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

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial at Angel Fire by Steven Trout

An abundance of love between parents and their children can lead to highly improbable actions. Within days after Marine Platoon Leader Lt. Victor David Westphall III was killed in action near Con Thien in South Vietnam in 1968, his father and mother—Victor and Jeanne—began planning building a chapel in remembrance of him. They accomplished the task in less than three years at the cost of their life savings–and an eventual marital separation.

The Westphalls’ independently built chapel at 8,500 feet altitude near Taos in remote Angel Fire, New Mexico, was dedicated more than a decade before the completion of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial—The Wall—in Washington, D.C.

Steven Trout tells the Westphall family’s story in The Vietnam Veterans Memorial at Angel Fire: War, Remembrance, and an American Tragedy (University Press of Kansas, 240 pp. $50, hardcover; $19.95, paper and Kindle). Trout, who chairs the University of South Alabama English Department and co-directs the university’s Center for the Study of War and Memory, spent several years doing the research for this book. He relied heavily on the words of Victor Westphall (who died at 89 in 2003), as well as his son Walter, David’s younger brother who served in the Vietnam as an Air Force KC135 pilot.

The Westphalls expanded their plans from simply a remembrance of their son to what became the Vietnam Veterans Peace and Brotherhood Chapel. They dedicated the structure to “World Peace,” now and forever. Since then, the chapel has been at the center of repeated controversies.

Readers should bypass the book’s introduction and acknowledgement section because they give away a series of surprising, extraordinary events as the Westphalls’ lives took unexpected and challenging turns after building the Chapel.

Trout opens the story by describing the psychological relationship between Victor and David Westphall. Trout then recreates David Westphall’s seven months in the Vietnam War, using his letters to the family to provide intimate details.

Lt. David Westphall in country

The remainder of the book deals with the construction and function of the chapel, a constant struggle for the family. Trout also examines the American antiwar movement; the politics and funding of veterans memorials; the passion and interactions of Victor Westphall and visitors to the chapel; and the evolution of the ownership, name, and operation of the site.

Along with normally accepted viewpoints, Trout delves into deep and controversial arguments from the past. Several ideas were new to me—and challenging.

Near the book’s end when Victor and Walter Westphall arrive in Vietnam to visit the battleground where David was killed, they leave the reader with a somewhat contrary conclusion to all that had come before by saying that in Ho Chi Minh City, they immediately noticed a sea of young faces, a population explosion that had already left Vietnamese veterans of the “American War” vastly outnumbered by countrymen with no memory of the conflict.

Ironically, here the war seemed to matter less than it did at home.

—Henry Zeybel    

U.S. Air Cavalry Trooper Versus North Vietnamese Soldier, Vietnam 1965-68 by Chris McNab

In early 1965 while at stationed at Fort Benning, I witnessed an incredible sight. Actually, I heard it first, and it sounded as if I were inside a beehive. Then an armada of helicopters emerged low over the trees with Mohawk reconnaissance aircraft leading the way and Caribou transports alongside. I had no idea that what I was seeing was the future of combat operations: employing airmobile forces on the battlefield.     

What I saw was the 11th Air Assault Division completing its final test phase. Within months the unit was re-designated the 1st Cavalry Division and sent to Vietnam. Airmobile warfare, tested and refined at Fort Benning and then put in place in Vietnam, is the subject of Chris McNab’s U.S. Air Cavalry Trooper Versus North Vietnamese Soldier, Vietnam 1965-68 (Osprey, 80 pp. $22, paper; $9.99, Kindle),

McNab, who specializes in writing about wilderness and urban survival techniques, focuses on the key components of success in war. He writes that the Air Cavalry is a true product of combined-arms warfare, employing vertical envelopment on the battlefield supported by massive firepower. McNab analyses how that concept worked in the Vietnam War against the North Vietnamese Army’s impressive ability to quickly adapt tactics to diminish the air cavalry’s advantages and inflict maximum casualties by assaulting air cav troopers before withdrawing. 

McNab points out how the cavalry employed technology to enhance success on the battlefield. New advances in radio communications, for example, permitted rapid responses to fluid situations on the ground, and scout helicopters brought eyes-on-the-battlefield to the command and control system. This was in addition to the use of helicopters to rapidly insert forces and shift them as battlefield conditions evolved.

Although the 1st Cavalry led the way with new tactics, mobility, and technology, it still had to fight conventionally on the ground. While the men of the 1st Cav inflicted significant casualties on the enemy—primarily due to the firepower at its command—they also suffered large losses. Two prime example, the November 1965 Battle of the Ia Drang Valley, and the October 1965 Siege of Plei Me.

By the time the 1st Cavalry Division withdrew from the Vietnam War it had suffered more casualties than any other U.S. unit

1st Cav Col. Hal Moore in Vietnam

To illustrate the tactics of the 1st Cav and the NVA, McNab draws on the engagements fought in 1966-1967, particularly Operations Crazy Horse and Masher and the battles of Tam Quan and the Vinh Thanh Valley. He explains the NVA’s uncomplicated method of neutralizing airpower and artillery: quickly closing with U.S. troops, something they termed “holding the enemy’s belt.” In doing so, they got inside the safe zone for American forces where artillery and airstrikes were equally dangerous for both sides.

This is a first-rate short book, but there is a significant omission. Reading the description of the 1st Cavalry’s organizational structure I was surprised that McNab did not mention Air Force units that worked with the Cav and with other Army combat divisions and independently operating battalions: Forward Air Controllers (FACs) and the Special Forces Tactical Air Control Party (TACP).

Other than that misstep, this book brings much to the table: It is filled with excellent illustrations and photographs that greatly enhance the narrative, along with highly usable maps with descriptive keys. 

This is a valuable reference tool.

–John Cirafici

Reach for More by David M. Szumowski

Reach for More: A Journey from Loss to Love and Fulfillment (Dementi Milestone Publishing, 152 pp. $20, paper; $7.50, Kindle) by David M. Szumowski is an inspirational look at how one man refused to let the fact that he had been blinded in the Vietnam War determine what the rest of his life would be like. The story describes everything David Szumowski accomplished despite what many would have considered a handicap, leading up to being appointed a Superior Court judge in California.

Szumowski grew up in upstate New York. Both of his parents had been in the Army and served in France during World War II. The oldest of four boys, he took ROTC in college and after graduating in 1967 he was commissioned a 2nd lieutenant. After training at Ft. Knox and Jungle School in Panama, he arrived in Vietnam in February 1969.

On March 20, Szumowski, an 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment tank platoon leader, was wounded during a day of heavy fighting near Dau Tieng. He had been in Vietnam for only forty days and had experienced only one firefight. The five 48-ton tanks under his command were patrolling near the Michelin rubber plantation when they came under attack. The last thing, literally, that David Szumowski saw was a flash of light.

He was immediately taken to a field hospital in Bien Hoa where he learned, after two weeks, that his war was over—and that he would never regain his sight. The young lieutenant was flown to Camp Zama, Japan, where he stayed for about three weeks. His next stop was stateside at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington D.C.

Szumowski was medically retired from the Army, and then went through a 16-week rehabilitation program designed to teach him how to live without sight. He learned Braille, but realized he would never read a book in that manner because of how long it would take. He began listening to recorded books, instead, and believes he has “read”to more than 5,000 since then.

The bulk of Reach for More deals with Szumowski’s decision to attend law school, his short-lived private legal practice, a decade of service as a Deputy District Attorney, and an even longer period as a judge in California.

Judge Szumowski

Szumowski has kind words to say about the VA. Even though the agency “is currently under scrutiny for its lack of care to veterans,” he writes, “I am one veteran who benefitted greatly from VA programs and have only high praise for their programs and care.”

According to Szumowski success in life is the result of “playing the hand you are dealt, seizing opportunities that present themselves, having faith in God, and never giving up.”

There are several photos in the book, including an especially moving one of the author at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. Szumowski represents very well the many veterans of the Vietnam War who have risen above physical problems they brought home and continue to serve as inspiring examples of the indomitable human spirit.

–Bill McCloud

Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio by Derf Backderf

Derf Backderf’s Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio (Abrams ComicArts, 288 pp. $24.95) tells in graphic novel form the true story of a massacre of four unarmed students by Ohio National Guardsmen on the college’s campus in May 1970. That bloody incident often is considered the end of the turbulent sixties, along with much of the promise that those years embraced.

I am in awe of what Backderf—a renowned cartoonist and graphic artist—has accomplished in this book, especially the massive amount of research he did and his ability to incorporate the results of that research into an artistic format. Following a brief Prologue, Backderf gives us four chapters, one for each of the four days of the Kent State story which played out from May 1 to May 4. He includes an Epilogue on the book’s very last page, following more than two dozen pages of endnotes. Placing the Epilogue there is akin to a director adding a scene in a movie following the credits.

Kent State is a dramatic recreation of the events based primarily on eyewitness testimony and official reports. I strongly suggest reading the 26 pages of endnotes, which provide source material for each scene and serve also to flesh out the entire story.

College campuses around the nation erupted when President Richard Nixon announced that his latest attempt to bring the war in Vietnam to an end was to officially expand America’s role beyond the borders of Vietnam and move U.S. troops into Cambodia.

At Kent State University in Ohio a student group reacted by publicly declaring the U.S. Constitution dead and burying a copy of it on campus on Friday, May 1. They also called for an antiwar rally for Monday May 4. That antiwar agitation made for an intense weekend, both on the campus and on the streets of Kent.

The book is pretty much a moment-by-moment telling of what happened over these few days, culminating in National Guard troops opening fire on students, killing four and wounding nine others.

This is not a comic book made up of mostly drawings. Plenty of words filll every page. Backderf, an Ohio native, includes boxes of text throughout, providing background information on such subjects as the military draft, Students for a Democratic Society, and ROTC.  

His illustrations are so vivid that I could almost hear the sounds of the weekend on each page: music blasting from stereos, the ringing of the campus Victory Bell, the marching feet of the advancing Guard troops, and then the screaming. 

The unfortunate highlights of this book are the violent, sickening pages (thirty-three panels) that show each student at the moment he or she was shot. It was a brave decision to illustrate these in such an explicit fashion—and it was absolutely necessary for readers to see the carnage in order to understand the horror unleashed on the students that day.

This is a marvelous historical account and artistic undertaking. Don’t question the depth and seriousness of this book because it’s in a graphic novel format. It’s appropriate as a college textbook, and for any others who wish to know about this episode into the darkness of the American soul.

Backderf’s website is www.derfcity.com

–Bill McCloud

Body Count Soldiers by Charles H. Smith & Just a Kid from Swampoodle to Vietnam by Edmond J. Cubbage

Vietnam War veterans have entered the twilight of their lives and many of us have yet to tell our stories, which have much to say about a controversial war and about ourselves during that time. The distance between that war and most of us is now a half century and the time remaining to capture the experience of being in the Vietnam War is growing shorter.     

Two U.S. Army 1st Infantry Division veterans have reached back many years, collected their memories, produced books about their very personal experiences. The books are Charles Smith’s Body Count Soldiers: Vietnam through the Eyes of a Draftee (117 pp., $15.99, paper; $9.99, Kindle) and Edmond Cubbage’s Just a Kid from Swampoodle to Vietnam, (173 pp., $19.99, paper and Kindle). They are welcome additions to the Vietnam Ware memoir genre.

Charles Smith, a member of Vietnam Veterans of America, presents his one-year odyssey as a young infantryman as a collection of day-to-day vignettes and observations. Because Smith was a draftee, he naturally addresses the unfairness of the Selective Service System and how privileged young men benefitted with exemptions, allowing them to avoid being drafted and serving in the war.

I was able, as one of many young enlistees who came from the underclass, to appreciate his thoughts. His comments about the distance he experienced between draftees and soldiers who enlisted brought back memories. I remember sitting around a campfire as the two groups jokingly commented on how each guy found himself in Vietnam by referring to each other by their serial number prefixes, “US” for draftees and “RA” for those who enlisted. The gist was that the RA’s were fools because they had joined the Army, while the US’s were there only because they were forced to be—as if it made any difference.

Many of Smith’s memories of being in the field are unembellished and low key. He describes what thousands of us faced: mosquito bites, dirt clinging to sweat-covered bodies, enemy fire, friendships, and sometimes tension between soldiers. And exposure to Agent Orange.  

He also recalls a question put to him and heard by too many of us when came home: “How many people did you kill?  When hearing that mindless question there is no way that I know to bridge the gap between those who fought in a war and those at home asking the question. After returning home, as Smith did, I became totally opposed to our involvement in the war and also angry about how the My Lai incident made all of us who served in Vietnam suspect in the eyes of many.

Body Count Soldiers was easy to read, enjoyable, and filled with shared experiences.

Edmond Cubbage’s Just a Kid from Swampoodle to Vietnam is similar to Body Count Soldiers, yet has significant differences. Once again, it was interesting to read about another Vietnam War veteran’s experiences and realize how much they were like my own. Like Cubbage, I had gone through airborne training before serving in Vietnam. 

However, I was taken aback when, as an aside, Cuggage inexplicably offers an unfounded explanation about why so many paratroopers were killed during World War II’s D-Day’s assault. Perhaps he did it to make sure the reader was paying attention.     

What’s more, when discussing the destructive consequences of Agent Orange, Cubbage cites a statistic that is inconsistent with the available data. Perhaps, when someone is trying to grasp the magnitude of that toxic chemical’s impact he can be forgiven for exaggerating to make a point.

The book is more rewarding when Cubbage focuses on his personal, down-to-earth experiences. He took me right back to ‘Nam the moment he brought up C-rations and mentioned ham and limas. “We all hated ham and lima beans; they were the worst,” Cabbage writes. As someone else once said, a can of ham and limas is “deadlier than a landmine.”  

It is Cubbage’s remembrances of the small things like the rations and the long nights in the jungle waiting and waiting for something to happen that capture so well the experiences many of us had in Vietnam. His descriptions of up-close combat will be familiar to war veterans. 

Cubbage’s memoir reads as if it is a series of passages excerpted from a young man’s journal, written as he is passing through an unfamiliar world shaped by the Army and combat in Vietnam.    

Both memoirs are honest reflections of what the war was really like for those who carried the burden of the conflict on their shoulders.

–John Cirafici

Prisoner of Wars by Chia Youyee Vang

Learning intimate facts about how other people live is an enlightening experience. Once again, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee history professor Chia Youyee Vang fulfills that promise with Prisoner of Wars: A Hmong Fighter Pilot’s Story of Escaping Death and Confronting Life (Temple University Press, 168 pp. $74.50, hardcover; $24.95, paper and e book).

Although the book’s title highlights prison life, only one chapter is devoted to that experience. The book’s theme primarily deals with Pao Yang—who helped Professor Yang with the book—and his family’s survival under constant hardships. “A core condition among human beings across time and place is that of suffering,” Vang says.

This is her fifth book about the Hmong diaspora, preceded by Hmong in Minnesota (2008); Hmong America: Reconstructing Community in Diaspora (2010); Claiming Place: On the Agency of Hmong Women (2016); and Fly Until You Die (2019).

She excels at storytelling by incorporating pieces of interviews verbatim into her narrative, a technique that amplifies the emotional impact of the speakers. With Prisoner of Wars, she uses Pao Yang’s words to attain a new height of emotional insight. “What you will read are my truths,” Pao Yang says. Quotations tirelessly gathered by Vang from Paos Yang’s family members and friends strengthen his recollections from the past.

Capt. Pao Yang flew hundreds of close air support missions in T-28D fighter-bombers in Laos for Gen. Vang Pao. Shot down and captured in June 1972 at the age of 24, he was listed as missing in action. When he failed to return home following the signing of the 1973 Paris Peace Accords, his family decided that he had been killed in action. A botched prisoner exchange allowed the Lao People’s Democratic Republic to hold Pao Yang as a slave laborer until October 1976.

Chia Youyee Vang

The decision to classify him as KIA deeply affected his family. His wife grieved, remarried, moved to the United States, and left their son in Laos.

Once he was finally released Pao Yang faced drama after drama: reuniting with his mother and son, a second marriage, a dangerous escape from Laos to Thailand, deprivation in a refugee camp, eventual entry to the United States, and a free life of hard work, low paying jobs, failed businesses, and illness in a foreign land. Sorrow accompanied the joy he found.

I have read similar tales, but none as intriguing as this one.

Many Americans might classify Prisoner of Wars as another reflection of the intricacies of America’s so-called Secret War in Laos. To me, the revelations those interviewed by Professor Vang make the book a valuable narrative about people everywhere who are dispersed worldwide because of war and other conflicts. Uncertain settlement in a foreign land and practically non-existent job opportunities often are lifelong and unwarranted hardships for such migrants.

The story of Pao Yang’s family clearly makes this point.

—Henry Zeybel

Augie’s World by John H. Brown

John H. Brown’s Augie’s World (Black Rose Writing, 243 pp. $18.95, paper; $6.99, Kindle) is a tight little action and adventure story rooted in a sense of family and loyalty. Brown was drafted into the Army and served a 1969-70 Vietnam War tour of duty with the Americal Division. This book is a follow-up to his debut novel, Augie’s War.

After being drafted, main character Augie Cumpton winds up in Vietnam where he loses three good buddies in combat, sees another one permanently desert, and learns about a senior NCO being murdered by one of his men. Augie returns home in 1970 and is soon discharged. He develops PTSD, though it won’t be officially diagnosed for ten years. In the meantime, he self-medicates with alcohol and drugs.

Augie was raised in an extended Italian-American family, which he returns to, with dreams of studying English literature and becoming a teacher. Food is important to this family as are the rituals around preparing it and family dining. Memories of such family gatherings sustain Augie during some of his most difficult times. Brown includes eight pages of family recipes at the back of the book for such things as stuffed artichokes and pasta marinara.

While working in the family business Augie gets involved in a deadly encounter with Mafia members over what they called “insurance” for the small business. Augie is forced to leave town, taking with him his old Army .45 caliber pistol. With the Mob hot on his heels he attempts to go into hiding. But when members of his family are threatened, he realizes he should come home and deal with the problem. He’s not John Rambo, though, and needs the help of family members to end the threat.

There is a really cool, nearly mystical, character who helps Augie, but it needs to be said that Brown includes quite a bit of almost casual violence and threats of such throughout the book.

John H. Brown

There are more than forty chapters that alternate between first and third person. Brown does a great job in moving the story along through chapters titled “Welcome Home,” “To the Moon,” “Bad News,” “Circle the Wagons,” and “Escalation.”

I encountered two hiccups in the book. One involves a returning soldier being spat on at an airport, which we know is a myth. Since this is fiction, an author is free to use artistic license—but it’s not right to perpetuate that myth.

Brown also writes that “four student protestors” were killed by Ohio State National Guard troops in May 1970 at Kent State University. It’s important to note that two of the four murdered students were not protesting anything; they were walking between classes at a distance of more than 380 feet from the shooters when they were gunned down.

I was interested in seeing how this story turned out. Brown kept me reading. I found the ending to be far-fetched, but that didn’t ruin the book, which overall I enjoyed.

The author’s website is  wordsbyjohnbrown.com

–Bill McCloud

An American Soldier in Vietnam by Joseph J. Snyder

Joseph J. Snyder’s  An American Soldier in Vietnam (Sheridan Books, 95 pp. $19.95) may just be the most concise memoir ever written about a draftee’s two years in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War. In 95 pages of large text that includes 32 pages of sharply focused colored photographs that he took, Snyder tells his Vietnam War story, leaving out mundane facts and highlighting the foibles of military life.

He weaves short bursts of political criticism into his accounts of being pulled out of graduate school, receiving Vietnamese language and intelligence training, serving with the 25th Military Intelligence Company around Cu Chi and into Cambodia, and returning home to complete his master’s degree.

Snyder’s year in-country began in March 1970, a time of turmoil during the drawdown of American forces. After describing unusual events that he observed, he often allows the reader to reach his or her own conclusion about what was right or wrong. In that respect, his stories provide a lot of subtle humor.

Recognized by his commander for his ability to complete tasks, Snyder frequently operated on his own interrogating and judging the fate of prisoners, procuring counter-intelligence, and handling refugees. His off-duty freedom led to interesting experiences, particularly a strange R&R in Japan.

He returned home as an Spec. 5 with a Bronze Star and an Army Commendation Medal with Oak Leaf Cluster. Snyder later suffered two amputations resulting from exposure to Agent Orange–something he barely touches on in the book.

Joseph J. Snyder

In civilian life, Snyder built a family and careers as a U.S. Civil Service Commission investigator and as a writer, journalist, author, editor, and occasional publisher for four decades.

Joseph J. Snyder’s insightful Vietnam War memoir might make an excellent eye-opening gift for anyone considering a military career. Times have changed, but personalities and the system remain fixed.

Snyder knows that and shows it in this book. 

—Henry Zeybel

The Last Helicopter by Jim Laurie

Jim Laurie’s The Last Helicopter: Two Lives in Indochina (FocusAsia, 366 pp. $18.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle) is a book that almost demands that a reader, upon completing it, sits back and digests what has just happened.

The book begins with Laurie, a budding, 22-year-old foreign correspondent, stumbling into Cambodia in early 1970 on one of his first assignments. While attending a military briefing he meets and befriends Soc Sinan, a young Khmer woman who was working for a French tractor company. The relationship that developed endures, often at a distance, off and on, for more than 50 years. 

Laurie covered the last years of the Vietnam War for NBC News, and later for ABC News. In 1975, he witnessed the fall of Cambodia to the Khmer Rouge, and left Soc Sinan behind as he fled on the last helicopter out of Phnom Penh. This was the first—but not the last—time that Laurie’s career, hubris, and self-interest combined to separate the couple.

After leaving Indochina, Laurie went on to report on wars and political upheaval throughout the world in a career what would span more than five decades.

In his book Laurie offers the reader his views of the hostilities that took place in Southeast East Asia, China, and elsewhere. In that regard, we get a foreign correspondent’s look at things that most people only get to see from a distance.

After the fall of Phnom Penh, Soc Sinan was forced into Khmer Rouge labor camps for more than four years. Laurie’s interviews with her provide a stunning look into the inhumanity that took place. Her commentary alone is worth the price of the book.

During the intervening time, Laurie continued to search for Sinan, and finally found her. The story of her rescue and departure from Indochina makes for page-turning reading.

Jim Laurie honored Sinan’s request for her ashes to be spread upon the Mekong River off the banks of her native Cambodian village birthplace. Her Buddhist spirit, he writes, reached back to those in attendance.

This is an interesting book. It’s well written and edited, and is a rare and refreshing departure from the usual battle-heavy books about the Indochina wars. 

The book’s website is jimlaurie.com/the-last-helicopter

–Tom Werzyn

Audie Murphy in Saigon by Edgar Tiffany

Edgar Tiffany’s Audie Murphy in Saigon: Fictions and Nonfictions (293 pp. $14.95, paper; $7.99, Kindle) is a mind-blowing literary work divided into into two parts. The first, “Nonfictions,” consists of memories of Tiffany’s service in Vietnam, some of which he refers to as “anti-memories.” The second, “Fictions,” is made up of five major pieces, including the title story.

Edgar “Buzz” Tiffany enlisted in the U.S. Army when he was 18. He went on to serve with the 1st Infantry Division in the Vietnam War in 1966 and 1967. In addition to his thoughts about his military experiences, the nonfiction section contains Tiffany’s examination of movies and books based on the Vietnam War and other American conflicts.  

Audie Murphy, the Medal of Honor recipient and the most decorated soldier of World War II, plays an important role in the book. Murphy starred in the 1958 movie version of Graham Greene’s novel The Quiet American, much of which was filmed on location in South Vietnam. Tiffany considers The Quiet American the one book that attempts to get at the profound meaning of the Vietnam War—its history, its people, the land, the wars. He says you can see the influence of The Quiet American in serious nonfiction books such as The Forever War by Dexter Filkins and The Operators by Michael Hastings.

After drawing a direct connection between The Quiet American and Michael Herr’s Dispatches, Tiffany suggests that the best nonfiction books on the Vietnam War are David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest and The Making of a Quagmire and Neil Sheehan’s A Bright, Shining Lie.

Tiffany realized while he was in Vietnam that he would one day write a novel about the war. Not “the Vietnam of America,” he says, “but the Vietnam identified by its own aromas, clamor, craftsmanship, industry, mimicry, art, and adaptation.” A book like that is “real literature,” he says, akin to James Joyce’s Ulysses. Such a book,” Tiffany writes, “written about war-time Saigon, as lost as it was, would serve as a blueprint to resurrect not only Saigon, but an American experience in Vietnam.”

Tiffany returned to Vietnam in 1994. He found the former Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City, to be “a city with “three personalities—Vietnamese, French, and American—although the American fingerprint was fast fading.” When he went back four years later he encountered a significant Russian presence.

The fiction pieces are bizarre stories centered on the theme of death and resurrection. They are written in a literarily poetic form, as in in this sentence about snow:

“It fell slowly, whitely, from a bank of blackness overhead to blanket the blackness of the earth.”

In the next-to-last entry, the book’s title story, Tiffany writes about a Special Forces captain who has been ordered to Saigon because of rumors of a possible coup. It’s November 1963, a moment when, Tiffany writes, “burned Buddhists did not rise from the ashes like the Phoenix but were swept into dustpans.”

The captain is in a room with “a telephone big enough to beat a man to death.” Also in that room is a photograph of Audie Murphy taken when he was in Saigon filming The Quiet American.

This book was a pleasure to read. So much so that as soon as I finished, I immediately turned back to the first page and began to read it again.

Get this one for your library.  

–Bill McCloud