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

Proud to Be edited by Susan Swartwout

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I wish I was a little bird

So I could fly away;

I’d go to all the far off places

Where my daddy has to stay.

—Ashley Williams

The “far off places” in this anthology are battlefields from Sharpsburg, Maryland, to Kanduhar, Afghanistan, and many American wars in between. Stories and photographs from veterans are collected in the fourth volume of Proud To Be: Writing by American Warriors (Missouri Humanities Council/Southeast Missouri State University Press, 270  pp., $15, paper) edited by Susan Swartwout, who worked on the previous three volumes.

Swarthout selected the short fiction, poetry, interviews, essays, and photography with the help of a six-person panel of judges. “The War Within” is the only screenplay in the volume. It succinctly and cleverly presents a cast of character in two versions, one a proud Marine and one dealing with PTSD.

PTSD is also covered in an essay by David Chrisinger, who teaches veteran re-integration at the University of Wisconsin. This well-researched essay centers on Marine Brett Foley’s service in Afghanistan, where he witnessed an IED explosion that killed two and wounded several others.

Dealing with the horror two years later, Foley said: “At the end of the day, it all comes down to the fact that at times I wished desperately that I could simply erase parts of my memory so that I could just be normal again.” In addition to counseling and his wife’s support, “what helped Brett’s resilience was talking about his trauma and remembering the good men he served with.”

The essay, “Korea 1951–Marines Don’t Cry,” predates the study of PTSD and describes how trauma can be dealt with on the battlefield. To wit: “I slowly walked out into the woods. Alone, I couldn’t stop the tears. I reached into my holster and took out my .45. Self-pity turned into anger. I lifted the gun, holding it in both hands and aimed at the sky. I shot it over and over. A couple Marines came running out yelling, ‘What’s going on?’ I pulled my cap down over my eyes so they couldn’t see the tears, turned to them and said, ‘Just practicing.'”

The irony of war could almost be the theme of this compilation. One account describes an action in Sicily during World War II in which German soldiers captured a group of American medics despite the fact that red crosses were on their helmets. They were imprisoned because the Germans had heard a rumor that American generals hid howitzers in ambulances.

“Best Revenge” is a stunning piece of short fiction in which a Marine corporal and a staff sergeant meet during the corporal’s last days in Vietnam. The surprise ending made this standout my favorite.

Another must-read is the essay “My Vietnam Nightmare” written by a former Navy Corpsman. He writes: “Terrified, I think this could very likely be the last day of my life. This suicidal waltz is known as ‘doing your duty.'”

The final section of Proud To Be is devoted to poetry. I recommend taking quiet time to read these poems, especially the well-crafted “Dead Man’s Cap” and “The Flight of the Liberty Belle.”

I would be remiss not to mention the photography category. “Remembering Home” and “Iraqi Boy Sitting” are two I particularly enjoyed.

Finally, here is the poem “Proctors” by Kanesha Washington:

You signed your names on the front lines of war

Susan Swartwout

Susan Swartwout

You packed your duffle bags with manhood
Many only teenagers yet you knew what you were fighting for.
while putting away your adolescence
You left behind family, children and even friends
to become a protector of our nation
Adorned in a uniform of freedom and pride
you marched with bravery on the battlefield of uncertainty
By land, ship, or sea
you proudly and selflessly carried out your duty
You are the stars represented on our flag
America salutes you

for your future, present and especially your past

—Curt Nelson

Not Forgotten by Gregory Hall

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Gregory Hall’s father served as a paratrooper in the U. S. Army Airborne division that liberated the Japanese Internment Camp at Los Banos in the Philippines where more than 2,000 American, Australian, and British civilians were being held.

Not Forgotten (Trafford, 504 pp., $37.25, hardcover; $31, paper; $9.99, Kindle) is a novel about this event—“a compilation of a number of years of research and the cooperation of numerous individuals who deserve recognition,” Hall, a life member of Vietnam Veterans of America, tells us.

The author is a former Army 82nd Airborne paratrooper.  Not Forgotten “has been a work of passion” for him. The desire to write it, he says, goes back to 1976 when he was stationed at Fort Bragg. His father, like many World War II veterans, rarely talked about the war. Hall took advantage of being in an airborne division and began researching his father’s unit. The day that the prisoners were rescued was February 23, 1945, the same day the American flag was raised on Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima by the U. S. Marines.

This enthralling novel carefully introduces the reader to the characters we’ll get to know much better in the next few hundred pages. These people come alive on the page. Most are clueless that war with Japan is a few days away and that they will be heavily involved in it. The author well communicates the security and entitlement of Americans in the Philippines—the women caught up in the excitement of shopping for dresses, for example, just a short time before the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor—and then the Philippines.

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Gregory Hall 

I’ve read many accounts of how the Japanese treated prisoners of war during World War II. This novel does a good job with that. There are many beheadings and other unnecessary acts of cruelty by the Japanese. The novel also shows that all the Allied prisoners were not ennobled by being captives. There was some compassion and kindness along with much cruelty on their part, too.

The book leads up to the liberation of the camp, done in just the nick of time, as the Japanese were preparing a site for a mass grave for the prisoners. The heroic rescue is well-portrayed and exciting. There is a History Channel documentary on the liberation. I hope to get to see it one day. Gregory Hall was much involved in preparing that doc, so I am certain it is well worth seeing.

I enjoyed this book and highly recommend it to those interested in a historical depiction of the cruelty of war, leavened with some small kindness.

The author’s website is www.notfogottennovel.com

—David Willson

Snapshots from the Edge of a War by John Buquoi

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John Buquoi was trained as a Vietnamese linguist at the Army Language School in Monterey, California, and then assigned to the Army Security Agency’s 3rd Radio Research Unit, a military branch of the National Security Agency in Saigon and its Detachment J in Phu Bai in Vietnam from 1963-65.  After separation from the Army he returned to Vietnam where he worked as a civilian for defense contractors for more than five years. During that time Buquoi traveled to virtually every province in South Vietnam.

Snapshots from the Edge of a War (CreateSpace, 138 pp., $9.95, paper; $4.99, Kindle) is a book of poems, written fifty years later—or, as Buquoi puts it: “This is a work of fiction.”  The back cover has a photograph of the author in the aftermath of the Brinks Hotel bombing in Saigon on Christmas Eve 1964. The photo and the poems demonstrate strongly that John Buquoi was a man who was there, “in the shit.”

The back cover blurb says it well: “The poems in this volume are, after fifty years, echoes of that experience in a series of reflective narrative vignettes which one critic has called, ‘first rate in every respect, resonating on all levels—emotional, personal, factual, historical, literary.'”

Buquoi’s six-page story poem, “The gifts of Christmas,” is the best piece of any kind I’ve read on the bombing of the Brinks Hotel, which served as a Bachelor Officers Quarters in downtown Saigon. Buquoi writes of “Mr. Xuan, the sapper santa” who  sat across the street and sipped coffee after the bombing, “Satisfied as he watched his plastique work explode.”  His 200-pound car bomb killed two and wounded more than 200 Vietnamese and Americans, civilian and military alike.

This story poem brings home the reality of a war that could kill you anywhere. You didn’t have to be “out in the shit.”  The shit could come to you—anytime, even on Christmas Eve.

This book also contains one of the best things written on Gen. William Westmoreland, whom Buquoi calls by his nickname, “Westy.” He was the general who seemed designed for photo ops and little else. He showed up after things calmed down for the heroic pictures that appear in most books and articles about him. Certainly the Westy I knew was a photo op general.

“Get a haircut,” he once told me.  I felt like asking, “Why?” since nobody was taking my picture.  I just said, “Yes, sir.”

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John Buquoi (in steel pot, center right) outside Saigon in 1963

The language of this poetry seems written to be read aloud, what this poet calls a “talkie poem.”  We encounter Terry Southern, Jack Kerouac, “john fucking waynes without no brains,” Wile e. Coyote, Bob Dylan, and in person, Raymond Burr, who shows up to buoy up the troops by out-drinking all of them.

I loved every page of this book of poems and highly recommend it to everyone not just to poetry fans.

—David Willson

Stumbling Toward Enlightenment by Polly B. Davis

 

 

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Polly Brown married Tom Davis the day after he finished Army OCS in 1969. For Polly, “marrying a soldier seemed surreal.” She did not hold the profession in high regard, but was “committed to her beau” and had “made up her mind to follow him wherever he chose to go.”

After a three-day honeymoon, Tom began parachute training. Almost instantly, Polly looked into “the soul of the military machine” and saw that “the mission came first, before family, before anything.” She asked herself, “What? Me, second?” but tagged along while Tom finished jump school and then Special Forces training.

Believing husbands and wives should share everything, Polly made two parachute jumps—the first frightening, the second enlightening, and the final one because she had nothing more to prove. With Tom’s encouragement, she became a high school sociology teacher and embarked on a life of her own, which she describes in Stumbling Toward Enlightenment: A Wife’s Thirty-year Journey with Her Green Beret (Old Mountain Press, 209 pp., $15, paper; $6.99, Kindle)

They had been married slightly over a year when Tom went to Vietnam. While he was overseas, Polly earned a master’s degree at the University of Georgia.

Initially, Polly talks mostly about raising their children, Thomas IV and Pollyanna, moving from post to post, curing illnesses, raising dogs and cats, and keeping house while Tom pursued adventures around the world. During a three-year tour in Germany, for example, she writes of picturesque travels across Europe.

Back in the States, Polly developed an ever-increasing independence as a college English teacher and department head. She received a PhD from North Carolina State University. Volunteering for profit and non-profit companies earned her jobs at high-levels, which brought greater authority and recognition. At one time, Polly simultaneously chaired Networth, the North Carolina Community College English Association, and her local Kiwanis.

What’s more, throughout her career, she battled—and repeatedly neutralized—multiple sclerosis.

Polly examines topics beyond travels and her teaching and leadership skills. Her strongest message concerns the difficulty of being a military wife with children and her relationship with her husband.

When I entered the Air Force in the mid-1950s, young men with family problems often were told: “If the military wanted you to have a family, they would have issued you one.” This attitude still prevailed throughout Polly Davis’ life from 1969 to 2000.

Tom Davis wrote a memoir about his career, The Most Fun I Ever Had with My Clothes On:  A March from Private to Colonel. In reviewing his book, I wrote: “I greatly admire Davis because he frequently used his leadership position to challenge authority, mainly to question his superiors.” I feel equal admiration for Polly’s willingness to step on toes when necessary.

Tom attended every school available to him: Special Forces, Mountaineering, SCUBA, Infantry Officer Advanced Course, Ranger, HALO, and Command and General Staff College. He served in England, Germany, Denmark, France, Korea, Zaire, Turkey, Tunisia, Italy, Iraq, and Bosnia. These assignments required him to be away from home for prolonged periods, leaving Polly entirely burdened with their family problems.

Separations from husbands became a way of life for Polly and other Army wives. When the men returned, she says, “What should have been relaxed, joyful homecomings often ended up as several tense days of adjustment.

“Reunions weren’t easy. A pretty standard habit, we wives agreed, was for our men to arrive after a long or even a short deployment and immediately take over. Or make an attempt.” The men immediately sought “to repair what they considered damage done in their absence, whether it was disciplining the children or the dogs or balancing the checkbook.

“First they would question our latest purchase, even groceries, then the reason for the purchase, then criticize it. The unfounded guilt that arose from their misplaced criticism confounded me.” In the best of times, marriage was one great compromise, reached mainly by wives surrendering.

Difficulties were compounded by the fact that, as Polly says, “We wives considered those long periods as sole parents tedious and difficult.”

In the seventies, “military wives were incidental, part of the casualties of the War,” Polly says, arguing that nobody recognized the possibility of PTSD. “We wives were nothing but confused, guiltily wondering what we’d done wrong,” she says.

Soldiers grew introverted and found solace among their peers rather than within their marriages. “Sometimes I felt like I’d lost [Tom] to Ron and those guys on the team.” The needs of Tom’s men—even the most impractical demands—took precedence over the needs of his family, she says, and she did as told because she thought it was the norm.

Yet when husbands deployed, they expected wives to manage everything single-handedly.

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The family that paddles together… Tom and Polly Davis

As further evidence of men’s domination, Polly cites Tom’s accusations of her “lack of attention to detail” about small mishaps. His military mind sought the same degree of perfection from her that it expected from his men. He failed to realize that he was absent more often than not when family problems arose, and consequently he seldom provided timely solutions.

While in the Air Force, I was guilty of every complaint that Polly makes against military husbands. At that time, I crewed on Strategic Air Command bombers. Every other week we lived in a bunker next to our airplanes; perfection was the only acceptable performance of duty. Like me, many fellow crewmen applied military standards to family life. I left SAC after six years, and did a 180, but it was too late to make amends: My wife divorced me.

To overcome the “still dependent wife” syndrome, Polly encourages soldiers’ wives to build identities of their own. But she had limited success in altering their ingrained behavior. “I’d always found it difficult to perpetuate an outmoded tradition that squelched individual growth,” she writes.

Nevertheless, a growing concern among men that wives were “getting uppity” and a “batch of divorces in the battalion” provided her with a modicum of grim satisfaction. Otherwise, she felt that women were merely their husband’s shadows.

All husbands can benefit from reading Polly’s book, particularly men in highly stressful jobs and those who spend long periods away from home. It is important to understand that Polly is not a whiner. She talks about stumbling to enlightenment without belaboring situations that challenged her along the way. Her criticisms are factual and brief.

For example, describing a time when MS immobilized her for two months, she says: “Tom did the best he could. However, the tension was often so thick I could feel myself chocking. Tom couldn’t do it all.” Following her description of one confrontational dinner, she explains how the children formulated a solution for the conflict, and then  changes the subject.

Enlightenment has taught Polly Davis how to move ahead regardless of what gets in her way.

—Henry Zeybel

 

The Soldiers’ Story By Ron Steinman

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First published in 1999 in conjunction with a six-hour Learning Channel documentary series, Ron Steinman’s The Soldiers’ Story: An Illustrated Edition: Vietnam in Their Own Words has been republished in a new, large-format, expanded edition (Wellfleet Press, 400 pp., $28).

Steinman served as the NBC News bureau chief in Saigon “through much of 1966, all of 1967, and most of 1968,” he tells us in the book’s Introduction. Steinman also tells us that his “mandate” for the TV show (and the previous editions of this book) was to tell the stories of men “in battle” through their own words. The result here is a long, profusely illustrated book that, indeed, concentrates heavily on first-person testimony from American soldiers and Marines who saw battle action in the war.

There are six chapters—on The Battle of the Ia Drang Valley, The Siege height-200-no_border-width-200of Khe Sanh, The Tet Offensive, The Secret War (mostly in Laos and Cambodia), The Air War, and The Fall of Saigon. Steinman provides context, and seventy-seven men provide the voices of combat.

The book is handsomely produced. And the stories told by the former combatants ring true. We are given many riveting descriptions of all forms of combat.

Reading this book would give the uninformed the idea that the American war in Vietnam was one long series of battle action. That’s because the voices of the overwhelming majority of men and women who served in support roles in the Vietnam War are absent. Still, that was not Steinman’s mission, and he delivers what he promises: real-life stories of men in the trenches in the Vietnam War.

—Marc Leepson

 

A Different Face of War by James G. Van Straten

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James G. Van Straten served as a U.S. Army senior medical advisor with the South Vietnamese Army throughout I Corps in 1966-67. During that period, he wrote three hundred fifty-two letters to his wife and six children in Texas. Forty-five years later, he has assembled the letters into A Different Face of War: Memories of a Medical Service Corps Officer in Vietnam (University of North Texas Press, 497 pp.; $34.95 hardcover; $15.99 Kindle). The book takes the reader through Van Straten’s year, nearly day by day.

American advisors had no power of command within the Vietnamese military hierarchy; their leadership depended solely on persuasive talent. Advisors worked under the authority of Vietnamese commanders who made the final decisions on policies and actions. Nevertheless, advisors were accountable to their American regional commanders for overall results.

Recently, I read Bob Andretta’s Brown Water Runs Red: My Year as an Advisor to the Vietnamese Navy Junk Force, which describes how an American lieutenant immersed himself in the Vietnamese culture to influence the Vietnamese regional commander’s thinking. Maj. Van Straten employed a similar strategy. Both men, despite working long hours, including occasional around-the-clock days, attended countless Vietnamese town meetings and social functions to build relationships. Open hostility between Buddhists and Catholics complicated Van Straten’s task of remaining politically neutral.

Andretta’s experience centered on Navy combat actions. Van Straten performed Army medical service tasks. Their introspection about how to deal with cross-cultural differences makes these books valuable.

Under the supervision of Maj. Pham Viet Tu, the head doctor of Da Nang’s Duy Tan hospital, Van Straten constantly traveled across I Corps. The United States provided much of the material medical support, and Van Straten performed many minor miracles to ensure that its delivery was timely and in adequate quantity for Vietnamese soldiers and civilians. He faced the endless task of suppressing rampant outbreaks of tuberculosis, bubonic plague, malaria, cholera, rubella (measles), lice, dysentery, and diarrhea.

He also supervised movements of the wounded. Sometimes hospitals had to handle double the number of patients they could handle. During his time in Vietnam, I Corps suffered more casualties than the rest of the country combined. He helped to sort the wounded from the dead and the Americans from the Vietnamese.

In his ten-year Army career before the war, Van Straten had never been assigned to a hospital of any type. “The number of civilian casualties produced by the war was appallingly high,” he writes. “As a younger man, I had so wanted to become a physician, but exposure to trauma of that magnitude convinced me that I was not equipped to handle it. Sometimes I got mildly depressed. I was encountering heart-rending trauma almost on a daily basis.”

From this experience, Van Straten developed an overwhelming compassion for the Vietnamese people. In 1967, to counter the high civilian casualty rate, he helped relocate eighteen thousand civilians away from the DMZ to safer homes southward.

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A civilian hospital in South Vietnam during the war

In their occasional free time, he and American surgeons corrected deformities, such as cleft palates and clubfeet among civilians, mainly children.  Dr. John Henry Giles was the prime motivator for this program.

Beyond describing his everyday activities, Van Straten tells stories about revelatory encounters with a  long list of people, from the famous to the unknown. He explains nuances of Vietnamese culture overlooked in many other Vietnam War memoirs. He provides memorable word pictures of scenes such as the differences between American and Vietnamese casualty wards. He editorializes against the tactic of search-and-destroy.

He also subtly argues that the NVA won the war in I Corps while he was there and that an NVA final victory was inevitable. Many photographs, mostly taken by the author, supplement the text.

For James Van Straten, remorse for events that ended unsatisfactorily transcends the long interval since they occurred. He repeatedly apologizes for his mistakes—mainly minor and unavoidable—and wishes that any outcomes he left unresolved have had no negative repercussions on the people involved.

His conscience and wartime experience have locked the Vietnamese people in his mind forever.

—Henry Zeybel

The Dark Side of Heaven by Robert G. Lathrop

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Retired Marine Corps Capt. Robert G. Lathrop’s The Dark Side of Heaven (AgeView Press, 68 pp., $24.99), as the title suggests, is a dark book. Lathrop, a former A-4 Skyhawk pilot, arrived in Vietnam during the  1968 Tet Offensive. In fifteen months, he flew more than 275 missions. His squadron, VMA-311, flew 54,625 sorties and dropped some 9 million tons of bombs.

We’re told this record will never be broken. I believe it. This is a book for those who believe that if we’d only dropped more bombs on Vietnam, the outcome of the war would have been different.

Lathrop was tortured by his role in the Vietnam War and he wrote some moving and powerful poems about what he viewed as war atrocities.  “He wrote them to honor the men and women who served,” the book’s collaboration Jeanette Vaughan writes.

The poems often moved me to tears, as did reading Gene Lathrop’s biography and how he spent his time after the war. He was born in Walla Walla, Washington on June 8, 1942.  He graduated from Dayton High School in 1960.  This overlap with my own biography and the skill of his writing, often made me feel as though I could have easily ended up in his shoes.

His being the exact same age as I am—and being born and raised in Washington State—was often on my mind as I read his verses.  The old cliché, “There but fortune go I,” dogged me throughout the book.

After the war, Lathrop endured PTSD and sought treatment at the VA’s American Lake Hospital near Tacoma, Washington, where many of my close friends also have  been treated. Lathrop spent much of his retirement “in periods of solitude,” writing down his memories of his experiences in Vietnam, seeking “answers and meaning to the controversial questions, occurrences and mysteries that took place during the Vietnam Conflict.”

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An A-4 Skyhawk in the skies over Vietnam

Lathrop was a lucky man, in that he married the love of his life, Joy.  “She was his confidant and supporter as PTSD threatened to unravel Gene’s mind and destroy relationships with friends and family.” Gene Lathrop died on June 13, 2012, “while out on his farm doing what he loved, working the land in solitude.”

This small book of verse is dark and honest and tormented. The titles of the thirteen poems include  “As I Lay Dying,” “After Mission 186,” “The Field of Despair,” and “The Phantom Battalion.”  It’s difficult to quote from a book of this sort, so I won’t even try, but the language of war and of pilots has never been served better in any book I’ve read.

“All of the missions described in this work are purely from the imagination of the author,” Vaughan writes. “Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.”  Okay, I buy that, but Gene Lathrop paid the dues that made each of the poems seem to me to be the purest of truths.

The pen and ink drawings by Laura Brown and L. Lederman are perfect to support and amplify the poems. This is a book that everyone concerned about the costs of war should read.

—David Willson