Nam by Robert McGowan

I started reading  Robert McGowan ‘s collection of short stories,  Nam:  Things That Weren’t True and Other Stories, Some Funny, Some Sad  (Meridian Star Press, 217 pp., $15.95, paper), in the Seattle VA Hospital where I was sitting in the waiting room before receiving a CT scan to determine if I had tumors in my right lung. I continued reading the stories while I waited for my bone marrow biopsy appointment.

I was only twenty-four pages in when I encountered “Vera,” McGowan’s story about a veteran who died, slowly, from multiple myeloma, the cancer I am slowly dying from. This two-page short story hit me like a punch in the guts. The shock of recognition bowled me over.Then my doctor called me in for the bone marrow biopsy. I found myself thinking of the story often during the hour-and-a-half procedure.

McGowan’s stories will burrow into the brains of readers because of his writer’s gift of being able to fully inhabit, and give life to, the wide variety of voices needed to present the myriad aspects of the American war in Southeast Asia. Some stories brought me to tears. A couple of others provoked me to laugh aloud and call them to the attention of my wife, who read them and loved them.

Some of the stories are tour de forces of language (“Worse Feeling There Is”) and others are informed by a mystery I love but cannot quite put my finger on. The best Greatest Generation story I’ve ever read is “Goddamn Communists.” In fewer than four pages, McGowan presents his readers with every complex aspect of that generation that has troubled and puzzled me all my life. What is up with them?

Thanks to Robert McGowan for this dazzling, harsh, funny, and truthful book. I am glad that I survived my war long enough to be blessed by getting to read the stories in Nam.

If you are curious about the Vietnam War and intend to read only one book about that war, start here. There is more truth in this fiction collection than in all the decades-later, invented, dialogue-driven mass market paperbacks published by LURPs, Rangers, Green Berets, and Marines added together and stacked a mile high.

—David Willson

When Soldiers Cried by David Shea

In When Soldiers Cried: A True Story About Vietnam (Brandylane, 192 pp., $23.95), David Shea recreates his own Vietnam War story by writing it in the shape of a novel centering on a character named Kelly who was drafted into the Army in September of 1967.

We follow Kelly in this dialogue-heavy story through stateside training, to Schofield Barracks in Hawaii and to Vietnam, where he has an eventful infantry tour of duty. And, true to the book’s title, tears often are shed.

Shea wrote the book, in part, he says, as therapy, “Like so many others who served,” he notes in an afterword, “I have faced terrible demons for longer than anyone should have to endure.”

—Marc Leepson

A Warrior’s Quilt of Personal Military History by Albin F. Irzyk

Retired Army Brigadier Gen. Albin F. Irzyk, who served in the 4th Armored Division in World War II, spent two years in the Vietnam War, including, as he puts it, being “in the thick of the Tet Offensive in Saigon in 1968,” and spending “over 600 combat hours in a helicopter directing and supervising military operations of the tactical elements of an infantry division.”

Gen. Irzyk’s book, A Warrior’s Quilt of Personal Military History (Ivy House, 375 pp., $24.95), looks at his World War II and Vietnam War service, and also contains the general’s thoughts on the differences between those two very different wars. The book contains a long, detailed chapter about the fighting that took place around the U.S. Embassy in Saigon during Tet of 1968.

“This is a book about history,” the author says. “Thus, it is a history book. Yet, it was not written by a historian. An historian has to resort to and rely on sources. Yet, what his sources provide is often inaccurate, distorted, exaggerated, or incomplete. So his published work loses some credibility. This history book has not been written by an historian. It was written by a Participant. I was deeply involved in every action described in this book, watched them firsthand. I did not have to go to sources. I am the source. Thus, this history is as authentic as a history book can possibly be.”

—Marc Leepson

They Don’t Speak English Here by Sean C. Little

The ostensible author of They Don’t Speak English Here: Vietnam Through The Eyes of a Child (American Book Publishing, 180 pp., $19.95) is a seven-year-old American boy, Sean C. Little, the son of a Vietnam veteran Mike Little who served as an Army MP in 1968 in the Central Highlands where he grew close to a people known by some as Montagnards.

This book is about a trip back to Vietnam to visit those people, and it is told in Sean’s voice, a voice mostly one of innocent wonder. Sean (who was born in 1992) makes many comments about how everywhere he went in Vietnam he got his cheeks pinched, but the why of that ritual was never clear to this reader.

Near the end of this short book, there is a short chapter written by Mike Little about human rights violations of the Vietnamese against the Montagnards and how Mike was prevented by the Vietnamese from having more contact with them to give them medicine and money.

Mike Little was labeled a “humanitarian” rather than the tourist his visa claimed he was, so he was expelled from Vietnam when he tried to visit later than the trip delineated in this book.

Ultimately, this book is sad and moving.

You can watch Sean and Mike Little discuss the book on their YouTube video.

—David Willson

Life Through Poetry by William T. Matthews, Jr.

William T. Matthews, Jr. enlisted in the Army after high school and served in Vietnam from 1968-69 in the 19th Combat Engineer Battalion. I spotted one Vietnam War-related poem in Life Through Poetry (PublishAmerica, 78 pp., $24.95).

That poem, “I Remember Viet Nam,” is a matter-of-fact, informative short piece. The rest of this sentimental little book presents short works about high school reunions, blanket fights, walks in the woods, a boy’s first car, and other all American commonplace events. Matthews is a retired federal police officer.

—David Willson

Closing the Hotel Kitchen by Robert Bohm

Robert Bohm was drafted into the Army in 1967, and served in Germany with the 225th Station Hospital as a clerk where he “heard horror stories from wounded grunts and others who suffered combat related mental disorders.”  Much of what Bohm heard and overheard ended up in this book.

There is a lot of the Vietnam War in Closing the Hotel Kitchen (West End Press, 96 pp., $13.95, paper), a powerful, book-length poem, and the war often intrudes when the reader least expects it—just as it does in real life for many Vietnam veterans. 

The Tan Cang Bar “by the docks” pops up so often that it almost becomes a character in this book of overwhelming images dealing with the pervasive influence of war on our lives.  This book is not for the faint of heart.

Bohm’s website is www.robertbohm.com

—David Willson

A Bunker Mentality by William D. Wenger

William D. Wenger’s A Bunker Mentality: Surviving War and Living With PTSD (Wenger Publishing, 241 pp., $14.95, paper) is a straightforward look at the author’s experiences in Vietnam with C Company, 1st Battalion, 9th Marines of the 3rd Marine Division (the “Walking Dead”), and how the brutality of combat he took part in led to a long battle with PTSD.

“While I started writing this book as a memoir of my experiences,” Wenger says in his epilogue, “I now hope that by sharing my experiences, it will send out a message to others out there who are suffering from the effects of war and PTSD: It’s okay to get help.”

Wenger describes, in this smoothly written, reconstructed-dialogue-filled book, how he entered the Marine Corps after graduating from high school in Lorain, Ohio, in June of 1967. He was in Vietnam by November and had a rough tour of duty, including taking part in the Siege of Khe Sanh.

In April 1970, Wenger received his honorable discharge. The next four decades saw alcohol abuse and three failed marriages. Wenger began to come to terms with his PTSD after the September 11, 2001, attacks and continues to take part in regular counseling sessions.

For more on the book, including ordering info, go to the author’s website.

—Marc Leepson