Year of the Monkey by Gene Hays

VVA member Gene Hays spent twenty-one years in the Marine Corps as an aviation electronics technician. That included a tour of duty in Vietnam where he worked as a Civil Affairs NCO. In his excellent memoir, Year of the Monkey (CreateSpace, 206 pp., $14, paper), Hays refers to his work in the war as “nation building,” teaching the principles of freedom and democracy to the peasant people of South Vietnam.

That’s nice work if you can get it. How did that go? I read his book to find out.

I spent a lot of time scrutinizing the color photo on this attractive book. I even used a magnifying glass, but the photo is so blurred and muddy that I got little out of it. I always try to use a book’s cover as a clue to what will be found inside. But other than a guitar held up high by one of the six Marines on the cover and a tattered flag with a yellow star on it, the cover was not very informative.

The back cover blurb tells us that this book follows “in the footsteps of “ Civic Action, A True Story, an earlier book that Hays wrote. The first pages of Year of the Monkey detail the efforts by Marine Corps Civic Action. It’s a gripping story and well-told, dealing with how the Marines worked hard to win “the hearts and minds” of Vietnamese villagers by providing them with textbooks and school supplies for their schools; teaching them basic sanitation related to their village wells and water supplies; and providing them with cement, manpower, and expertise to make the needed changes.

The Marines in these Civil Action Teams placed themselves at frequent risk when they went out to these villages on their missions. They went lightly armed and without steel pots or flak jackets. They also informed the villagers when they would be coming to show them courtesy and respect.

As the author says, “It was a slow and dangerous process,” which is an understatement. He goes on to state that while the Marines were connecting with the people, obtaining intelligence and trying to prevent attacks and secure the villages, “the enemy was trying to instill fear and subservience through murder and torture.”

The hero of this book is not the author, but Maj. Richard Risner. Another hero is Hays’s friend, Sgt. Dick Petterson. Most of the second half of this engrossing book deals with Maj. Risner’s capture by the NVA on August 20, 1968, when his unit was out in the countryside fighting this different kind of war, traveling to the semi-pacified village of Khoung Quang, considered safe during the day, but hostile at night.

Risner became separated from the rest of his team, and was captured and spirited away in a truck, the intent being to get him to Hanoi. During this captivity by the NVA, a soldier known as “Honcho” tortured him by dislocating his shoulders and beating him with a bamboo stick. Another one one of his captors “smashed all of his toes on both feet with a metal hammer” to make it unlikely he’d escape by running. He was also urinated and defecated on. He had a tether around his neck and his hands were tied tightly as well.

Risner managed to kill three of his captors and successfully escape to link up with Petterson who was looking for him, but then was bitten by a pit viper. This section of the book is very exciting and held this reader’s attention.

The blurb on the back uses the word “harrowing” to describe this story, and it is totally appropriate. But it also says that the ending is a surprising twist.  I read this section several times to find the surprising twist, but did not find it. The only thing that surprised me—actually shocked me—was that I found no evidence that Maj. Risner received any decorations for this brave and unusual escape, nor did he get any further promotions. A Major he was and a Major he stayed.

What was up with that? Admittedly, I spent my time in the Army, and the Marine Corps does things differently, but Risner received a Silver Star for an earlier act of bravery also involving Sgt. Petterson. They both should have received some formal recognition from the Marine Corps for this exploit. That puzzles me, and I don’t like puzzles.

It also should be noted that this section of the book reads like a novel. It is very well written, and there are details of Maj. Risner’s escape and Sgt. Petterson’s attempt to find and free him that only those men could have known.

Hays tells us that he interviewed Risner and was told in detail what happened during his escape and evasion, so that is covered. But I am bothered by the extensive details and dialogue dealing with Gen. Giap, the NVA commander. Where did this information come from?  Hays tell us in his Epilogue that the “book is based on actual events in the lives of Major Richard F. Risner, First Sergeant Richard M. Petterson and Master Sergeant Ronald E. Hays.” He goes on to say that some of the names of characters in the book have been changed.

Maj. Richard Risner

Hays tells us that Rich Risner worked in Hollywood as a stuntman after his Marine Corps career ended and was in The Great Waldo Pepper and The Stuntman.  We are told he was haunted by his military missions and by his time as a POW. The black and white photo of Risner on the back cover of this book displays a haunted and troubled face.

Hays states that Risner’s third wife said her husband was troubled by bad dreams and night sweats “until his last moments.” The sentence from this book that most sticks in my mind is: “He could feel and hear his broken toes squishing in his boots.”

I’ve read a bunch of books about Marine Corps Civic Action Teams, and this one is the most interesting and exciting of the lot. I highly recommend it.

—David Willson

Hanoi Reprisal by John Riedel

Hanoi reprisalAuthor John Riedel makes it clear that his latest book, Hanoi Reprisal (JR Publishers, 313 pp., $19.95, paper), is is a novel, a work of fiction, and that real people referred to in the book are mentioned only “to give the fiction a sense of reality and authenticity.”

I like the cover a lot. It features a herd of helicopters above a field of tall green grass and distant green hills. I counted at least seventeen helicopters. The words, “Pleiku, Vietnam,” are emblazoned about two thirds down the cover, but are not a part of the title, even though they appear to be. The words “Camp Holloway” are faintly visible on a sign above the tile.  I wondered what all of that meant.

The back cover blurb tells us that Patrick Barringer, the hero of this adventure tale, is a retired CIA officer who had been attached to the covert MACV-SOG Team 36 in Vietnam in 1965. Barringer learns from his Vietnamese brother-in-law that his (Barringer’s) Vietnamese wife and their daughter have been taken by the Vietnam People’s Security Force and are being held in the T-20 Detention Center in Pleiku. This bad news sends “frissons of trepidation” up and down Barringer’s spine.

The first half of this book introduces us to the Barringer family (Patrick, his wife, and their two children) and makes an effort to get the reader to care about them. I didn’t really take to any of them.

The second half of the book is about what Barringer does to get his wife and daughter back, with the help of his son. Much of his book reads more like a history than a novel, starting on page one with a daunting list of the ancillary units based at Camp Holloway in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam.

John Riedel

I was relieved that in the very beginning of the book I’d discovered the meaning of the mystery words on the excellent cover. Page one sets the tone for this novel, as one of the primary narrative techniques Riedel employs is the list, often seeming canned and obtained in toto from reference material.

The book is organized into seventy-four short chapters with an epilogue.  The chapters are dated and given geographical locales. For instance, the first chapter is called “Camp Holloway, February 1965.” The last section of the book takes place in 2001.

Halfway through the book it’s revealed that Patrick Ballinger has become a drunk due to his guilt about Operation Cyclone and the billions of dollars the CIA expended placing weaponry and ammuntion into the hands of jehadists such as Osama bin Laden. Shortly after that, Patrick Ballinger puts together a team to go “over there, to free our family members and, with any luck, kill a few of the sons-of-bitches who did this.”

I won’t spoil the suspense by telling what happens. Either their hare-brained plan is successful and his mission saves his wife and daughter, or it isn’t and “the Red bastards in the current regime in Hanoi” kill them all and get even with Barringer for all the VC and NVA soldiers he killed during the American war in Vietnam.

This is a clearly written, well-edited, and organized book. But the author’s excessive reliance on lists and potted history and information made it a tedious read for me. For instance, Riedel presents the reader the list of AA’s 12 steps, and then he follows it with another list. I would guess that most of his readers are over-familiar with those 12 steps; I know I am.

I guess I should also mention the author’s over-reliance on clichés. Real people do use them in their everyday speech. But I’d rather an author not rely on them for his narrative. For instance, on a page picked at random the reader encounters both “piece of cake,” and “on the fly.”  I’m not sure what purpose these clichés serve. The word “easy” could have been used for “piece of cake.”  Probably “on the fly” could have safely been left out.

I admit that I am a picky English major with a degree in creative writing and that Riedel is unlikely to have written this book with me and my ilk in mind as potential readers. So perhaps most readers will enjoy this book.

Riedel does perform a positive service in calling attention to the injustices being done in Vietnam in the Central Highlands to the Degar people, many of whom fought with the U.S. Special Forces during our long war in Vietnam. The Degar picked the wrong side in that war, and have been punished by losing their ancestral lands to resettlement and farming schemes of the current government in Vietnam. Still, the cover remains my favorite aspect of this novel. Hanoi Reprisal is a fine-looking book.

One last thing—sort of a bone to pick with the author. Riedel presents the reader with the notion that Vietnam veterans struggled when they returned from South Vietnam because of “the humiliation of being spat on and being called a ‘baby killer’ by anti-war hippies in California” when their planes landed. This bothers me in several ways.

This sort of casual reference in a book that intends to be an adventure thriller is inappropriate, and is done in a way that implies that this was a common occurrence. But civilians had no easy access to planes landing from Vietnam loaded with returning veterans. There was no way antiwar protesters could get through the fences and other barriers to get close enough to returning veterans to spit upon him and to call them names as they left the planes that brought them home.

I spent a lot of time with a lot of antiwar protesters and hippies after I returned from Vietnam in 1967. I encountered none of this spitting or “baby killer” talk. It is irresponsible for an author to off-handedly present this stuff as though it happened commonly to returning Vietnam veterans.

Did some veterans return and find out their wives had left them or that jobs were not awaiting them? And did some folks speak rudely to them?  Sure. I’m surprised that Riedel didn’t pull that old cliché out about when the going gets tough, the tough get going, or something about sticks and stones.

After all, he is brave enough to end his book with the ultimate cliché: “Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home.”

Whoops, that sort of gives away the ending. Sorry about that.

—David Willson

All They Left Behind by Lisa A. Lark

All They Left Behind: Legacies of the Men and Women on The Wall (M.T. Publishing, 120 pp., $37.50) is a tribute to sixty-one American servicemen and women who died in the Vietnam War. This handsomely produced coffee-table-sized book was put together by Lisa A. Lark in conjunction with the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund.

Lark, a high school English teacher and community college writer instructor in Michigan, spent more than two years working on the book. During that time she interviewed more than 500 Vietnam veterans, as well as family members and friends of the men and women she profiles in the book. Arranged chronologically by casualty date (from 1962-75), the profiles consist of well-crafted mini biographies augmented with photographs of the men and women before and during the war, as well as with other images, including illustrations and photographs of things left at The Wall.

Lark interrupts the chronological narrative to include an essay on the men who died in Vietnam from Dearborn, Michigan, where she lives. “Fifty-seven sons of Dearborn, the hometown of Henry Ford, gave their lives in service to their country during the Vietnam War,” she writes. “These boys were children of the fifties, coming of age in a city that, despite being one of Michigan’s largest, still behaved as a small town.”

Lark includes includes profiles of six of the Dearborn men (Dennis Stancroff, Earl Smith, Raymond Borowski, David Antol, James Davis, and James Huard) in the book, along with snapshots of forty-two the others.

—Marc Leepson

Hostage of Paradox by John Rixey Moore

We are told that John Rixey Moore’s excellent book, Hostage of Paradox: A Qualmish Disclosure (Bettie Youngs, 505 pp., $29.95, paper), is a true story with names changed and that it is based on the author’s experiences.

The short biography in the back of the book tells us lots of interesting stuff about Moore, but not one word about his military career. We are told that Moore can be seen from time to time being interviewed on the History Channel.

My close reading of the text of this monster of a book led me to believe that Moore enlisted in the Army for four years and attained the rank of Sergeant First Class, E-7, which would be some kind of a record based on my short experience in the Army. In the Author’s Note, Moore says that he was a part of the 5th Special Forces Group in Vietnam, and that he was also a part of SOG, the then-secret Studies and Observation Group.

Moore, that is, served in Vietnam as a Green Beret, aka Army Special Forces. In the book Moore mentions that he rarely wore the actual beret in Vietnam, though. He also states that he headed for Vietnam on July 27 1968, and that he had just celebrated his 25th birthday. He goes on to say that he had a bit less than a year left on his enlistment in the Army when he went to Vietnam. The back-cover blurb goes on to say more about what he did in Vietnam, which Moore covers in his book in powerful and poetical detail.

The author, John Rixey Moore, in Vietnam

I am now compelled to discuss the title and subtitle of this large paperback. I found them both to be baffling hurdles to get over before I could get to reading the book. I tried to discover what the title and subtitle meant by reading the cover blurbs, the Dedication, the Foreword, the Acknowledgements, and the Author’s note, but got nowhere.

I racked my brain about the word, “qualmish,” but came up with nothing.  Being from the Pacific Northwest, I thought that it had some American Indian connection. The cover photo tends to support that interpretation as it looks very much like a Pacific Northwest rain forest. Eventually I gave up, and looked up the word in the dictionary.

I was embarrassed to find that it related to the word “qualms,” and the notion of being squeamish. Once I began reading the book, I started circling the words ithat were unfamiliar to me. I found many dozens.

Our narrator, John Moore, the Green Beret, is not a typical Army soldier. He has a degree in philosophy from the University of Virginia. That explains some of it. The only other Vietnam War memoir writer I can think of written by a young man with a degree in philosophy attained prior to war service is Ernest Spencer, author of the classic Welcome to Vietnam, Macho Man.

The only other author I’ve read where I had to look up the meanings of so many words was some book by Alexander Theroux. The authors I was most reminded of while reading Moore’s book were Joseph Conrad, Herman Melville, and T. E. Lawrence.  All of them wrote great, huge books of adventure, and they also used a lot of big words.

Is that all that Moore has in common with these classical authors?  No, not at all. He also has written a fine book, one that ventures deep into a heart of darkness. John Moore is a smart, witty guy, with a fine classical education and a huge appreciation of history, which is not typically displayed by most Vietnam veteran authors published by small presses.

Moore states in his Author’s Note that the 5th Special Forces Group in Vietnam took part in the infamous Phoenix Program. According to William Colby, the head of the CIA’s Far East Division of Clandestine Services who head Phoenix, it was responsible for the deaths of more than 20,000 suspected Viet Cong. Moore says this process often was accomplished by a bullet in the head while the target was sleeping.Moore further states he was part of SOG, and that this group was used “in the conduct of small-unit long range reconnaissance, interdiction and/or assassination missions into Laos, Cambodia, North Vietnam.”  That is the subject of this massive book—specifically, Moore’s role in this program.

One of the great delights of this book is the ability that Moore has to coin phrases or to pluck them from somewhere and use them. I’d intended to include a huge list of these wonderful phrases in this review, but when I took stock, I realized I had several pages of them amassed.

Someday, when I write an essay on Green Beret books, I’ll use that material there. I will mention a couple of them here just to give a flavor.  I especially enjoyed encountering “scented bosom of illusion” to describe McNamara’s little group back in Washington D. C.  Also I loved “sweltering pteridophyte ooze” for the field Moore slogged through in Vietnam’s jungles. Moore also refers to the jungle as the “Mesozoic wilds,” and as the “Mesozoic boonies,” which was my favorite. I could picture this ooze stuck to the soles of Moore’s jungle boots.

Hostage also contains one of the best John Wayne references I’ve read in any Vietnam War book, even better than those in Born on the Fourth of July. There’s no mention of my favorite Vietnam War expression—“ham and mother fuckers” though, as Moore and his team ate a different type of ration, the freeze-dried sort.

These Special Forces teams slogging in that ooze usually consisted of two American sergeants and a few Nungs, Chinese mercenaries. These few men often were kept in the dark as to what their agenda was, and I enjoyed reading Moore’s paranoid speculation about what he and his team were really being sent to do. Sometimes he figured they were being sent out to disappear, never to be heard from again, which is what happened to some of the teams.

The Americans had no language in common with the Nungs, so they relied on hand signals and pidgin English of a rudimentary sort. This lack of clear communication added to the horror and confusion of the situations they often found themselves in when they encountered bad guys out in the middle of the vast tracts of wilderness where they were the aliens.

As a reader, I got a powerful sense that Moore’s narrative was entirely written from his own experience, not heard second hand. The book is filled with suspense and sudden bloodshed, and it seems a miracle that Moore survived the events he describes with so much powerful, evocative details  forty years later.

Throughout the book, I was impressed by Moore’s humanity and consideration of others, especially for the members of his team, the Nungs, but also for the Vietnamese who cleaned the hootches, polished the boots, did the laundry, and the like. Perhaps being raised in various countries around the world prior to his time in the Army explains this, or maybe Moore is just one of those very few Americans who are not ugly to those who are different from him in appearance and culture.

Whatever the reasons, this humanity sets this book apart. I grew to like the narrator a lot, especially his self-deprecating attitude and his honesty about everything, even about getting rank. As he states, rightly, in the highly stratified life of the military, rank does count.

John Rixey Moore

I also loved his recounting of his two R&R’s in Hong Kong. He spent his time in Hong Kong about the same way I did. Very quietly. He didn’t spend the time in bookstores as I did, but he did spend a lot of time riding the ferry.  He doesn’t mention the sign that advised against spitting and the penalty for doing so, but I totally believe he put in a lot of time on the ferry.

Only once in this book of incredible derring-do, did I doubt the narrator and wonder what went wrong.  That is in the passage when he enters the clubhouse and says he heard Jeanie C. Riley yelping “Ode to Billy Joe.”  Riley’s hit was “Harper Valley P.T.A.”  Bobbie Gentry had the hit on “Ode to Bill Joe,” and she did not yelp it.  Also it is “Jeannie” not Jeanie” and “Billie Joe,” not Billy Joe.”

I apologize for being such a nit-picker, but there it is. Either or both of these songs could have been on that jukebox in Vietnam when Moore was there.  I suggest that his memory conflated these two songs. Memory can do that forty years later.

A reader can become drunk with the words in this book as they leave the page and enter the mind. It is so densely written and packed with action that it demands multiple readings. I’ve read many of the pages several times to savor the writing and the suspense.

I am going to buy multiple copies of this book and give them to friends as late Christmas presents. Moore’s prose envelopes the reader and takes him out of his world into a scary one, “a sclerotic black festival of brutal unknowns,” where dead men rise up out of “feculent excremental sludge.”

Read this book, you’ll be, as John Moore puts it, “transfixed, like kittens in a box.”

The author’s website is

—David Willson

The Catonsville Nine by Shawn Francis Peters

Individuals with deeply held religious beliefs are often willing to carry out what they perceive to be righteous acts knowing full well that that those acts are against the law or the norms of society. It was this sense of religious obligation that lead the Catonsville Nine—a group of nine Catholics (including two priests) opposed to the Vietnam War—to steal and burn hundreds of Selective Service records from a suburban Baltimore draft board in May of 1968.

A child when this event took place, University of Wisconsin-Madison professor Shawn Francis Peters, a Catonsville native, grew up hearing many stories about the nine. Long interested in the topic, Peters was frustrated that no definitive account of the Catonsville Nine had been published. Seeking to differentiate fact from fiction, Peters has written The Catonsville Nine: A Story of Faith and Resistance in the Vietnam Era (Oxford University Press, 390 pp., $34.95) so that the group’s controversial act could be fully understood and appropriately debated.

Relying heavily on FBI documents and personal interviews with four of the surviving nine, Peters provides an in-depth and conclusive account of the Catonsville Nine’s act of civil disobedience, their subsequent trial, and the decision of four members to go underground to avoid incarceration. The Catonsville Nine also explores the beliefs that influenced the group’s worldview, the individual personalities of each member, and the moral and theological debate their action ignited in Maryland and across the nation and the world.

Shawn Francis Peters

While the Catonsville Nine were ardently opposed to the Vietnam War, Peters explains that as followers of the liberal strand of Catholicism known as liberation theology, they also were troubled by global affairs that went far beyond Vietnam. Most members of the group believed that the United States carried out an imperialistic foreign policy that contributed to the suffering of the poor in the Third World. Peters explores how the nine attempted to use their trial to highlight global injustice—a fact that previous accounts of the group have largely ignored.

In addition to being an excellent work of history, The Catonsville Nine is a thought-provoking book that forces one to contemplate just how far an individual should go to fight for his or her vision of justice. It is written in a clear and well-thought-out manner, and the author’s passion for the topic is evident.

The reader gets the sense that Peters is digesting the facts he is presenting along with the reader. This subtle narration gives the book an inviting feel and allows it to avoid the drabness that too often plagues works of history.

—Dale Sprusansky


Gander by Gerald Cislon

Gerald Cislon was drafted into the Army during the Vietnam War, and made the military his career for twenty years. He dedicates his novel Gander (Xlibris, 346 pp., $29.99, hardcover; $19.99, paper) to soldiers who have served with the 101st Airborne Division.

Cislon, the author of a previous novel, ‘Til the End of Time, is a storyteller. His intent as a writer, he says, is to take the reader “along with him” on a journey. I took the advice on the back cover “to get a hot cup of tea,” cookies and warm socks,” and to “settle into a story that will leave [the reader] pondering long after you turn the last page.”

Even though I did as Cislon advised, I struggled with this book. I admit to having philosophical problems with alternate history as a fictional genre. In his Preface, Cislon explains where the title “Gander” came from. After he laid that out, I did vaguely remember the incident.

Cislon spins out his thriller from what happened in Gander, Newfoundland, in December 1985. A chartered American airliner crashed and 248 soldiers died. The soldiers were returning from having served one year “as a part of a 1978 peacekeeping accord between Israel and Egypt.”

Cislon goes on to say that this book is fiction and “is in no way intended to reflect on this accident.” Even so, the book seems very much a fictional reflection on this incident.

This accident or incident has produced many theories about what actually happened the day of the crash. Many have alleged a cover-up by the government. Some say the crash was related to Iran-Contra. The official explanation was “ice.”

For readers of Cislon’s ‘Til the End of Time, the author has brought back the important characters one more time. Perhaps for those readers who hunger for more of those characters this book will be your hot cup of tea. It was a hard slog for me.

Gerald Cislon

A main character, Scott, is a Vietnam veteran “who vaguely remembered having served most of his time in units in South Vietnam.” There are a lot of other Vietnam War references, direct and indirect, sprinkled throughout this book. There are also a lot of religious references. My favorite is one character’s answer to the question: “What about the Christian religion?”

The answer: “Good religion, just too many false people in the pulpit talking stupid stuff and trying to see what they can get out of you.”

A problem for me was the bad editing and proofreading. An example is when Bobby Lee is referred to as “Booby Lee.”  A few pages later a character named Charlie is buried at sea wrapped in a tarp, “weighted down with scarp medal.”  I asked a Navy friend about this, and was told that the author was most likely going for “scrap” metal.  Close, but not close enough. These problems start on the dedication page where “served” is spelled “severed.”

A further problem for me, an ancient English major, is the frequent use of the word “ain’t” throughout the book. Every time it appeared it jarred me. Plus, it never seemed to fit the narrative or the character who used it.

Gander was not a good fit for me. I recommend it only to those who were great fans of Gerald Cislon’s first novel.

The author’s website is

—David Willson

The Tooth and the Tail by Lawrence Rock

Lawrence Rock, who put together The Tooth and the Tail: An Oral History of Support Troops in Vietnam (CreateSpace, 386 pp., $13.99, paper), was a sergeant in the Marine Corps from 1964-67. He put in a thirteen-month Vietnam War tour in 1965-66 with the 1st Marine Air Wing in Danang. Rock, a VVA member, served in Vietnam as a clerk and driver.

For this book, Larry Rock and his friend Tom Emmons interviewed 150 men and women who also served as support troops in Vietnam, beginning the project in 2010. He includes about sixty in the book.

Rock found fellow support troops by attending Vietnam veteran reunions. “Most of the participants,” he writes, “provided their stories during taped phone interviews.”

The author addresses the problem of the passage of time blurring some recollections. The goal was for the participants to describe their role in Vietnam, he notes. Of course, they describe much more than that.

On the back of the book we’re informed that the ratio in the Vietnam War between support troops and combat troops was 10:1, and that in World War II the ratio was 4:1. That means that ninety percent of those who served in Vietnam were support troops. Rock calls them “our Hidden Army.”

If they were hidden, they were in plain sight, but I know what he means. As far as most books, movies, and television specials are concerned, soldiers in Vietnam were in combat, and they were Marines, LRRPs, SEALs, Rangers, Green Berets, and the like.

This large and interesting book could use an index.  It does have a good table of contents, but the chapters listed are not given page numbers, so you need to turn a lot of pages to find a particular chapter—for instance, the one entitled “Stripes and Medals,” which is in the middle of this 386-page book somewhere.

There are thirty-nine chapters, divided into three chronological sections covering the early, middle, and late years of the war.  A persistent reader will find many revelations in this book. It also is a treasure trove of Vietnam War GI language, including the use of the word “jeep” as a verb.

Reviewer David Willson, who served as a U.S. Army stenographer in the Vietnam War.

This book also includes many interesting photos, which I wish had been reproduced better. Many are faded or muddy, but they are appreciated anyhow. They add to the book.

The editor’s juxtapositions of entries is often powerful and hard-hitting. In the chapter, “Homecoming,” for example, Vic Griguola’s memory of having been spat on and called a baby killer in the San Francisco Greyhound Station is right above the memory of Bernie Wright’s in the San Francisco Airport where he was treated by six pretty girls to being flashed when they lifted their shirts to salute him and his service in Vietnam. There was applause from nearby waiting passengers.

Every returning soldier was not met with derision. I appreciated this even-handed presentation of the oral records of returning veterans.

Rock has managed to produce a well-organized and always-interesting reference book from this huge mass of taped phone interviews. I highly recommend this oral history, which gives voice to those millions of us who served in Vietnam as support troops. Rock also has included a useful bibliography and footnotes.

The two books cited in Rock’s bibliography that I’d suggest an interested reader look for next are Chickenhawk by Robert Mason and Hell in Very Small Place by Bernard B. Fall. Neither are support-troop books, but both are classics of the Vietnam War.

—David Willson

A Snowman in Hell by Doug Berg

Doug Berg’s A Snowman in Hell: Christmas in Vietnam (Independent Publishing Corp., 80 pp., $19.95, paper) is a collection of bits of reminiscences, paired with photos of scraps of Christmas trees, too much booze, and GI Santas distributing toys to Vietnamese children.

It’s a bittersweet tour of wartime Vietnam during Christmas, with big dollops of machismo and melancholy, and one that captures the surprising innocence of young men in danger. The quality of the photos is sometimes good, other times terrible—just like the times.

VVA member Doug Berg worked hard on this compilation. Many of the book’s contributors are VVA members. That’s not surprising, since Berg’s most important resource was the Locator column in The VVA Veteran.

For more information or to place an order, go to

—Michael Keating

A People’s History of the U.S. Military by Michael Bellesiles

As the subtitle indicates, Michael A. Bellesiles’s A People’s History of the U.S. Military: Ordinary Soldiers Reflect on Their Experience of War, from the American Revolution to Afghanistan (The New Press, 375 pp., $29.95) looks at all of this nation’s wars through the eyes of those who took part in them.

The author, a history professor at Central Connecticut State University, adds plenty of historical background to the words of his eyewitnesses. The twenty-page section on the Vietnam War mixes a short history of the war and a good sampling of veterans’ voices taken primarily from memoirs and oral histories.

In that section, Bellesiles does not illuminate much that hasn’t been part of the Vietnam War nonfiction literary canon for decades. He hits most of the high—and low—points, with an emphasis on what went wrong. That includes Bellesiles’s takes on morale and fragging; the U.S. strategy of attrition; the inequities of the draft; Vietnam Veterans Against the War and its Winter Soldier hearings; My Lai; the rotation system and the lack of unit cohesion; and post-traumatic stress disorder.

—Marc Leepson