Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain

Back in 1987, I moderated a panel discussion with four accomplished writers at Vietnam Veterans of America’s National Convention in Washington, D.C. The topic was the Vietnam War Novel. The panelists were Robert Olen Butler, Philip Caputo, Larry Heinemann, and Tim O’Brien. Their books included Butler’s Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of short stories, A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain; Caputo’s classic war memoir, A Rumor of War; Heinemann’s National Book Award-winning novel, Paco’s Story; and O’Brien’s National Book Award winner, Going After Cacciato.

All of the men served in the Vietnam War. All wrote memorable works of fiction, including novels that dealt with that war and its veterans. One of my first questions, then, was: “Do you think of yourselves as Vietnam War novelists?” I remember Butler’s answer word for word.

“Calling us Vietnam War writers,” he said, “is like calling Monet a lily pad painter.”

I’ve thought about Butler’s remark many times in the decades that have passed as I have read and reviewed scores of war novels, virtually all of them written by Vietnam veterans about the Vietnam War. But only now, in 2013, after reading Ben Fountain’s astonishing Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk—which was published in 2012 and is just out in paperback (Ecco, 307 pp., $14.99)—has the full import of Butler’s remark become clear in my brain.

Fountain’s book is “Iraq War novel,” or at least deals with the war on every page. That’s why I put it way down on my to-read list. I didn’t feel like wading through another war novel, especially one dealing with a war I had no knowledge of, nor much interest in. What I didn’t realize until I started the book is that calling Billy Lynn an “Iraq War novel” is like calling Moby Dick a whaling novel. Yes, Fountain’s book is about a war and its warriors, but it’s much, much more than that—it creates a unique world that illuminates life’s biggest questions through creative storytelling.

Fountain’s story zeroes in on 19-year-old Billy Lynn and his squad of infantrymen who performed a supremely heroic deed in Iraq that a TV crew caught on video. The video goes viral, the men are acclaimed as heroes, and brought home on a kind of good-will tour that culminates on a cold, rainy Thanksgiving Day at Texas Stadium, the former home of the Dallas Cowboys. There, deep in the heart of Texas, Billy and the other men of Bravo squad will be honored and feted before, during, and after the game, but especially at a special, super-patriotic halftime show.

Fountain got me on the first line and never let up: “The men of Bravo are not cold. It’s a chilly and wind whipped Thanksgiving Day with sleet and freezing rain forecast for late afternoon, but Bravo is nicely blazed on Jack and Cokes thanks to the epic crawl of game-day traffic and the limo’s minibar.”

He carries this muscular, lyrical, and insightful writing right on through to the end of the book. The characters are sharply and believably drawn. The clever and twisting plot moves along rapidly to a suspenseful climax. There is plenty of humor, a lot of it dark. And there’s the ever-nagging, Catch-22-like existential dread hovering over the entire story as Billy and the guys contemplate going from their surreal celeb status in Dallas back into the grit and horror of the war in Iraq.

Ben Fountain

Fountain—who did not serve a day in the military—somehow nails the essence of his young soldiers. What Billy and the guys do and say is just about pitch perfect. Fountain gets today’s military men. He also evokes the zeitgeist of other fighting men in other shooting wars. In Fountain’s characters I saw echoes of myself and scores of other Vietnam veterans. And I’m sure a veteran of the Korean War or World War II would say the same thing.

The Vietnam War gets several brief mentions in the novel. It comes up when the Bravos banter with the Hollywood producer who is trying to get them a movie deal. When they jokingly invite him to come back to Iraq with them, he says, “I’d just get in the way…, plus I’m pretty much your classic pacifist twerp. Listen, the only reason I went to law school was to stay out of Vietnam, and lemme tell you guys, if my deferment hadn’t come through, I would’ve been on the bus for Canada.”

To which one of the Bravos says, “It was the sixties.”

“It was the sixties, exactly,” the producer replies, “all we wanted to do was to smoke a lot of dope and ball a lot of chicks. Vietnam, excuse me? Why would I wanna go get my ass shot off in some stinking rice paddy just so Nixon can have his four more years? Screw that, I’m not the only one who felt that way.

“All the big warmongers these days who took a pass on Vietnam—look, I’d be the last person on earth to start casting blame. Bush, Cheney, Rove, all those guys, they just did what everybody else was doing and I was right there with ’em, chicken as anybody. My problem now is how tough and gung-ho they are, all that bring-it-on crap, I mean, Jesus, show a little humility, people. They ought to be just as careful of your young lives as they were with their own.”

Ben Fountain has created a masterpiece of a novel that evokes what war does to those who take part in it.

—Marc Leepson

The hardcover

Air Assault: Sharing Military Experience by William Crisp

William Crisp served as a rifle platoon leader with the 8th Calvary Regiment of the 1st Cavalry Division in Vietnam from August 1966 until August 1967. A graduate of VMI, he went on to earn a a Masters degree from John Hopkins University that would lead him to a job with the U.S. Foreign Service.

Before that, though, Crisp put in a year in II Corps and answered the question that all young men who serve in a war have to answer: Could he be brave enough to do the right thing in battle?

In Air Assault: Sharing Military Experience (Xlibris, 258 pp., $29.99, hardcover; $19.99, paper), his interesting and informative memoir, Crisp does not follow a linear line. Instead, he brings the reader back and forth to the events in his life that led him to some of the life-and-death decisions that he would be forced to make as an air assault “dragoon” in Vietnam.

Author William Crisp presented a copy of his book to his local library in Virginia

Crisp has reconsidered some of those decisions many times since making his original choices, but he has learned to look back with a sense of humbled forgiveness at at least of few of them. In his memoir, Crisp’s voice is clear and retrospective. He recognizes that his southern background has had a big impact on his military service and on his world view. And he is unapologetic about that aspect of his life in his memoir.

Crisp, who also has a background also as a novelist, carries the reader through his year in Vietnam in manner that is naturally paced and intimate in its style.

—John Lavelle

Waiting on DEROS by Adrian Falchion and Floyd Odekirk

Waiting on DEROS: A Soldier’s Story (Sheboygan County Historical Research Center, 208 pp., $12, paper) is a collection of twenty-five true stories written by Adrian Falchion. Nineteen of the stories are those of Vietnam veteran Floyd Odekirk. The rest are from some of Odekirk’s fellow veterans concerning their tours in Vietnam.

These stories are not linear in nature, but add up to a collection of incidents experienced by these veterans. It is evident that the author of the stories did not experience a tour in Vietnam. He attempts to honor the service of these veterans through the telling of these stories. Unfortunately, the stories also attempt to impart moral imperatives that sometimes cannot be found in every war story.

After fifty years, some veterans still search for meaning in what became an important event in their lives. It is hard enough for someone who was there—and more likely impossible for someone who wasn’t—to fully understand the need to do this.

Generally, the stories are wordy and didactic. This makes them lack the verisimilitude that they probably exhibited in their original telling to the author.

—John Lavelle

U-Tapao Royal Thai Naval Air Base Series—II and III by Leonard H. Le Blanc III

Leonard H. Le Blanc III served in the U. S. Air Force and the U. S. Navy. He has lived and worked in Thailand since 1991. It would appear that Le Blanc has used his experience and time in Thailand to create his military mystery detective series, U-Tapao Royal Thai Naval Base.

The two books in the series under review here–II and III: Airbase and Thailand (230 pp., each, paper, $5) are similar to Martin Limon’s series, which is set in Korea and is about two military policemen, George and Ernie. The story in Le Blanc’s books, we are told, “involves two young U.S. Air Force Security Police officers in their attempt to solve a massive Thai-operated theft ring on the base.”

Even though the two books are separately bound, they are really one story and one book, split into halves. Air Base is the first half, and Thailand is the second half of the story. Le Blanc does a fine job of setting the scene in Thailand on the air base named in the title.  He also does a good job of bringing to life on the page many Thai characters. There’s no two-man team of police, though. Mostly, the hero of the book, Lt. Legere, is on his own.

The books are strongest when dealing with the life and duties of Lt. Legere as a low-level Air Force officer stationed  in Thailand shortly after the American War in Vietnam ends. The best parts deal with the technical and personal aspects of that war winding down in Thailand where so much of the air war had been staged, especially as it related to the air bases.

A massive theft ring is operating on the air base, and our hero tries to get to the bottom of it, but he never really does. The truth comes out at the end of the second half of the story in Thailand, but Legere has little or nothing to do with the theft ring being broken. In fact, he has been long gone from Thailand, getting assigned to Ellsworth AFB in Rapid City, South Dakota.

Legere briefly stops off at home on his way from Thailand to Ellsworth, and interacts with his mother. She says little to him that is personal, but she does comment that she thinks he is hooked on heroin due to his gaunt look and loss of weight.

This scene totally rings true to me, as my mother made the same comment to me when I returned home from Vietnam. She made the comment for the same reasons. Legere chooses to spend little time with his mother before moving on with his life. I made the same choice. No bra-less hippie girl spat on either of us, but I would have preferred that to what my mother said.

The great strength of this two-volume novel, written in memoir form, is in this sort of detail. All of it is well-told and held this reader’s interest once I got past the first twenty-five pages or so, which jumped around chronologically—1971, 1975, 1981, 1979, and then, June 1975.

Once our hero arrives in Thailand, the book is fun to read and very well-organized. The book is arranged in small sections of a couple of pages each, and each of these sections has a clear title that sets the time and place for the reader. I liked that tactic. It helped me because I get easily confused.

I thought that about a hundred pages in, the investigative aspect of the book was getting underway, but I was fooled. The book continues with the daily life of the LT, and shows how things do not go well for him. We find out late in book two why most of the Air Force personnel go out of their way to make Legere’s life a living hell, but I will not spoil anything by telling more here.

The massive thievery on the air base is a strong leit-motif in this novel, but Legere never kicks ass or takes names the way the main characters in Martin Limon’s books set in Korea do. And that is fine with me. Le Blanc has written a different sort of book, the sort of book I actually like more than Limon’s books, as much as I admire Limon and his military thrillers.

I highly recommend these two books to anyone interested in what it was like to serve on an air base in Thailand in the mid-1970’s. I can’t imagine that any other author has done, or will do, a better or more enthralling job of showing this life than Le Blanc has.

—David Willson

Zumwalt by Larry Berman

Admiral Elmo R. “Bud” Zumwalt, Jr., is one of the transcending figures of the Vietnam War. An Annapolis graduate and a veteran of the fighting in the Pacific in World War II, he served as the U.S. Navy Commander in Vietnam during the height of the war, from 1968-70, directing the American river boats that patrolled the inland waterways and coastal areas of South Vietnam. Zumwalt took bold and innovative actions in that job, primarily planning and executing Operation Sealords, which cut riverine supplies to the VC.

Zumwalt went on to become Chief of Naval Operations from 1970-74. In that job he pushed through much-needed reforms and earned a reputation as a commander who cared about those who served under him. Zumwalt will be “remembered as a trailblazer who reformed the Navy and as a champion of the men and women who served in it,” the historian Larry Berman says in Zumwalt: The Life and Times of Admiral Elmo Russell “Bud” Zumwalt (Harper, 508 pp., $29.99), a detailed, readable, and admiring biography of one of the few admirable American Vietnam War military leaders.

Zumwalt, who died in 2000, also will be remembered for having ordered the spraying of Agent Orange over the Mekong Delta. His son, Elmo R. Zumwalt III, served in Vietnam in 1969-70 as a swift boat commander. He was diagnosed with cancer in 1983 and died in 1988. Both father and son believed that the cancer was caused by the son’s exposure to the pesticide.

Admiral Zumwalt worked assiduously after his son’s death to investigate the relationship between exposure to Agent Orange and a myriad of serious health problems faced by Vietnam veterans. In 1989, at age 68, he became a special assistant VA secretary to look into Agent Orange. It was an unpaid position, Berman points out.

Larry Berman

Berman, a professor emeritus at the University of California–Davis, has specialized in the Vietnam War during his long academic career. His books include Planning a Tragedy: Lyndon Johnson’s War (1983) and No Peace, No Honor: Nixon, Kissinger and Betrayal in Vietnam (2002).

In Zumwalt, Berman does a good job in the sections on his subject’s work in the late 1980s and early 1990s investigating the impact of exposure to Agent Orange on Vietnam veterans.  Zumwalt, Berman says, hoped he wouldn’t find a link between Agent Orange and serious health conditions, “sparing himself the agony of knowing he was responsible.” But after he did, Zumwalt—to his credit—doggedly pushed the VA to recognize a host of illnesses connected to exposure to Agent Orange.

The book’s website is zumwaltbook.com

—Marc Leepson

Jackson Street and Other Soldier Stories by John A. Miller

John A. Miller’s Jackson Street and Other Soldier Stories, first published in 1996, is now available for the first time as an e-book (Amazon.com, $2.99). There are eleven stories in this 167-page book, and the stories are so good that this reader was left with the question: Couldn’t Miller have come up with just one more to make it an even dozen?

Jackson Street’s availability on Kindle will be of interest to readers of his series of mystery thrillers with the hero Claude McCutcheon: Cutdown, Causes of Action, and Tropical Heat. I am sure that many of the readers of this fine series will want to read Miller’s first, hard-to-find book.

Jackson Street contains Miller’s best writing, in my opinion, and his most direct writing about the Vietnam War. The author served with the 82nd Airborne in Vietnam. McCutcheon is a Vietnam veteran, so there is that connection between the series and the war. The series is one of the best featuring a Vietnam veteran/quasi-detective hero.

“Guns,” the first story in Jackson Street, had me in tears by the end. Speer Morgan, in a back cover blurb, says that the stories in the book are poignant, “without sending readers groping for the Kleenex box.”  Morgan was wrong about this reader. This tale of a Vietnam veteran traveling across the country so he can die from his stomach cancer in the sunshine at Venice Beach gripped me with its huge amount of love, compassion, and humanity.

Henry, the dying protagonist, displays compassion toward a crazy young beach denizen, thinking, “Hell, he’s probably a veteran like me.”  And this reader thinks, yes, he probably is.

Henry’s treatment at the California VA office is brusque at best. He’s given a bottle of painkillers and told to head back to North Carolina as fast as he can. To which Henry mutters, “Fuck you.”

The reader knows from the outset that Henry will die in California, but when he does, it is a moment of agony. He gets to die in the sunshine, but we get to know Henry so well that his departure brings us the pain of loss.  A good short story can have more impact than an okay novel, and this is one of those rare stories. In the interest of full disclosure, I confess that I am dying of Agent Orange-related cancer myself related to my tour of duty in Vietnam, so perhaps I brought some of that emotion to the story.

The second story, “Vancouver,” has as its protagonist, Lt. Robert Strunk, who has recently returned from Vietnam and separated from the Army.  Strunk falls in with bad company, which includes another Vietnam veteran, one with a more easily observable wound than Strunk’s, as he left a leg in Vietnam. 

He is very bitter about that, and has a moving speech about how the VA sends him “a pissant check every month,” but has done nothing for him that might help, such as counseling or training for a job. There is enough plot and bloodshed and interesting people in this story to populate an action movie. 

Every story in this fine book supports the promise in the subtitle that these are soldier stories. Some of the stories surprise the reader with the soldier connection late in the story, but most are honest up front.

All are engrossing and satisfying, whether you are looking for stories about soldiers or just great stories to read. One of them, “Spanky’s Dead,” even name checks Claude McCutcheon, the hero of Miller’s exciting mystery thriller series.

Probably my favorite story in the book is “Kenny,” the last one in the collection. All I’ll say about it is that it is a ghost story, and that the Vietnam War has left us with more ghosts than many of us can tolerate.

There are many mentions of the VA in this book, and none of those is positive. That leads me to say that I read an article this morning that the backlog of VA claims is about to reach one million. Food for thought, triggered by reading Miller’s stories.

I can’t help but remember a comment I overheard a while back in the Seattle VA Hospital from a sad-sack Vietnam veteran on this subject.  “They are waiting for the Army to die. Think of all the millions they will save.”

If you are looking for a superb, but unsettling, book of short stories to read, this book is for you.

—David Willson

Company of Stone by John Rixey Moore

John Rixey Moore served in Vietnam in 1968-69 with the 5th Special Forces Group, and he was also a part of SOG. He was a Green Beret, although he rarely wore that particular headgear in Vietnam. This information was gleaned from his first memoir, Hostage of Paradox. None of this information is given in the current memoir, Company of Stone (Bettie Youngs Books, 312 pp., $19.95, paper).

Moore begins his latest memoir by relating his adventures in the Scottish Highlands. He is on a walking tour, which seems like a bad idea for a guy who has not recovered from a serious bullet wound in his right hip from an enemy AK-47 round. The first many pages of this memoir read like a philosophical meditation on the effects of war.

To wit: “The record bullet fragment lay heavy against my bone, and the overland walk had stirred once again the hyena pain from its uneasy slumber.”

Moore sought overnight refuge from his hunger, fatigue, and pain at The Brothers Observant, a monastery. Gradually, he found a place for himself there, helping the monks build a stone wall in a field. But Moore fell and re-injured his wound, and the hyena pain in his hip bone reawakened.

Shortly after that, Moore was ejected from the monastery. An overheard conversation in a pub that mentioned Consolidated Mines in Timmons, Ontario, resulted in him, the reader, and the story going thousands of miles from Scotland to Canada. There, on the grass-covered plains of Ontario, Moore became a drill operator in another all-male environment.

The dinner he orders in the pub is never described, although there are several pages of observation of the pretty woman running the place. In short order, Moore mentions his “dream-like state” and his time in Vietnam, “seeing back through the curtain of a new reality.”  He wonders about “the strong arithmetic of chance.”  He later dreams of goldmines.

Part Two of this memoir, “The Troglodyte,” begins with his first day in the gold mine. There are many mysteries in this memoir, things we are never told. There are many lines describing how a particular glass of Scotch whiskey tastes, but there’s nothing about traveling, except when Moore is walking or hitching a short ride. Moore does tell us about the “smell of wet prairie grass” when he comes up out of the mine where he learns to do a difficult, dangerous job.

John Rixey Moore

Moore brilliantly shows us the challenges and dangers of gold mining deep below the surface. He also explores the satisfactions that come to him, and perhaps even the healing effects of such work with mysterious, damaged men who do their work well, hidden behind masks and dark clothes all day, to emerge at night to eat, drink, and fight—sometimes to the death.

Much of this book functions as an extended meditation on the effects of war. When Moore was in the monastery, he noticed that some of the monks had faded Royal Navy tattoos. He had a flashback while working in the kitchen doing scullery work. When a stack of wooden bowls drops on the hard floor, they clatter like “automatic rifle fire,” and Moore reacts by throwing himself down and low crawling for cover.

The monks figure out that he is a recent war veteran, and he has a discussion with one of them about the war. He makes friends in the monastery, but he does not belong there.  This section of the book has dozens (perhaps hundreds) of references to Moore’s war and to war in general. Every bit of the monastery section of the book is fascinating. Even though this environment is a safe one for Moore, especially compared to the Ontario gold mine, his authorial gifts summon up many ominous scenes that hold a reader’s interest, especially when he is exploring nearby ruins and encountering ghosts.

His previous life as a soldier is also detected in the mine. Somehow his behavior in the mine environment enables another miner to discern that he is a war veteran, and he makes a friend there. This friend is mysterious but was likely a Nazi soldier in a previous life. He is well-characterized and becomes known to the reader for his oft-made comment, “You ain’ dead yet.”  

That is the major philosophical note that Moore’s sojourn in Ontario ends on.  He leaves suddenly in the middle of the day, deciding that he does not belong in the gold mine, either.

We are told that this is a “true story.” Then Moore says that characters and events are real, but that in some cases names and locations have been changed and that some events have been changed for storytelling purposes. That does not make this book a novel.  Much of it does read like a novel, with lots of dialogue. At least once, Moore states that he does not remember an exact conversation, and he then presents a summary of it, rather than trying to reconstruct the words.

I loved the book, and highly recommend it to folks who want to read a memoir of what one young man did immediately after his war in Vietnam, and I look forward to the next volume in Moore’s series. The next volume will have to be very different from the first two; Moore went on to work as an actor in TV soap operas.

John Rixey Moore is totally his own man, but occasionally this work reminded me of Tom Robbins and Carlos Castaneda. Those comparisons are intended as a great compliment.

—David Willson