For the Common Defense by Allan R. Millett, Peter Maslowski, and William B. Fries

The newly revised and expanded third edition of For the Common Defense: A Military History of the United States from 1607 to 2012 has just been published (Free Press, 714 pp., $28, paper). Originally published in 1984 and revised in 1994, this book presents a general history of U.S. military policy from the very beginnings of European settlement on these shores. The authors are Allan R. Millett, a professor of history and the director of the Eisenhower Center for American Studies at the University of New Orleans, and Peter Maslowski, a history professor at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. William B. Feis, a history professor at Buena Vista University in Iowa, edited the new edition.

The book’s two concise Vietnam War chapters—“In Dubious Battle: Vietnam, 1961-1967” and “The Lost War: Vietnam 1968-1975”—were among those rewritten for the new edition.  Both chapters go over the main threads of the war in some detail and offer excellent summaries of the military, political, and geopolitical aspects of the nation’s second longest and most controversial overseas war.

Allan Millett

“Riddled with ambiguities, uncertainties, and paradoxes, the Vietnam War defied easy generalizations,” the authors note. “Pitting North Vietnam and a very substantial number of South Vietnamese against other Southerners, it was both a civil war and an international conflict involving the U.S., China, and the Soviet Union. Moreover, the international situation changed dramatically between 1964 and 1972, as the Chinese-Soviet estrangement became increasingly obvious and U.S. policy moved toward detente with both Communist superpowers.”

The authors perceptively note that generalizations about the war are difficult because—as nearly every Vietnam veteran knows—the war lasted so long and conditions often were markedly different at different times and in different places. As they put it: “What was true in one place was often irrelevant in another because the conflict varied depending on where soldiers were stationed, when they served, and the nature of their assignment.”

As for politics, the Vietnam War, the authors say, “was always about more than the fate of that Southeast Asian country. Three presidents based their decisions as much on domestic political considerations as they did on the war’s exigencies.”

As for the war’s legacy, the authors have this to say: “Not the least of the war’s legacies was an array of haunting questions that could have no definitive answers. How and why did the U.S. lose the war? Could it have been won at an acceptable cost? If so, how? Was Southeast Asia worth the prolonged ordeal? After all, although South Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos ended up in the Communist camp and endured decades of postwar misery and privation, no other dominoes toppled—not Thailand, not Malaysia, not the Philippines, not Indonesia.”

—Marc Leepson

Missions of Fire and Mercy by William E. Peterson

Bill Peterson joined the Army at age nineteen early in 1967. His goal was to be a helicopter pilot, but he wound up serving as a crew chief on a Huey in Vietnam after he completed Basic Training at Fort Bliss and AIT at Fort Eustis. Peterson tells his Vietnam War story in Missions of Fire and Mercy: Until Death Do Us Part (CreateSpace, 302 pp., $21.99, paper), a memoir that includes many of the letters he wrote home from the war zone.

Peterson arrived in Vietnam in August of 1967. “Reality begins as the rear door of the Boeing 707 opens to the flight of stars leading to the tarmac at Cam Rahn Bay,” he writes. “The humidity hits us like a stream from a fire hose. It’s 1920 hours, with the mercury reaching 100 plus. Given the uncertainties ahead, none of us had slept much since leaving Seattle twenty four hours earlier. Judging by the feel of the oppressive heat, there won’t be much sleep for the next twelve months.”

For the next twelve months Peterson put in an action-heavy tour of duty with C Company of the 227th Assault Helicopter Battalion in the 1st Cavalry Division based in An Khe and later at Chu Lai and at Camp Evans. He wound up being awarded thirty-six Air Medals (two with valor) and three Purple Hearts.

The title of the book refers to the fact that Peterson’s unit flew many different types of missions, including combat assaults and medevacs.

The author’s website is

—Marc Leepson

State of War by Paul A.C. Koistinen

State of War: The Political Economy of American Warfare, 1945-2011 (University Press of Kansas, 328 pp., $39.95) is the fifth and final volume of historian Paul Koistinen’s study of the political economy of warfare. What is “political economy”? Koistinen answers that question in the first line of the book’s Introduction. It’s “the means the nation has employed to mobilize its economic resources for defense and hostilities.”

This volume focuses on the Cold War and its aftermath. Koistinen—who is an Emeritus Professor of History at California State University, Northridge—concentrates on what President Eisenhower famously termed the “military-industrial complex,” and how it has influenced war and peace in the United States since the end of World War II.

That includes the Vietnam War, of course. Koistinen gives brief sketches of the Vietnam War policies of Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Ford. Koistinen points out that the Defense budget under LBJ increased 57 percent from 1964-69—from $50.7 billion to $79.1 billion. “Based on the desire to protect Great Society [domestic social] programs and minimize opposition to the war,” Johnson’s decision not to raise taxes to cover war expenses, Koistinen says, “had extremely negative consequences for the economy in both the short run and the long run.”

As for Nixon, Koistinen notes that during his administration, defense budgets fell almost 30 percent and the number of active-duty troops dropped by around 1.3 million from 1969-75. “The declining budgets and force size,” he says, “stemmed largely (but not totally) from the United States’ disengagement from Vietnam. But civil-military relations during the Nixon years took on nightmarish qualities because of the secrecy, deception, and duplicity that were characteristic of the administration.”

—Marc Leepson

Backseat by Tom Wascoe

Tom Wascoe served in the U.S. Army in the Vietnam War, but no further information is given about his tour of duty on the jacket of his novel Backseat (Bookstand Publishing, 168 pp $24.95, hardcover; $15.95, paper) or anywhere else I could find. Wascoe received an MBA after his military service, then spent thirty-five years in Human Resource work.

We are told that this is Wascoe’s debut as a fiction writer. Backseat is set in 1969. After the hero Michael’s freshman year in college—which was no great measure of success—he embarks upon a 1,500-mile road trip as a weekend challenge, part of his fraternity’s Hell Week hazing.

He and another pledge are required to get to the town of California, Pennsylvania, to a brother fraternity and get a signature of the fraternity president. They are allowed only ten dollars each for expenses. Michael’s companion for this ordeal is a total jerk named Randy, who is a perfect pledge in every way that Michael is not. Randy is a cool guy, a jock.  Michael is a nerd.

Tom Wascoe

Backseat is the story of the trip, who the guys get rides with, and how it changes Michael’s life and goals. The book is beautifully produced, with a striking cover, and is well-edited. It mostly reads like a young adult novel, which is not a bad thing.

Backseat has a strong moral at the conclusion, but the road adventures are recounted well and held my interest to the end. As Michael says on the last page of this small book: “I have learned a lot of lessons in the last few days.”

On the next to the last page, Michael informs a beautiful girl who had scorned him that he has talked to an Army recruiter about enlisting.  Michael is aware of the Vietnam War. We know this because near the beginning of the book his road trip companion, Randy, tells Michael that he is a loser who is likely to “flunk out, get drafted and get sent to Vietnam. “

We know Michael is also aware of the National Guard option because the driver of one of his rides explains to him when Michael asks that he avoided the draft by joining the Guard. “My father had some political connection through his work and was able to assist me,” the guys says.

I know there were fathers of that sort. I just didn’t have one or ever met one. That was a factor of my humble origins. So this book provides a glimpse into how the “other half” lives. That’s the half that George W. Bush and his ilk lived in.

Wascoe has written a credible novel of how a young man deals with the challenges of college life in late 1960s America. I think Michael will learn lessons of an even more powerful sort in the next stage of his time in the 60s—in the Vietnam War. Good luck to him. I hope that Wascoe produces a book about that adventure.

The author’s website is

—David Willson

Thirty Days with My Father by Christal Presley

Christal Presley is the founder of the United Children of Veterans. She has a PhD from Capella University, and works for the Atlanta Public Schools as an instructional mentor teacher. Thirty Days with My Father: Finding Peace from Wartime PTSD (HCI, 264 pp., $14.95, paper) is her first book.

It includes a powerful introduction by the psychotherapist Edward Tick, the author of War and the Soul, and a blurb from the poet Nikki Giovanni, which communicates the thrust of this fine book perfectly. “An incredible memoir [it] is an important part of the still unhealed wounds of war. Christal has given much of her heart to this story as her father gave to his country.”

When Christal Presley’s father (Delmer Presley) was eighteen, he was drafted into the Army. He went on to serve in Vietnam in the Americal Division with the 1st Battalion, 6h Infantry, and was present when the bodies were dug up at My Lai. Delmer Presley carried a PRC-25 radio.

He returned home from the war with PTSD, and while the author was a child, her father spent much of his time locked in his room with his guitar as his companion. Christal Presley grew up “walking on eggshells,” she says, frightened of her father’s rage and depression. Periodically he would grab his rifle and tell his wife and only child that he couldn’t take it anymore and was going to go to a nearby river to kill himself.

Christal Presley

Thirty Days is based on conversations the author had with her father over a thirty-day period, along with the childhood memories that those conversations provoked.  Christal Presley called her father once a day for thirty days as an exercise in healing her emotional issues caused by growing up in a family with a wounded Vietnam veteran for a father. Her father accepted the telephone conversation project and agreed to answer his daughter’s questions honestly, telling what he actually did in Vietnam.

This opened a Pandora’s Box, and Christal Presley had to deal with what flew out–what she calls the “war he had brought home with him from Vietnam.”

These conversations dredge up memories of the war and also memories of his return. The topics of the father-daughter, far-ranging conversations included: punji stakes, My Lai, Agent Orange, VC tunnels and tunnel rats, firebases, a nurse being killed in her hospital, and Puff the Magic Dragon, the function of which gets somewhat garbled in the retelling.

The coming-home memories are dominated by Delmer Presley’s recounting of his airport greeting by anti-war protestors, where “people were lined up in the hundreds, holding signs that read “Baby Killers,”  spitting all over the boys still in their uniforms.”  The “Baby Killer” reference comes up again in the book, near the end, so the reader knows that it was an important memory for Delmer. His memory of this spitting also is a powerful one. I would love to see the news footage of such an event.  Where has that footage gone?

The bulk of the book consists of the conversations, but at the very end Christal Presley goes the extra mile—actually much further than that—as she travels to Vietnam and stands on the ground that where her father had fought on decades before—Marble Mountain near Danang. She also visited treatment centers for disabled children and Agent Orange victims.

Delmer Presley is a survivor of shingles and Agent Orange-caused tumors on his lung and his guitar playing fingers, but he lets nothing stop him. He is a talented singer/songwriter/guitarist, who is in great demand to perform at funerals and other services, much of it related to the Vietnam War, and he proudly wears a hat, which proclaims: “I am a Vietnam veteran.” Christal also wears a hat that announces she is the daughter of a Vietnam vet.

Christal Presley and her father Delmer

The Presleys are a family of survivors. Christal Presley was happiest as a child when she was with her dogs. She admits that that is still true for her, and that “playing with Arthur and Duma” is one of her main pleasures.

I recommend this powerful book to anyone who wants to better understand the personal aspects of post-traumatic stress disorder.

The author’s website is

—David Willson

Boocoo Dinky Dow by Grady C. Myers and Julie Titone

“This book is history, not fiction,” Julie Titone says in the Author’s Note of Boocoo Dinky Dow: My Short, Crazy Vietnam War (CreateSpace, 168 pp., $13.99, paper), which she co-wrote with Grady Myers. “But it is one man’s history based on his memories of a chaotic time.”

This large-format book is arranged in short, pithy, well-written chapters with subtitles such as “In Country,” “The Worst that Ever Happened,” and “Rosemary’s Baby and the Traffic Gestapo.”

Grady Myers was a teenager in 1968 when the U. S. Army ignored his extreme nearsightedness, drafted him, and made him an M-60 machine gunner with the 4th Infantry Division. He was trained at Fort Lewis near Tacoma, Washington.

Grady Myers in Vietnam

This book is beautifully illustrated by Myers, who had a post-war career as an artist for newspapers, including the Spokesman Review in Spokane, Washington. Myers, who studied at the Burnley School for Professional Art in Seattle, died at the age of 61 in 2011.

Myers does a fine job evoking the insanity of his war in Vietnam. His co-author, Julie Titone, works at Washington State University and was married for a time to Myers.

Myers was awarded the Purple Heart for wounds he received in the Plei Trap Valley in 1969 in an ambush. The high point of this lucid, well-told memoir is Myers’s sober and dispassionate recounting of that near-death experience, the months of rehabilitation that followed, and the surgeries he underwent due to the serious damage done to his body by the bullet wounds he took from short range from the NVA soldiers who were standing over him.

Boocoo Dinky Dow is infused with humor throughout, which makes this book a lot of fun to read, even the most gruesome sections. To his credit, Myers hits the various high spots of the Vietnam War’s special characteristics:  John Wayne, Sergeant Rock, Tarzan, Gary Cooper, ice cream, mad minutes, ham and mother fuckers, rear echelon types who steal the best stuff before it can get to the grunts, Donut Dollies, leeches, blivets—he gets it all in.

Titone tells us that Grady (known as “Hoss” in Vietnam because of his great size) never was able to attend Charlie Company reunions because “health problems confined him to a wheelchair and, eventually to a nursing home.”  We also are told that Myers was well-acquainted with depression.

Julie Titone

The book includes many specifics about his showering and dunking himself in whatever water he had access to. I believe that Hoss was much exposed to Agent Orange and died from Agent Orange-related causes, although I admit that this is conjecture based on a close reading of the book.

Bookcoo Dinky Dow is a fine memorial to the life and service of a larger- than-life man, Grady “Hoss” Myers—teenage soldier, artist , husband, and father, and a great lover of classic automobiles. I miss him and I never met him.

The book’s website is

—David Willson

Little Bird Dog and the Big Ship by Marjorie Haun

Little Bird Dog and the Big Ship (AuthorHouse, 44 pp., $21.99, paper) is the first volume in what author Marjorie Haun calls her  “The Heroes of the Vietnam War” series of children’s books. This short book, illustrated by Stephen Adams, looks at former South Vietnamese Air Force Major Bung-Ly and his escape from Vietnam with his wife and five young children during the chaotic last day of the war, April 30,1975.

Bung-Ly gathered up his family in the middle of the night as the North Vietnamese took over. The family left South Vietnam aboard the Major’s Cessna 0-1 Bird Dog. After dodging machine gun fire over Con Son Island, Bung-Ly flew the plane out to the South China Sea, where—after more than a few harrowing moments—he landed safely on the deck of the U.S.aircraft carrier Midway.

Haun tells this stirring story well. Her one-page summary of the Vietnam War, though, should not be taken as the last word on that subject. She writes:

“South Vietnam had been a peaceful nation and its people were very kind to America. But enemies from the North fought for years trying to overrun the beautiful, tropical country which was home to farmers, fisherman, and merchants.

“The American Military went to South Vietnam to help their government fight invaders from the North who wanted to take over everything and force the people to live in a way they did not want to live. After many years of war, the Americans were ordered by their government to leave. Sadly the enemies from North Vietnam took over the country. Thousands of good and peaceful people from South Vietnam were rescued, and the Aircraft Carrier Midway became their temporary home.”

—Marc Leepson

Lincoln’s Code by John Fabian Witt

John Fabian Witt’s Lincoln’s Code: The Laws of War in American History (Free Press, 498 pp., $32) is “a story about war in America,” the author notes. “To be more specific, it is the story of an idea about war, an idea that Americans have sometimes nurtured and often scorned.” Said idea: “that the conduct of war can be constrained by law.”

Witt, a Yale University Law School professor who also is a Yale history professor and a Guggenheim Foundation fellow, traces that concept to the Lincoln administration’s adopting of a detailed code of law for the Union Army in late December of 1862. Written by Francis Lieber and approved by Lincoln, that code—which dealt with issues such as torture, POWs, the treatment civilians, spies, and slaves—became “the foundation of the modern laws of war,” Witt notes.

Parts of the code, which consisted of 157 short sections (or “articles”), were adopted by other nations around the world; some were incorporated into the Geneva Conventions of the mid-twentieth century.

Witt deals mainly with American wars from the Revolution to the little-known Philippine War of 1899-1902. He barely touches the Vietnam War, except to note that that war had several things in common with the Philippine War, including the fact that in both cases American troops faced guerrilla-led insurgencies in the jungles of Southeast Asia.

In the Philippine War, Witt notes, American troops’ use of an interrogation method now known as water boarding “produced a law of war crisis like none to that point in American history, though it bore an eerie resemblance to the controversies that would arise in Vietnam in the 1960s and in Afghanistan and Iraq in the early 2000s.”

—Marc Leepson

Fobbit by David Abrams

David Abrams served in the U. S. Army for twenty years and was deployed to Iraq in 2005 where he worked as a member of a public affairs team. The book jacket of his new novel, Fobbit (Black Cat/Grove Atlantic, 384 pp., $15, paper), does not tell us if he was an officer or a sergeant. If I had to guess, I’d say he was a sergeant and did a job similar to that of his main character, SSB Chance Gooding, Jr., but I could be wrong. Maybe he was one of the Lieutenant Colonels he lampoons in the book.

What is the meaning of the title? We are told on the attractive front jacket (done up in red, white and blue) that a Fobbit is “A U. S. Army employee stationed at a Forward Operating Base esp. during Operation Iraqi Freedom (2003-2011). Pejorative.” In my dirty little war, the one in Southeast Asia, such a soldier was called a REMF, or so I am told. I never heard the term while I was in Vietnam. The term “REMF” and the Vietnam War are mentioned a few times in the novel—and to good effect.

Fobbit is a black comedy, in many ways an homage to Catch-22, Joseph Heller’s blackly comic World War II novel, which is name-checked at least twice in this novel. Fobbit is a well-written, beautifully designed narrative which held my attention throughout. It also made me care for the characters, even the totally hapless ones, such as CPT Abe Shrinkle, whom the reader can tell is not going to do well in Iraq, and would be unlikely to do well anywhere else on the planet.

The names of this novel’s characters—Gooding, Shrinkle, Duret, Harkleroad, Lumley, Blodgett, Fledger, Carnicle, Zipperer—are more than a nod to Charles Dickens and to Joseph Heller, and continue a comic-novel tradition of dwelling on funny names. Of course, people do have funny names in war zones.

One of the least favorite colonels I worked with in Vietnam was named Winterbottom. He was always referred to as
“Colonel Coldass” out of the range of his impaired hearing.

The pith of this fine comic novel is summarized by the author on page two.  I can do no better for a prospective reader than to paraphrase those few lines here.

SSG Gooding worked in the PAO (Public Affairs Office) of the 7th Armored Division, which had its headquarters in one of the many marble palaces of the recently departed dictator Saddam Hussein. Gooding’s days were devoted to shuffling through Significant  Activities reports and then producing press releases that transformed the reports into something the American public could be comfortable reading at breakfast over their waffles and eggs.

When a soldier stepped on an IED and his guts ended up hanging in a nearby tree, this event was sugar-coated into the soldier making the ultimate sacrifice to build a democracy in Iraq. Gooding spent his days in an air-conditioned cubicle in front of a computer while doing this vital task, as well as dealing with various oddly named officers and enlisted men.

It is obvious on every page that Abrams knows what he is writing about and has paid his dues in such an Army environment. I spent thirteen months in a similar environment in the U. S. Army thirty-eight years earlier, and I marveled at how much Gooding’s war resembled my ancient war.

As Karl Marlantes, author of the Vietnam War novel Matterhorn says in his blurb on the back cover, Fobbit manages to be both hilarious and deadly serious at the same time. That is a tribute to the humanity and the talent of David Abrams.

The author’s website is

—David Willson

The Mailman Went UA by David W. Mulldune

David Mulldune arrived in Vietnam May 1968, a Marine who had just missed the Tet Offensive. Mulldune, a high school dropout in trouble with the law, has written The Mailman Went UA: A Vietnam Memoir (CreateSpace, 208 pp., $16.95, paper; $1.99, Kindle; $2.99, Nook), a powerful personal story of what many scholars call the worst year of the Vietnam War.

President Nixon’s strategy of Vietnamization was mostly viewed with contempt by those who thought that after the 1968 Tet Offensive the United States was winning the war.  Mulldune turned nineteen in Vietnam during his May 1968 to June 1969 tour of duty, dealing with “a steady round of patrols, ambushes, sniper attacks,” as Professor Michael H. Hunt succinctly notes in the book’s Forward.

This down and dirty memoir rates up there at the top with Ernest Spencer’s Welcome to Vietnam, Macho Man, and Karl Marlantes’ novel, Matterhorn, for bald honesty and hard-hitting language and description of the unspeakable things that happen in war. Mulldune served first as a mortarman with the 27th Marines, working with 60 MM mortars and later with the 7th Marines, first as a grunt and then with mortars again. He also spent time riding shotgun for supply convoys through Haiphong Pass and took part in Operation Allenbrook.

This memoir has it all: friendly fire, resentment toward pogues (rear echelon troops,) Black Power, drug use, atrocities on both sides, baby-san killings, Russian techs working for the VC, snakes of all sizes and kinds, leeches, centipedes, and mosquitoes, the clap, the Black Syph, decapitation by helicopter blade, dogs and dog handlers, tunnel rats, ice cream, movies (The Planet of the Apes) renegade Marines fighting with the VC, fraggings, Dear John letters, Louisiana Hot Sauce, C-rats, the Geneva Convention, booby-trapped kids, R&R, showers, Agent Orange, Bobby Kennedy, Chris Noel, Barry Sadler, Charles Robb, and John Wayne, who gets several mentions.

The Mailman Went UA has all of the above and more, and is chockablock with action, fighting of all kinds and lots of firepower. If you have the time to read only one Marine Corps grunt memoir dealing with the teenagers who fought in Vietnam, I’d recommend this one. It held my attention throughout even though I’ve read dozens of Vietnam War memoirs.

This one has a vigor and immediacy that often astonished me. How Mulldune came up with the wealth of physical detail on every page after so many decades is beyond me, but he never overreaches or tests believability. David Mulldune has done great things in this book by finding his 19-year-old Marine Corps voice and maintaining it throughout with no lapses.

—David Willson