DEROS Vietnam by Doug Bradley

When I scanned the table of contents on Doug Bradley’s DEROS Vietnam: Dispatches from the Air-Conditioned Jungle (Warriors Publishing, 216 pp., $14.95, paper) and saw the chapter headings, I knew in my heart I’d love this book.

The author of these short stories served in Vietnam after being drafted into the Army in March 1970. He worked as an information specialist (aka journalist) in Long Binh, near Saigon, in the Information Office at USARFV headquarters. Bradley, who also is the author (with Craig Werner) of the forthcoming book, We Gotta Get Out of This Place: Music and the Vietnam Experience, has a Masters in English from Washington State University.

Full disclosure: I also was an English major at WSU and I also served in Vietnam behind a desk at Long Binh in the air-conditioned USARV HQ building. So you could say that I was predisposed to find these thirty-two stories dealing with the rear echelon (REMF) experience interesting—even fascinating.

The cover alone was a major grabber for this ex-Army stenographer: two pale hands poised on the keyboard of an ancient manual typewriter. There’s a great quote from Karl Marlantes just above the keyboard: “Doug Bradley’s stories explore the Vietnam War as experienced by the majority of its veterans. These stories are not about battle, but like all great stories are about the battle for the human soul.”

Marlantes, one of the great novelists and deep thinkers of the Vietnam War, has said a mouthful. Every word is true.

But back to my original thought: the chapter headings. They include  “Dog Tags,” “The Beast in the Jungle,” “The Gospel According to Shortimer Sam,” “Delta Lady,” ”Malaria,” “Postcard from Hell,” “Confessions of a REMF,” and “Moron Corps.”

After reading the chapter headings, I broke a personal rule and went to the chapter “Moron Corps” near the end of the book. I read it first, ignoring the order chosen by the author. Bradley, by the way, has organized the book as an alternating mixture of long and short pieces as an homage to Ernest Hemingway’s World War I book, In Our Time.

“Moron Corps” is a two-and-one-half page story of heartbreak. It deals with McNamara’s Project 100,000. That was the misguided plan dreamed up by Robert S. McNamara to produce cannon fodder for the Vietnam War decked out in camouflage as a program to provide job experience and education to those in America who had been marginalized.

My favorite part of this little story is when the character Lanny refers to McNamara’s Project as his ticket out of the Cabrini-Green Projects and joblessness. Little does Lanny know it is a ticket to Vietnam and possible serious adventure, with little or no opportunity for education or future employment.  But he is very hopeful after listening to the promises of the Army recruiter. Bradley has packed this short story with maximum despair and doom, but all of that is between the lines for the careful reader to notice.

After reading that story, I went back to the beginning and read the book straight through the way it was intended to be read. I won’t spoil the other stories like I did “Moron Corps,” but the variety is stunning.

These stories take place in a Vietnam War that I did not recognize, a war that was years later than mine. In the time I was gone, drugs became a big thing. Most of the stories involve smoking marijuana, something I never witnessed in Vietnam. I’d heard that Binh Hoa was the marijuana capital of Vietnam and it was right next door to Long Binh where the USARV Headquarters was located, but I never saw that side of it. Tennis courts and basketball courts also get a mention. Those also came after my time.

Doug BradleySomething I did see during my time in Vietnam was the “LBJ,” the Long Binh Jail. The best short piece of writing I’ve encountered on the LBJ is Bradley’s “Confessions of a REMF,” which tells quite a bit about the LBJ riots, one in particular.

Everything the author says is confirmed by my time there in the role of stenographer to an Inspector General major who investigated the complaint by an African American private about the ill treatment he was receiving there. I saw up close the Conex containers the prisoners were housed in, and could feel the Dutch oven-like heat that they held on hot days.

Bradley’s stories name check John Wayne many times, and even Audie Murphy. Aldo Ray gets a mention. Graham Greene gets a lot of coverage in one story. Bradley also covers racial disharmony and fragging, as well as efforts to win the hearts and minds of the people of South Vietnam. It doesn’t give anything away to report that those efforts end badly.

I find it heartening that fine literary works about the Vietnam War continue to appear in 2012, all these decades after the end of the fighting. This work of Bradley’s ranks up there with other latecomers such as Karl Marlantes’ Matterhorn and Robert McGowan’s Nam: Things That Weren’t True and Other Stories.

Some of Bradley’s stories are funny and some are sad, but all reach deep into the human soul.

The author’s website is www.doug-bradley.com

—David Willson

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Dead Again by Hank Pasinski

VVA member Hank Pasinski was born in Buffalo, New York, and served in the Army, including one year in Vietnam. He later worked for the New York State Police for ten years.

His novel, Dead Again (lulu.com, 188 pp., $13.50, paper), is an engrossing, well-plotted, episodic story about a DEA undercover agent named Phil Pasinowski.

We’re told that this novel “is the story of a small-town boy who longs for an adventurous life—and gets more than he bargained for. “ That is honest and accurate, as far as it goes.

The philosophy of this book is that the war on drugs is a good thing and worth the millions spent pursuing it. The notion that legalizing drugs should be considered does not arise. It is stated that Phil Pasinowski’s goal in joining the DEA is to “get rid of the drugs in our society.” Good luck with that.

The author’s workmanlike prose is adequate, but he would have benefited from a better editor. There is a lot of repetition in the text. For instance, on page 76 we get the phrases “lack of safety standards” and “no safety standards” in the space of four lines. I got it the first time.

That sort of thing slows down an otherwise interesting book. And that sort of repetition happens over and over again—so often, I tired of marking the text for examples.

Hank Pasinski

On the other hand, Pasinski is a good story teller. The details of the hero’s undercover life are convincing and either well-researched or written directly from the author’s experience. The cover tells us that Pasinski lives in Phoenix, which explains why the book’s details about Arizona are especially realistic and convincing.

This tale of Phil Pasinowski infiltrating biker drug-dealing gangs the Scorpions and the Blanco Diablos, “the two most dangerous and bloodthirsty drug gangs in the American Southwest,” held my interest. I recommend it to any reader who has an affection for stories of undercover law enforcement.

—David Willson

The Right War by Nathan Maddox

Nathan Maddox’s The Right War (CreateSpace, 278 pp., $8.99, paper) is a first novel that deals with the events of September 11, 2001. Maddox served with the U. S. Army’s Americal Division in Vietnam from 1970-71, and received a Purple Heart for wounds he suffered while patrol in the Quang Nam Province. Today, he is the executive inspector general for a large state government agency in Springfield, Illinois.

The book is attractively designed and well edited. The cover presents three airplanes flying in formation in shades of gray and brown. The title is beneath the planes in red.

I am no student of aircraft or anything close to it, but they seem to be A-10 Thunderbolts (Warthogs) flying low over terrain that might be Afghanistan. The author refers to the A-10 Thunderbolt as “the finest war planes any infantryman had ever seen.” I am eager to be corrected if I am wrong.

The Right War, which is dedicated to “those who did not come home,” is a book of alternate history, what might have been. This is not my favorite fictional format because usually the research is lightweight. This book, however, is very well researched. In his acknowledgements section Maddox includes an extensive list of impressive folks who helped him.  At least one librarian is in the group, which helps explain the high quality of the details.

Maddox has written a literate, erudite political thriller dealing with what might have happened after 9-11 if the military had had free reign, rather than being hampered by politics and the leadership of civilians such as those in the White House and in Congress.

Gen. Jack Lewis, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, leads a coup against President Smith, who became president by suppressing the votes of men and women in the military, and who then ordered that military people who expressed objections be severely punished.

The Right War offers the reader a detailed blueprint for exactly how our military could take over the country—how military forces could be used, as Maddox puts it, to “secure the president, vice president, cabinet members, and Congress.”  All that is required to start this process is what the author refers to as a “triggering event.”  September 11th is that event in this carefully plotted book. Gen. Jack Lewis assumes control of the government and removes President Smith for dereliction of duty.

Lewis gives his reasons for taking over as necessary “to save our country from a string of misguided leaders.” Maddox says that those misguided leaders gutted the military services. When did that happen? That must be more alternate history.

Everything goes smoothly for Lewis and his junta until near the end of the book. I will not act as a spoiler, but as smart and well-organized as the usurping general is, he fails to foresee difficulties in returning the nation to democratic rule. He had the best intentions when he seized power so he could punish Afghanistan for bombing our mainland. And punish them he did.

The author’s research is very thorough; he even names the nationalities of those who took over the aircraft that attacked us on September 11th. None of the nineteen were from Afghanistan. Fifteen were Saudi Arabians. I still don’t get why Saudi Arabia got a free pass and the bin Laden family got fast flights home in September. Maybe it had to do with oil and Saudi connections to the Bush family.

There are many solid references to the Vietnam War in this well-plotted thriller. My favorite is where the father of one character is said to have returned from his combat tour in Vietnam to confront “ridicule, not reward.” I was gratified that this book did not blame Jane Fonda or John Kerry.

I highly recommend this novel,.which deals with what might have happened in a few days in Afghanistan if the military had its way—as opposed to the ten-year mess that transpired in our effort to build a democratic nation in a place where there is no material available for such a transformation.

The author hammers away a bit too much about how we have unsecured borders that allow terrorists free access to our country. I believe those nineteen September 11th terrorists did not enter the country from either Canada or Mexico. If I am wrong about that (as I might be about the airplanes on the cover), please let me know.

—David Willson

A Hellish Place of Angels by Daryl J. Eigen

The subtitle of Daryl J. Egen’s A Hellish Place of Angels (iUniverse, 222 pp., $18.95, paper) is “Con Thien: One Man’s Journey,” which gives a better sense of what the book is about than the poetic title. Eigen served as a U. S. Marine in the 3/26 and 2/9 Infantry Battalions in the Third Marine Division in Vietnam. He was awarded three Purple Hearts. He has a PhD from Northwestern.

His memoir deals with the Battle of Con Thien in September 1967. The letters Eigen wrote home during that period, combined with quotes from published records, form the basis of this powerful and engrossing book.

Eigen has composed a brutal book and an honest one. He was eighteen when he joined the Marines with the goal of becoming a man. Forty-five years later he is retired in Oregon and deals with Parkinson’s disease, which a VA doctor attributes to Eigen’s exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam. Eigen also has been diagnosed with PTSD.

Daryl Eigen went through training and became a radio operator in 81 mortars. As a radio operator, he became part of the forward team attached to line company Kilo. He and the forward observer reported to the CO. Eigen took part in a good number of combat ops, including Operations Chinook, Chinook II, Prairie, Big Horn, Hickory, Shawnee, Cimarron, and Golden Fleece. There’s a Western movie flavor to most of those names.

The former Marine effectively tells the reader of his time in Vietnam, using excerpts from eloquent letters he wrote home at the time, reflections written now, and facts gleaned from such publications as Sea Tiger, Pacific Stars and Stripes, Newsweek, The New Yorker, The New York Times and U. S. News & World Report. This powerful pastiche did the job for this reader.

Hellish Place is a well-designed book, with a cover photo by David Douglas Duncan taken in the fall of 1967 showing a group of anonymous Marines at Con Thien. It very much captures the mood and sense of Con Thien.

Daryl Eigen

This memoir is organized in short, punchy sections. This reader found the book a joy to read, even though I have read dozens of Marine Corps memoirs.

A few of the chapter headings give a good feel for this readable and accessible book: “Xmas Cease Fire,” “Free Killing Zone,” “Mortar Fights,” “Ham and Mother Fuckers,” “Incoming,” “Booby Traps.”

The section on Ham and Mother Fuckers gives the best and most complete explanation of that subject that I have read anywhere, including in scholarly reference books. Eigen explains that this nickname is for ham and lima beans, a C-ration meal, but he goes much further than that. He explains how to cook C-rations, and tells a little story about how C-rats can be fatal. This fine book is worth buying for this section alone.

If a reader is looking for a Marine memoir about how it was in the mud and smoke and carnage of Con Thien in Vietnam in 1967, this is the book to buy and read.

The book’s website is www.ahellishplaceofangels.com

—David Willson

The Black Box by Michael Connelly

Twenty years ago, I opened the pages of a first novel by a young former Los Angeles Times police reporter about a quirky, troubled L.A. homicide detective: The Black Echo by Michael Connelly. I was extremely impressed by Connelly’s taut writing, his careening, clever plot, and by the detective himself, Harry Bosch, a former Vietnam War tunnel rat.  Bosch came alive for me in all of his complexity; he was emotionally troubled by his war experiences, but was a strong, smart detective who did not rest until he solved a heinous murder.

In the intervening twenty years Connelly has written eighteen Harry Bosch detective procedurals. I’ve enjoyed reading every one of them, including the latest, The Black Box (Little Brown, 416 pp., $27.99).  This one started out slowly for me, but Connelly pushed the accelerator to the floor after a hundred pages or so, and I once again I found myself deeply drawn into a fast-paced, riveting novel with a twisting plot and believable, well-drawn characters.

Connelly includes many of the elements in the new book that he has used to great effect in the other Harry Bosch novels, including the previous one, The Drop, which came out a year ago. In Black Box, Harry—as always—is obsessed with solving a case. In this case it’s the twenty-year-old murder of a young Danish female photojournalist who was shot and killed in L.A. during the 1992 riots.

As usual, in his single-minded quest to solve this cold case, Harry Bosch butts heads with a slime-ball, ticket-punching superior in the police department. Also, as per usual, he bullheadedly steps over the procedural line more than once, jeopardizing both the case and his checkered career. He also faces a boatload of angst-induced personal problems, including daily frustrations with his head-strong teenaged daughter, and a less-than-satisfactory relationship with his putative girlfriend.

All the while, Bosch uses his brains and experience to unravel a complicated murder plot that goes back to the first Persian Gulf War. It spoils nothing to report that the bad guys get theirs in the end. The meat of the book is how Connelly gets Bosch to the final, bloody confrontation with the perps.

Michael Connelly

Along the way there are periodic references to Bosch’s time in Vietnam. The veteran detective is not obsessed by what happened to him in the war, but his experiences in 1969-70 remain an integral part of his life.

“His was a war of mud and blood and confusion,” Connelly writes as he describes Bosch looking at photographs the dead Danish journalist took in the first Persian Gulf War.

He “saw up close the people they killed, that he killed. Some of those memories were as crystal clear to him as the photographs now on his screen. They mostly came to him at night when he couldn’t sleep or unexpectedly when some everyday image conjured a somehow connected image from the jungles or tunnels where he had been.

“He knew war up close and [the dead journalist’s] words and pictures struck him as the closest he had ever seen it through a journalist’s eyes.”

Once again, in The Black Box (the title refers to Bosch’s quest to find the equivalent of a crashed airplane’s black box) Michael Connelly give us a page-turning detective that is several cuts above your average genre novel.

Connelley’s website is www.michaelconnelly.com/novels/theblackbox

—Marc Leepson

The Escapes and My Journey to Freedom by Du Hua

Du Hua is no friend of the communist government of his home country of Vietnam. “Communism has imprinted evil images in my brain since I was a little boy,” he writes in his memoir, The Escapes and My Journey to Freedom (AuthorHouse, 236 pp., $27.95, hardcover; $16.95, paper). “I have witnessed many and I can’t say enough about the pernicious and horrific acts of the Vietnamese Communist regime.”

The government, he says, “continues to take the core principles of humanity away from the people of Vietnam.  Absolutely no freedom of any kind exists in the beautiful country of Vietnam. Suffering and darkness continue to spread all over the sky of Vietnam.”

The “escapes” of the book title refer to the ten attempts that Du Hau made trying to flee his homeland in the 1970s and 1980s following the communist takeover in 1975. Du Hua finally succeeded on his eleventh try in June 1981. A little more than a year later he arrived in the United States. In 1987, Du Hua joined the U.S. Navy, but his naval career was cut short in 1993 after he suffered a severe lower back injury.

Du Hua today lives with his family in Florida where he is a pharmacist. “Because of my own medical conditions,” he says, he has “a lot of compassion for my patients. I always wanted to do what I could to help my people.”

—Marc Leepson

Men in Green Faces by Gene Wentz

Gene Wentz’s in-the-trenches Vietnam War SEAL novel, Men in Green Faces, first published in 1992, is out in a new trade paperback edition (St. Martin’s Griffin, 304 pp., $15.99) in time for Veterans Day. Wentz—who came home from a SEAL tour in Vietnam with a chestful of medals—put together this dialogue-heavy combat novel with the help of the writer B. Abel Jurus.

The novel centers on Navy SEAL Gene Michaels and his quest to terminate a particularly vicious enemy officer named Col. Nguyen, the leader of a force of five thousand NVA regulars wreaking havoc in South Vietnam. When not on the trail of Col. Nguyen, Michaels and his team take part in one dangerous, lethal SEAL op after another against the VC and NVA in the Delta.

Gen Wentz receiving his Bronze Star. He also was awarded a Silver Star and two Vietnamese Crosses of Gallantry, among other decorations, for his service in the Vietnam War.

The author’s website is genewentz.com

—Marc Leepson