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

Looking Back by Sarah Sherman McGrail

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Sarah Sherman McGrail’s two-volume set, Looking Back: A History of Boothbay Region’s Veterans during the Korean and Vietnam Wars (Cozy Harbor Press; 562 pp., Vol. I; 586 pp., Vol. II. $24.95 each) Volumes I & II), is a treasure chest of well-organized and carefully researched, alphabetized biographical sketches of more than two hundred  veterans from Maine’s Boothbay area. The books provide many unique personal wartime experiences.

“The men and women in these pages are our relatives, spouses, and neighbors,” McGrail writes. “They matured, learned about responsibility and respect, suffered trauma, and witnessed death.”

The veterans include Army draftee Ambrose “Sonny” Artzer, a cook who was responsible for feeding two hundred men daily and then pulling perimeter guard duty at his An Khe base in Vietnam. “The military food he prepared consisted of dehydrated milk, powdered food, including franks and beans, spaghetti and meatballs, peaches and fruit cocktail, Sonny’s favorites,” McGrail writes.

In the year Artzer left An Khe, Army dog handler George Blackman arrived. “The lives of the men were dependent upon an obedient, mean dog,” the author notes. “Blackman’s canine commands included, “sit, stay, down, come, as well as watch him, get him, and kill.”

Details like these abound. Many of the entries deal with the heat, humidity, monsoons, and the smells and dangerous creatures in Vietnam. Army Infantryman Ernest Carver, for example, encountered pit vipers, wild pigs, red deer, rats, mosquitoes, monkeys, elephants, and tigers. “The leeches were terrible,” the author notes. “During the rainy season, or monsoon season, Ernie said it was impossible to keep dry.”

Richard Benner enlisted in the Army in 1947 and served two tours in Vietnam, first as part of a Civil Affairs Team with the 521st Medical Intelligence Unit, the only outfit so dedicated in Vietnam. Near Qui Nhon there was a leper colony “and its inhabitants were relocated to a camp” because of their highly contagious disease, Benner said. “To their credit, the lepers painted their shacks different bright colors and Dick said they looked very nice.”

Volume II opens with the globe-hopping, thirty-year Navy career Seaman Harmon Roscoe Maddocks. He served in Vietnam with the 571st River Division as a Patrol Boat River (PBR) Captain aboard a Brown Water Navy vessel in the Mekong Delta. Wounded in action, Ross received two Bronze Stars while wearing the black beret of the “River Rats.”

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Sarah Sherman McGrail

One interesting story pre-dates the official American involvement in Vietnam. Harold Seavey, Jr. enlisted in the Air Force in 1951. One year later he was assigned to the 1600th Medical Group at Westover Air Force Base in Massachusetts as a Medical Service Apprentice. In that capacity Seavey participated in the evacuation of French troops from their war in Indochina.

In addition to the first-person accounts, these volumes also include addenda on subjects such as the history of the POW/MIA bracelet, song lyrics, photo albums, and poems.

—Curt Nelson

 

Senator Pressler by Larry Pressler

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If it’s true that timing is everything, Senator Pressler: An Independent Mission to Save Our Democracy, by former South Dakota U.S. Sen. Larry Pressler (Fortis, 166 pp., $8.95, paper) is an example of perfect timing. This refreshing book has hit the market during a presidential election campaign in which the American public rates both major candidates low in trustworthiness.

Larry Pressler grew up on a farm in South Dakota. His family experienced poverty. His interest and love of politics grew out of his successful 4-H work. In 1964, after getting his degree from the University of South Dakota—where he was student body president and Phi Beta Kappa—he was awarded a two-year Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford University in England.

In England, Pressler remembered words his father had told him: “If you decide not to go to Vietnam, it will mean that someone poorer and less able than you will have to go in your place. And knowing you, that will trouble your conscience for the rest of your life. So you might as well just go and do it.”

Larry Pressler decided to forfeit his deferment and joined the Army. He served two tours of duty in the Vietnam War from 1966-68. That included providing security along Highway 44 on the outskirts of Can Tho in the Mekong Delta. With enemy snipers all around, Pressler says that he and his men often felt like sitting ducks.

 

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Lt. Pressler in Vietnam 

In 1967 Pressler contracted hepatitis and was sent to a convalescent center in South Vietnam where he experienced frightening nightmares based on what he had seen earlier in his tour. Although he received the Bronze Star and other medals during his two tours in Vietnam, Pressler turned down a Purple Heart. Eventually, he was turned off by the entire war.

Larry Pressler’s political life took off when he ran for Congress in 1974 as a Republican and won by 15,000 votes, unseating an incumbent Democrat. After two terms in the House, he was elected to the Senate in 1978, becoming the first Vietnam War veteran to serve in that august body where her served three six-year terms.

In 1979, Pressler ran for President in the Republican primaries on a platform emphasizing improving conditions for Vietnam veterans. He needed funds, and an opportunity to acquire money soon appeared. True to his character, he turned down what he believed was an illegal campaign contribution. It was—and it also was an FBI sting that became known as the Abscam scandal. The senator was very surprised when he was praised as a hero for doing the right thing.

Sen. Pressler was a favorite of Ronald Reagan. I found it interesting that they often discussed how Pressler’s father was doing with his Alzheimer’s disease. Perhaps the strongest of Pressler’s attributes was his sincerity in dealing with the problems of people regardless of their political affiliations. That included working to improve the lives of Native Americans in his home state.

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Sen. Pressler

Pressler lost his Senate seat in the 1996 election, but decided to try a comeback by running as an independent in the 2014 South Dakota Senate race. The challenges he faced in that endeavor bring the reader a much clearer understanding of what has been going on in the highly partisan atmosphere of congressional politics today. Pressler makes a convincing case for the need for more independent candidates.

I recommend this book to those who want to make sense out this election year. A special recommendation goes to those whose favorite line is, “It’s just politics.”  With more involvement by people with the integrity of Sen. Pressler we might learn we don’t have to just muddle through.

The Senator says that taking the high road of politics has set him free. He closes with a quote from Isaiah 25 made famous by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Free at last, Free at last! Great God Almighty, Free at last.”

Sen. Larry Pressler shows us how to change a nightmare into a dream.

The author’s website is senatorlarrypressler.com

–Joseph Reitz

 

 

Eisenhower & Cambodia by William J. Rust

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The journalist, editor, and author William J. Rust specializes in mid-twentieth century interactions between the United States and Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, the three nations that once comprised French Indochina. His most recent book is Eisenhower & Cambodia: Diplomacy, Covert Action, and the Origins of the Second Indochina War (University Press of Kentucky, 374 pp.; $40.00, hardcover; $31.20, Kindle).

Rust has mastered the art of reviving the past as he piles fact upon fact to recreate the political and military climate of the time. Footnotes abound. The bibliography delves deeply into government documents and histories, oral histories, and interviews, memoirs, and the best secondary sources.

The book’s major player is Norodom Sihanouk, who served both as king of Cambodia and as its prime minister for decades. Caught between the United States and communist-inspired Viet Minh interests, Sihanouk worked hard for Cambodian independence and neutrality.

The latter stance created turmoil because the Eisenhower administration wanted Cambodia to take an anti-communist position similar to that of South Vietnam and Laos. Consequently, the book focuses on misdirected diplomacy, border incursions, and unfulfilled coups. The title of one chapter—”Many Unpleasant and Different Things”—could serve for the entire book.

Rust contends that President Eisenhower’s administration failed at finding common ground with Sihanouk, even though he had pro-Western inclinations. Rust labels Cambodia as “an afterthought in U.S. relations with Indochina.” Eisenhower’s two-volume memoir mentions Sihanouk only once, Rust says, which shows the limit of his interest. Rust also says that American leaders felt “contempt for the prince personally.”

The influences of anti-communist Cambodian dissidents and their patrons from South Vietnam and Thailand, as well as from India’s Jawaharlal Nehru, China’s Zhou Enlai, and the Soviet Union, the Philippines, and French leaders compounded the diplomatic problems confronting America’s Eisenhower’s Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and his ambassadors to Cambodia.

Despite the many Westerners who viewed him as incompetent, from 1953-61 Sihanouk kept Cambodia from suffering political and military turmoil similar to that experienced by South Vietnam and Laos. A failed 1959 CIA-supported plot to overthrow him succeeded only in solidifying his leadership role, Rust says.

Eventually, limited American financial and military aid to Cambodia brought the two nations closer together. “Cambodia was a relatively peaceful front in the cold war,” Rust writes, when John F. Kennedy became president in January 1961.

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Prince Sihanouk on his throne

Finger pointing will never go out of style when it comes to writing about the causes and the outcome of the Second Indochina War, aka the Vietnam War. Three recent books, for example, accuse American leaders of harming the nation’s Vietnam War credibility. In The War after the War, Johannes Kadura offers a “new interpretation” of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger’s multiple plans—called “equilibrium strategy” and “insurance policy”—to counterbalance defeat in Indochina and simultaneously preserve presidential credibility as an opponent of communist expansion. Nixon and Kissinger’s quest for a positive self-image transcended their honesty, Kadura says.

In The American South and the Vietnam War Joseph Fry writes that political leaders in the eleven former-Confederate states (plus Kentucky) felt that Asiatic peoples were inferior and undeserving of protection. Tears Across the Mekong by Marc Philip Yablonka challenges the CIA and the United States government for failing to recognize Hmong contributions to the war in Laos.

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William J. Rust

Rust’s Eisenhower & Cambodia is particularly significant because the Eisenhower administration’s activities preceded much of the other actions related to the war and provided a foundation for what followed. In this respect, Rust’s Epilogue, which deals with the 1961-63 deterioration of relationships within and between Southeast Asian nations, is a lucid summation for everything he explains earlier.

“The coup d’état in South Vietnam on November 1 [1963], and the assassination of [Prime Minister Ngo Dinh] Diem and [his brother Ngo Dinh] Nhu confirmed Sihanouk’s worst fears about the United States,” Rust says. It caused Sihanouk to end all U.S. military, economic, and cultural assistance.

Rust’s book also fills a niche in the University Press of Kentucky’s excellent Studies in Conflict, Diplomacy, and Peace series, which explores the significance of developments in U.S. foreign relations from the eighteenth century to the present.

—Henry Zeybel

Born on the Fourth of July by Ron Kovic

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Former Marine Ron Kovic was arguably the nation’s most famous Vietnam veteran from the mid-seventies through the late eighties on the strength of his 1976 primal scream of a memoir, Born on the Fourth of July, which came out in 1976, and the Oliver Stone movie of the same name, which hit the multiplexes in 1989 (with Tom Cruise playing Kovic).

The book, which became a big bestseller, was reissued in July—the 40th anniversary of its publication—by Akashic Books (224 pp., $26.95, hardcover; $15.95, paper), with a new, brief introduction by Bruce Springsteen. The big rock star became a strong supporter of Vietnam War veterans after meeting Kovic in 1978. Springsteen writes that after reading the book, he ran into Kovic in Los Angeles. The two men hit it off and Kovic took him to the Venice Vet Center to meet a group of other Vietnam veterans.

“It was unforgettable and sparked my interest in veterans’ affairs,” Springsteen writes, which “led to our concert in support of Vietnam veterans” in 1981 in L.A. Springsteen gave $100,000 of the proceeds of that memorable concert to a young, fledgling Vietnam War veterans organization–Vietnam Veterans of America—a staggering sum that helped rescue VVA from the precipice of financial ruin.

Born on the Fourth of July is a short book that chronicles Kovic’s life beginning with his All-American fifties upbringing on Long Island, through his time as a gung-ho Marine who volunteered for a second tour in Vietnam, and into his life battling the VA and becoming an antiwar activist after he was severely wounded and paralyzed from the chest down. It’s a very moving book, told in bitter and emotional bursts.

Look for our review of Kovic’s second memoir, Hurricane Street, in the “Books in Review” column in the upcoming September/October print edition of The VVA Veteran.

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Ron Kovic

—Marc Leepson

A Year in Hell by Ray Pezzoli, Jr.

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Ray Pezzoli, Jr., the author of A Year in Hell: A Memoir of an Army Foot Soldier Turned Reporter in Vietnam:  1965-1966 (McFarland, 263 pp., $19.99, paper), spent his time as a reporter trying, he tells us, to take “the Great Vietnamese War Photo” with the wrong camera and the wrong film—and with no training as a photographer. He also spent that time participating in as many 1st Infantry Division combat activities as he could.

The title tells us how Pezzoli–who died in 2014—served in Vietnam and when. In his Preface he defends President George W. Bush’s National Guard service, and when Pezzoli uses the word “liberal,” he uses it with disdain.

“Contrary to popular thought, America won,” he writes in his memoir, which was published originally in 2006, “losing only one half of one percent of their soldiers, stimulating the demise of communism throughout the world and devising the best Army in the world through its expertise there.” He refers to Vietnamese prostitutes as “strumpets” and labels the way he held his cigarettes in photos from that time as “fruity.” He was smoking up to four packs a day.

Aside from “strumpets” and “fruity,” Pezzoli uses plenty of references found in most American Vietnam War memoirs: John Wayne, body counts, “Oriental” rather than “Asian,” Good Morning, Vietnam, Jane Fonda,  Bob Hope, cowboys and Indians, friendly fire, antiwar protesters, being short, C-rats. And how the media never showed Americans all the good things the infantry did in Vietnam such as feeding orphans.

Pezzoli blames Oliver Stone and his films for giving the general public the notion that the troops in Vietnam talked dirty. He says that he only heard “foul language” in Vietnam once.

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The author

He offers old rants about Jane Fonda, but his are even more anachronistic than most. Her antiwar activism, including the visit to Hanoi, took place in the early seventies. But somehow Pezzoli channels her into his mid-sixties tour of duty when she was a sexpot alien in the movie Barbarella and a popular pin-up in Vietnam.

Pezzoli calls into question his invented quotations and conversations with his characters when he quotes a Maj. Weeks as saying in 1966: “Brigade was afraid Jane Fonda would complain if we don’t warn the enemy that we’re going to pay him a visit.” At no time was Jane Fonda running the Vietnam War, especially not then.

So what is Pezzoli’s intent? Is his book factual? Or is it a fantasy narrative of his faulty memories of the war? My conclusion is that his narrative is not to be trusted.

When he has a beautifully described incident of friendly fire, can I trust that?  And his countless visits to whorehouses, and all his scenes of religious worship?  And his story of his buddy dying in his poncho and bleeding out in it so that Pezzoli becomes soaked in the blood and suffers from hypothermia? What is truth? What is fiction?

I could go on, but I’ve given the prospective reader plenty to allow an intelligent decision about this detailed but sketchy book.

—David Willson

Tribe by Sebastian Junger

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I first read Sebastian Junger’s important essay, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging (Twelve, 192 pp., $22, hardcover; $12.99, e book) in a shorter form in the June 2015 Vanity Fair under the title, “How PTSD Became a Problem Far Beyond the Battlefield.” Junger is best-known for his 1997 creative nonfiction book The Perfect Storm. and for directing the Afghanistan War documentary, Restrepo. Tribe, a small book with large margins and big print, is moving and important beyond its size.

Junger is that messenger who brings bad news. Bad news we need to hear and to listen to. Bad news that brought tears to my eyes in the reading.

As Karl Marlantes, the former Vietnam War Marine lieutenant who wrote the novel Matterhorn, says on the jacket: “Sebastian Junger has turned the multifaceted problem of returning veterans on its head. It’s not so much about what’s wrong with the veterans, but what’s wrong with us. If we made the changes suggested in Tribe, all of us would be happier and healthier. Please read this book.”

Junger brings to light several aspects of modern military service that differ markedly from how it was during the Vietnam War when the military draft was a fact of life for every young American man. Voluntary service today, he writes, “has resulted in a military population that has a disproportionate number of young people with a history of sexual abuse.” He goes on to explain that military service is an easy way for young people to get out of their homes. One result is that the military draws an imbalance of recruits from troubled families.

“This was not true during the draft,” Junger says. And this state of affairs, Junger and others believe, has driven up the military suicide rate.

 

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Junger

Speaking of PTSD, Junger notes that even “among the regular infantry, danger and trauma are not necessarily connected.” Rear-based troops, on the other hand, during the 1973 Yom Kippur War “had psychological breakdowns at three times the rate of elite front-line troops, relative to the casualties suffered.” That’s because, he says, the troops with rear-echelon jobs did not get intensive training nor the exposure to danger that creates unit cohesion and therefore generally did not develop strong emotional bonds in their units.

Junger also directly addresses the problems that infect America today—the vast gulf between two sides in a culture war. “It’s hard to know how to live for a country that regularly tears itself apart along every possible ethnic and demographic boundary,” he writes, with “rampage shootings happen[ing] so regularly that they only remain in the news cycle for a day or two.”

As Karl Marlantes advises, read this little book for advice on what we can do to remedy what has afflicted America. There are no easy answers.

Junger’s website is sebastianjunger.com

—David Willson

Eyes over the Delta by Hank Collins

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Hank Collins piloted Army fixed-wing O-1 Birddog aircraft in Vietnam during 1965-66, a period he calls “the defining year of my life.” He served as an adviser to an ARVN division.

In Eyes Over the Delta (Outskirts Press, 72 pp.; $19.95, hardcover), Collins records “historical fiction” from that era by combining real people and events with composite people and events. Assigned to the 221st Reconnaissance Airplane Company, he worked the area from Can Tho City south to the sea.

A 2007 reunion with men from the 221st motivated Collins to write and publish this short, thinly veiled memoir. In five vignettes that span a year, Collins describes combat flying, Vietnamese justice, war orphans, spontaneous friendship, and the power of prayer.

The stories deliver lessons in introspection with an undercurrent of goodness among people who practice Catholicism. Two stories that focus on flying are the highlights of the book.

Collins includes photographs and copies of letters in the book.

—Henry Zeybel

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The author in Vietnam