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

Vietnam 1967-68 by David R. Higgins

Vietnam 1967-68: U.S. Marine Versus NVA Soldier (Osprey, 80 pp., $18.95, paper; $15,.95 e book) is an excellent book for readers unfamiliar with the Vietnam War. In it, author David R. Higgins, a veteran military historian, compares U.S. Marines and the NVA soldiers by dissecting three of their encounters in I Corps: the Hill Fights in April 1967, Operation Kingfisher in July 1967, and the Battle for Hue during the 1968 Tet Offensive.

The book provides background on the political origins of the war and on soldier-level topics such as training, logistics, leadership, morale, weapons, and tactics. Countless books have covered the latter material, particularly from the American viewpoint. Higgins stands out by discussing the Marines and the NVA separately and objectively emphasizing dissimilarities.

Fighting in the three engagements was ferocious and produced large numbers of casualties on both sides. Higgins’ accounts include information from both sides. Months prior to Tet, the NVA initiated a master plan that gave them superior positioning at the start of the offensive; American leaders failed to recognized the plan.

Higgins concludes that poor intelligence gathering also hindered the Marines in the Hill Fights and Kingfisher. At Hue, the confinement of city streets caused the Marines to operate independent of air and artillery support and reduced the effectiveness of armor. At the same time, he says, the ability to operate with less material and support than other U.S. forces gave the Marines greater flexibility to adapt to changing battle conditions.

              U.S. Marines during the fighting in Hue city, Tet 1968

Higgins identifies the use of irregular tactics, avoiding confrontation until establishing a superior position, and functioning with minimal supplies as factors that increased NVA combat success. Generally superior in numbers, NVA forces frequently ambushed the Marines. Furthermore, Higgins says, NVA soldiers had high levels of morale and motivation, which maximized their ability to learn and apply combat lessons.

This magazine-sized book contains excellent photographs and maps. Illustrator Johnny Shumate’s drawings of soldiers and combat scenes are extremely lifelike.

—Henry Zeybel

Eating With Veterans by Michael Lundhhg

Michael Lund served in the U. S. Army as a correspondent in Vietnam, 1970-71. He is the author of a memoir, Route 66 to Vietnam: A Draftee’s Story, and a book of short stories, How Not to Tell a War Story.  Lund’s latest book is Eating With Veterans (BeachHouse Books, 268 pp., $16.95, paper; $3.99, Kindle), a book of twenty serious short stories.

Lundh, a life member of Vietnam Veterans of America, holds a PhD in literature from Emory University, so I expected his stories to be literate and well-written. I was not disappointed.

Most of the characters in these fine stories are aging veterans, mostly of the Vietnam War. Often these veterans and their companions are eating, drinking, and talking. Occasionally a story will seem like a deliberate homage to Raymond Carver, for instance “The Soy Bean Field.”  I intend this as the highest of compliments.

Most of the stories communicate an atmosphere of social unease. Many take place, at least in part, in South Vietnam, and give us insights into the lives of soldiers who served there in communications. Some of the titles are: “The Rules of Engagement,” “Drugs Away,” “Blood Drive,” “The Death of Short-timer Sam,” and “Counterinsurgency. ”

Some of the stories that have non-military sounding titles are the ones that contain the most overt military scenes, for instance Lund’s Tet Offensive story, “Magician.”  We get a reference in that story to the school at Fort Benjamin Harrison, where the correspondent was trained—and where I was trained as a stenographer. I am always pleased when I read a book that deals with what the 80 to 90 percent of us did in Vietnam: not take part in combat. This is one of the best books yet that deals seriously with that aspect of our war.

Lund uses the phrase “rear echelon troops,” and the derogatory term “REMF” does not appear. It’s a term, by the way, that I never heard in Vietnam, but trip over endlessly in Vietnam War combat books, both novels and memoirs.

Lund does deal with some war-horse items such as Agent Orange, and he does have a story that mentions the oft-related tale of returning soldiers being spat upon and called baby killers. But he also includes  “Hadrian’s Wall,”  a rare story dealing with the Coast Guard’s role in the Vietnam War. Jimi Hendrix, one of my favorite Vietnam War era veterans, gets more than a mention—he gets an entire story, “Look Alike.”

Michael Lund

In “Camp Hoover” Lund captures an elusive feeling that I have tried to put into words, but failed to do so: how the past and the present can get intertwined and confused. It’s a great story and the saddest one in the book—perhaps one of the saddest stories I’ve ever read.

I highly recommend the stories in this book to all those drawn to serious writing about the Vietnam War and to seekers after the whole story—not just a narrow story told over and over again.

—David Willson

There and Back by Lisa A. Lark

Lisa A. Lark, the author of There and Back: The Vietnam War Through the Eyes of Those Who Lived It (M.T. Publishing Company, Inc., 136 pp., $39.95), also has written All They Left Behind: Legacies of the Men and Women on The Wall, which was published in 2012 in commemoration of the 30th anniversary of the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

Lark is an English teacher at Edsel Ford High School in Dearborn, Michigan, and teaches writing at Henry Ford Community College. Her new commemorative book is dedicated to the 58,300 men and women who gave their lives in the Vietnam War. The contributors to There and Back include more than a hundred Vietnam veterans, along with members of the families of a dozen who did not make it home—families that donated their memories and photographs to this timeline of the war.

Beautifully designed and prepared, this coffee-table-sized book contains more than 300 photos, many in color. Through these photos and accounts the reader is guided through the day-to-day lives of veterans involved in nearly every aspect of the war from 1959-75.

The text contains three main sections:

“Getting There” takes the reader back to the first inkling that the draft board may be calling, or the decision to volunteer, and then what the journey was like once inducted into military service.

“Getting Through” covers being part of America’s involvement in the war.

“Getting Back” shares the memories of veterans as they marked the days off on their short-timer calendars awaiting the Freedom Bird flight back to The World.

No matter where, when, or how one served during the Vietnam War, this book will surely evoke the reader’s own memories. For those who did not serve in that war, this compilation of veteran memories and quality photographs will paint a vivid picture of what that experience was like.

—James P. Coan

Good for One Ride by Gary McGinnis

Gary McGinnis served with the Army in Vietnam in 1968 as a Water Purification Specialist attached to an infantry unit. His novel, Good for One Ride (Editions Dedicaces, 120 pp., $16.50, paper; $8.25, Kindle), book deals with “the scourge of Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome Disorder that curses combat veterans forever.”

This book gets a lot done and covers a lot of territory in just under 120 pages. Army Private Theo Garrett is assigned to the 2nd Infantry Division, 2nd Engineers in water purification during the Tet Offensive. The novel begins and ends in Cold River, Vermont In between, we learn an awful lot about the role of the watermen, those water purification people, in Vietnam. We get a lot of information about the erdulator, a mechanical device that purified hundreds of gallons of water at water points. We encounter much stupid, ill-informed leadership on the officer level, often checked and balanced by responsible work by the sergeants, the men who really ran the war.

I got so much detailed information on how to purify water that I felt I could pass a test on the subject. Certainly, I gained a lot of respect for the work of the waterman in the Vietnam War.

Gary McGinnis

We learn about drug use in Vietnam, including “grass, heroin, alcohol, darfons and benoctals.” We learn more about shit burning. We get the eternal question, “How many more gallons of water do we have to purify before we go home?”

The role of water purifiers is referred to as mid-level combat, which I think is justified as these men often were at serious risk and did get shot at. And some of them died.

Readers looking to learn about aspects of the war that are seldom respected or even commented upon should read this book. I enjoyed it, and I read it in one sitting.

—David Willson

Unburied Treasure by Martin C. Coy

On page two of Martin C. Coy’s novel, Unburied Treasure (Xlibris, 156 pp., $29.99, hardcover; $19.99, paper; $3.99, Kindle), we meet an old man, Max. He lives in a retirement community and is taking a model-building class where he’s working on a model of a UH-1 helicopter.

“That’s how I got to work in Vietnam,” he says. The man he tells this to, Frank, replies: “They were our rides back to safety, too.”

So we have two aging Vietnam veterans in a retirement home. Where is this story going?  The book sort of goes around in a circle, encountering many and various characters of all sorts. All of them are connected by an amulet on a leather string, which is found by children who dig it up in the back of a cave.

The amulet is made of a broken piece of pottery, a shard, which possesses magic. There is an inscription on the shard that says in the ancient Delaware language: “I live in you.”

At the end of this book, the amulet has been returned to the cave where it is about to be dug up by four young exploring friends. “And the adventure goes on,” the author tells us.

This is a gentle, quietly metaphysical book that can be read in one sitting and that will resonate with many readers.

The author’s website is www.unburiedtreasurebycoy.com

Martin C. Coy

—David Willson

Now I Lay Me Down to Weep in the Valleys of My Mind by Richard Kraft

The Vietnam War veterans I admire most served as corpsmen and helicopter crewmen. I rate their duties as the riskiest. Therefore, Richard (Doc) Kraft’s Now I Lay Me Down to Weep in the Valleys of My Mind: The Life of a Navy Corpsman (CreateSpace, 220 pp., $14.95, paper) pleased me.

Kraft’s combat life began as a child abused by a merciless stepfather. Robbed of a boyhood, Kraft ran away from home at fifteen and worked his way through high school. In 1957, at the age of eighteen, he enlisted in the Navy and went on to serve twenty-two years on active duty.

Introspection and compassion are Kraft’s strongest attributes—and also his most powerful enemies. He clearly expresses the fear he felt about combat and his nagging concern over providing proper care for the wounded and dying.

The book is a collection of Doc Kraft’s prose and poetry. The poems parallel and re-emphasize the messages in the prose stories. At times, the prose takes on its own cadence and grows more emotion-laden than the accompanying poems.

This style prevails in the Prologue in which Kraft labels his memoir as “a book of fiction” and delivers a grim lesson: “War is without morals, regardless of who is holding the weapon. The dying aspect is all that’s left for clarification. There can be no glory in dying for family and there can be no glory in dying for a war.”

Wounded twice in Vietnam, Kraft developed a front-line knowledge of death with the 2nd Battalion of the 9th Marines in Leatherneck Square.

A Navy Corpsman at work with U.S. Marines in the Vietnam War

In wrapping up his Vietnam War experience, Kraft presents one-page explanations of field gear, monsoons, sanitation, alcohol, combat patrols, helicopters, doctors, chaplains, and others. Although much of this can be found in many Vietnam War novels, memoirs, and history books, Kraft includes several short biographies that qualify as priceless reading.

Kraft—a member of Vietnam Veterans of America—retired from the Navy in 1979. He then endured bouts with leukemia (from Agent Orange exposure) and PTSD. The latter initially overwhelmed him in 1998, and he has never rid himself of the fear of not having done enough to keep others from dying or suffering pain. Kraft describes the effects of PTSD to a depth that is as enlightening as anything else I have read on the topic.

People who favor war over diplomacy should be required to read the PTSD portion of this book.

—Henry Zeybel

The Longest Rescue by Glenn Robins

The Longest Rescue: The Life and Legacy of Vietnam POW William A. Robinson, which came out in 2013, is now available in paperback (University Press of Kentucky, 296 pp., $19.95). In it, the historian Glenn Robins tells the story of Bill Robinson, the former crew chief on a USAF Vietnam War rescue helicopter, who wound up being the longest-held enlisted POW in U.S. military history.

Robins “brings a scholarly treatment to his subject’s time as a Vietnam War POW, as well as the rest of his life,” our reviewer John Mort wrote on these pages.

Robinson’s capture resulted in the iconic photo of him (on the cover). The photo of Robinson—who gave the Keynote Speech at Vietnam Veterans of America’s 2015 National Convention in July—and “the guerrilla girl” had great propaganda value for the North Vietnamese. The photo, however, was entirely staged and the girl knew no more about what was going on than Robinson did.

Robins, as Mort wrote, is “a thorough writer,” who tells “how Robinson and the young woman, Kim Lai, met again in 1995 when a Japanese documentary crew brought them together. They had a peaceful, cordial meeting, and it might even be said that they struck up a friendship.”

Glenn Robins, who is a history professor at Georgia Southwestern State University, also weaves in the stories of other Vietnam War POWs. He notes that Bill Robinson was well liked by the other prisoners. As Mort put it, Robinson “was cheerful, practical, and had a good sense of humor. A gifted mechanic, he kept things running. These characteristics would describe him in civilian life, too.”

—Marc Leepson