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 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
8719 Colesville Road
Silver Spring, MD 20910

We welcome comments, questions, and suggestions at mleepson@vva.org

–Marc Leepson, Books Editor

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My Story…And I’m Sticking To It—I Think! by George R. Partridge

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“In the beginning God created the Heavens and the Earth… and in 1933, me!” George R. Partridge says in My Story… And I’m Sticking To It—I Think! (Partridge Covey, 376 pp. $24.99, paper; $9/99.Kindle). At this memoir’s core is Partridge’s recollection of his thirty-three-year military career, which began in 1951. He also records the life histories of his parents, wives, children, fellow flyers—and even his pets—from his birth to today.

At heart, George Partridge is a fighter pilot who periodically suffered through desk-bound assignments. To attain that boyhood goal, he enlisted in the Air Force and qualified for and completed the Aviation Cadet program.

Like many pilot memoirs that span the Vietnam War, the chronological narrative of My Story is familiar. After earning his wings, Partridge perfected his flying skills during everyday training missions and unit exercises. Primarily, he flew the F-94C, F-89, and F-100 and encountered his share of aerial drama. His travels around the world landed him in Vietnam three times.

His first assignment there came well before the big American troop buildup when he served as a radar site controller at Tan Son Nhut from September 1961 to February 1962. His unit vectored South Vietnamese Air Force fighters to provide close air support for “outposts under attack,” Partridge says. He and his men were limited to wearing only civilian clothes when off duty.

His second tour was at Lai Khe as a forward air controller with the First Infantry Division—the Big Red One—from October 1965 to February 1966. He spent most of his time in the field, frequently under fire. Concurrently, he flew fifty-six combat missions in the O-1/L-19 Bird Dog.

Again, at Tan Son Nhut, Partridge concluded his Vietnam War service as a Fighter Duty Officer for the 7th Air Force Tactical Air Control Center from June to September 1972.

Regarding the war, Partridge provides details only of his time with the Big Red One—the highlight of the book. He presents insight into territory that few Air Force personnel experienced, and teaches lessons he learned during those months.

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Col. Partridge

As the book’s title hints, Partridge has a talent for one-liners that add humor to his storytelling. For example, he lessens the awe of a near miss between two F-100s (“so close as to fill most of my field-of-vision”) by saying:

“We would have come to a meeting of the minds—literally.”

He then slips in: “A mid-air will ruin your day!” You can almost hear a rim shot.

This memoir is one example of the fact that more Vietnam War veterans need to “speak now and forever rest in peace.” Men into their eighties, like Partridge, are running low on time, but still have knowledge to share. Individual reflections refine the truths of our war.

Memoirs resemble votes about the past. Historians tally the yeas and nays.

—Henry Zeybel

The Girls Next Door by Kara Dixon Vuic

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Most works of history can be placed in one of two categories: they either provide context to a specific era or topic or they present an argument based on a historic question. Kara Dixon Vuic’s The Girls Next Door: Bringing the Home Front to the Front Lines (Harvard University Press, 392 pp., $29.95) is in the former category. The book examines—and provides a comprehensive history of—the topic of women’s work in military entertainment from World War I through the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The book is a largely anecdotal and accessible history. Its ninety pages of end notes evince its comprehensive research. Vuic is a rofessor of War, Conflict, and Society in Twentieth-Century America at Texas Christian University and the author of the award-winning Officer, Nurse, Woman: The Army Nurse Corps in the Vietnam War.

During the first two world wars and through the Korean War, prominent agencies including the YMCA, Salvation Army, Red Cross, and USO recruited college-educated, attractive, adventurous, and “middle-American wholesome” female volunteers. In coordination with the military, the women were deployed overseas to manage canteens, play games, and provide a familial reminder to bolster morale and commitment. The women were symbols of domestic Americana.

During the Cold War—and particularly during the Vietnam War—the Army’s Special Services was the leading provider of these programs, most notably through the Red Cross’ Donut Dolly program. With the advent of the all-volunteer force after the Vietnam War as more women joined the armed forces through the 1980s, the programs appropriately shifted to serve families.

In documenting the history of women in military entertainment, Vuic also traces “the evolution of wartime gender ideologies and connects women’s work for the military to “their changing place in the nation.” This is underscored in the war in Vietnam, where the splintering of American culture was particularly evident.

In Vietnam, the intrinsic tension in the role of the women between conventional purity and sexual desire was exposed. The military used both the wholesomeness of the Donut Dollies and provocative USO shows to try to maintain esprit de corps. The title of the book and the cover photograph of a Donut Dolly in Da Nang illustrate the popular Vietnam War-era Playboy image of the “Girl Next Door” that fused innocence with sexuality.

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Vietnam War Donut Dollies

The most poignant parts of the book are the stories of the women who consistently worked within the confines of their rigid roles to create new, more-meaningful aspects of their service. Though technically both provided “entertainment,” it seems unfair to group the Donut Dollies, who lived in country and had personal relationships with troops, with the touring USO performers.

The epilogue is disappointing as it includes a polemic featuring the scandal that forced Al Franken’s resignation from the U.S. Senate. But this is a minor quibble in a book that successfully examines a specific theme and provides an excellent reference on the historic role of civilian women who worked with the troops in America’s 20th and 21st century wars.

—Daniel R. Hart

The Truth Behind Going Postal by Garland D. Lewis, Sr.

Garland D. Lewis Sr. worked for the United States Postal Service for thirty-three years, a career he questioned from his first day on the job. During the entire time he worked for the USPS, Lewis encountered supervisors whose “autocratic and abusive management style was offensive and threatening to employees,” he says. “Many times, it reached levels of criminal behavior, with management personnel stalking individuals and denying many of their civil rights.”

Lewis discusses his supervisors at great length in his book, The Truth Behind Going Postal: Surviving the Torture in The United States Postal Service (CreateSpace, 326 pp. $21.95, paper; $4.99, Kindle). “Their arrogance defines them,” he writes.

After four years as a Navy aircraft technician, Lewis took a job with the Postal Service in 1980 because, at that time, he writes, it was “one of the few places, if not the only one, where black people could earn a salary that allowed them to live a middle-class life style.” His goal was “a stable career with a future.”

Lewis describes himself as “hard rock muscles with five percent body fat,” a man weighing 255 pounds who “kept to [himself] and respected the distance of others as they did with [him].” His independence, however, conflicted with USPS supervisors who demanded absolute submissiveness from workers at his level.

Deprived on the job of his rights, Lewis saw no recourse but to file grievance after grievance. He tells a repetitious story of confrontations: discrimination, intimidation, documentation, accusation, retaliation, investigation, termination, examination, negotiation, arbitration, and mediation.

Garland Lewis

Lewis encountered police officers—who jailed him—and judges who favored his supervisors. Similarly, agencies designed to support his rights such as the EAP (Employees Assistance Program), EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission), ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union), CRC (Civil Right Commission), and NAACP  either sided with management or ignored him.

Lewis’ only help came from the American Postal Workers Union and lawyers to whom he paid thousands of dollars.

In a rare burst of humor, Lewis calls his dilemma as “Drowning in the Alphabet Soup of Equal Rights Agencies.”

Because he followed the rules and his tormentors did not, ultimately Lewis prevailed, but just  barely. Reading the book wore me out. But it lives up to its subtitle.

The books’ website is https://thetruthbehindgoingpostal.com/

—Henry Zeybel

Vietnam: The Last Combat Marines by David Gerhardt

Vietnam War veteran David Gerhardt waited forty-four years before deciding to write his memoir, Vietnam: The Last Combat Marines: Military and Political Times of the Baby Boomer War (G. Hart, 297 pp. $15, paper; $9.99, Kindle).

Gerhardt served in a variety of positions during his time with the 1st Marine Division in I Corps in 1970 and 1971. Starting out as a combat grenadier, he later worked for a while as an awards writer before becoming a squad leader. His platoon would be among the last Marines to leave the field.

He served during a time that’s been often associated with drug use, fraggings, and other forms of insubordination. Gerhardt pulls no punches when talking about these subjects.

He seemed especially concerned about what he saw as “the degeneration of the armed forces” as a result of the lowering of entry standards in order to provide an adequate supply of young men for the war. It was because of this that he believed he had to deal with an “enormous number of problem soldiers.”

Like many veterans, he wants to distinguish between Vietnam, the country, and Vietnam, the war. He writes, for example, that “Vietnam had the most beautiful night sky I will ever know.” And that it was “a war where rules were broken, and this was sometimes a place without rules.”

He interestingly notes that his men would occasionally camp in a cemetery, thinking it would be safer because “the natives were not going to wake up their dead with a rocket attack.”

A memorable part of the book is the author’s description of a time when one of his squads encountered a small group of Viet Cong face to face. It happened so suddenly that it startled both sides and no shots were fired.

Gerhardt confesses that he was the only man in his entire platoon who usually did not wear a helmet or flak jacket while in the bush. He says he did that because he was worried about carrying around extra weight. Now, looking back, he knows that he was wrong about that.

The book’s subtitle implies a cultural emphasis that can be seen in this comment about the occasional push to maintain haircuts among the troops: “Lifers hated gooks, but they hated hippies more.”

I really liked the way the book include dozens of end notes. They deal with such things as Agent Orange, casualty numbers among helicopter crews, Kit Carson scouts, the types and dangers of malaria, and diagnoses that could result in medical deferments from the draft.

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David Gerhardt

Being among the last Marines to leave the Vietnamese jungles and rice paddies—and recalling the losses his and other units had suffered—Gerhardt writes: “We instinctively understood that we would never be capable of celebrating our time in the Republic of South Vietnam.”

I liked the book’s structure. Being divided into six parts with six or seven shorter sections in each part added to its readability.

More than a dozen photos are included, as well as post-war updates on five of the more memorable men Gerhardt served with.

–Bill McCloud

Vietnam Veterans Unbroken by Jacqueline Murray Loring

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In 2010, working in conjunction with a Vietnam War veterans group in Hyannis, Massachusetts, Jacqueline Murray Loring began studying the resiliency of Vietnam vets and their assimilation into the American social structure after coming home.

Loring, a poet and writer of stage plays, movie scripts, and articles, labels herself a “non-military writer.” She wholeheartedly acknowledges the support she received from the group’s Director of Counseling, Jack Bonino.

With Bonino’s help, she compiled interviews and writings from seventeen Vietnam War veterans (including her husband) to broaden her understanding of how they overcame the trauma of exposure to combat. Seven of her subjects served in the Marine Corps; eight in the Army; and two in the Navy.

Loring’s research culminated with her new  book, Vietnam Veterans Unbroken: Conversations on Trauma and Resiliency (McFarland, 212 pp. $29.95, paper).

This book resembles other Vietnam War memoirs that provide the life stories of a group of veterans who enlisted or were drafted from the same region and returned there following their military service. However, rather than providing complete memoirs one after another, Loring separates each person’s experiences into four parts that she then collects into the following groupings:

  • Growing Up in America and Arriving in Vietnam
  • Coping with Coming Home
  • Post-Traumatic Stress
  • Resiliency and Outreach

That structure helps the reader distinguish similarities and differences among the interviewees at four critical junctures in each of their lives.

The veterans—one woman and sixteen men—provided information in a questionnaire that is not included in the book. Their most common problem was the inability to speak about their war experiences. In general, civilians were not interested in stories of what the returnees had done overseas; likewise, most returnees did not want to talk about their experiences, which compounded their emotional problems.

The veterans describe their common feelings in everyday life: anxiety, depression and hopelessness, sleeplessness, anger and rage, nightmares and flashbacks, and suicidal thoughts or attempts. They talk about dealing with emotions that intensified low-level confrontations at home, in the work place, and in therapy. The depth and duration of their therapy to treat PTSD far surpassed what I had imagined.

Loring presents the facts and allows readers to reach their own conclusions about psychological outcomes. I concluded that the returnees’ major need was social acceptance and a method to unravel their innermost feelings, a task for which they received virtually no support.

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Jacqueline Murray Loring

That might sound like self-evident truth, but more than anything else, Loring’s book reconfirms how long it took for doctors and counselors to recognize the long-term psychological damage inflicted by the Vietnam War. Fortunately, these veterans found the resilience to construct at least a semblance of normal existences.

Although Loring’s work focuses on Vietnam War veterans, her findings will help those who served in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As one of the Marines interviewed for the book put it: “The young kids coming home today are facing the same quandary.”

Overall, the book is cathartic. It includes no battle scenes. It mainly displays the resiliency of a small group of veterans who paid a steep psychological toll for serving their country.

The book’s page on the author’s website is jacquelinemurrayloring.com

—Henry Zeybel

Maxwell Taylor’s Cold War by Ingo Trauschweizer

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As the commanding general of the Army’s 101st Airborne Division, Maxwell Taylor parachuted into Normandy on D-Day. He later became an architect of Vietnam War policy during his tenure as a White House military adviser and then as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the Kennedy Administration, and ultimately as ambassador to South Vietnam from 1964-65 under President Johnson. Taylor died in 1987.

He was called a hero, an optimist, a manipulator, a micro-manager, a wise man, and by some, a liar. He never wavered in his belief that the Vietnam War was lost on the home front.

Maxwell Taylor’s Cold War: From Berlin to Vietnam (Unirvesity Press of Kentucky, 328 pp. $45, hardcover and Kindle) by Ohio University historian Ingo Trauschweizer examines Taylor’s role in developing U.S. military strategy and doctrine. It is an academic work that chronologically recounts policy debates and bureaucratic conflicts in detail. The book is based extensively on newly declassified government archives.

This is not a biography. The book seeks instead to provide a “more complete” picture of “military, strategic, policy, institutional, intellectual, international, and diplomatic history”—a rather tall order that sometimes gets as bogged down as the Vietnam War itself. Ultimately, what stands out is Taylor and other decision-makers’ arrogance, mis-assumptions, and wishful thinking, particularly with Vietnam War policymaking.

Maxwell Taylor stepped into controversy in 1960 when his book, The Uncertain Trumpet, came out after he’d retired from the military as the U.S. Army’s Chief of Staff. Trauschweizer describes the book as a “scathing indictment of the national security system and the shortcomings of massive retaliation” as a deterrent defense strategy.

In the book, Taylor called for building capacity and flexibility for “limited wars” with graduated pressures. Vietnam became the stage on which to test components of the doctrine as a “layered structure” of air war, ground war, counterinsurgency, and pacification. One major flaw in Taylor’s argument, Trauschweizer points out, was the failure to anticipate the dynamics of escalation. Another was a fatal misreading of the resolve of Hanoi’s leadership—and the Vietnamese people—in refusing to be figuratively and literally bombed into submission by the United States.

Later, in hindsight, Taylor cited several factors that led to the failure of his doctrine in the Vietnam War: the lack of a formal declaration of war, the lack of hard intelligence data, and the lack of “a comprehensive media information campaign” directed at the American people—something that also might be called a massive propaganda campaign.

For decisions to go to war in the future, Trauschweizer describes Taylor’s idea of a clear-headed, four-point test of the “national interest”:

  • The gain to be anticipated by success
  • The probable cost to achieve success
  • The probability of failure
  • The additional costs that failure would impose

Taylor also emphasized, in Trauschweizer’s words, “the need for a president to be absolutely certain of sustained popular support and to rely on a military prepared to win quickly and decisively.”

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Secretary of Defense McNamara, Joint Chiefs Chairman Maxwell Taylor, and President Kennedy at the White House, January 15, 1963 – JFK Library photo

One is tempted to respond: “If pigs had wings had wings, they could fly,” or at least to add that it would be advisable that every president contemplating war has a perfect crystal ball. For Taylor’s scenario to work, limited wars probably require the massive application of military power at the outset to avoid the risk of becoming protracted wars. Unforeseen consequences are also often inevitable.

If nothing else, Maxwell Taylor’s prescription can be used to assess the Unites States’ wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and today’s risk of war with Iran, whether intentional or miscalculated.

–Bob Carolla

10 Cents and a Silver Star by Bruce D. Johnson

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I’ve been waiting many years to read a novel of the Vietnam War and its lasting impact that is as enjoyable as Bruce D. Johnson’s 10 Cents and a Silver Star… A Sardonic Saga of PTSD  (Edit Ink, 386 pp., $19.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle )

Johnson begins his book with the main character, also named Bruce Johnson, pretty casually receiving a Silver Star. It’s 1969 and he is awarded the medal for actions he took while fighting in South Vietnam’s III Corps with Army’s the 173rd Airborne Brigade.

Specialist Johnson gets no comfort from the medal, believing it to be the result of some “bureaucratic blunder.” He’s pretty sure it was actually intended for his best friend, Bill Hastings, who died in Johnson’s arms while they were engaged in combat.

In that way, his sense of survivor’s guilt becomes even more complicated by receiving a medal he is sure was meant for his buddy. Johnson’s actions during the firefight may have been worthy of a Silver Star, but he was so stoned at the time that he has no idea and certainly doesn’t think so.

Johnson considers the Vietnam War to be “the insane asylum of this planet,” and notes that actions taken by American troops in Vietnamese villages sometimes made those soldiers appear to be “the Peace Corps in reverse.”

The story is told by someone who apparently has determined that life is merely time filled with one absurd incident after another. Johnson is sent to a Fire Support Base for just one day but a misunderstanding keeps him there for six weeks. That’s long enough for his original unit to consider him missing and for his parents to be notified.

Or maybe they weren’t. You can’t be sure if all the things that are supposedly happening in the book are actually happening. It leads you to constantly wonder what is real in this fictional world and what isn’t. So this is not a book you just read, but one you’re forced to engage with, which isn’t a bad thing.

After his year in Vietnam, with the war basically over “except for the shooting,” Johnson returns home to Chicago. He has that Silver Starl which he’s been told will get him a cup of coffee anywhere—if he also has a dime.

It turns out, though, that the medal serves as almost a good-luck charm. It opens up many doors and provides many opportunities that would not have been available to him otherwise. Yet he constantly struggles with the realization that the medal really isn’t his, and belongs to his best friend who paid the ultimate price for it.

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Bruce Johnson

Johnson decides to locate the parents of Bill Hastings and present the medal to them.

 

This novel is written in a hilarious fashion. It’s not often that I laugh out loud when I read something, yet I did several times while reading this book. It’s filled with jokes that keep coming at you in machine-gun style, probably averaging three a page, and at least eighty percent of them work.

They work because—as funny as they are—you are constantly reminded of what the source of the humor is. It’s an attempt to deal with (and make sense of) a world and an existence that is often cold, cruel, and senseless.

Bill McCloud