Prisoner of War: Six Years in Hanoi by John M. McGrath

Retired Navy Lieutenant Commander John M. McGrath’s Prisoner of War: Six Years in Hanoi (Naval Institute Press, 130 pp., $19.95, paper) is a small book that is divided about equally into text and drawings. Of all the books I’ve read about the POW experience in Hanoi, this one does the best job of communicating the unspeakable horror of being a captive of the North Vietnamese during the Vietnam War.

Where words are not enough, McGrath’s excellent drawings do the job of communicating precisely how the tortures worked to produce pain in the captives, and what the torture exacted on the flesh and bones of the captured Americans. Even the smell and feel of the filth and degradation forced on the prisoners is felt in this book, as much as words and drawings can do that.

McGrath’s book is a triumph of the spirit to survive suffering so as to return home to family and country. This return is shown in his final drawing.

I highly recommend this book—which was published in hardcover in 1975—written and illustrated from McGrath’s own personal experience in Hanoi when he was a POW from 1967-73.

—David Willson

That Time, That Place, That War—Vietnam by Margaret Brown

That Time, That Place, That War—Vietnam  (Xlibris, 336 pp., $29.99, hardcover; $19.99 paper) is an illustrated reference book that sprang from author Margaret E. Brown’s experiences teaching about the Vietnam War by inviting veterans to address her classes.

The book is arranged alphabetically from “A is for Alpha” through to “Z is for Zulu.” In between are entries for Agent Orange, Martin Luther King, Jr., and more than a multitude of others. The entry for King is in the “M” section, not in the “K” section, which is one of many challenges the book poses for a reader looking for answers. Also, there is no index.

I found no entry for the term “REMF,” but when I stumbled upon entries for “Saigon Warrior” and “Pogue,” I found some information on rear echeloners. There is a pervading attitude in the book that soldiers in the Vietnam War stationed in the rear are not quite real Vietnam War veterans.

Despite that bias, this reference book is fun to browse through because there is something unexpected to be found at virtually every turn of the page. It can also be frustrating for the same reasons.

It is a Vietnam War reference book like none other, and every Vietnam War library collection should order it. A lot of excellent poetry is placed here and there in the book, much of it written by important and talented veterans of our war. Sometimes a poem is juxtaposed with an entry that relates to it. That is a reference book innovation I never saw in my thirty years as a college reference librarian.

Buy this book if you are up for a challenge and want to use a reference book that dares to be different and strange, and one that is far from hidebound.

—David Willson

Soldier/Many Wars by Suzanne Opton

Soldier/Many Wars (Decode Books, 104 pp., $60) is a book of stark, close-up photographs of active-duty service personnel and veterans divided up into two sections by the photographer Suzanne Opton. One section (“Soldier”) is made up of tight shots of young Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans laying their heads before the camera. Many were displayed publicly in cities across the nation in 2008.

The other section (“Many Wars”) is made up of tight portraits of war veterans draped in rough-cut cloth. Most of these powerful photographs were taken at a VA clinic in Vermont of veterans being treated for post-war emotional problems. Several in this group are Vietnam veterans.

Each of these photos contains a one-paragraph description person in the shot, along with longer quotes from the veteran about his or her war experiences. The “Soldier” photos contain only the last name of the veteran and how many days he or she served in Iraq or Afghanistan—and in some cases both.

Opton “cleverly co-opts conventions from the commercial world” in these photographs, Phillip Prodger, the Head of the Photography Department at the Peobody Essex Museum, writes in the book’s introductory essay. “Her pictures resemble fashion shots more than traditional war photographs….”

“The concordance with fashion photography contributes to the work’s equivocal air, portraying serious subject matter with techniques normally identified with comparatively cheerful publications.”

Opton’s web site is http://suzanneopton.com

—Marc Leepson

Firebase Ripcord by Martin J. Glennon

Martin J. Glennon, who serves as the chaplain for Vietnam Veterans of America’s Chapter 905 in Porter County, Indiana, put in a 1969-70 tour of duty as a medic in Vietnam for six months in the field with the 101st Airborne Division’s 2nd/506th Infantry and later at the Camp Evans medical evacuation hospital unit, C Company, 326th Medical.

Glennon saw more than his share of the war’s carnage, and it affected him deeply. When he came home, Glennon writes in his memoir, A Decisive Battle at Firebase Ripcord: A Medic’s Story (98 pp., $5, paper), “I was not the same man who had touched down in the Republic of Vietnam a year earlier. The innocence of youth had been lost somewhere in the jungles of Nam.

“I was returning, now a different man: not just a man who had been forced to grow up before his time or a man changed by the sobering realities of war, but too, a man who had been profoundly changed by what I experienced on the July morning when I received Christ into my life.”

For ordering info, write to PO Box 1484, Valparaiso, IN 46384

—Marc Leepson

Out of Nowhere by Martin Pegler

Martin Pegler, who spent nearly two decades as Senior Curator of Weapons at England’s Royal Armouries Museum, is an expert on—among other things—snipers. He has written three books on the subject, including Out of Nowhere: A History of the Military Sniper, From the Sharpshooter to Afghanistan, which originally was published in 2004, and now is out in a revised, paperback edition (Osprey, 303 pp., $14.95).

The book is a detailed history of the sniper, beginning in the early 16th century. It is a mixure of technical info and anecdotes on snipers’ day-to-day lives. Pegler provides details on training, tactics, equipment, and the psychology of sniping. The book includes a short chapter on the Vietnam War. In it, Pegler goes over the various weapons used by the American Army and Marines, as well as those employed by the VC and NVA.

As the war wore on, Pegler says, “the number of American snipers working in Vietnam began to increase to the point where they could rightfully claim the jungle as theirs during the day, although few would argue that the VC owned it at night.”

By the end of the American war, he notes, “the NVA had put a bounty on the head of any American sniper killed.”

—Marc Leepson

At the Crossroads of Justice by Paul Noto

Paul J. Noto’s At the Crossroads of Justice: My Lai and Son Thang: American Atrocities in Vietnam (iUniverse, 148 pp., $23.95, hardcover; $13.95, paper) sheds light on two of the most regrettable and disturbing incidents of the Vietnam War—the killing of innocent and unarmed Vietnamese civilians at My Lai and Son Thang by members of the U.S. military.

Noto, an attorney and historian, provides details about both of the incidents, for which only two U.S. soldiers were convicted. The overarching goal of his book is to evaluate why the killings took place, as well as to explain why understanding these incidents is important today.

In addition to exploring why U.S. military leaders at the time failed to properly punish those who committed the killings, Noto attributes the incidents to a breakdown in discipline that occurred as a result of “arrogant and inept civilian and military leadership.” The author concludes by pointing out that examining these tragedies could help prevent similar incidents from occurring today in Afghanistan and in other wars in the future.

—Dale Sprusansky

Red Eagles by Steve Davies

Troubled by its inability to combat North Vietnamese MiG aircraft throughout the Vietnam War, the United States Air Force launched a top-secret program after the war to train American fighter aircrews on how to do battle with the Russian-manufactured aircraft. This program, based at the Tonopah Test Range in Nevada, is the subject of Steve Davies’ Red Eagles: America’s Secret MiGs (Osprey Publishing, 352 pp., $25.95).

This new edition of the book, which was first published in 2008, features recently declassified information. Davies, a military and commercial aviation photojournalist, chronicles the story of the Red Eagles, a unit of the Air Force that learned how to, without manuals or instructions, operate MiGs.

Basing much of his work on first-hand accounts, Davies’ book provides illuminating insight into the personalities behind the program and into the challenging, dangerous, and exhilarating work carried out by the members of this top-secret program.

— Dale Sprusansky