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

Grunt by Mary Roach

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Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War (Norton & Company, 285 pp., $26.95) exposes the sometimes absurd and gruesome but often fascinating science performed behind the scenes to develop and test new U.S. military technologies. Best-selling author Mary Roach investigates a new problem and its technological solution in each chapter. That includes how not to get eaten by sharks, how combat medics are trained, and diarrhea as a threat to national security.

Then there’s the chicken gun. Roach describes it as having “a sixty-foot barrel, putting it solidly in the class of an artillery piece.” However, “while a four-pound chicken hurtling in excess of 400 miles per hour is a lethal projectile, the intent is not to kill. On the contrary, the chicken gun was designed to keep people alive.”

The chickens are launched in place of the thousands of geese, ducks, and other birds that crash into military jets every year, causing an estimated $50-80 million in damages. If a chicken gun sounds to you like an interesting and unusual piece of technology, then this book might be right up your alley.

Roach thoroughly reports on the development of these unusual technologies. She also doesn’t shy away from addressing their problems, limitations, and the difficulties of testing field equipment in a lab. In the case of the chicken gun, Roach explains that chickens are a poor choice to represent other birds that collide with aircraft since chickens don’t fly, are denser than other birds, and hit planes in a different way than flying birds would—with their wings outstretched and legs trailing.

“It hits like a flung grocery item,” Roach says. Her language rarely pulls any punches, which makes for exceptionally candid observations throughout the book.

Older and younger veterans will particularly enjoy Roach’s chapter on the military’s research into how to combat heat stroke in the field and whether some individuals are genetically prone to heat illness.  Roach cites the Vietnam War, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the Georgia-based Army Ranger School in the chapter.

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Mary Roach

To test how prone certain individuals are to heat stroke, soldiers are put into a “cook box,” in which they run on a treadmill in 104 degree heat for two hours with a rectal probe inserted to measure their core body temperature. Those stationed in the tropics lose roughly ten kilograms of sweat per day, Roach explains, so understanding how to better equip troops to withstand the heat is very important, particularly with today’s wars in the Middle East.

Roach’s integrity and background as a journalist guide the in-depth research, on-site observations, and interviews that inform Grunt. She has an uncanny ability to transform what could be boring scientific material into entertaining and informative accounts about the development of new military technologies that will keep you engaged—and probably make you laugh out loud.

—James Schueseler

War in Aquarius by Dennis Kitchin

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When first published in 1994, Dennis Kitchin’s War in Aquarius (McFarland, 216 pp.; $19.99, paper) carried the subtitle Memoir of an American Infantryman in Action along the Cambodian Border during the Vietnam War, which perfectly describes the book’s content. During 1968-69, Kitchen served with the 25th Infantry Division’s 27th Infantry Regiment—the Wolfhounds—headquartered at Cu Chi. He spent all of his year in the field.

The book was republished in 2015, which is a good thing because it rings true. Kitchin examines the Vietnam War through the lens of a man who hates war but accepts the obligation of serving his country. Classified 1A, he volunteered for the draft after graduating from college. Kitchin’s attitude is not unique, but the way he expresses his thoughts in this book stands above the norm.

He often internalizes his perspective to the point that what goes on in his head transcends what occurs around him. Yet he physically performs all that is demanded. This sense of detachment helps Kitchin  maintain his rationality, especially as the months unfold and he grows more convinced that the war is wrong. He particularly deplores the injuries—both accidental and deliberate—inflicted on civilians.

As his tour unfolds, Kitchen morphs from being a babe in the woods into a hardened combat veteran. His depictions of helicopter and World War II landing craft river assaults; of enemy ambushes and booby traps; unproductive patrols; and U.S. casualty numbers greater than those of the V.C. create a mood of dejection throughout the book. As he remains unhurt while friends die alongside him, Kitchin deeply contemplates death and serious injury. He blames most of his unit’s losses on bad decisions made by incompetent leaders. At one point, his platoon’s strength was reduced to fourteen.

Kitchen writes with clarity and purpose. He finds relationships between events and more than once turns a creative phrase. For example, on patrol in “rugged, uninhabited terrain,” he describes the locale as “enough woods to excite John Muir.” The story line never lags.

27th-infantry-regiment-insignia-wolfhounds“Pseudonyms have been used for all persons named in this account, excepting the author himself,” Kitchin writes. Considering the high degree to which he praises and criticizes leaders and peers, I understand why he chose this style. I used a similar approach in my 1987 Vietnam War memoir, Gunship: Spectre of Death, because I did not want to intrude on anyone’s life.

Now, however, I feel otherwise. Using fictitious names diminished the historical value of my work; I feel the same about Kitchin’s book.

More recently, Kitchin has published humor-laced books about his Philadelphia childhood and travels to New Zealand and Ireland.

—Henry Zeybel

 

 

There’s a Man with a Gun Over There by R.M. Ryan

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R. M. Ryan served in the U. S. Army from 1969-72. In his autobiographical novel There’s a Man with a Gun Over There (Permanent Press, 272 pp., $29, hardcover; $11.99, Kindle) Sgt. Richard Ryan receives an Army Commendation Medal from the 42nd MP Group (Customs) for his work as a translator and black-market investigator in Germany in the early 1970s.

R.M. Ryan is the author of another novel, The Golden Rules, and two books of poetry. He dedicates this novel to Steven Unger, who died in November 2011, a “late casualty of the war in Vietnam.” No further explanation is given. I assume the reasons include PTSD or Agent Orange.

Richard Ryan, the novel’s protagonist, is an antiwar activist who receives his draft notice after the 1968 Tet Offensive. After deciding not to flee to Canada, he finds an Army recruiter who promises that he’ll get to learn German at the Defense Language School in Monterey, California. Ryan gets language school, but after he finishes he is sent to Military Police school.

He ends up working with former Nazis in Germany, arresting soldiers for black market activity, and avoiding the service in Vietnam that he wished to avoid. The old cliché “Be careful what you wish for” is in full play in this novel.

Even though Ryan never makes it to Vietnam, the novel is mostly about the Vietnam War. He dreams of Johnson Administration war hawk Walt Rostow, and discusses the importance of stopping the commies—containment, he calls it.

R.M. Ryan has produced a witty literary novel that held my attention throughout. I highly recommend it to readers seeking a serious novel about the Vietnam War. The way the book is organized seemed confusing at first, but it didn’t work out that way. The short, well-written scenes move right along.

RyannnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnThe Army trains people to kill, and this novel does not mince words about that. The American military is dangerous. Country Joe and the Fish wrote a song about that, which is included in this book to great effect, along with much other American pop culture references.

Buy this book and give it to any high school student you know considering the military as a career option. At the very least he or she just may rethink that decision.

—David Willson

A Dusty Boot Soldier Remembers by Larry A. Redmond

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A Dusty Boot Soldier Remembers: Twenty-Four Years of Improbable but True Tales of Service with Uncle Sam’s Army (Hellgate Press, 574 pp., $27.95, paper) is a Horatio Alger story: A boy from “Fly Town U.S.A.” (the poorest section of Columbus, Ohio) finds success as a U.S. Army colonel and, after retirement, becomes a representative for two large corporations.

In this autobiography, Larry A. Redmond walks the reader through his experiences in military training, work, and combat assignments. “Redmond’s Rules,” twenty-five directives to becoming a more effective leader, punctuate the book.

Spanning the years 1962-87, Redmond’s experiences included different jobs in many parts of the world. His recollections often teach history lessons that compare the time of the draftee Army to the present structure of all-volunteer soldiers, which began in 1973.

Commissioned upon graduation from Providence College, Redmond completed jump school and Ranger training and by 1964 was commanding a company. He recalls peacetime field exercises and housekeeping duties such as his paying the troops in cash at the end the month. He then joined Special Forces and served in Panama before going to Vietnam. His two tours with the 101st Airborne Division in I Corps highlight the book.

Redmond’s first tour in Vietnam in 1967-68 ended with what he called “thirty-six hours of purgatory”: leading his company in Hue during the Tet Offensive. The accounts of maneuvers in the field provide a textbook for combat leadership. Redmond candidly describes both his right and wrong moves. As a result of wounds he received at Hue, he spent many unconscious days and three conscious weeks in intensive care. Eight months of rehabilitation followed.

During his second tour in 1971-72, Redmond encountered an unexpected world of drug abuse and racial tension. Vietnamization had transformed Americans basically into spectators awaiting the end of their involvement in the war. Even senior U.S. leaders were marking time. Recognizing this, the NVA often avoided contact. In his duties as S3 and eventually acting battalion commander, Redmond attacked problems ignored by previous leaders.

In six months, he renewed a sense of STRAC among his men; tore down an on-base hootch that was basically a drug den; thwarted a large-scale NVA attack by diverting a B-52 Arc Light strike; put down a rebellion by a group of black soldiers known as the Phu Bai Thirteen; and foiled a plot to frag him. When his unit rotated stateside early, Redmond stayed on as a J3 with MACV during the 1972 NVA Spring Offensive.

Following the war, Redmond’s career path meandered. He was a member of a United Nations peacekeeping team for the 1973 Yom Kipper War. He went to Thailand in 1975-76 with a casualty resolution group. Redmond provides insightful history regarding both tasks, particularly on MIA-POW issues.

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Larry Redmond

Back at Fort Bragg in 1976, he deployed to Germany and Panama and Alaska, eventually commanding an 82nd Airborne battalion. He spent seven years at Bragg and tells interesting stories about the Army’s peacetime preoccupation with selling the product—namely wartime capabilities—through exercises, deployments, and demonstrations.

Reading between the lines I concluded that during Redmond’s years of service relationships among officers radiated a good-old-boy aura. Friendships provided as much advancement and favoritism as outstanding performances did.

Redmond wrote this book, he says, at the urging of his children who wanted a record of his accomplishments. Beyond satisfying them, the book offers a clearly detailed picture of a quarter century of Army life during transitional periods.

—Henry Zeybel

 

 

Silent Heroes by Rick Greenberg

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“Who’s Chief?” may have been one of the most important questions former Marine Rick Greenberg, the author of Silent Heroes: A Story Forty Years in the Making (CreateSpace, 298 pp., $11.48, paper; $5.99, Kindle), ever had to answer. That two-word question opened a dialogue between the author and his wife about his activities with the 1st Recon Battalion during his 1969-70 Vietnam War tour of duty.

Greenberg—who actually tried to enlist in the Marine Corps at the age of twelve—explains that while he set out to write an autobiography, the book morphed into a work of “real-life fiction.” The author’s simple, straightforward writing style puts the reader into the heart of the action. I quickly forgot that this was fiction because the book is is a true page turner, taking me into the wee hours of the morning.

Greenberg, a life member of Vietnam Veterans of America, arrived at Da Nang at night on September 10, 1969. His description of that event was so realistic that I could almost feel the humidity and smell the jet diesel smoke. His description of flashes of light and explosions in the surrounding hillsides led him, his buddies, and the reader to believe that they might be under attack.

Greenberg’s first assignment was to guard the perimeter of the camp. His first night proved inconsequential, but the next morning almost was his last. Sitting on his bunker observing the natural beauty of Vietnam, he became fascinated with incoming mortar rounds, thinking of them as “fireworks” until someone pulled him out of harm’s way. I believe I was shaking with Greenberg as he described the incident.

Greenberg takes the reader along on his first recon patrol and describes his duties as a communications specialist. The reader quickly realizes that there is a lot more science involved in that job than just talking into a radio as you see in war movies. The lives of Marines were often literally on the line.

As it is an all wars, in the Vietnam War it was a matter of kill or be killed. Along with his clear way of describing events, the author quite ably intersperses his emotional reactions to deadly situations. Greenberg had this reader looking over the gun sights at the head of an unsuspecting Vietcong, his first kill.

Large battles took place while he was in Vietnam, but Greenburg focuses on smaller actions. As a member of a recon unit, it was more important to see and not be seen rather than to engage the enemy. Hiding several feet from the enemy was not an uncommon experience. Greenberg enables the reader to sense some of the heart-stopping tension in such situations.

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Greenberg, yesterday…

Casualties, including deaths, were handled in a somewhat matter-of-fact manner. The author lets the reader know that to stay alive meant to keep one’s wits, even in the face of sudden horror.
Thanks to the author’s great descriptive writing, the reader will experience some of the apprehension many American troops felt as their time in Vietnam came to an end. Too often, that is when a fatal experience occurred. The evac helicopter that came to finally take the author out of the battle zone ended up bursting into a ball of flame while trying to land just yards from Greenberg’s bunker.

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…and today

Twelve months after he arrived in Vietnam, Rick Greenberg left the war a permanently changed man. Like so many other veterans of the Vietnam War, he had discovered that one does not fight so much for God and country but for the survival of himself and his buddies.

After reading of Greenberg’s experiences in the war, I know a part of me has been changed.

For anyone desiring to read an good adventure story and share insights into the minds of men in combat, I would strongly recommend Silent Heroes. It is not a book for the squeamish or for those who want to read about heroes blasting away and charging the enemy.

It is about something much more meaningful than that: an appreciation of thousands of silent heroes.

Greenberg’s website is rickgreenbergauthor.com

—Joseph Reitz

 

 

 

Hystopia by David Means

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David Means is the author of four story collections. His first novel, Hystopia (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 352 pp., $26), is an alternative history of the seventies in which John F. Kennedy has survived multiple assassination attempts and is still president while the Vietnam War continues.

Means has created yet another in a long list of novels that take us to the heart of American darkness in the Vietnam War. In this one faith in high-tech sensors designed to detect VC urination patterns goes unbounded. With our fire power and our sneaky-peepy expertise, the book seems to say, how can we lose?  Well, let me count the ways.

I now wish I hadn’t used the word “phantasmagorical” to describe previous Vietnam War novels. I should have reserved the word for this book. But, then again, I didn’t know this one was coming.

Means has produced many brilliant short stories. Some of his most serious fans had given up on him producing the Great American Novel they hoped for from him. But here it is. And it’s a Vietnam War novel, sort of.

It has everything—and I do mean everything: elephant grass, rice paddies, the Mekong Delta, jungle rot, slogging, ambushes, crew cuts, taking a hill, losing a hill, choppers, water buffalo, dust-offs. And that list is on just one page.

Means’ novel is mostly about an all-encompassing federal agency that JFK has created:  the Psych Corps. “Dedicated to maintaining the nation’s mental hygiene by any means necessary.”  Can traumas be overcome? This novel seems to hold little hope for that.

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David Means

Characters opine that rich kids evaded the war and that most of the folks who went fell into the group called Mac’s morons. Means uses a lot of pop culture fodder in this book: the Phantom Blooper, Norman Rockwell, the Big Two-Hearted River, Huckleberry Finn, Tarzan, the Rolling Stones, and the Beatles.

We get asked how many Vietnam veterans it takes to screw in a light bulb. The answer: You can’t know; you weren’t there.

There’s lots of pontificating about what it is that makes up a true war story. Tim O’Brien grappled with that question decades ago in The Things They Carried. I believe he provided a better answer.

This book lacks a story that make me care about any of the characters, even though JFK’s sister made me sad. Still, I would suggest dipping into this book and seeing what’s there. You’ll find a lot of food for thought.

But I didn’t really need more of that. Or didn’t want any more.

—David Willson

The Gambler’s Apprentice by H. Lee Barnes

H. Lee Barnes, who received the Vietnam Veterans of America Excellence in the Arts Award in 2013, is a novelist and short story writer who teaches English and creative writing at the College of Southern Nevada. His latest novel, The Gambler’s Apprentice (University of Nevada Press, 304 pp., $27.95), is a fast-paced, latter-day Western (it begins in 1917) tale starring Willie Bobbins, a Texas teen-aged outlaw and gambler whose life turns around as a result of the 1918 influenza pandemic.

The book has received rave reviews. Here’s what one reviewer, Robert Lamb, wrote:

“Except once in a blue moon, when else do you find a story packed with action and adventure involving big-as-life characters in settings and situations ready made for the silver screen? Moreover, the author’s powers of description rival those of Cormac McCarthy in showing that the outback of the Tex-Mex border is no country for old men, and that even young ones age quickly there.

This novel has an appeal as wide as Texas and a historic sweep that is purely American. Willy can’t read or write, but he represents the pioneer stock who settled the West, fiercely independent, amazingly resourceful, but touchingly bewildered by developments beyond their rustic ken: world war, plague, drought, and a rapidly oncoming future in which they seem to have no place.”

 Barnes’s website is hleebarnes.net

Barnes in Vietnam, at left, in 1966