Welcome to “Books in Review II,” a web-only feature that complements “Books in Review,” which runs in The VVA Veteran, the bimonthly print magazine published by Vietnam Veterans of America.
That column and this site contain book reviews by writers who specialize in the Vietnam War and Vietnam War veterans. Our regular Books in Review II reviewers are Dan Hart, Bill McCloud, David Willson, Tom Werzyn, and Henry Zeybel.
Our goal is to review every newly published book of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry that deals with the Vietnam War and Vietnam War veterans. Publishers and self-published authors may mail review copies to:
Arts Editor, The VVA Veteran
8719 Colesville Road
Silver Spring, MD 20910
Every American should know the life story of former Green Beret—and Vietnam War Medal of Honor recipient—Gary Beikirch. It’s an admirable life filled with honor, valor, service, and humility. And with severe physical and mental pain and anguish.
Gary Beikirch was born and raised in Rochester, New York. He struggled through a rocky childhood after his father deserted the family when he was in first grade. When he was twenty, Beikirch dropped out of college and joined the Army in August 1967. He volunteered for Special Forces, made it through the physically, emotionally, and intellectually vigorous SF training, and opted to become a medic.
Gary Beikirch arrived in Vietnam in July 1969. He wound up serving with a 5th Special Forces Group A Team in a remote Montagnard village called Dak Seang about a mile from the Laotian border in the jungles of the Central Highlands.
Beikirch found his calling tending to the medical needs of Montagnard men, women, and children. Like other Special Forces medics, he treated a myriad of health conditions, from pulling teeth to delivering babies, treating tropical diseases, and removing shrapnel wounds. He bonded with—and came to love—the Montagnard people, especially a 15-year-old boy named Deo, who more or less became his bodyguard.
On April 1, 1970, an NVA force numbering in the thousands launched a surprise human-wave attack on the camp. Caught off guard, the Green Berets and Montagnard fighters (and their families), suffered huge casualties. Beikirch and the other Green Berets sprang into action, defending the camp. Not long after the battle began, as he ran into the teeth of the assault to rescue a wounded Green Beret, a shrapnel burst knocked him unconscious. When he came to, Beikirch couldn’t walk—the metal had lodged near his spinal cord.
He shook off the injury and ordered Deo to carry him back to the perimeter to continue fighting the enemy and treat the wounded. Somehow—without the use of his legs—he helped rescue wounded Americans and Montagnards and treat them in the medic shed. During that time he was shot a second time, in the side. Again, the young Green Beret was treated and Deo took him back to the fighting. Beikirch took another bullet, this time in the stomach, but he refused entreaties to get back under cover. He continued to fight, even with Deo and two other men carrying him on a litter.
Then NVA rockets started falling. Deo jumped on top of Beikirch during a barrage and paid for that selfless act with his life. Somehow, Beikirch continued to fight until he collapsed and was medevaced out. The fighting would go on for nearly a month.
Next came months operations in hospitals in Vietnam and back in the U.S.A. He had to learn to walk again. When he recovered, Beikirch asked to be sent back to Vietnam. Instead, he spent his remaining time in the Army at Fort Devens in Massachusetts. When he took his honorable discharge, Gary Beikirch enrolled in college again. That’s when life got really rough.
“The war injured me physically,” he said in a TV interview in 2019, “but it was my homecoming that destroyed me.”
Being all but shunned and scorned by antiwar college students, he dropped out and for the next few years fought what seemed a losing battle with severe PTSD. He tried self-medicating with drugs and alcohol. He tried turning to the Bible. To little avail. Beikirch wound up living in a cave in the White Mountains of New Hampshire for nearly two years trying to come to terms with the carnage he’d experienced in Vietnam and survivor guilt—even after receiving the Medal of Honor in 1973 in a ceremony at the White House.
When Beikirch met his future wife Lolly in 1975, his life began to turn around. Her love and attention (and their embrace of Christianity) eased much of the psychic burdens he wrestled with. He graduated from White Mountain Seminary in New Hampshire, and two years later earned a BA in Psychology and Sociology from the University of New Hampshire. In 1981, he received an MS in Education Counseling specializing in adolescent psychology, trauma, and PTSD, from the State University of New York at Brockport.
But during those years there were setbacks and backsliding. Soon after Vietnam Veterans of America was founded in 1978, Gary Beikirch joined the fledgling organization and became one of VVA’s early leaders. He helped form Chapter 20 in his hometown of Rochester, and served as its first president from 1981-84. He was elected the first president of VVA’s New York State Council in 1982, and served in that position till 1984, and also did a 1983-85 term on the VVA National Board of Directors.
In 1981, Gary Beikirch—who was running Rochester’s pioneering Veterans Outreach Center and serving as a team counselor there—joined a small group of VVA leaders including then-president Bobby Muller that made a controversial trip to Vietnam to work on POW/MIA and other issues with the former enemy.
In the summer of 1988 Beikirch began working full time as a school counselor at Greece Arcadia Middle School in his hometown. That’s when he overcame the worst of his PTSD and became a loving husband and father—and a caring mentor to countless young teenagers. He spent nearly 25 years at that job. Since his retirement in 2013 Biekirch has traveled the country speaking to students, church groups, veterans, and others about overcoming adversity through faith and what he has called “finding love and being able to experience it” and “loving others more than myself.”
Marcus Brotherton, who specializes in writing inspirational books about military men, worked closely with Gary Beikirch to put together Blaze of Light: The Inspiring True Story of Green Beret Medic Gary Biekirch, Medal of Honor Recipient (Waterbrook, 261 pp. $26). Brotherton uses much reconstructed dialogue to tell Beikirch’s story in a style that calls to mind books aimed at young-adult readers. He stresses positives, but Brotherton does not shy away from describing the many low points in Beikirch’s life.
There is a strong emphasis on religion, which is fitting giving how important becoming a Christian had in bringing Beikirch out from the depths of emotional despair.
Brotherton mentions Vietnam Veterans of America only once in Blaze of Light, in the final chapter. He provides no information about the nation’s only congressionally chartered veterans service organization that concentrates on working for Vietnam War veterans and their families—other than writing that we are “a group.”
There’s not a word in the book about Gary Beikirch’s important role in VVA’s early years on the local, state, and national levels.
Focusing on the concept that “sacrifice without remembrance is meaningless,” Craig Blackman enlisted students in his advanced placement American history class at Indian River High School in Chesapeake, Virginia, to study the lives of twenty-five local men who died in the Vietnam War. Twenty-three of them were killed in action. He had the students find and interview the men’s family members and friends, research their unit records, and write the stories of their pre-war lives and military service.
Sound historical scholarship forms the book’s roots. Page after page overflows with notes that validate the students’ findings. A bibliography is loaded with primary sources. Several of the students overachieved on the assignment and wrote longer-than-required accounts of their subjects, including their units’ activities. Some wrote wrote about in-country situations and locations previously unknown to me.
Despite growing up close together in Chesapeake, the men had diverse backgrounds: White, black, Native American; an only child; one of thirteen children; good guys and bad actors; draftees and enlistees. There’s an almost even split between those who were in the Army and in the Marines; only one officer is profiled. Their deaths stretched from 1966-70; fourteen took place in 1968. They shared a grim commonality in military assignments: straight from training to Vietnam in the combat arms. Nine died while still in their teens.
Each man’s story reveals a distinct personality. Photographs flesh out their personalities. A few experienced a rapid and perhaps premature transition from youth to adulthood. Determination to do the right thing prevailed among them. One definitely deserves his own book.
The students learned to appreciate the sacrifices made to American values by people barely older than themselves, even as a result of questionable diplomacy. “These high school students will never be the same,” Blackman says. “Interacting with the Gold Star families forever sculpted them emotionally and intellectually.”
The biographies are both sad and joyful. They brought unexpected resolution to some family members of the deceased by memorializing the deaths beyond a name engraved on a wall.
Blackman’s project peaked with a 2014 “special reception honoring Chesapeake citizens who made the ultimate sacrifice in the Vietnam War,” followed three days later by a Memorial Day ceremony. Relatives and friends of the men in the book attended both events.
Blackman also describes how he organized the project. In an appendix, he includes the worksheets he designed to guide his students’ research. Initially, his efforts produced spotty results, and he almost stopped the endeavor. Now he wants other educators to emulate this method for teaching American history.
Retired U.S. Army Maj. John D. Falcon’s The Freedom Shield: The 191st Assault Helicopter Company in Vietnam (Casemate, 343 pp. $34.95) is a well-written, vividly descriptive, colorful, and highly detailed account of Vietnam War helicopter combat operations. Falcon tells that story through the eyes of a UH-1 Huey pilot and fellow members of the 191st Assault Helicopter Company.
Readers will truly understand the nature of combat at the tactical level during intense engagements and ordinary missions that abruptly became life-and-death struggles. Those who have been in a chopper inserted into a hot landing zone will understand every word in this book. For those who haven’t, it will be an eye opener as Falcon puts the reader on board flying into combat while the side door gunner is firing his M-60 machine gun at North Vietnamese troops.
Not long into the book I realized writing it probably was probably a catharsis for Falcon, and for others with whom he flew. The releasing of so many memories, perhaps painfully at times, is what makes this book authentic in its telling. Every vignette reminds us how hazardous flying combat missions in the Vietnam War could be. The terrain, the jungle, and the weather, as well as the enemy’s lethal tactics, challenged even the best pilots.
That includes a mission Falcon describes in which one of his unit’s’ gunships flew a night special operations mission into Cambodia through a canyon with sheer walls to destroy North Vietnamese supply sampans as they surreptitiously smuggled weapons across the border into Vietnam. It was as much luck as skill that kept them alive that night.
Another of the book’s strengths is that it goes beyond being a memoir of one man’s tour of duty with the 191st. Falcon graciously collected the reminiscences of many former unit members and allowed them to find their voices and recount their combat experiences.
He also describes the big advances made in war-fighting with the application of the air mobility concept developed less than two years before his unit was sent to Vietnam. He describes the critical importance of helicopters during the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley in 1965. after which air mobile operations became a mainstay for Army units in combat.
With helicopter support, Lt. Col. Hal Moore’s 1st/7th Cavalrywas continually resupplied during that intense and prolonged battle, its wounded medevaced, and ultimately safely extracted by chopper. However, there was another aspect of the battle not mentioned in this book, which highlights what might happen when a unit is left exposed without access to air mobile assets. Moore’s sister 1st Cavalry Division battalion, the 2nd of the 7th, was decimated when they didn’t get helicopter support and went on a needless march to a distant extraction zone.
In other words, the strength of being an air mobile battalion is lost when helicopters are not employed where and when they are needed. The unlucky battalion commander later summed up his unit’s painful experience as “the least air mobile operation in the entire war.”
This well-written and very interesting book is outstanding on three levels: It describes the rise of Army aviation and the strategy of air mobility as a game changer in contemporary warfare; it captures the Vietnam War at the combatant level; and it is a pitch-perfect unit history. Well done.
L.A.’s Last Street Cop: Surviving Hollywood Freaks, The Aryan Brotherhood, and the L.A.P.D.’s Homicidal Vendetta Against Me (281 pp. Highpoint, $24.99, hardcover; $9.99, Kindle) is Al Moreno’s memoir of his years with what he calls “the premier police department in the United States.” Moreno went to work for LAPD soon after coming home from the Vietnam War feeling like it was the job he was born to do. But just a few years later he was fired in what he says was an “unlawful procedure.”
The book’s main story takes place between 1975 and 1982. Moreno, grew up, as he puts it, in the “gang-infested” Florencia-13 part of South Central Los Angeles. His father was abusive and his family very poor—and large. He had eleven brothers and sisters. He joined the Marines in 1968, three years after dropping out of high school and served in Vietnam with India Company, Third Battalion, Seventh Marines as a fire team leader and radioman. After leaving the Corps he obtained an associate’s degree and was accepted into the Los Angeles Police Academy in late 1975.
Always remember, a veteran cop told him, that “this world out here is a shithole with no long-term fixes. Your main responsibility is to keep the peace for that instant in real time and prevent the situation from escalating.”
Moreno had no confidence in the weapon he was issued, describing it as a Smith & Wesson “piss-ant” .38 six-shot revolver with no knock-down power. He describes “greasy spoon” meals on the job, and how routine arrests would typically require five hours of paperwork, and how he served during a time when there were few female officers in the department. He points out that many of the men were war veterans, but that 90 percent of the officers on the force “had never dropped the hammer on an asshole.” He says the term “war brides” was used to describe women who chased cops, hoping to date or even marry them.
Moreno writes that he had a “natural pugilistic talent,” and received a suspension for an off-duty fight while working the Hollywood Division. He went on to work his way up to a specialized unit dealing with gang-related incidents. For political reasons there was intentional under-reporting of gang-related statistics, a situation Moreno helped bring to light, putting him at odds with the department’s bureaucracy. He was suspended again.
In 1981 Moreno had more serious charges brought against him by a department he believed had it out for him. Then came death threats, then termination, an action he has worked ever since to have reversed.
The stories Al Moreno tells and incidents he describes in his book are often blood-soaked ones. He does a great job of putting the reader next to him in the front seat of a squad car—or on a bar stool.
L.A.’s Last Cop is an exciting story, excitingly told, with serious undertones of a man still trying to reclaim his good name.
In World Wars I and II and in the Vietnam War the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division earned the nickname “All American Division” and its 3rd Brigade became known as the “Golden Brigade” based on their combat performances. In the First Gulf War, Journalist Robert J. Dvorchak accompanied the 82nd in Kuwait and Iraq and wrote an Ernie Pyle-style book about it.
Thereafter, mutual admiration between Dvorchak and men of the 82nd’s Third Brigade led him to write The Golden Brigade: The Untold Story of the 82nd Airborne in Vietnam and Beyond (IBJ Book Publishing, 528 pp. $35.00).
With fifty years of experience as a journalist, author, and historian Robert Dvorchak is nearly as famous in military circles as the 82nd Division. He has won many awards for covering high-profile events during the past half century. He wrote The Golden Brigade after interviewing veterans from the 82nd who had fought in the Vietnam War, many of whom had not previously spoken about their war-time experiences. Based on the breadth and depth of its combat reporting, I rank the book a must-read. Containing more 500 pages, The Golden Brigade is a solid chunk of history.
Within days after the North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong started their 1968 Tet Offensive, the 82nd deployed from Fort Bragg to the fighting in Hue. An estimated 80 percent of the 82nd personnel already had served a year in Vietnam. Undermanned, the division deployed as a single brigade under command of a colonel. For eight months the 82nd fought to control the countryside around Hue and then moved south for more than a year to protect Saigon against NVA infiltration from Cambodia.
The book contains 62 pages of excellent photographs and maps. Most of the photographs are in color and show troops in the field, which adds a you-are-there feeling to the text.
Dvorchak builds word pictures based on the memories of men of all ranks and backgrounds. He names plenty of names. When introducing veterans, he offers a clever bit of writing by paralleling the men’s activities with the war’s history. Readers unfamiliar with the Vietnam War will find such passages valuable. The technique reveals the pronounced differences of operational thinking at different command levels.
The stories of these men are captivating. They run the gamut of emotions under stress. While relating them, Dvorchak rounds out the men’s personalities by frequently flashing backward and forward to families left behind and other life experiences.
The stories also touch on controversial aspects of the Vietnam War, such as using drugs and reporting body counts.
As an honorary member of the 82nd, Robert Dvorchak tell us that some 200 veterans of the Golden Brigade attend the unit’s annual reunions. Above all else, he portrays the 82nd as an extraordinary brotherhood of warriors.
Richard J. Flaherty was “the most unconventional man ever to serve in the U.S. military,” according to The Giant Killer: American Hero, Mercenary, Spy … The Incredible True Story of the Smallest Man to Serve in the U.S. Military—Green Beret Captain Richard J. Flaherty (Mission Point Press, 318 pp. $14.99, paper; $6.99, Kindle) by David A. Yuzuk and Neil L. Yuzuk.
Within the first six pages of this very interested book, Flaherty is killed by a hit-and-run driver in the wee hours of a hot May morning in a small Florida town near Miami. Earlier that evening he had told David Yuzuk that “if you ask too many questions, it could be bad for your career, and dangerous to my health.”
Yuzuk was a police officer in Aventura, Florida, who befriended Richard Flaherty and received his permission to produce a 2017 documentary about his life. With the help of his father, Neil, David Yuzuk tells Flaherty’s story in the film and this biography.
As the book begins to take shape, it traces Flaherty’s life from his high school days in Stamford, Connecticut. The bones of the story come from notes taken during lots of conversations David Yuzuk had with Flaherty, who was homeless—more or less by choice—for more than twenty years. He also interviewed many men Flaherty served with; his father did much of the behind-the-scenes research.
The title, Giant Killer, comes from a high school graduation yearbook entry referring to the nickname Flaherty earned after retaliating against a much larger classmate following a locker room prank. It stuck with him over the years.
The authors follow Flaherty through his enlistment in the Army, Basic Training, Infantry AIT, Officer Candidate School, Green Beret training, and his deployments to Vietnam with the 101st Airborne Division and the 3rd Special Forces Group. He was always the smallest man in the room—and in the field. Flaherty took the derision and ridicule heaped upon him as fuel to excel at everything he attempted.
After the war, Flaherty—by then a decorated Special Forces Captain—was riffed out of the Army. Feeling cheated by the military, he embarked upon a series of adventures, with different partners and clients, some of them covert, some of them with agents of the U. S. Government. There was a short prison stay.
This is a good, well-written book about a very interesting man.
Stephen Emerson’s message in North Vietnam’s 1972 Easter Offensive : Hanoi’s Gamble (Pen & Sword, 126 pp. $22.95, paper; $12.99, Kindle) is that the Army of the Republic of Vietnam could not have defeated North Vietnamese Army invaders without airpower provided by the United States. He repeatedly cites B-52s—which averaged 76 sorties a day during June, July, and August 1972 and carpet-bombed within 600 yards of friendly forces—and Spectre AC-130 gunships as the deciding factors.
Emerson, a Ph.D. in International Relations/Comparative Politics, has written three other books about conflicts in Southeast Asia. He also has authored more than 100 classified and unclassified publications on topics ranging from American national security affairs and political instability to terrorism, African conflicts, and counter-insurgency.
He describes the Vietnam War in 1972 as a now-or-never situation. Four years of talks between American and North Vietnamese diplomats had produced little progress, Emerson says. Both sides felt a proclivity for a military solution to the war. Vietnamization had put the onus on the ARVN to defend its nation with help from a comparatively few American advisers.
Massing its largest concentration of troops, tanks, and artillery of the war, the NVA invaded, and drove the wavering ARVN to the brink of defeat in Military Regions 1, 2, and 3. Until American air power intervened.
An angry President Richard Nixon initiated Operation Linebacker to step up bombing inside North Vietnam. Air Force and Navy fighter-bombers crippled transportation and supply systems by collapsing bridges, cutting rail lines, and destroying stockpiles of war goods. However, the more immediate airpower need required killing enemy invaders on the ground in South Vietnam, which the B-52s and AC-130s did most effectively.
With support from maps, Emerson explains the ebb and flow of fighting during the middle six months of 1972. He presents detailed accounts of the fall of Quang Tri and the defense of Hue, the battle for Kontum, and the siege of An Loc.
To me, the most interesting part of the book he titles “Saigon Counterattacks.” in which the ARVN broke free from the Hue pocket, outlasted the NVA attackers at An Loc, and recaptured Quang Tri to end the Easter Offensive.
Emerson’s research principally relies on American sources. I would have appreciated more input about the thinking of North Vietnamese military and political leaders. Otherwise, North Vietnam’s 1972 Easter Offensive is an excellent summation of an averted disaster.
Practically every page of the book contains a black-and-white photograph, and an eight-page gallery in the middle of the book offers color photos. That collection of images ranks among the best I have seen in a Vietnam War book.
For several weeks during the Easter Offensive, I was part of a three-man team on special assignment from Hurlburt Field in Florida to locate NVA 130-mm artillery in a Spectre gunship. I went on two missions to An Loc and found the fighting more frantic than anything I had experienced during my previous year’s tour with Spectre, which included the Lam Son 719 debacle.
At the same time, in-country operations exuded a grim determination. Emerson’s extensive history helped me to realize why our mission failed: We had not seen the big picture all those years ago.
Emerson closes the book with discussions about diplomatic stalemates, Linebacker II, and a post-mortem. He did not need to do so. The ARVN’s poor performance during Lam Son 719 in 1971 and its inability to act independently against the 1972 Easter Offensive foreshadowed exactly what was to come after the NVA rebuilt its forces.
David L. Porter served twenty-seven years in the U.S. Army, retiring as as a colonel in 1995. The most memorable time of his career occurred when, immediately after he received his wings as a helicopter pilot, he flew the Hughes Cayuse OH-6 Scout LOH as an Aerial Scout Section Leader with the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment (known as the Thunderhorse) from Quan Loi, Vietnam in 1969-70.
Porter recalls those days in Taking Fire!: Memoir of an Aerial Scout in Vietnam (McFarland, 182 pp. $29.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle). Porter tells his story with “no surnames” and “no attempt to identify any themes nor to draw any conclusions.” He leaves those tasks to readers, he says, and claims to offer only his “description of events.”
The memoir revolves around Hunter-Killer operations, which died with the war. The tactic could not have been simpler: An OH-6 LOH (Light Observation Helicopter or “Loach”) flew around Viet Cong- and NVA-controlled territory at or below treetop level until it drew fire, then marked the spot with a smoke grenade. Instantly, an AH-1G Cobra waiting overhead would attack the area.
These encounters quickly escalated as Cobra pilots directed artillery onto enemy positions. Ideally, an Air Force OV-10 Bronco forward air controller then brought in F-4 Phantoms to finish the job.
American ground forces requested these missions, which were known as VR (visual reconnaissance) to try to find the elusive enemy. The ballsiest part of the operation fell to the LOH pilot—Porter’s role. An observer—called OSCAR—accompanied him and provided the primary set of eyes for locating the enemy. LOH pilots and OSCARs refused to consider themselves as bait.
Porter flew Thunderhorse Hunter-Killer strikes from October 1969 through February 1970. His recollection of facts during that time is astounding. The details of his physical and mental states often made me feel as if I were in his body or mind.
He brings everything to life, on the ground and in the air, on-duty and off. Although Porter uses no surnames, he gives us memorable personalities and dissects the idiosyncrasies of men of all ranks. For him as a lieutenant, watching and listening to experienced people was akin to attending school.
He examines LOH tactics in depth by analyzing missions and after-action discussions about arbitrary maneuvers such as which way to break over a target. His reflections on the morality of machine-gunning three VC—men he had initially attempted to capture—puts a heartrending slant on death, even in combat.
One might read Taking Fire! as a coming-of-age story. Frequent turnovers in commanders allowed Porter to analyze leadership techniques from aggressive and violent, to careful and deliberate and, I believe, establish his own criteria for how best to command troops. Furthermore, the losses and injuries of many close friends had a strong impact on Porter’s appreciation for life. That said, these conclusions are merely mine.
Without intending to do so, David Porter also convinced me (for at least my tenth time) that flying helicopters is the toughest aviation job in warfare.
William Jackson’s Blackley’s poetry collection, Lingering Fire (Main Street Rag Publishing, 40 pp., $11, paper), which was published in 2015, contains excellent, mostly short poems with titles such as “Indirect Fire,” “Black Market Habits,” “Cities,” “Captain Crazy,” “Thermite,” “One Tour Too Many,” and “Blue Sunday.”
“Some of these poems were written during a very dark chapter in my life when I questioned even the existence of God,” Blackley writes. “They are based on my experiences growing up, with the draft, military training, battlefield action, coming home, talking with veterans and post-traumatic consequences of actions in Vietnam.” The poems “are, at times, my personal attempts to work through conflicted emotions rising from war experiences.”
The key to understanding this collection is a close reading of Blackley’s poem “Captain Crazy.” It’s about his fellow Vietnam War veteran Yusef Komunyakaa, the much-honored poet.
During my thirteen-and-a half-months in Vietnam I served as an office worker. However, in the months and years after I returned from the Vietnam War, I observed similar behavior to what Blackley describes in “Captain Crazy”. My sympathy for Komunyakaa and other returning Vietnam veterans was extreme, partially because I was similarly affected by my tour of duty.
If you want to understand the fears of a Vietnam War veteran, read Komunyakaa’s poetry and your sympathy and understanding will be increased.
The poem I like best in the Lingering Fire is “Breaking Ranks.” Here are excerpts:
Home from Vietnam I carried engraved images of twisted and burned men everywhere I went
Never mentioned them, never even hinted at them until in the stands at my son’s soccer game one year I stunned myself and friends when ashen faced I stood and shouted “shut up shut up shut up” to a knot of teenagers chanting “kill them kill them kill them”
If you like hard-hitting poems that don’t mince words, this book is for you.
In 2014, Americans were asked to name the most admired person in the country. Colin Powell, then ten years removed from public life, made the top of the list. Powell is both an anachronism to the civilian military leadership of Dwight Eisenhower and George Marshall and a sui generis military officer, having served as the first African American National Security Adviser, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Secretary of State.
Jeffrey Matthews’ Colin Powell: Imperfect Patriot (University of Notre Dame Press, 416 pp., $35) is a thorough biography of Powell under the guise of leadership studies. Matthews, a professor of U.S. history and leadership at the University of Puget Sound, wrote about his subject in a previous book, The Art of Command: Military Leadership from George Washington to Colin Powell.
To Matthews, Powell was the “consummate follower” and an “exemplary subordinate,” traits that led to his rise from an aimless immigrant who barely graduated college to the pinnacle of American military and political power. Relying on government documents and first-hand accounts, including a four-hour interview with Powell, Matthews presents a chronological appraisal of Powell’s life that is comprehensively researched and readable.
Matthews praises many of Powell’s positive attributes, especially his undeniable charisma, executive skills, and personal courage. But this is no hagiography. “Too often,” Matthews writes, “successful and patriotic military officers such as Powell have prioritized career ambition, excessive obedience, and blind loyalty over independent critical reasoning and ethical principles.”
The scandals that Powell was directly or indirectly involved with—the cover-up of the My Lai massacre, the Iran-Contra affair, and his United Nations speech that led to the invasion of Iraq—form the crux of Matthews’ assessment of Powell. Matthews uses a degree of presentism, explaining events not as they occurred, but based on information now available, in recounting these episodes in Powell’s life.
This leads him to some harsh and hyperbolic accusations. Matthew accuses Powell, for example, of “clear obstruction of justice” and a “dereliction of duty” in the Iran-Contra affair. But the independent counsel who investigated found Powell’s testimony as merely inconsistent and not worthy of prosecution. As in other parts of the book, Matthews does not offer his thoughts on how Powell should have acted.
Though clearly written and easily accessible, the leadership nomenclature with which the book is written sometimes leads to tenuous connections. As a ROTC cadet, Matthews posits that Powell was recognized as an agreeable follower, which made him a mentor to other cadets. But people can recognize the difference between sycophancy and cordiality; his fellow cadets did not look to him as a leader because he was the consummate follower.
Powell arrived in Vietnam as an adviser in late 1962. He left in July 1963 with a Bronze Star and Purple Heart. He returned for a second tour in 1968, earning valorous distinction in rescuing others after his helicopter crashed. Powell’s connection to the My Lai massacre is tenuous, as he was not assigned to the Americal Division until three months after the atrocity. Matthews provides no new evidence that Powell had contemporaneous direct (or even indirect) knowledge of the massacre. Powell displayed bravery and leadership during his two tours in the Vietnam War, although he has acknowledged his failings about being unreflective about the role of America in the controversial conflict.
Matthews’ assessment of Powell’s Vietnam War service is more exacting: “The Vietnam experience revealed the limits of Powell’s professional development,” Matthews writes, “his unquestioning acceptance of orders, his unswerving allegiance to higher-ranking officers, his utilitarian ethics, and his overriding ambition to advance in rank.”
Douglas MacArthur believed that President Truman’s orders on the Korean War were dangerously wrong. Dwight Eisenhower openly criticized President Roosevelt’s decision to focus on North Africa and postpone an invasion of Europe. One led, one followed. The distinction may be fine, but Matthews’ book does not examine the difference between independent followership and feckless enabling—or the distinction between decisive leadership and rogue initiative.
His subtitle, “Imperfect Patriot” seems especially trite, as America could use Powell’s imperfection right now.