alec Wahlman.

The book answers a three-part question: “When the need arose to fight in urban terrain in the mid-twentieth century, how effective were U.S. forces, why, and how did that performance change from World War II to Vietnam?” Wahlman bases his findings on four battles: Aachen and Manila in World War II, Seoul in the Korean War, and Hue in the Vietnam War.

He makes it easy to compare the battles by describing each with the same format: Operational Context; The Foe; The Assault; Command, Control, and Communication; Intelligence and Reconnaissance; Firepower and Survivability; Mobility and Counter-Mobility; Logistics; and Dealing with the Population.

In these victorious engagements that were fought in three wars over three decades, the Army and Marines were ill prepared for urban warfare, Wahlman says. Aachen and Manila were primarily Army operations. Winning at Seoul and Hue depended mostly on the Marines. Throughout the entire time, field manuals for both services presented little information on how to capture a city, and training for fighting house-to-house was minimal.

Despite winning, American tactical performance gradually grew less effective, according to Wahlman. At Hue, Americans failed to isolate the city. Therefore, throughout three weeks of fighting, North Vietnamese Army forces continued to receive reinforcements of men and supplies by night. American intelligence also failed to recognize the size of the NVA force and the complexity of the Hue Citadel.

“The precise location of enemy positions inside Hue was largely discovered through contact,” Wahlman notes. Prolonged fighting permitted the enemy to establish its own government within the city and to execute many South Vietnamese administrative personnel.

These victories resulted from outstanding leadership, mainly at regiment level. The leaders adapted tactics learned in the field to an urban setting. Commanders such as Lt. Col. Derrill Daniel and Lt. Col. John Corley at Aachen and Col. Lew “Chesty” Puller at Seoul had extensive combat experience. They knew how to fight side by side or drive right through the middle of an enemy.

Similarly, Wahlman concludes that America’s successes resulted from “transferable competence” and “battlefield adaptation.” Transferable competence included quality leadership in small units; heavy firepower with adequate logistical support; coordinated efforts between infantry, armor, artillery, engineers, and air support; previous combat experience; and the design of American armored vehicles. Except for the last point, the other conclusions seem to be self-evident traits required for any successful military operation.

Battlefield adaptation is the ability of leaders to alter tactics based on a particular environments. Each battle area offers different problems. The greatest difference between urban and field combat is the shortening of lines of sight in the former. The resultant confined battle space often affects factors such as rules of engagement and population control. This necessity for adaptation is not unique to urban warfare; it was needed in earlier engagements such as fighting in hedgerows and forests.

Wahlman’s research claims to undermine two myths about urban warfare. First, the attacking force’s “traditional” three-to-one manpower advantage was proved unnecessary. Americans had only a three-to-two advantage in Manila, and at Aachen the Germans actually outnumbered Americans by three-to-one.

The second myth is that urban fighting is an infantry job. Wahlman challenges that by saying that infantry “is most effective when part of a combined arms team,” which relates to his transferable competence argument. Basically, he’s saying that a combined force is more likely to maintain an effective methodical advance with fewer losses.

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U.S. Marines at the Battle of Hue

In closing, Wahlman looks at urban warfare since Hue and into the future. Population migration into urban areas favors opponents of the United States, he says, and emphasizes the vulnerability of unsecured supply lines for forces attacking a city. Situations such as those encountered at Fallujah might easily bog down an attacker and slow the tempo of combat. Furthermore, as shown at Mogadishu, urban confrontations could reduce the effectiveness of superior technology. In such cases, the price tags increase steeply.

In preparation for possible future needs, the Army has built urban warfare training complexes and published a field manual. Adaptation is still considered crucial to success in this area. Technologies offer new avenues for tactics, but in many cases the enemy has access to the same or counter equipment, Wahlman says.

“Advances in sensors, protective equipment, and offensive capabilities notwithstanding, urban warfare is and will continue to be a nasty, difficult business,” he says.

Poor maps are the book’s major flaw. The maps are too small and lack contrast, which make them nearly impossible to read. Better maps might enhance the reader’s understanding of maneuvers at the battle sites.

Wahlman is highly qualified to write this book. For fourteen years, he worked as an analyst at the Institute for Defense Analysis, primarily for the Department of Defense, focusing on irregular and urban warfare. He holds a PhD. in military history from the University of Leeds. The book contains sixty-three pages of notes and thirty-five pages of bibliography.

—Henry Zeybel

Legend by Eric Blehm

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Eric Blehm’s Legend: A Harrowing Story from the Vietnam War of One Green Beret’s Heroic Mission To Rescue a Special Forces Team Caught Behind Enemy Lines,  a well-received account of Army Master Sgt. Roy P. Benavidez’s life, is now out in paperback (Crown, 288 pp., $16).

On February 24, 1981, President Ronald Reagan presented the Medal of Honor to Benavidez for his extraordinary courage under fire in dense jungle during a clandestine May 2, 1968, mission in Cambodia. Benavidez, on his second Vietnam War tour of duty, was honored for what he did after a twelve-man 5th Special Forces recon team found itself penned in by hundreds of NVA troops.

As we noted in our review in the print edition of The VVA Veteran, the heart of the book is Blehm’s fine account of the battle action. He fleshes out the narrative with a short sketch of Roy Benavidez’s life before he joined the Army, and weaves in a solid accounting of Vietnam War historical background. The result is a readable, meaty narrative that tells the complete story of one of the most notable Medal of Honor recipients of the Vietnam War.

—Marc Leepson

Vietnam Revisited by Patrick O’Regan

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The title of Vietnam Revisited: A Memoir of the Vietnam War (CreateSpace, 298 pp., $12.08, paper) tells the story: Patrick O’Regan reflects on journal entries he made as an infantryman in 1969-70. The book recreates his war experience while superimposing (in italics) his current thinking on that experience.

I try to read Vietnam War memoirs as if I’d never read another one on the subject. In that way, every book builds a distinct personality. Pat O’Regan owns the agenda: He picks his topics and tells me as much or as little as he wants me to know about them. O’Regan had both eyes wide open and his brain in overdrive as he strove to record everything he saw while writing his war journal entries. Based on his depth of thought, a more appropriate title for the book might be “The Nature of Mankind.”

“Innocence” and “inexperience” best describe O’Regan’s mentality as a twenty-two year old draftee, a state of mind that he deconstructs by using what he has learned since the war. He puts this new knowledge to work to re-evaluate himself, people, and situations he encountered in the Army. In his journal, he frequently gets into dialogues with himself, going so far as to label his younger persona as a “whiner.”

The book has dual themes. The most pronounced is O’Regan’s soul searching about the damage inflicted on him by a loveless relationship with his parents. Interactions with his superiors frequently trigger traumatic recollections of childhood, plunging him into self-analysis.

The second theme concerns military operations, emphasizing strategy, leadership, courage, fear, and luck. O’Regan’s discontent with leaders at high levels goes far beyond ever being assuaged. Nevertheless, in many ways, Army life provided the first “family” that cared about him.

Initially assigned to mortars with the “Old Guard,” the 199th Light Infantry Brigade, and living on fire bases, he decided that  war was “a bore,” and “a lot like being in jail” because he “moped around all day long,” lonely and depressed. He thought: “If I’m to be here, I want to be a real soldier.”

O’Regan repeatedly requested, but was denied, reassignment to the field. Months of complaining wore down his commander, who moved him to a Recon platoon. O’Regan served eight months with that unit and experienced ambushes, counter-ambushes, fear, greater fear, hunger, endless rain, dehydrating heat, sores, cuts, leeches, and every other agony natural to infantrymen. He complained, but did it primarily in his journal.

In describing the rigors of war, O’Regan emphasized the interdependency between men. He participated in his share of firefights and saw two of his best friends killed in action. Later, he advanced to E-5 and became a squad leader, proud to realize forty-four years later that he never lost a man in combat.

Seventeen pages of photographs show the men of the 199th. His skinny T-shirted and bare-chested friends look like warriors from another planet compared to today’s bulked-up and heavily armored infantrymen. Their expressions reveal none of the hardships that they had to endure.

At times, Vietnam Revisited was a difficult book to read because O’Regan is too honest about his feelings. His approach to then-and-now triggered me to recall much of my misbehavior during twenty years of military service in the Air Force. For example, his conclusion that exposure to combat does not justify “a callous disregard for the feelings of others” struck a personal note: I share the eternal stain of such ill behavior.

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Being shot at and blowing up trucks in Laos did not turn my crewmates or me into superior beings, but avoiding the first and accomplishing the second boosted our egos. Now I wonder what we accomplished. I have not seen my fellow fliers since retiring and likely never will, which deepens the mystery of our accomplishments.

Near the end of the book, the debate between the O’Regan’s personalities of yesterday and today reaches several climaxes. “The mind determines the toughness of the experience more than the actual incidents one encounters,” he writes.  On the topic of courage, he says: “Trauma in battle is often no different than what happens to people in civilian life.” His follow-on argument dims the luster of warfare.

Pat O’Regan writes that war is extraordinary and never-to-be-forgotten. Yet, he writes: “There is no more reason to dwell on war than a thousand other, perhaps less captivating, incidents of life.”  That sentiment might serve as O’Regan’s legacy to all.

I admire authors who bare their souls when recalling war experiences. Their stories ring with authenticity. Other recent books of that caliber include Calm Frenzy by Loring Bailey, Jr.; Fearful Odds by Charles Newhall III; Memoir of Vietnam by William Fee; and—not so recent but perhaps the ultimate—Think Snow by Kenneth Kinsler. I recommend them.

—Henry Zeybel

Medics Wild! by Darrell Bain

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Darrell Bain’s “two stints in Vietnam formed the basis for his first published novel,” he writes in Medics Wild! (Twilight Times Books, 203 pp., $15.50, paper)

Bain offers an apology in his Preface: “For dramatic purposes, I took a few liberties with the actual organization of medical units in Vietnam, particularly with the chain of command.  My apology to the men and women who were in the medical units there and wore the patch of the 44th Medical Brigade.”

The first sentence of Chapter One, reads:  “In early 1968, the huge long binh compound, north of Saigon swarmed with activity.” Uh, oh, I thought, no caps on place names. That’s a red flag to me. I thought, “Is this going to be another half-assed, home-made book that will be agonizing for me to read?”

I decided to read to the end of the thirteen-page first chapter before I made up my mind. The garish color cover, which shows a cartoon medic riding a huge pink pig, combined with a title ending in an exclamation point already had set a comic tone in my mind.

I’m glad I did not throw the book against the wall and abandon it. Medics Wild! turns out to be a well-written, very enjoyable book about the 44th Medical Brigade. The characters are well developed and I learned a lot about what medics did in the Vietnam War. Bain has a gift for making detailed descriptions of medical procedures interesting and often funny.

He shows the reader what rear-area life for medics was like. He gives a nod to the often-told tropes of such novels, such as the barber who is also working as a VC, shit burning, SOS, and the fact that the children are the real losers in war.

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Darrell Bain

We learn that medics at this stage of the war, in the rear area, mostly dealt with drug problems, as well as with cases of the clap, syphilis, and venereal warts. Also skin diseases and the occasional cough and back pain.

We hear more than once that the politicians in Washington, D.C., refused to let the troops win the war. The implication is that it would have been easily done. The Khaki Mafia is discussed.

The book ends with the 1968 Tet Offensive. The medics who had been out of their heads on drugs get their act together and become responsible and do a good job with the wounded.

I enjoyed this book and recommend it highly to anyone curious about medics in Vietnam during this period of time. Not one page was boring.

The author’s website is www.darrellbain.com

—David Willson

Mary Bernadette by John F. Bronzo

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The entirety of John F. Bronzo’s Mary Bernadette: Secrets of a Dallas Moon—A Young Vietnamese Girl’s Tale from the Grave About the Killing of JFK (Archway Publishing, 426 pp., $40.99, hardcover; $26.99, paper; $2.99, Kindle) is neatly summarized both in the long title and in this paragraph at the beginning of the book:

“Rooted in the 1963 Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy (JFK) and taking place during the Vietnam War in 1971, this is an epic tale of patriotism and sacrifice and of love and intrigue, as seen by the backward glance of a young Vietnamese girl named Mary Bernadette, who was born on the day President Kennedy was assassinated and lived just long enough to see his other assassin—the second gunman on the grassy knoll—be captured.”

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or used factiously. As Bronzo says, “Any resemblance to actual events or persons living or dead is entirely coincidental.”

I’ve read many, many books that deal with the JFK assassination, and this is a worthy addition to the field. I’ve even written a couple of conjectural stories about the existence of a second assassin.  So I am familiar with that confused and nightmarish event.

Bronzo has given the interested reader an enjoyable novel to read, as well as plenty to think about. I recommend this book to those who never seem to get enough grist for the conspiracy mill that has been cranking out one crazy theory after the other for all these decades.

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John F. Bronzo

This novel does demand close, attentive reading, however, as the names of characters change throughout. The free and easy way the book moves through time and space can easily discombobulate the reader who needs a book to be strictly chronological and narrated by people who are alive and well.

We’re told that Lee Harvey Oswald was not “a silly little communist acting alone” in nut country, and that he was framed.

The book does occasionally intersect with the themes in other Vietnam War books, including the phrase that most irritates me, “baby killers.” It’s as if babies were treasured by the armies in previous wars. But babies died in all wars.

—David Willson

The Detachment by Gary Reilly

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The Detachment (Running Meter Press, 536 pp., $22.95, paper; $9.49, Kindle) is the second novel in a trilogy about military life by Gary Reilly, who died in 2011, so all of his many novels have been published since his death. The first was The Enlisted Men’s Club, which we reviewed favorably in Books in Review II.

The trilogy is based on Reilly’s experiences as an Army M.P.  The Detachment is set in Qui Nhon where Private Palmer, the antihero of the trilogy, rarely leaves the base. Still, the Vietnam War is always right there.

When Palmer arrives in Vietnam, he is still a private, due to things that didn’t go quite right at his previous duty station at the Presidio in San Francisco. His observations upon arriving in-country are familiar to this reader. He describes “a smell furnace of a city” and comments often that “somebody is making money off this war.” That comment is made after he sees Coca-Cola and Anheuser Busch ads.  Jammed M-16s and shit burning, as well as the tale of the VC putting hand grenades in Jeep gas tanks, get mentioned.

Reilly’s language is strong and on the mark, as it was in his previous military novel. He encounters a “curtain of heat and a stink so strange that he cannot place it.” He’s in Vietnam, due to a wish “not to weasel out of the war.” He has no idea why he is an M.P. He’d assumed that as a draftee, he’d be in the infantry.

He is in the M.P’s, which he states over and over are hated by everyone in Vietnam who is not an M. P. I think back to my thirteen months in Vietnam. Those who worked in our section, for the Inspector General, assumed that everyone hated us, too. Nobody likes those who inspect them. I guess nobody likes those who arrest and handcuff them either.

Because of his low rank, Palmer is assigned to the traffic section. He sits at a desk dealing with statistics and forms for his entire tour of duty. He is the guy in charge of paperwork. “It makes him feel pissant and chicken shit,” Reilly writes,”and he likes it.”

I also sat at a desk in Vietnam for all those months I was there, and Reilly captures perfectly how I felt about my time there. I liked it, too. He got to gaze at the South China Sea on a daily basis. He was the traffic man, and he did a good job.

The last half of the book reminds me of that classic Vietnam War novel by Tim Mahoney, We’re Not Here, set in the Mekong Delta in 1975. Few novels deal with the last days of the American war in Vietnam. The Detachment also gives the reader a good sense of what the U.S. withdrawal involved.

Palmer spent a lot of time in the library “trying to get a fix on the Vietnam War,” but that ends when the library is packed up and shipped home. The withdrawal was done the Army way, “slow and complicated.”

Reilly gives the reader an immersion in this aspect of the Army throughout this fine novel of service in the rear. I add it to the short list of worthy novels of the REMF in Vietnam. Service in the rear was the majority experience, although it is seldom given respect or space in the Vietnam War canon.

41pzr12besol-_sx321_bo1204203200_Palmer says that he has no good war stories to take home. He has many stories of drug use, including a brief flirtation of his with heroin. Palmer descends deeply into alcohol use, but due to a “terrible weekend scare,” goes cold turkey and becomes a model soldier. He enters Vietnam convinced he will die there, but realizes “statistically speaking, his fear of dying in Vietnam is ludicrous.” He gets the short-timer shakes, but does not give in to them.

This second book in the trilogy ends with the Freedom Bird taking off and Palmer reading his paperback. I am already eager for the next and final book in this series. I assume it will be about what Palmer finds when he gets home to the Land of the Big PX.

I salute Mark Stevens and Mike Keefe, who retrieved this great novel of Vietnam from long-obsolete software, ancient drives and floppies, and pieced it together from that material. They also found a “single Reilly-bound copy at the bottom of an old box of his belongings.”

It was in bad shape, but you’d never know it from this beautiful book, another labor of love from Running Meter press.

—David Willson