Proud to Be: Writing by American Warriors edited by Susan Swartwout

Susan Swartwout announces in the introduction to Proud to Be: Writing by American Warriors (Southeast Missouri State University Press, 256 pp., $15) that the intent of this anthology is that it “will become an annual series.”  Swartwout, a professor of English at Southeast Missouri State, also is the director of the University Press. The book is a co-production of the Press, the Missouri Humanities Council’s Veterans Projects, and the Warrior Arts Alliance.

This anthology contains excellent writing dealing with America’s wars, from World War II up to and including our current wars. It is hard to tell at a glance which war gets the major attention.

I was pleased to note the title of the first piece in the book, “First Day at An Khe.”  Monty Joynes’s short story sets a high standard for the rest of the book as it is one of the most powerful, moving, and well written-stories of the Vietnam War I’ve ever read.

Monty Jooynes

Monty Joynes

Phil, a corpsman, arrives in country and without being in-processed is dumped into triage duty for days to deal with an onslaught of the wounded and dying. The First Sergeant of the Hospital company abandons Phil to those duties, which he bravely does until he’s covered with blood, excrement, and vomit and passing out from fatigue and hunger. All the horrifying essence of the carnage of the Vietnam War is distilled and encapsulated in this superb story.  Joynes is the fiction winner for this collection, chosen by William Trent Pancoast, author of Wildcat.

I can’t give this level of attention to every piece in this collection, but I assure prospective readers that this anthology is the best you’ll ever find. The World War II entry by Paul Mims, “Rockhappy, 1944-45,” is as worthy as the An Khe piece, but as different as it can be. There’s some of the flavor of Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific, but with elements of Catch-22 madness. Mark Bowden was the judge who picked this nonfiction piece as a winner.

I usually am not much impressed by the quality of war poetry in a mixed genre anthology, but I had high hopes for the poetry in this collection because the judge was Brian Turner, author of Here Bullet.  My high hopes for Gerado Mena’s “Baring the Trees” were not dashed. There were echoes of Villon’s more doom-laden poetry in Trees, but it was still totally its own poem. Great stuff.

This anthology is a deluxe production in every way—the cover art, editing, proof reading. The reader can dip into it and find excellence on every page.

My favorite piece in the book is Russell Reece’s Vietnam War story, “In Less Than a Minute.”  It is an up-river Mekong journey into the horrifying Heart of Darkness that was the Vietnam War, just seven pages but more memorable and powerful than dozens of full-length Vietnam War novels I have read.

Buy this anthology and keep it by your bedside to dip into and read before you turn out the lights at night. That practice will guarantee nightmares about America’s choice to engage the world in one war after the other. This anthology is one of the few positive byproducts of our national predilection for war.

—David Willson

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