Love Poems for Cannibals by Raymond Keen

Raymond Keen spent three years as a Navy Clinical Psychologist, with a year in Vietnam from July 1967 to July 1968. Love Poems for Cannibals (CreateSpace, 166 pp., $9.95, paper) is Keen’s first book of poetry, although he has published poetry in twenty-two literary journals. The book consists of about 140 pages of poetry with a few prose pieces at the end, about ten pages worth.

The book is arranged in eight sections. The first, “The Vietnam War is not dinky dau. (1967-1968),” was of the most interest to me as a Vietnam War veteran and author. There are a half dozen poems presented in this thirteen-page section. I loved them all.

The section starts off with a long poem, “Dream Frag of Robert Strange McNamara.”  It’s a dream come true for this veteran, a poem in which McNamara deservedly gets fragged for his part in designing and prolonging the Vietnam War, which resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands. Of course, McNamara lived a long, healthy life, and cashed in on the war with a best-selling and self-serving book of too-late apologies.

The poem begins powerfully, with the lines, “McNamara, with his shit-eating grin/McNamara shit out of luck,” and gets better from there. Keen displays a “Keen” facility with Vietnam War jargon, used to great effect. In a short space we encounter: wasted, R&R, ticket-punching, Donut Dollies, rack, FUBAR, skull fuck, absofuckinglutely, and Dogpatch.

The other poems in this strong section also demonstrate Keen’s poetic and effective use of language. These poems take place at 1st Med Battalion, some of them in the neuro-psychiatry hut, in Danang.  My favorite in this section is “Grabass With China Beachball Here In A Sitdown: On Point With The REMF.”  Because I am the author of the novel, REMF Diary, this poem held a lot of interest for me, and I read it with great care.

It starts off this way:We got it covered/Here in the rear/Because we’re in the place you want to be./Here in the rear we are AKA/The Rear Echelon/Mother fuckers./Do you have a problem with that, Bushman?

Raymond Keen

Actually, the grunts did have a problem with that, as attested to by rants in hundreds of memoirs and novels written by combat troops about REMFs and their entitlements: good food, sex, beach volleyball, air-conditioning, regular mail, clean sheets, etc. Keen addresses that and more in this great three-page poem.

I enjoyed the poems in the other sections of this book, too, often sensing the influence of the Vietnam War in the words and tone of poems such as “Still Life with Shit in a Wine Glass,” “Irony Is The Cross Upon Which Meaning Is Crucified,” “In the Ronald Reagan Lounge,” and “Why Aren’t More People Screaming in the Streets, America?”

I highly recommend this beautifully written and edited book.

The cover features a watercolor by Francesco Clemente called “Fire.” Keen chose this amazing painting of a clown-like human face for the cover, he tells us, because “it embodies the mysterious luminosity, exquisite vulnerability, and a bit of the enigma of being human. I only hope that some of these poems come close to doing that.”

They do come close, and for that reason, I want you to buy and read this fine book of poems.

The author’s website is raymondkeen.com/the-book

—David Willson

Seabee Book: Southeast Asia: Building the Bases by Richard Tregaskis

Richard Tregaskis is best known as the pioneering war correspondent who wrote the famed book, Guadalcanal Diary, a blend of memoir and war reporting based on his time as an on-the-ground correspondent in the long, pivotal, bloody, 1942-43 World War II battle in the South Pacific. Tregaskis, who died in 1973, went on to cover other World War II action, as well as the American wars in Korea and Vietnam. In Vietnam Diary (1963), Tregaskis emulated his earlier work with his take on the early years of the Vietnam War, again featuring hard-hitting, first-person, in-the-trenches war reporting.

Both of Tregaskis’s “diary” books may be classified as patriotic accounts that emphasize positive aspects of the U.S. war efforts. That also is the case of his other, very different, Vietnam War book, the awkwardly titled Seabee Book: Southeast Asia: Building the Bases: The History of Construction in Southeast Asia, which was published in 1975 by the U.S. Government Printing Office, and now is available in a new paperback edition from CreateSpace (484 pp., $24.95).

In it, Tregaskis presents a detailed account of what Edward J. Sheridan, the former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, calls in the book’s introduction, “the largest single effort in military construction history.” That would be the building by the famed U.S. Navy Seabees of a massive number of ports, airfields, bridges, hospitals, storage facilities, and other projects in Vietnam from 1962-72 during the American war. It’s all here, complete with plenty of photos, maps and charts. 

Here’s one example of Tregaskis’s writing style and his slant on the Seabees: “For an expression of the ‘Can Do’ spirit of Seabees in the most primitive circumstances and against enemy opposition, the construction of Quang Tri airfield in this period [late 1966] was outstanding. This ‘landlord’ or ‘Public Works’ job which included transportation, maintenance and utilities, was handled by the Navy’s Headquarters Support Activity (HEDSUPPACT). The HSA Public Works Department was comprised of Seabees and Vietnamese civilians with a small U.S. civilian group.”

—Marc Leepson

Richard Tregaskis in Vietnam

Invisible Armies by Max Boot

Not surprisingly, one of the guerrilla wars that the military historian Max Boot looks at in his massive new book, Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present (W. W. Norton, 750 pp., $35), is the war waged by the Vietnamese communists against South Vietnam and the Americans in Vietnam.

Boot—who, among other things is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and The Los Angeles Times—has two short chapters on the Vietnam War, proceeded by one that looks at the legendary CIA man Edward Lansdale and his work helping fend off a communist insurgency in the Philippines right after War War II.

Boot follows Lansdale to Vietnam, where he arrived in 1954 at the birth of the nation of South Vietnam. Lansdale came with orders from Secretary of State John Foster Dulles to “do what you did in the Philippines.” Lansdale and his small team of CIA agents went about doing just that by playing a big role in installing South Vietnam’s first premier, Ngo Dinh Diem, in office.

Lansdale and his team went on to convince nearly a million Catholics in northern Vietnam to emigrate to the South before the border closed and the communists took over in North Vietnam. Diem then won a rigged election with Lansdale’s help and went on to crush rival South Vietnamese religious/political sects.

Max Boot

Boot goes over Lansdale’s hearts and mind theories in the book. Boot’s main argument is that one big reason the U.S. didn’t prevail in Vietnam was that the military (and war managers in Washington) didn’t listen to Lansdale—the man who was the inspiration for two famed fictional characters: the naive CIA man Pyle in Graham Greene’s Quiet American, and the effective Col. Hillendale in Eugene Burdick and William Lederer’s The Ugly American.

Boot describes as “promising” the few counterinsurgency programs that the Americans did implement in Vietnam: the Combined Action Program, the Civilian Irregular Defense Groups, and the Long-Range Reconnaissance Patrols, better known by their acronyms, CAP, CIDG and LRRPs. He also praises the controversial Phoenix Program, which critics have described as little more than a series of assassinations of anyone who spoke out against the South Vietnamese government. Boot simply says that  Phoenix “sent American and South Vietnamese intelligence operatives to root out Vietcong cadres.”

All of those programs, Boot says, “produced more enemy kills and fewer casualties among American forces and Vietnamese civilians than more-conventional approaches.”

Boot concludes that, despite American missteps, South Vietnam “might have survived if the United States had been willing to keep its troops in place, as it had done after the Korean War.” Why didn’t we? Boot blames “public opposition to the war and the Watergate scandal, which destroyed Nixon’s popularity” after 1972, which resulted in Congress cutting off virtually all aid to South Vietnam in 1974. That argument is, to say the least, open to question.

The author’s website is www.maxboot.net

—Marc Leepson

The Eve of Destruction by James T. Patterson

Lyndon Johnson wanted to fight the war on poverty, not the war in Vietnam. But LBJ, who took office in November of 1963 following the assassination of John F. Kennedy, felt he needed to show his willingness to get tough against the Vietnamese communists to win the 1964 election against Sen. Barry Goldwater, a Vietnam War hawk.

But months after his landslide win, Johnson wound up rapidly escalating the war for another reason: As the other side stepped up things militarily, he didn’t want to be the president who presided over an American military defeat in South Vietnam.

From “the beginning of his presidency he made it clear to top advisers that he would not be the president to ‘lose’ Vietnam,” the eminent historian James T. Patterson writes in The Eve of Destruction: How 1965 Transformed America (Basic Books, 310 pp., $28.99), a well-researched, well-written examination of the pivotal year of 1965. “In 1964, he raised America’s troop strength in South Vietnam from sixteen thousand to twenty-three thousand. From [the February 7, 1965, VC attack on] Pleiku onward, he chose to escalate, and in July 1965 he put in his ‘stack.’ From then on, it was Johnson’s war.”

The big buildup that LBJ announced on July 28, 1965, Patterson says, signaled a moment in time “when some of the most divisive characteristics of that turbulent era—social fragmentation and political polarization—became all but inevitable.”

Patterson, an emeritus history professor at Brown University, also covers other important aspects of the time, including the Civil Rights movement, and Johnson’s Great Society programs such as Medicare and Medicaid. But the Vietnam War remains a central issue of 1965, a year that Patterson persuasively argues, saw the birth of what we now refer to as “The Sixties.”

—Marc Leepson

Loved Honor More by Sharon Wildwind

Sharon Wildwind’s Loved Honor More (Five Star, 394 pp., $25.95) is the latest in a series of her Elizabeth Pepperhawk/Avivah Rosen mysteries. The author, who spent a year in Vietnam as an officer in the U. S. Army Nurse Corps, says she “can still remember exactly where she was the day that Saigon fell.” That’s not unusual for a Vietnam veteran. 

The title offers no clues that this is a Vietnam War-related mystery, but the colorful cover features dog tags, a blue and red edged airmail envelope, and a photograph of a helicopter against an orange sky. Those were enough clues for this student of paperback book covers to indicate that there is a story inside that deals with the Vietnam War.

Loved Honor More is a historical mystery. It takes place during the final weeks preceding the Fall of Saigon. The author tells us this is the final book in this series.

The heading of Chapter One informs us that it is “Sunday, 4 May 1975, 2200 hours, the Homestead, Madison County, North Carolina.” The first sentence begins: “Ex-Army nurse Elizabeth Pepperhawk burrowed deeper under her quilt.” The scene is set and the main character has been presented.

The author in her Army days

Soon the book is off and running at full speed. I have not read the previous books in this series, which puts me at a disadvantage. But I found the book immediately engrossing even though the characters were new to me, which is a tribute to the skill of the author.

In the first two chapters, ex-nurse Elizabeth Pepperhawk (Pepper) is informed of the murder by knife of her long-time lover, Colonel Darby Baxter, in a hallway in the U.S. Embassy in Saigon as that city is about to fall to the communists.  Also, Pepperhawk is blackmailed by her alleged friend, a Miss Fillmore, for $3 million for possession of Colonel Baxter’s  blue-grey eyed, infant daughter.

This reader was sucked in. Who killed Colonel Baxter and why? Who is the mother of the infant daughter and where is she?

Soon Miss Fillmore is found dead in Pepperhawk’s clinic. Pepper and her two friends, Avivah Rosen and Benny Kirkpatrick, decide that Colonel Baxter lied about the baby. He “loved honor more,” as the title says. But then, who are the baby’s parents?

Pepper and her two friends begin to try to solve the mystery closest to them: Who murdered Miss Fillmore?  Soon the Vietnam War invades Pepper’s homestead in North Carolina in the form of Vietnamese refugees whose presence upsets the local community of veterans.

I’ll tell no more of this story to avoid acting as a spoiler. I will say that I enjoyed the book, and will order the other books in the series that I somehow missed. I recommend that fans of Vietnam War-related mysteries make a point to get acquainted with this series featuring the intrepid and persistent Elizabeth Pepperhawk.

The author’s website is www.wildwindauthor.com

—David Willson

Time to Go Home by Thomas L. Trumble

 

Thomas L. Trumble served in Vietnam in 1970 as a cavalry adviser with the Vietnamese Armor School. I am guessing that his rank and duties were very close to those of John Bernard Rowe, the hero of his book, Time to Go Home (Acorn Book Services, 274 pp., $14.99, paper).  Rowe is a captain, and works closely with the Vietnamese and their armored units.

Trumble does not say straight out whether this book is fiction or nonfiction. Right before Chapter One there is a quotation from John Bernard Rowe: “I’m giving you a war story and they’re always true and false at the same time.” The reader is also told that the book “is based in part on actual events, persons, and companies. However, numerous of the characters, incidents, and companies portrayed and the names used herein are fictitious.” 

While I was reading the book, it seemed like a novel written in a traditional diary format, a format that I am over-familiar with. The book begins on November 5, 1982, at 2000 hours in Washington, D. C., at the Vietnam Veteran’ Memorial, The Wall. Ghosts are gathering and conversing in an old Army tent. Before long, the author has presented ghost characters who refer to The Wall as “the black gash,” and name-check several familiar Vietnam War icons: REMFs, Rambo, and John Wayne.

The movie, Sands of Iwo Jima, gets a mention, which warmed my heart as it is one of only three movies that I saw in a theater with my father. The other two were High Noon and Bridge on the River Quai. Two out of three are war movies, which makes sense considering my father was a Marine veteran of World War II who fought at Iwo.

Holden Caulfield, Bridgett Bardot, and Ozzie and Harriet pop up on one page early on in the book. Jackie Kennedy and Joan Baez appear on the next page. This is a rich, popular culture text, laden with icons.

The book is organized in short sections and chapters, which are dated and which go back and forth in time and space. Two examples: chapters titled “Paris, France, 16 December 1969, 1800 hours, page 49,” and  “Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial, Washington D.C. 6 November 1982, 0300 hours.”  This reader got into the rhythm of it soon enough, although at first it was a challenge, especially when I realized that the entries pertaining to the time Captain Rowe spent in Vietnam are scrambled chronologically.

The result of this literary choice is that we read about Rowe’s broken ankle long before we read about the helicopter crash and the night he spent in a ditch full of cold water that resulted in the death of his comrades and his serious injuries. I get that the author made a conscious choice to do this, so as to juxtapose events artificially and also to keep the reader guessing about what had happened and when. But I admit that I would have preferred an old-fashioned, straight-ahead calendar order. Or maybe not.

I did love this book, and it held my interest throughout. Captain Rowe is the novel’s main character and hero of the book, if the novel has one. His point-of-view dominates and he steers the stories, which come thick and fast: Army personnel killed by snapped rusty cables, jeep accidents resulting in broken necks, and of course, the helicopter that was shot down.

The first two deaths mentioned happen in Germany and Korea. The point is clearly made that plenty of deaths took place during the Vietnam War period that did not happen in Vietnam.

Time To Go Home has great stuff about tanks in the Vietnam War. My favorite scene involves the driving of a thirty ton M-41 tank across a bridge “that swayed back and forth like a porch swing in a thunderstorm.”  Which reminds me—the writing is colorful and vigorous throughout the book.

Thomas L. Trumble

I caution the prospective reader, though, to pay careful attention to the dates and places in the headings. If you do that, you’ll understand and enjoy this complex book about tanks and men in the Vietnam War.

I encountered a couple of things I have not spotted in any of the other hundreds of Vietnam War books I have read.  There is a detailed mention of the C-ration combo of lima beans and ham, with a nice recipe given, but there is no mention of the C-Rat’s folksy nickname.  I was surprised.  Also at one point a character is referred to as a “John Wayne REMF” and the tag is not a complimentary one.

McNamara’s Project 100,000 produces a minor character in the novel, a ghost who dies soon after arriving in Vietnam. The historian Bernard Fall is included in a complimentary way, and John Kerry is included in a negative way. The novelists Graham Green and Andre Malraux also make appearances.

We see a braless hippy girl spit on our hero when he returns home, and a minor character is heard to say, “We were winning when I left” Vietnam. The only mention of Jane Fonda is a positive one.

The goal of winning the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese is mentioned repeatedly in the novel, and the point-of-view of the book is that if that was the goal—along with nation building—we went about it all wrong. The point is made more than once that our strategy was more likely to turn the peasants into VC than into folks yearning to be American-style citizens.

I’ve read a half dozen Vietnam War books that feature tanks and the men who were responsible for them, and this is by far my favorite. I highly recommend it to those with an interest in that subject. It’s also that rare Vietnam War book that makes a serious effort to present Vietnamese characters individually and to humanize them. Captain Rowe comments that without knowing Vietnamese, that goal was a hopeless one.  But the author does try to do that.

—David Willson

Wild Blue Yonder by Jack B. Rochester

Jack B. Rochester served in the U. S. Air Force from 1965-69. He has a Master’s Degree in Comparative Literature. Wild Blue Yonder: A Novel of the 1960s (CreateSpace, 296 pp., $11.95, paper) is his first novel, and it is a hum-dinger. 

Rochester, the author of eleven non-fiction books, tells us that all that matters is the story, and he has a point. He also cautions his readers against thinking that the main character is based on him and the experiences are his. I have strong suspicions, though, that the hero, Nathaniel Hawthorne Flowers, is a near facsimile of the author.

When I looked at the cover and the title, I assumed I was about to read a novel about a jet pilot. I also assumed that the jet-like blotch on the blue cover was a jet plane. Maybe it is, but upon scrutiny, the blotch can be seen to have a peace symbol on it. I didn’t want to read a novel about a jet pilot, so I was happy I had allowed myself to be misled.

Flowers joins the Air Force for four years to avoid getting drafted and serving two years in the Army. His recruiter promises him that he’ll be a jet pilot and Flowers believes him, for reasons beyond me.

We follow him through basic at Lackland, to his advanced training, and then to California where he works in a locked room doing a top-secret code job. The emphasis of the story is on the music and the culture of the time and the area. The place is San Francisco, where Flowers is stationed  and the time is the mid sixties.

At that time I was stationed at Fort Ben Harrison in Indiana. The old cliché—night and day differences—leaps to mind. Maybe he did the right thing to believe the recruiter’s lies.

Flowers gets to see the Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, and just about every other band of that era, and he’s exposed to drugs and free love, which he soaks up like a sponge. He does LSD and hangs out in the Haight Ashbury with his Air Force pals. There are lots of pretty girls, at least one of whom falls madly in love with him.

Jack B. Rochester

At this point in the book, this reader believed that the author told the truth—that this book is not his personal story. It would be too good to be true for such fantastic things to happen to one guy.

Flowers gets overlooked for a deserved promotion and writes a letter to his congressman, which makes his commanding officer really angry. But Flowers gets the promotion. At that point, I assumed the book was headed toward Vietnam and that our hero would get sent there as a reward for his letter writing.

It’s on page 100 before every single troop in Nate’s squadron gets orders for “Southeast Asia.” More than one third of the book has elapsed. Only Nate doesn’t get sent to S.E. Asia. That was a shocker to me.

The commanding officer is afraid that if that was done to Nate, he would use his connections to bring down more horror on the officer. So Nate is sent to Germany, where he becomes a reporter for Stars and Stripes. But none of the dozens of articles he writes ever gets printed.

This is frustrating for Nate, but it’s better than being in Southeast Asia. Nate discovers that he’s lost his Top Secret clearance due to his letter, so he serves out his enlistment at a dreary little base called Kleinelachen.

Nate gets called both a baby killer and a hippie when he returns home. He is castigated by a businessman for wearing his well-earned fatigue jacket, and he’s spat at as a baby killer. And the closest he got to Vietnam was Germany.

If you are looking for a subversive novel about the Vietnam War era Air Force, you can do no better than this one. I won’t act as spoiler, but some fantastical events transpire in Europe for Flowers and his buddies, which not only didn’t happen to the author, but likely never happened to anyone in the Air Force.

The novel is great and good fun and quite a philosophical journey through European music, literature and culture. I highly recommend it.

The author’s website is wildblueyondernovel.com

—David Willson