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

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RVN by Tim Gingras

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Tim Gingras is a former U. S. Navy Corpsman who served on active duty in the 1970s.  In his novel, RVN (Outskirts Press, 156 pp., $28.95, hardcover; $14.95, paper; $8.99, Kindle) eighteen-year-old Charlie Kinane is drafted at the height of the Vietnam War. He avoids going into the Army by joining the Navy as a hospital corpsman. He chooses pharmacy tech training, thinking that would keep him out of blood-and-guts experiences.

Then Charlie goes to Vietnam and is send to the 3rd Marine Division at Khe Sanh, a base  infamous for being constantly under heavy attack. Charlie’s primary duty is to keep track of medical supplies, especially controlled medications used for the treatment of pain. When Charlie is sent as a replacement corpsman on an overnight search-and-destroy mission outside the wire, he confronts everything he had been working hard to avoid.

Charlie keeps close track of the days he spends in Vietnam. He had to put in a one-year tour of duty that it would end in August 1967, so if he survived, he would hold the military to “this one-year thing,” as he refers to it. (I believe that in the Marines the Vietnam War tour of duty was thirteen months.)

Charlie’s duties include dealing with malaria, trench foot, leaches, scabies, delousing, burns, nausea, and countless other medical things including suturing. He works with female personnel and feels so strongly about one nurse’s  bad qualities that he discusses fragging her. He ultimately decides that fragging is “basically murder,” which he was against personally.

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Tim Gingras

Movies were available for Marines stationed on base and they watched The Sand Pebbles, Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, The Dirty Dozen, and Charlie’s favorite, In Like Flint.

I recommend this small but interesting book to all who are curious about the life of a Navy Corpsman in the Vietnam War.

–David Willson

Sketches of an Earlier Time by Scott O. Ferguson

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For Scott O. Ferguson, memory lane stretches from horizon to horizon—and then some. He served with the U.S. Navy in World War II and with the Air Force in the American wars in Korea and Vietnam.

Ferguson recollects his combat experiences in Sketches of an Earlier Time: A Three-War Combat Veteran Recounts a Twentieth Century Life of Duty and Adventure (Merriam Press, 149 pp. $9.99, paper). His stories cover the middle half of the 20th century—from his birth in 1925 to his retirement as an Air Force colonel in 1975.

Alongside his look at warfare, Ferguson spells out the difficulties of a childhood during the Great Depression and of family life amid a military career. Barbara, his wife, often single-handedly raised four children during long separations caused by the call of duty.

Having lived through most of the same years, I vouch for the accuracy of Ferguson’s remembrances. His accounts provide touches of insight about the times and moods of society in decades gone by.

During World War II, as soon as he was old enough, Ferguson dropped out of high school and enlisted in the Navy. He served nearly four years as a seaman. His adventures in New Guinea and the Philippine Islands provide unusual views of a young man’s reaction to unpredictable events, along with dilemmas he created. To me, this was the most revealing part of the book.

In 1949, after marrying, Ferguson completed Aviation Cadet training and found assignments in fighter/interceptor aircraft. He flew the F-84G (in the book he refers to aircraft only by letters and numbers) in Korea and performed “all types of missions with all manner of purpose,” he says. Ferguson’s biggest concern was the presence of “flak traps everywhere.” His memories of the Korean War are a continuous flow of anecdotes about his squadron’s successes and failures.

During the Vietnam War Ferguson supervised the covert Task Force Alpha/Igloo White electronic warfare activities at Nakhon Phanom Air Base in Thailand in 1967-68. He flew many missions into Laos with O-2 Cessna FACs and in the back seat of F-4s. His stories from this time are as interesting and informative as earlier ones.

Excellent photographs ranging from Ferguson’s childhood to recently accompany each section of the memoir.

—Henry Zeybel

Blue Ghost: Reveille by John W. Harris

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John W. Harris’ Blueghost Reveille (Page Publishing, 162 pp. $24.95, hardcover; $14.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle) is a Vietnam War memoir coming fifty years after the author was drafted into Army in May 1968.

Harris divides his book into seventy vignettes, each offering a picture of his life as member of F Troop of the Eighth Cavalry (the “Blue Ghosts”). F Troops was an autonomous unit assigned to the Americal Division consisting of an infantry platoon, an aerial scout platoon, and an armed aerial rocketry platoon.

The infantrymen served as the ground recon and rescue wing of the troop. The platoon, nominally composed of forty infantry soldiers, rarely reached that number. For most of Harris’ tour, the number was in the twenties.

After he finished AIT. Harris was selected to attend a special NCO school at Fort Benning. Following “Shake and Bake” school, he found himself a buck sergeant after less than a year in the Army and on the way to Vietnam to become a squad leader. Despite his inexperience, after Harris got his feet on the ground he quickly adjusted to his new role and responsibilities as a twenty-two-year-old NCO.

Writing with honesty and humor, John Harris walks the reader through the tasks and operations of an infantry platoon. He carefully explains the terminology for the non-initiated. From his arrival in Vietnam on a commercial airliner to his return to Fort Lewis and his discharge a year later, Harris entertains the reader with one adventure after another.

There are hair-raising moments of small unit combat. There are other, less-dangerous vignettes, as Harris covers the mundane and the heroism equally with clarity and detail.  Each of his brief portraits is self-contained, yet the narrative flows with ease.

Of the many stories Harris relates, none is more exemplary than that of Roger Caruthers, his heroism in Vietnam, and his post-war life in a wheelchair. Harris describes Caruthers as a hero in civilian life as an uncle educating three nieces. Caruthers went on to help many others despite his own infirmities with a smile and a happy story for all.

In a fitting tribute, Harris concludes the book with a very poignant piece titled, “Why Did You Go and Leave Me?”

This is a short book filled with honest emotions that’s enjoyable and easy to read. I recommend it anyone, young and old, who seeks a glimpse into the life a citizen soldier sent off to war in a foreign land.

–Bud Alley

 

For Good Reason By James D. Robertson

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For Good Reason (Black Opal Books, 482 pp., $29.99, hardcover; $19.49 paper; $3.99, Kindle) is James D. Robertson’s debut novel. A Vietnam War veteran, Robertson edited two non-fiction books dealing with that war:  Doc: Platoon Medic (1992) and Steel My Soldiers’ Hearts (2002).

The plot of For Good Reason revolves around Danny Mulvaney, a Vietnam veteran who writes a best-selling memoir twenty years after coming home from the war. As a result of his notoriety, Danny gets an invitation from a mystery woman to return to Vietnam, where he had almost died. When he arrives, old nightmares return and his Danny’s past begins to unravel.

Danny had one of those mothers, common during the 1950s, who believed that everything happened for a reason. He didn’t know if that passed for wisdom or just pure poppycock, but he loved his mother, so he joined the military with the notion that bolting for Canada was wrong, and that he must do his best not to let down his family or his country.

In the course of his eventful Vietnam War tour of duty, Danny was wounded, decorated for heroism, betrayed, faced a court martial, and rescued an officer from his college town by disobeying orders and entering the enemy-infested U-Minh Forest.

This is a large, well-written book that has everything in it, including—figuratively speaking—the kitchen sink. REMF’s are castigated as “candy asses;” John Wayne and the Lone Ranger “saddle up;” and Vietnamese prostitutes have razor blades hidden in their vaginas from whence they emerge to do serious damage to American manhood.

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Robertson

VC territory is referred to as “Indian Country.” “The Green Machine” rears its ugly head, as do Bob Hope and Johnny Cash. Donut Dollies are relabeled “Biscuit Bitches,” a new one to me.  Tiger cages are used to torture captured Americans. Great expanses of the Vietnam countryside are defoliated.

The question is asked, “What are they gonna do—send me to Vietnam?”

This long book book requires a huge commitment of time and energy, but is one of the best written of the recent Vietnam War novels.

I am glad I plowed through the entire thing.

—David Willson

The Body Burning Detail by Bill Jones

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During his Vietnam War induction process, Bill Jones joined the Marine Corps by voluntarily filling one of its draftee quota slots. A moment after raising his hand, he thought: “Nobody is more surprised than me.”

That decision began a love-hate relationship with the Corps, which Jones spells out in his memoir, The Body Burning Detail: Memoir of a Marine Artilleryman in Vietnam (McFarland, 202 pp. $29.95, paper; $9.99 Kindle).

Bill Jones describes that relationship with contemplative stories and poems that both challenge and entertain the reader. He proposes questions and makes pronouncements based on lessons he learned firsthand.

He does not shy away from showing the downside of military life—and of warfare. His negativity contains reasoning and wonderment that often remains unresolved, and it provokes questions. “War damages everyone in one way or another,” Jones concludes. “Even the ones who do not go. The extent of the damage is simply a matter of degrees.”

Jones experienced his share of combat drama, fear, and trauma in I Corps Fire Direction Centers with the 3rd Battalion, 12th Marine Regiment, 3rd Marine Division during his 1968-69 Vietnam War tour of duty. Many of the men he served with were killed or wounded in action.

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At Alpine, his first Fire Support Base, he received invaluable advice from an old timer his own age: “This is Vietnam,” the guy said. “Just remember, nobody gives a fuck.”

Days and nights in the FDC bunker, Jones writes, “run together. There are no days off, no holidays, very little free time. The battery is firing or available to fire twenty-four hours a day. We sleep when we can.”

At Neville FSB, he lived in (and hid from mortar rounds in) mud-filled bunkers that he shared with rats. Nearly a month of incessant rain deterred helicopters from supplying food, ammunition, and mail.  His unit targeted artillery from Vandegrift Combat Base in support of the Marines at Khe Sanh. At LZ Argonne, he survived a ten-day battle before the base was abandoned.

Jones finished his year at thinly manned Alpha-2 FSB, the U.S. position closest to the demilitarized zone. “I am just a lowly lance corporal, two stripes above a private, but I have the authority to fire tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of artillery at any real or imagined targets I so choose,” he writes. That paradoxical situation disturbed him.

By then Bill Jones had learned to understand that in war “people are killed or simply die for no apparent reason,” he says, and he managed to contend with discomfort and ever-increasing danger. He detested anyone who justified his importance by lording over people and making them appear worthless. That included officers looking to get their combat tickets punched at the expense of grunts who merely wanted to survive.

In this regard, Jones eliminates the intervening years between the war and now to remember rear echelon bullies, such as “Sergeant Pipsqueak” and his “pogue rodent face” that “smirks like an egg-sucking mongrel dog.” On the other hand, he glorifies purposeful extremist behavior by men such as a third-tour artillery forward observer named Hutch, who became his role model.

Jones’ exposure to combat validated the advice he received at the start of his tour. “The war is lost,” he decided. “The United States will never prevail in this part of Southeast Asia and it is foolish to even consider otherwise.”

Jones’ words aspire to solve the riddle of his existence as a twenty-year-old, as well as fifty years thereafter. He presents seven poems that recall concise slices of life-altering events. For example, he depicts a crash he witnessed as:

A fighter plane

Follows tracer round

Into a red hillside.

Although Jones admits that The Body Burning Detail is not a “tell-all confessional,” he presents an informative and thought-provoking account about war’s effect on his generation.

—Henry Zeybel

The Third Force in the Vietnam War by Sophie Quinn-Judge

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In September 1945, after the Japanese had surrendered to the Allies, U.S. Army Major Allison Thomas turned to the leader of the Vietnamese guerrillas he had led in training with one question: was he a communist?  “Yes,” replied Ho Chi Minh, “but we can still be friends, can’t we?”  Unfortunately for the Vietnamese people, the answer to that query turned out to be a resounding no.

Sophie Quinn-Judge in her book, The Third Force in the Vietnam War: The Elusive Search for Peace, 1954-1975 (I.B. Tauris, 336 pp., $110, hardcover; $29, Kindle) probes an often overlooked aspect of the Vietnam War: Was there a neutral coalition of Vietnamese citizens that could have brought peace to that country?

Quinn-Judge, the author Ho Chi Minh: The Missing Years, concludes that a neutral coalition was active in South Vietnam and would have been able to either avoid the war, or bring it to a peaceful conclusion once the violence had started—if it had been given legitimacy.  t best, members of this Third Force were ignored or marginalized by autocratic South Vietnamese political leaders and American policy makers; at worst, they were exiled or imprisoned as communists or communist sympathizers.

Quinn-Judge rejects the claim made by both sides that war was inevitable. The Vietnamese had a legitimate stake in their nation; they were not mere pawns in a global war between Sino-Soviet communism and American democracy. She introduces a myriad of South Vietnamese political and religious leaders who organized around the idea of a neutral South Vietnam, and a peaceful conclusion to the war. Though the American public—and most American policymakers—viewed communism as an evil monolith, Quinn-Judge reveals the evolutionary nature of North Vietnamese communism and the varying degrees of Soviet and Chinese influence over the long course of the conflict.

She uses utilizes state archives from more than eight countries and draws upon her own experience as a volunteer in Vietnam with the American Friends Service Committee from 1973-75.  The early history of French colonialism in Vietnam, the rise of the communist party in North Vietnam, and the split of the country in 1954 as a result of the Geneva Accords, are summarized succinctly. The book then follows two parallel narratives, that of the Republic of (South) Vietnam, and the Democratic Republic of (North) Vietnam, concluding with North Vietnamese tanks rolling into Saigon in April 1975.

Although the book is entitled “The Third Force” implying a military solution, Quinn-Judge quickly discards that term for “Third Way” or “Third Segment,” reasoning that a military solution for peace was disabused as early as 1956. It is curious for the book’s title to be discarded so early in the narrative.

In South Vietnam, Quinn-Judge focuses on the “non-violent political and social forces that attempted to play the role of intermediaries.” However, she admits that this group is difficult to define, because a tactic of the North Vietnamese communists was infiltration into South Vietnamese political, social, and religious groups. Though Quinn-Judge describes individuals espousing South Vietnamese neutralism, she struggles with a definition for neutralism, before defining it as the embodiment of “a concept of Third World spiritual exceptionalism.”

It is uncertain if “neutralism” here meant an independent, Democratic South Vietnam, or an eventual reunification with the North Vietnamese.  It is clear what many neutralists were advocating against; at times, it is unclear what they were fighting for.

Quinn-Judge does a skillful job summarizing the transforming Vietnamese nationalism in the first half of the twentieth century. She cites communism as an aspect of the quest for change and identity, but only a facet of the broader cultural, political ,and religious shifts in society.

Ho Chi Minh, who is mainly a figurehead in Quinn-Judge’s telling of the tale, led the formation of the Viet Minh during World War I, and received help from the precursor to the CIA, the Office of Strategic Services. Though Quinn-Judge points out that the relationship was severed as a result of the United States’ backing of France’s colonial aspirations after the war, Ho’s unapologetic allegiance to communism was at least as responsible.

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Ho Chi Minh in 1951

She correctly discloses the fluctuating nature and influence of the Chinese and Soviets on the North Vietnamese. China aggressively espoused an armed a revolt against the West, while the Soviets believed in revisionism, or the peaceful co-existence with capitalism and an eventual end to the class struggle.

In the summer of 1963, the Americans seemingly listened to what the South Vietnamese people were telling them. They replaced Ambassador Frederick Nolting, who was sympathetic to President Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu, with Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. Lodge wimmediately distanced himself from Diem, demanded that Nhu be removed from power, and openly sided with the oppressed Buddhists. Diem was soon replaced in a violent coup by the moderate and popular Duong Van Minh.

However, in this critical time period, the North Vietnamese were most influenced by the Chinese, and advocating for peace or revisionism was a crime. That left any Third Segment in the South without a partner in the North. But the North as a peace partner is discounted, as Quinn-Judge argues that by 1964, “the decisions leading to war had already been made in Washington.”

Though they have a minor role in her book, Quinn-Judge saves most of her vitriol for American politicians and policymakers, saying that “crushed” peace campaigns. She sympathizes with some of the communists, whom she believes were closer in their “ideological outlook” to a Third Segment than to Stalinism or Maoism.

However, even if some Vietnamese communists desired peace, neither their rhetoric nor their actions matched that sentiment. She notes, for example, that as early as January 1959, the 15th Plenum of the Communist Party espoused a “violent struggle” as the path to revolution in South Vietnam.

Quinn-Judge places great importance in the 1968 Paris Peace Accords, which were perhaps known best for the long argument over the shape of the conference table. She blames Presidential candidate Richard Nixon for illegally interfering with the talks, though historian Robert Dallek wrote Nixon’s actions “probably made no difference.”

She also points out that the majority of the scholarship on the “missed opportunities” for peace in Vietnam is from a Western perspective.  n that regard, Quinn-Judge’s work—along with recent scholarship from Jessica Chapman, Philip Caton, and Edward Miller—is an important one in understanding the efforts of the Vietnamese people who desired peace.

Nguyen Manh Ha, a noncommunist Catholic who served in Ho Chi Minh’s government; Ngo Ba Thanh, an attorney educated in America; and Tran Ngoc Chan, the Secretary General of the Lower House, are among the many leaders that are too briefly portrayed. Duong Van Minh, the leader of 1963 coup, is the veritable Forest Gump of South Vietnamese society—present at most every important event, including assuming leadership before the unconditional surrender of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in 1975.

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Sophie Quinn-Judge

Was he a leader or a survivor? A patriot or an opportunist?  Quinn-Judge does not explore those questions.

It is disheartening that Quinn-Judge believes that by the 1966, just over a year after the entry of American ground forces, the Third Segment had eroded. Quinn-Judge does not analyze the apparent lack of leadership or organizing principle among the Third Segment, and she laments that neutralists had no Western sponsor, which belies the central tenet of her work.

Nevertheless, The Third Force in Vietnam is a worthwhile contribution to the field, providing an understanding of the desire for peace of many Vietnamese.

–Dan Hart

Walking Point by Robert Kunkel

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As many war veterans have done before him, Robert Kunkel has created a memoir based on short stories he wrote to try to free his mind of haunting memories that caused post-traumatic stress disorder. Along with his own serious physical wounds, Kunkel had several friends killed in action, which ingrained his brain cells with psychological scars for an eternity, he says.

“There are thousands of stories like mine, but each is very different because of perception and what was in the mind at the time of an encounter, whatever that encounter may have been,”  Kunkel notes in Walking Point: A Vietnam Memoir (Thunderbrook, 479 pp. $18.95, paper; $7.95, Kindle).

Bob Kunkel is a savvy guy. His recollections of infantry life are as informative as any Vietnam War memoir I have read. A stickler for detail, he presents an unfiltered view of what took place in his own mind and speculates about the thoughts of others. His descriptions of combat, suffering, and death leave little to the imagination. His stories describe meaningful encounters on and off the battlefield. Bad actors generally receive a comeuppance.

At the same time, many of Kunkel’s stories are humorous. He labels laughter as “a smokescreen to keep from crying.”

He primarily served with B Company, 5th/7th Cavalry in the 1st Cavalry Division, operating out of Camp Radcliff near An Khe. The men of his company were determinedly aggressive against the NVA and Viet Cong during Operations Irving and Thayer in Binh Dinh Province in September and October 1966. The Americans relocated hamlet populations, burned hooches, destroyed food sources, and pursued the enemy with a take-no-prisoners policy. Kunkel reveals both heroics and atrocities performed by his company.

Drafted into the Army earlier that year at the relatively advanced age of twenty-two, Kunkel frequently assumed the role of platoon spokesman by differentiating between what had to be done and what was illogical. He counterbalanced a borderline wise-ass attitude by volunteering for dangerous tasks such as walking point and clearing underground bunkers as a tunnel rat. He was devoted to his fellow soldiers.

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Bob Kunkel

In his first large-scale battle, Kunkel suffered wounds to his head, back, and buttocks. Evacuated to Japan, he spent three painful months convalescing and then willingly returned to the field. Eventually the company commander recognized Kunkel’s inability to carry a full pack due to muscle damage and moved him to guard duty—a job that turned out to be more dynamic than expected.

For several years after returning to civilian life, Kunkel struggled to establish a purpose for his existence. Eventually, he found a “marriage and career made for him,” he explains.

Kunkel spent eighteen years writing Walking Point. He started it in 1999 after retiring from a thirty-three year law-enforcement career. Jean Doran Matua—who owns, publishes, and edits the Tri-County News in Minnesota—helped him with editing and designing the book.

The author’s website is walkingpoint.us

—Henry Zeybel