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

Who is a Hero by Donald E. Pearce, Sr.

 

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Donald E. Pearce Sr.’s Who is a Hero: A Collection of Patriotic Poems (CreateSpace, 34 pp., $10.99, paper; Kindle, $3.49) is more a pamphlet than a book. It is an aggregation of reproduced Vietnam War artifacts such as manipulated images of a folded American flag in a triangle box with a rose on the top, similar to the one I was given after my father was consigned to the ground in the National Cemetery in Arizona. The image is accompanied by the words to a verse entitled “Lament for a Hero.”

I asked myself what my parents would think of it. Easy answer: They would have liked it. The words “God keep you in his loving arms forever” would have had a huge impact on them.

Every verse in this colorful, mostly red-white-and-blue pamphlet is supported by a full page of artwork.  “Heroes,” for example has an image retrieved from the internet of the POW/MIA flag.  “Heroes” ends with the line, “For we will never, never, ever, forget!!!

I am remiss for not mentioning the color scheme of this book again as it overwhelms the reader. Red, white, blue—and black. The theme, though, is not forgetting, but the fear that we will forget if we are not constantly reminded.

Late in this small book protesters are called out. As in: “Their families we vow, we will protect, from protesters who don’t, have any respect.”

“Who is a hero?  My Dad.  If Hitler had won that terrible war, you’d now be a slave, and nothing more.  So the next old man, that you see, don’t forget, He might be a hero, an American vet.”

This small work powerfully expresses fear of forgetting the dead. In fact, it practically creates a cult of the dead. It’s difficult o know what to do with this work, but I believe it expresses the thoughts of many veterans.

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The author, a life member of Vietnam Veterans of America, was born and raised in Massachusetts and is the fifth child of nine. His family has a proud history of military service. Three brothers served during the Vietnam War. Donald Pearce is Assistant State Captain for Massachusetts for the Patriot Guard Riders, which helps him express his patriotism and his love of motorcycles.

Books don’t get more sincere than this one.

The author’s website is whoisahero.com

—David Willson

The Wrong Side of Goodbye by Michael Connelly

111111111111111111111111111“The detective Harry Bosch helps a small police department track a serial rapist, while as a P.I. he aids a billionaire in search of a possible heir.”

That’s how The New York Times hardcover fiction bestseller list describes the book that sits at number nine this week: Michael Connelly’s The Wrong Side of Goodbye (Little, Brown, 394 pp., $29). That high-concept sentence is accurate, but doesn’t even begin to approach the detective-genre artistry Connelly once again exhibits in his nineteenth Harry Bosch cop procedural featuring the eponymous, not-quite-retired LAPD detective who served as a tunnel rat in the Vietnam War.

As he has in all the Bosch books-–beginning with The Black Echo in 1992—Connelly spins out a page-turner with vivid characters, a twisting plot, and evocative depictions of Harry’s home turf: the greater Los Angeles area. This book also has a significant Vietnam War theme in that the search for the billionaire’s “possible heir” leads Harry to a young Navy corpsman who died in a helicopter crash in 1970 in Vietnam. Harry’s service in the war comes up in the course of his investigation and he has a flashback or two to his two memorable tours of duty.

The book, in fact, opens with a flashback of sorts, to a very convincing evocation of an extraction of a group of Marines from a hot LZ. It doesn’t end well. Connelly then moves right into his two-pronged story in which Harry, who is working a volunteer investigator job for the little City of San Fernando, also takes on a free-lance assignment directly from an ailing, aging billionaire.

Both stories take unexpected twists. Harry runs into situations and roadblocks that he seems to face in every book. He has to deal with a cranky police supervisor who is out to get him. He tends to bend the rules to get what he needs to bring a bad person to justice. He uses his brain power and decades of experience to figure out the identity of an arch-evil bad guy (the serial rapist). He displays physical courage. He suffers emotionally when good cops (and civilians) are harmed. And he won’t rest until he brings the culprits to justice.

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Michael Connelly

It all adds up to a greatly entertaining read that stands with the best of the Bosch’s—and the best Bosch’s are terrific books.

There are two minor missteps relating to the Vietnam War that I will mention only because they will not ring true to Marines or to any Vietnam War veteran who took an R&R. Connelly more than once refers to Marines as “soldiers,” and calls R&R “leave.”

Here’s hoping the publisher fixes those little errors for future printings. If that happens, this will be a perfect Harry Bosch.

—Marc Leepson

Twenty Days in May by John L. Mansfield

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John L. Mansfield served for more than thirty years as an officer in the Army, the National Guard, and the Army Reserve.  His short book, Twenty Days in May: Vietnam 1968 (PublishAmerica, 170 pp., $24.95, paper; $7.96, Kindle), recounts the actions of his unit—Alpha Company, 4th of the 31st Infantry Regiment—during twenty harrowing days at the height of the Vietnam War.

What makes this book unique is that—aside from the recollections of then 2nd Lt. Mansfield—it also uses his unit’s daily staff journal, its daily situation reports, official history, and radio logs, as well as several memoirs written by men in his company.

These twenty days in May represented a very hostile and intense period for Alpha Company. They had 69 wounded in action and nine killed. Most of the action revolved around the taking of Nui Lon, also known as Ghost Mountain. Mansfield, a life member of Vietnam Veterans of America, gives an excellent account of what it’s like to be an infantryman.

Along the way, he demonstrates some of the difficult choices facing Army infantry officers. Mansfield shows how a good officer leads from the front, not the rear. He follows orders, even after his platoon is tired and undermanned and facing a well-equipped NVA regiment.  Mansfield demonstrated this in his decision to follow orders to advance up Nui Lon at night, even though it placed his platoon at greater risk.

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John Mansfield

This is a serious book spiced up with a couple of humorous incidents, such as Mansfiled admitting to the CO that his weapon was accidently fired and scrambling to buy replacement ammo on the black market so no one would know.

The book’s true message for me lies in the last paragraph in which Mansfield talks about Tom Brokaw annointing those who came of age during World War II the “greatest generation.” Mansfield believes the men in his company in Vietnam should be considered the greatest generation.

“They went where they were sent by their government and did as soldiers have always done throughout the years, their duty as they saw it,” he writes. “These men are the real heroes and my greatest generation.”

— Mark S. Miller

From Chicago to Vietnam by Michael Duffy

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Michael Duffy received his draft notice at the age of nineteen. He served in Vietnam as an officer with Battery C in the 7th Battalion of the 9th Artillery. He started as a Forward Observer and Fire Direction Control Officer. In the fall of 1968 he was promoted to Executive Officer of this unit. Battery C consisted of six 105 millimeter howitzers that provided artillery support for the infantry in South Vietnam’s III Corps.

Those dry facts do not begin to show how brutal parts of Duffy’s tour of duty were or how lucky he was to survive. He arrived in Vietnam on January 31, 1968, the opening day of the Tet Offensive in South Vietnam. His duffelbag was lost. All he had was the suntan dress uniform he left the United States in—and no weapon.

Everyone kept telling Duffy that he looked like a target since he hadn’t even been issued his green fatigues. And he did stand out in the madhouse of small arms fire. Running to a helicopter heading for Binh Hoa, Duffy fell, scraping his hands and bloodying his knees. Bien Hoa was under attack so the helicopter landed elsewhere. So on that first day in country Duffy wound up being a mess, confused and befuddled from what befell him in Vietnam–and from three days with no sleep.

He was told again and again, “You’d better get a weapon,” but nobody had one for him. Duffy ended up having to steal a uniform. He ripped off the name tags and made it his own. Somehow he acquired an M-16.

When he arrived at Bearcat, the area was free of trees and foliage due to Agent Orange spraying.  Early on, Duffy’s brother, Danny, who was also serving in Vietnam in the Army, came to visit him for three days. That’s how the picture on the cover of From Chicago to Vietnam: A Memoir of War (Inkwater Press, 328 pp., $28.95, hardcover; $17.95, paper; $4.99, Kindle) came to be.

The late Danny Duffy is the smiling one on the left.  He survived his Vietnam War tour and the book is dedicated to him. Did Agent Orange kill him later? We are not told.

“Bearcat was never overrun while I was stationed there, and short of a few rocket attacks, it was a great place to spend your year in Vietnam,” Michael Duffy says. But his book is far from boring.  Perhaps it is because Duffy is a born storyteller. From Chicago to Vietnam is filled with great stories, and it seems that something exciting is happening in or near Bearcat for the entire time we are there.

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For this reason, I highly recommend his book to anyone with the slightest interest in the role of artillery in the Vietnam War. Duffy tells it all and every page is of interest.

Duffy also talks about his return to America where he realized his dream of attending college. He did well at Colorado College and after.

—David Willson

Such a Lovely Little War by Marcelino Truong

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There were comic books back in the 1960s, but the graphic novel hadn’t yet been invented. Now there are two extraordinary graphic novels about the Vietnam War. The first, Dong Xoai, Vietnam 1965 by DC Comics’ Joe Kubert, published in 2010, could have been stripped down into an ambitious comic book project. It’s a visual record of a battle, and Kubert does an amazing job telling the story.

Marcelino Truong’s recently published Such a Lovely War: Saigon 1961-63 (Arsenal Pulp Press, 280 pp., $26.95, paper) is a product unique to the graphic novel: It is graphic, autobiographical, and a novel. And it takes a novel look at the war by telling the story through the perspective of a child in the early 1960s.

This is no ordinary child, however; the boy’s father worked in the South Vietnamese diplomatic corps and became the director of Agence-Vietnam Presse, as well as the official translator for Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem. Not that Diem needed a translator, we learn, but because he wanted time to compose his thoughts.

The book beings in Washington, D.C., and ends with the father’s appointment to a post in London, but for most of the book young Marco is witness to the war’s slow buildup in 1961-63. With a Vietnamese father and a French mother, young Marco reflects the biases of the Catholic elite even while he’s astounded, excited, and horrified by the ever-widening war.

He watches wide-eyed as an enormous aircraft carrier delivers war materiel and helicopters in December 1961. He ducks for cover when rogue Vietnamese pilots attempt a February 1962 assassination of Diem by bombing the Presidential Palace. He marvels at a display in downtown Saigon of confiscated Viet Cong weaponry.

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Marcelino Truong

Even as he addresses such complex issues as the failure of the Strategic Hamlet program, class relations among the Vietnamese, the use of Agent Orange, and the self-defeating racism of the American troops, as a child he also has to deal with family issues: the birth of a sister, the death of friends, and the precarious state of a bipolar mother suffering to maintain balance and a family in a war zone.

Such a Lovely Little War (this English translation from the original French is by David Homel) is a fascinating book told in a new way from a new perspective. It’s a new history with interesting comparisons between the North and the South, and between the old ways and the new.

It doesn’t disappoint.

—Michael Keating

A Portion of the Loveliness by Christoph Feldkirchen

Christoph Feldkirchen’s  A Portion of the Loveliness (Feldkirchen Press, 212 pp., $11.95, paper; $7.95, Kindle) is a work of fiction. There are three short novels in this book; the first one, “Nothing Could Happen,” deals with the war in Vietnam. That title is taken from a long quotation from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness that sets the tone of the book. It is a scene in which a man-of-war ship sends shells from the Congo River in the African jungle trying to hit unseen enemies. It reminded me of the American war in Vietnam, which I suspect is intentional.

The main character of this short novel, Feldkrichen (like the author), tells us he entered Navy boot camp in September 1965. Later he describes his onboard duty on a ship nicknamed “The Bucket.”

“If you were unlucky, you might work all day, be CQ all evening, stand a midnight to four a.m. watch, grab two hours of sleep, and be on duty all next day,” he writes. “Everyone was tired, all were irritable and there was no end of griping.”

I’ve not read many novels or memoirs dealing with Navy duty during the Vietnam War. I enjoyed this one. When it ended, I found myself wishing for more, a rare feeling when reading a book I knew nothing about before I started it.

This short novel is light hearted, well written, and it reinforces my long-ago decision to spend my tour of military duty in the Army. The graphic descriptions of seasickness made me slightly nauseous.  (Full disclosure: The chemo I am on makes me feel that way often enough anyhow.)

Thanks, Christoph Feldkirchen, for writing this book. The other two novellas also were good. Please consider writing a full-length novel or memoir of your time in the Navy. I promise I will read it.

—David Willson

The Light Where Shadows End and No Thanks by R.G. Cantalupo

I have a tendency to skip over narrative in italics in a book. R.G. Cantalupo’s long narrative, The Light Where Shadows End: A War Hero’s Inspirational Journal Through Death, Recovery and a World Without Home (New World Publishers, 171 pp., $9.99, paper), which the author calls a “lyrical memoir,”  is entirely printed—every single page of it—in italics, except for the illustrations. Why? I’ve no idea and the author does not tell us. I’m guessing, though, there was a purpose.

Cantelupo served in Vietnam as a Radio-Telephone Operator (RTO) with the 25th Infantry Division in 1968-69, and was awarded a Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts. In May 2015 he returned to Vietnam. He walked along Highway 1 “as thousands of motorbikes rushed by.” He sat at a table and reconciled with former “members of The Peoples Army, soldiers who lived in Trang Bang and who fought against me in 1968-69.”

The war’s legacy in Vietnam, Cantelupo says, includes “leaving hundreds of thousands of unexploded bombs to kill more children,” as well as “fourth generation birth defects and genetic mutations caused by our massive spraying of Agent Orange.” That situation “will not allow for reconciliation.”

A member of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, the author took part in the 1971 Winter Soldier Investigations where he confessed to committing crimes and atrocities. This small book contains many powerful, poetic vignettes of the above, and covers much of the same ground as this same author’s book of poems, No Thanks (All in One Publishing).

Many of these two dozen poems in No Thanks were first published in the journal “War, Literature, and the Arts.” Their titles give a good idea of what they’re about: “Trang Bang,” “Monsoon,” “Search and Destroy,” “The Execution,” “Agent Orange.”

The poem, “Agent Orange,” hit me the hardest. How could it not?  Agent Orange is what’s killing me.

Breath in,

Nothing’s forever

Even this orange-brown haze

dies down, leaves a

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There is a vignette in The Light Where Shadows End about a nurse nicknamed “Peaches” who the author fell in love with. There’s a full-page photo of her in jungle fatigues. There are many other full-page photos in this book, both famous ones and some I’ve not seen before. The photos are not credited. Some of them should be. John Wayne and his classic film The Green Berets are briefly discussed.

Read this book in tandem with his book of poetry, despite the italics.

—David Willson