Chapter One by Bob Staranowicz

Bob Staranowicz served in Vietnam with the 101st Airborne Division. He is also a graduate of LaSalle University. His novel, Chapter One: The Story of Vic Charles (Create Space, 337 pp., $24.95, hardcover; $14.95, paper), follows the hero, Vic Charles, a Vietnam War veteran and author battling writer’s block, as he tries to write a follow-up novel to a big, best-selling one that has made him very famous.

Charles’s story is told in alternating sections, from the current day to his past, including his tour of duty in Vietnam via flashbacks, dreams, and flash forwards. The novel is almost as challenging to read as James Joyce’s Ulysses, but for different reasons and with different rewards.

Staranowicz has written a novel in which there is an interesting story or two buried, but the editing and proofreading are so bad—and the writing so inept and cliché ridden—that the story is extremely difficult to follow. To add to these problems, the print is tiny (I had to read it with a magnifying glass), and the margins almost non-existent.

Vic Charles has made it home from his tour of duty, but his mind keeps flashing back to Vietnam. The reader is asked to believe that he wrote a best-selling novel from which he has greatly benefited financially. But Vic Charles is bogged down while trying to write the first chapter (“Chapter One”) of his second novel.

This reader cannot believe that Mr. Charles produced a well-reviewed, best-selling novel, or even a readable one.  Which makes the main character not believable or involving. Neither is his wife, Molly, who mainly spends her time shopping.

Our hero, his wife, and their two sons go on a cruise, and we are asked to believe that he is so famous that other passengers recognize his name and even have copies of his novel along on the cruise. Credulity is tested beyond the maximum by this. I suspect that Karl Marlantes, the author of best-selling Vietnam War novel Matterhorn, could go on a cruise with his wife and kids and nobody would bat an eye, let alone ask him for his autograph.

Two Vietnam veterans on the cruise spend a lot of time with Vic, telling him of their experiences. These interviews help get him beyond writer’s block. I’ve never been on a cruise because I think it would be too boring, but if a cruise is as boring as reading about it is in this novel, I cannot understand why anyone bothers.

This book perpetuates myths such as the one about it being common for returning Vietnam veterans to be spat upon, and the one that the United States did no aerial bombing of Vietnam. Rudimentary research indicates that the U. S. dropped 7 million tons of bombs on Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia during our war in Southeast Asia.  Yet Vic says that if only we’d bombed “the north of Vietnam…it would have brought an early end and victory to the war.”

The myth that all draftees ended up as 11-Bravos, infantry, is another one that the author puts forward. I know personally that this is a myth, as I was drafted and ended up with a cushy assignment as a typist in the Inspector General’s Office near Saigon.

Vic Charles was trained in electronics and promised by his recruiter that he probably wouldn’t serve in Vietnam, but he does end up there, serving in a Signal Group in Northern I Corps. He manages to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and receives a bullet in his brain. That fact is less of a spoiler than you might think.

As I said, there is a story or two in this book, and I believe that Bob Staranowicz has gifts as a storyteller, but not as a writer. I made a list of the clichés he used in the book, but in the interest of sanity, will only list a couple of them: “rats as big as Dobermans,” and “Molly was not one for dredging up the past, but she supported me whole hog…”

The author is responsible and has his heart in the right place, which the considerable coverage of Agent Orange and PTSD in this novel proves. I read every page of the book, and admit that like Ulysses, it got easier to follow after the first hundred pages or so. If you want a challenge in the genre of Vietnam War fiction, I recommend that you take on Chapter One.

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Dead on a High Hill by W.D. Ehrhart

W. D. Ehrhart served as a U. S. Marine in Vietnam with the First Marine Battalion, First Marine Regiment in 1967, first as an intelligence assistant, and later as an assistant intelligence chief. He took part in his share of combat operations, including at Con Thien and Hue City, and received the Purple Heart after he was wounded at Hue City.

Ehrhart’s new book, Dead on a Hill: Essays on War, Literature and Living, 2002-2011 (McFarland, 204 pp., $38, paper) proves once again that he is the finest poet/memoirist/essayist of the Vietnam Generation. The truths that  Ehrhart—who received the VVA Excellence in the Arts Award in 2008—tells in these essays are often sad and always powerful.

The book is a classy production, well-edited, and contains more than two dozen excellent essays. The cover alone is worth the price of admission. It shows the author and a buddy, Corporal Takenaga, filling sandbags near Quang Tri in October 1967.

My favorite among the uniformly superb essays in the book is “Carrying the Ghost of Ray Cantina.”  Ray Cantina is really Alan Catlin, who was anthologized as “Ray Cantina” in Ehrhart’s book Carrying the Darkness.

The first thing I did after reading this essay was to dig out Carrying the Darkness to read the two poems by one more guy who pretended to be a Vietnam veteran for obscure reasons of his own. I didn’t remember the poems from a few months ago when I most recently reread this anthology when I was searching for the best overlooked poets of the Vietnam War.

Did I like the poems?  Does it matter that he is a fake and phony?  The proof of the pudding is in the eating, my grandpa always told me. So I read the poems again. They are not gems, but perhaps my appreciation of them was colored by my knowing the poet faked his Vietnam War service. The poems are good enough and specific enough that when I read them without inside information, no red flags went up.

What this fine little essay brings up for the reader is the question: What constitutes a Vietnam veteran? There is a great debate about that. Some folks believe that a Marine Corps combat veteran is the ultimate Vietnam veteran. Others make the case that the common experience for most Vietnam veterans was in the rear with the beer and gear, so that means that REMFs are the ultimate Vietnam veterans.

W.D. Ehrhart

Most folks seem to agree that if a poet was never in Vietnam in any capacity at all, he or she is stretching the truth to claim to be a Vietnam veteran. But I read somewhere in a classic Vietnam War book that “Vietnam, Vietnam, Vietnam…we’ve all been there.”

So where does that leave us?  One of the great beauties of Ehrhart’s book is that it provokes the reader to think, to contemplate, to re-examine long-held beliefs and prejudices.

My second favorite essay  is “Good Fences Make Good Neighbors,” which I wish every American man, woman, and child would read. This piece was delivered as a speech at Clarion College. I have no idea how it was received, but I know that if Ehrhart delivered it at our local community college near Maple Valley, Washington, he would be lucky not to be tarred, feathered, and ridden out of town on a rail. This speech argues that historical facts are more important than patriotic myth, superstition, and legend.

The third essay I recommend highly is “They Want Enough Rice.”  This is the essay that, if read, should shut up every die-hard Vietnam veteran I’ve ever argued with when I’ve heard him claim, “I don’t know what happened in Vietnam after I left. When I came home we were winning that war. The media and Jane Fonda sold us down the river.”  Ehrhart explains what really went wrong with that dirty little war and why.

Buy and read this book if you are up for being provoked to think, and perhaps abandon, some of your closely held preconceptions.

—David Willson

Those Who Have Borne the Battle by James Wright

Why America goes to war and who fights its wars are two realities that have drastically changed since World War II. In Those Who Have Borne the Battle: A History of America’s Wars and Those Who Fought Them (PublicAffairs, 368 pp., $28.99 ), author and historian James Wright, a former Marine, provides a concise and informative look into these two phenomena.

While the book—which emphasizes the role and the burden of the soldier in America’s wars—begins with the Revolutionary War, Wright (a former history professor and the president of Dartmouth College from 1998-2009) presents the Vietnam War as a turning point in America’s war history. Unlike past wars, Vietnam “seemed more discretionary, based on policy makers’ judgment and calculations and presumptions,” Wright argues. Because of this, he concludes, “Vietnam did not fit easily into the narrative of American wars.”

This change in the rational for war, Wright maintains, altered American war-time consciousness. While Americans shared a sense of collective responsibility and burden in their country’s pre-Vietnam wars, going off to war in Vietnam “seemed more optional, or at least it became less a shared responsibility,” Wright says.

James Wright

In the final chapters Wright reflects on the great extent to which this mentality has moved forward since the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. As the United States continues to fight wars many view as “discretionary,” and as the nation’s population expands, Wright points out, the U.S. military has become less representative of American society.

Offering much more than a dry retelling of America’s wars, Wright’s book allows readers to follow the evolution of important trends in American warfare and to easily pick up and trace the author’s line of reasoning.

—Dale Sprusansky

The Train of Small Mercies by David Rowell

David Rowell is an editor at The Washington Post Magazine and has taught literary journalism at American University. The blurry, out-of-focus photo of  seven identical red-roofed dwellings with an American flag at half-mast in front of one of them on the cover of his novel, The Train of Small Mercies (Putnam, 272 pp., $25.95), set my teeth on edge. It also set the tone of the book: Not a person is in sight.

On the second page an in-country Vietnam War detail bugged me. Rowell talks of a “kaleidoscope of mortar fire” that resulted in an object referred to as a missile hitting the earth and “sending shrapnel as big as bottles” into a GI’s leg. I hoped the book would get better after that. There was no evidence anywhere in the book that Rowell had any experience with war.

But the book is about the impact on America of the death of Bobby Kennedy, which kept me reading as I loved Bobby Kennedy and was hit hard by his murder, a day I will never forget. I was in Vancouver, British Columbia, in the Hudson’s Bay store, where I watched the news of Senator Kennedy’s death on televisions set up all over the store. I stood transfixed and sobbed.

The “train” of the novel’s title is carrying Bobby Kennedy’s body to Washington, D.C., to Arlington National Cemetery for burial. Other than the dead senator, there is no main character, but many characters, introduced, explored a bit, and then abandoned as though the train has passed them by. Most of the characters are briefly but realistically portrayed, and all of them pause their lives at some point due to the death of the senator. Few of the folks are people I would want to spend time with.

The one Vietnam veteran in the book, Jamie West, whom we meet first on page one and then see at various points in the book in at least a dozen chapters, is as close to a main character as we get.  We see Jaime the last time at the end of the book in a long newspaper article that refers to him as a “hometown hero” because he lost his leg just east of Than Khe in Vietnam trying to save the life of a fellow soldier wounded by a missile from “Vietcong artillery fire”  which filled the sky. Further, we are told that Private West is “home after a tour of Vietnam that lasted two years.”

Both the language and the details of this article puzzled me. Nowhere in the novel is it explained why Jamie West’s “tour” lasted two years, nor why he was still a private. Those are abnormal occurrences that require explanation. Jamie should have been at least an Spec 4 or even a sergeant with three stripes. He should have come home between the two tours for a leave.

David Rowell

In the acknowledgements there is no indication that the author allowed anyone with military expertise concerning the Vietnam War to critique the manuscript. How difficult would that have been ?

The note from the author at the end of the book indicates that Rowell took great care and did thorough research related to “Robert Kennedy’s funeral, the funeral train, and the burial.” I wish the same care had extended to the fictional life and military service of Private Jamie West.

It is no easier to fake such details and get them right than it would have been to fake the details related to Senator Kennedy. I think Private West deserved equal respect .

For Private West to be a character we care about and believe in, all of the details of his fictional life must ring true. Whoever said that truth lies in the details is right. Rowell didn’t do right by Private West, and he let this reader and other veterans down.

The author’s website is http://www.davidgrowell.com/dr/dr.html

—David Willson

Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero by Chris Matthews

One of the big “what ifs” of the presidency of John F. Kennedy is the question of what JFK would have done in Vietnam had he lived. Kennedy, an ardent cold warrior but a realist in foreign policy, left plenty of doubt. He made hawkish statements about the importance of not allowing the communists to take over Vietnam from the 1950s until just before his death. But he also told friends and admirers in the last months of his life that he was pessimistic about the U.S. effort in Vietnam and that it might be time to pull out the 15,000 or so advisers there.

TV journalist Chris (Hardball) Matthews addresses the issue briefly in his new biography, Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero (Simon and Schuster, 479 pp., $27.50). Matthews—an admirer of JFK, but not an uncritical one—concludes that the question is unanswerable. Kennedy’s “exact thoughts on VIetnam remain a mystery,” Matthews says, while discussing the ramifications of the assassination of Vietnamese Premier Ngo Dinh Diem following a Kennedy administration-engineered coup just three weeks before JFK’s death.

Matthews reports that soon after he learned of Diem’s death, Kennedy told Joint Chiefs Chairman Maxwell Taylor that he was against expanding the role of American troops in Vietnam. “He is instinctively against introduction of U.S. [combat] forces,” Taylor said.

The historian Arthur Schlesinger, a Kennedy confidant, reported a similar conversation at about the same time. “They want a force of American troops,” Schlesinger said Kennedy told him. “They say it’s necessary in order to restore confidence and maintain morale. But it will be just like Berlin. The troops will march in, the bands will play, the crowds will cheer, and in four days everyone will have forgotten. Then we will be told we have to send in more troops. It’s like taking a drink. The effect wears off, and you have to take another.”

Chris Matthews

Matthews goes on, though, to provide evidence that Kennedy was not seriously contemplating ending the U.S. military commitment in Vietnam in the fall of 1963. JFK’s close friend and speech writer Ted Sorensen, Matthews writes, “believed his boss could never have the cynicism about war and human lives that the conflict in Vietnam would turn out to mandate. ‘I do not believe he knew in his last weeks what he was going to do.'”

—Marc Leepson

Beyond the Battlefield by Ken Dauth

Ken Dauth is a Vietnam War era Navy veteran who lives in Sedona, Arizona. He has retired from a career of programming and “is living his lifelong dream of writing.”

As the title, Beyond the Battlefield: A Message From the Fallen (All Things That Matter Press, 16.99, paper)indicates, Dauth has written a ghost story. The blurb on the back of the book tells us: “The war dead have a message. Why are the dead not resting in peace?”

This short novel answers this question in a series of short chapters. The book is a handsome volume with a striking cover of a blurred soldier in battle garb, with a field of tombstones behind him. I wish the text had been as well-edited as the cover was well-produced.

The Vietnam War gets a name check deep into the book (on page 91, to be precise), along with Bosnia and Desert Storm. Near the end, there is a section in which ghosts from most of the world’s wars start appearing in public. These ghosts have the same message, that war has not worked and that we must try something else. The world is “spooked by spooks.”

The President of the United States and various military officers get involved in an attempt at an investigation and a cover-up. These ghosts are soldiers who had been killed in action, and at first they are returning to “ease their loved ones’ grief.” They also appear in hospitals in full dress uniform to watch over their suffering comrades. The returning war dead create a PR problem for war. Television news reports of war dead walking the streets of Seattle in full dress uniforms unnerves residents.

I won’t give away the ending, but this is a book with a strong message. It is a message delivered with passion and with terse, effective language. A summary of the book’s message might be: War doesn’t work; 10,000 years of slaughtering each other has proven that.

Ken Dauth

Ken Dauth has written a powerful antiwar story. I hope that his message gets across to somebody in a position to stop America’s commitment to endless war.

—David Willson

Muddy Jungle Rivers by Wendell Affield

VVA life member Wendell Affield joined the Navy in 1965 when he was seventeen to escape a tumultuous life at home in northern Minnesota. He arrived in Vietnam in February 1968 and served as the cox’n of Armor Troop Carrier 112-11 with the Mobile Riverine Force. “Afe” Affield tells the story of his Vietnam War tour of duty deftly and readably in his memoir, Muddy Jungle Rivers: A River Assault Boar Cox’n’s Memory Journey of His War in Vietnam and Return Home (Hawthorn Petal Press, 319 pp., $19.95, paperback).

Affield uses lots of reconstructed dialogue in this memoir, most of which rings true and provides the book with its immediacy. Affield’s tour ended in August when he was wounded when his gunboat was ambushed while on patrol on the Hai Muoi Tam Canal in the Mekong Delta, as the seven-man crew was part of Task Force Clearwater.

Here’s his evocative description of what happened after he woke up following his first in-country operation. “In the bathroom, I looked in the mirror. Watering eyes stared at a bruised, puffy face with burned-off eyebrows. My gown fell open and I looked down. I was peppered with hundreds of small bits of shrapnel just below the skin. A few larger pieces had been lodged in my left leg and right arm. Those had been removed along with bone chips and damaged tissue.

Wendell Affield

“The fifth rocket, the one that had penetrated the armor two inches above my right hand, had caused the most damage. The back of my head and neck hurt where several small pieces had entered when the molten steel had richocheted. I was covered with a burning, itchy rash from crawling along the riverbank [waiting for the Medevac chopper], sliding through large patches of brush that burned like nettles. The right side of my face was sore. I tongued my mouth and discovered several broken teeth. Pink fluid drained from my ears and everything had a haze to it. My eyes felt as though somebody had thrown a handful of ashes in them.”

Later, he writes, Affiled watched as a medic scrubbed him “with brown solution using a soft brush, working out the bits of shrapnel near the surface. ‘You’ll be picking bits of iron out for the rest of your life,’ he said.”

Affield recovered from his injuries, battled–and overcame–PTSD after returning home, had a career, retired, and today lives with his wife Patti on a farm in northern Minnesota. His website is http://www.wendellaffield.com

—Marc Leepson