The Angel of Dien Bien Phu by Genevieve de Galard

In the years following World War II, a young French woman, Genevieve de Galard, decided to make a big change in her life. “The English studies I had pursued were for my personal interest, and I realized that continuing in that direction could not fill my life,” de Galard  writes in her autobiography, The Angel of Dien Bien Phu: The Lone French Woman at the Decisive Battle for Vietnam (Naval Institute, 208 pp., $23.95), translated from the French by Isabelle Surcouf Toms.

“I dreamed of new perspectives, fewer self-centered adventures. Quite simply, I wanted to be useful, and I could not fathom a life without giving to others or pursuing some ideal.”

So, de Galard went back to school and earned degrees in “medical-social work” and nursing in 1950. She then signed on with the Convoyeuses de l’Air, the flight nurses of the French Air Force’s transportation division. “The flying nurses, she writes, “had been traveling for several years on the planes to Africa and Indochina, transporting military families, evacuating the wounded and the sick.”

Genevieve de Galard become the only woman among the 11,000 or so French military personnel at Dien Bien Phu during the famous 1954 Vietminh siege that ended French occupation of Indochina. That was not her plan, though. The young woman flight nurse was about to leave Dien Bien Phu, when her plane (a French Air Force C-47)  was hit by enemy artillery, and she was stranded there.

In this memoir, which was published in France in 2003, de Galard includes details of what it was like tending to the wounded and dying in the Dien Bien field hospital—as well as her time being held prisoner for seventeen days by the Vietminh after the battle.

She was honored for her efforts during the siege with the French Knight’s Cross and the Croix de Guerre. President Eisenhower invited her to the United States, where de Galard received a ticker tape parade in New York City, a standing ovation from the entire U.S. House of Representatives, the Presidential Medal of Freedom from the President himself, and the nickname (from American newspaper reporters) that is the title of her book.

—Marc Leepson

The Invention of Ecocide by David Zierler

David Zierler, who works as a historian for the U.S. State Department, has a different take on the consequences of the spraying of the extremely toxic herbicide Agent Orange in Vietnam in his book The Invention of Ecocide: Agent Orange, Vietnam, and the Scientists Who Changed the Way We Think (University of Georgia, 232 pp., $59.95, hardcover; $24.95, paper). This book–unlike most books about Agent Orange and the Vietnam War—does not focus on the wide range of serious diseases caused by exposure to A.O.

Instead, Zierler has written a historical account of how a group of scientists worked to end the American military’s practice of spraying Agent Orange in Vietnam–something they called “ecocide.” As the author puts it, the book “offers a historical explanation for the rise and fall of herbicidal warfare.”

When he does address the health issues related to Agent Orange exposure, Zierler says that “certain uncertainties” exist about the “health legacy” of Agent Orange among Americans who served in the war zone, and that potential health dangers “were not fully understood during the war or now.”  Still, he says, the “absence of ‘conclusive’ data linking Agent Orange to almost all the health maladies that [American Vietnam] veterans and their families have claimed may say more about the limits of epidemiology than the true health legacy of herbicidal warfare in Vietnam.”

Zierler also says that the fact that it has not been conclusively proven that certain diseases among Vietnam veterans are caused by Agent Orange exposure works two ways. No one, he says, “can categorically tell a sick veteran than his illness was not caused by Agent Orange; consequently, the failure to establish causation, in the author’s view, makes neither the U.S. government nor the corporate producers of dioxin-laden Agent Orange any less negligent in the massive procurement and dispersal of [that] chemical agent [in Vietnam].”

—Marc Leepson

Vietnam: Rising Dragon by Bill Hayton

Bill Hayton’s Vietnam: Rising Dragon, which we reviewed back in May, is now out in paperback  (Yale University, 254 pp., $22). The book is a well-reviewed first-person report on the country of Vietnam circa 2006-07. Hayton, who was booted out of the country by the Vietnamese authorities, looks at Vietnamese society, economy, and its authoritarian (but capitalism-friendly) government.

For more info, go to the book’s Facebook page or the Yale University Press web site.

—Marc Leepson

The Mayaguez Incident by Robert J. Mahoney

The May 12-15, 1975, Mayaguez incident was the “last chapter of the United States’ military involvement in Indochina,”  Robert J. Mahoney notes in The Mayaguez Incident: Testing America’s Resolve in the Post-Vietnam Era (Texas Tech, 336 pp., $39.95). The book is a detailed, multifaceted, and creditable account of what happened off the coast of Cambodia just days after the end of the Vietnam War.

What happened was that Khmer Rouge forces, using captured American swift boats, seized the Mayaguez, an American merchant ship, in international waters. That left President Gerald Ford with a very difficult choice: Use force or negotiate?

Ford’s Secretary of State and National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger, never one to shy away from putting U.S. troops in harm’s way, leaned toward force. As Kissinger put it in the first high-level meeting after the seizure: “I know you damned well cannot let Cambodia capture a ship a hundred miles at sea and do nothing.”

Mahoney, a retired Army colonel who is dean of academics and deputy director of the Marine Corps War College in Quantico, Virginia, looks at what the Ford administration did during the four-day crisis in almost hour-by-hour detail. Mahoney examines the strategic and tactical aspects of the military action that President Ford and his advisers undertook, as well as the international implications and domestic political ramifications of sending in the Marines (backed up by Navy and Air Force units).

Two conclusions: “It was largely due to good fortune that the crew of the Mayaguez was rescued at all and not unwittingly killed by U.S. forces. In addition, the Marine force that landed on Koh Tang [Island, where the crew was believed to have been held] came dangerously close to being overrun and annihilated.”

The author’s website is www.mayaguezincident.com

—Marc Leepson

When Johnny and Jane Come Marching Home by Paula J. Caplan

Paula J. Caplan, a much-published clinical and research psychologist, has taken a special interest in emotional issues facing veterans returning home from war since the start of the war in Iraq. Her latest book, When Johnny and Jane Came Marching Home: How All of Us Can Help Veterans (MIT Press, 282 pp., $27.95), stemmed from her realization about  “common vets’ problems and dilemmas,” she says. Some of the problems, Caplan writes, “have been created by well-meaning people who do not stop to consider what helps and what hurts vets—and that there is good reason to believe the suffering can be alleviated.”

Caplan, an Associate at Harvard University’s DuBois Institute and a Fellow at the Women and Public Policy Program in Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, goes on to make her case that there are other ways aside from psychotherapy and drugs to help veterans suffering emotionally from war-time trauma.

“We sent many Vietnam and Gulf War vets behind psychotherapists’ doors to deal with their anguish, and we’ve come to think it’s the best thing to do,” she writes. “Unfortunately, in our over-psychologized society, we’ve also come to think that it’s the only thing to do.

“We’ve failed to learn what the vets of previous wars have taught us—that although therapists clearly help some soldiers, there is only so much emotional damage from war they can fix.”
Instead, Caplan believes that the military should work on emotional problems “on the battlefront” and as soon as troops get home. She also believes that all Americans should “shoulder a bit of the burden of helping our soldiers and our returning civilians with their reentry into ordinary life back in the United States.”

Caplan’s website is http://whenjohnnyandjanecomemarching.weebly.com

—Marc Leepson

Until They Are Home by Thomas T. Smith

“I was a fifty-two-year-old U.S. Army lieutenant colonel returning to Vietnam thirty-one years after I had been there as a kid in the U.S. Navy during the war.” Those are the opening words of Thomas T. Smith’s Until They Are Home: Bringing Back the MIAs from Vietnam: A Personal Memoir (Texas A&M University, 148 pp., $29.95), a concise, readable account of the author’s 2003-04 tour of duty as the head of the U.S. MIA Office (Detachment 2) in Hanoi.

Smith traveled widely during his duties, including to Cambodia and Laos. His book includes plenty of photos of the places he visited, including recovery sites. There are three pictures of the first repatriation ceremony Smith conducted. It took place on September 30, 2003, on the tarmac of Hanoi’s Noi Bai Airport in the shadow of a USAF C-17 jet transport plane.

On hand for the solemn, silent occasion were members of the Joint Task Force-Full Accounting staff from Hawaii, representatives of the Vietnamese government, and a group of VVA’s Veterans Initiative Task Force members, including then VVA National president Tom Corey–the event’s “special guest of honor,” Smith says.

—Marc Leepson

Life and Death in the Central Highlands by James T. Gillam

James T. Gillam is a Vietnam veteran who today is a history professor at Spelman College. GIllam’s book, Life and Death in the Central Highlands: An American Sergeant in the Vietnam War, 1968-1970 (University of North Texas, 295 pp., $27.95), is primarily a Vietnam War memoir, but it also contains a good deal of the history of the American war in Vietnam.

As Gillam explains in his preface, the book “is a product of all the pieces of the puzzle that I call my identity. I am a veteran of the Vietnam War, and I am also an Associate Professor of Chinese History. This book is the product of my military experiences, academic training, and the four decades I have lived as a veteran with a story to tell.”

Gillam tells his story well in this readable book. He was drafted into the Army in August of 1968 after he was, as he puts it, “dismissed” from Ohio University because of his “indifferent performance in classes.” Gillam had Basic at Fort Knox and Infantry AIT at  Fort Polk, where he thrived. He was chosen to go to the NCO Academy at Fort Benning, sometimes known as “Shake ‘n Bake School” because it turned out staff sergeants in twenty-four weeks. He arrived in Vietnam in September of 1969, and put in nine tough months with the 1st of the 22nd of the 4th Infantry Division before coming home in June of 1970.

Gillam puts most of the historical background material in the opening sections of the book. Once he gets to Vietnam, the story concentrates on what happened on the ground. Much of it deals with life and death, and most of it makes for intriguing reading. After getting out the Army, Gillam got back on track academically, earning his B.A. from Ohio University, M.A. from Case Western Reserve University, and a Ph.D. in Chinese history from Ohio State University.

—Marc Leepson