A Tithe of Their Lives by Jim Bloom

Jim Bloom’s A Tithe of Their Lives: The Story of Don & Alta Warren (Tate Publishing, 206 pp., $13.99, paper) is a breezily written, religiously infused look at Don Warren— a “lanky, trumpet-playing man with a cornball sense of humor”–and his wife Alta Warren, a “sweet magnolia blossom of a lady standing at his side.” Those are the words of author Jim Bloom, who served two tours of duty in as a helicopter repairman in Vietnam where he met the Warrens.

The deeply devout Southern California couple had chucked everything and moved to South Vietnam at the height of the American presence to minister to the Christian religious needs of American troops. They soon set up their Vung Tau Christian Home, where, as Bloom puts it, “many a lonely soldier found not only a touch of home, but the love of Jesus too.” 

The couple—known to all as Mom and Pop—ministered only to the troops

Jim Bloom

at first. They later expanded their mission, though, building and operating a foster home for Amerasian children as well as a chapel where they spread the Christian gospel to Americans and Vietnamese. Mom and Pop Warren came home a few months before the communist takeover in 1975. 

The book contains many reconstructed quotes—and a good dollop of evangelizing. Bloom ends the book, for example, by saying: “Mom and Pop met Jesus by coming to the cross and finding grace. The men who came to the home in Vung Tau had their lives changed as they came to the cross. You too can find forgiveness and grace by coming to the cross. Do it today!”

—Marc Leepson

The Moral Life of Soldiers by Jerome Gold

Jerome Gold, who served in the U. S. Army Special Forces during the Vietnam War, divides his book, The Moral Life of Soldiers (Black Heron Press, 270 pp., $16.95, paper), into two sections. Part One is comprised of five short stories of varying lengths. One of them (“Paul and Sara, Their Childhood”) is long enough to be called a novella. Part Two consists of one  story, “The Moral Life of Soldiers: The American Education of a People’s Army Officer.”  It is a short novel of 132 pages. 

Fans of Gold’s work will have encountered four of these stories, and parts of the fifth, “Paul’s Father.”  Most of “The Moral Life of Soldiers” is new to this book.

The cover art and design by Bryan Sears is one of the most striking Vietnam War book covers I have seen. It features a depiction of most of the face and head of a People’s Army Officer in a helmet with a chin strap. It seems sculpted from clay. Physically, this is a beautiful book. 

It is a beautifully written book, too. It contains a lot of good stories—stories so good that they all held my attention, even though I had read some of them before, years ago. Every one of the stories in the book deals with the relations between men and between men and women. The stories show us that the price of love can be steep. I’d forgotten how often war intrudes into the lives of the characters in these stories. It was good to be reminded.

The difficult relations between races and different ethnic groups is also explored in these stories: black and white, white and Asian, white and Hispanic. None of the relationships in the book are easy.

Gold gives the great short story writer Raymond Carver a run for his money in these stories, especially in “John” and “Concealments.”  If Carver read the story, “John,” I’ll bet he’d wish he’d thought of setting a story in a gas station restroom. I know I did. The setting becomes a character in the story. It is a tour de force.

The theme that unites the stories in this book most powerfully is culture conflict—cultures in collision. People from the North of the United States move to the South where Jim Crow is still in fullest flower and little kids encounter separate drinking fountains for blacks and whites. Violence ensues.

The five stories of the first section also have characters in common, characters we become involved with, wonder about, even worry about.  That’s where Gold’s art as a storyteller pulls us into his realm.

The second half of the book is dominated by a character out of his culture.  He’s a Vietnamese man surrounded by American Special Forces soldiers. They view him as a little guy, the other, not like them. And he is not like them. But he is also like them. It’s complicated.

I chose to read the second part of this book first. The subtitle—“The American Education of a People’s Army Officer”—goes a long way toward encapsulating the story of this 132-page novella. Racism and culture conflict are at the center of it. They are also at the center of the American war in Vietnam. The Vietnamese lieutenant who is the first-person narrator and main character is underestimated and misunderstood throughout this tale, very much as we, the Americans in South Vietnam, underestimated and misunderstood our allies and the enemy.

The Vietnamese lieutenant completes Special Forces training as part of an officer exchange program between the United States and South Vietnam.  Then he serves with a Special Forces Group in Central America. “I was a special staff officer of the group for more than a year,” he says.

Jerome Gold

The first-person narrative of the story involves the reader. The intimacy of the narration makes the reader forget that this is fiction, so convincingly does the author succeed in inhabiting the consciousness of the Vietnamese lieutenant. Occasionally, I was reminded of the stories of Robert Olen Butler in A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, which also is written by an American author from inside the heads of Vietnamese characters.

But Gold is his own man, and this story is very different from Butler’s. The lieutenant (now a retired colonel covered in glory) states early on that his “purpose in composing this memoir is not, or at least not only, to explore the moral life of soldiers.”

And this novella is much more than that. We are shown in one powerful scene after another how awkward and inadequate and ill-prepared American soldiers are to deal with people in cultures other than their own.  Our narrator also explores the sorrow to be found in relationships with women.

The lieutenant is not the only character who is very well delineated in this novella. Sergeant Donaldson is the lieutenant’s closest American friend, which cuts across cultural lines and also against Army rules about officers fraternizing with non-commissioned officers. The Vietnamese lieutenant encounters suspicion and cultural barriers too great for him to find acceptance with the American officers, so he associates with the sergeants in their club, particularly Donaldson.

This is an engrossing story and also a tragic tale—of soldiers and of a tragic unnecessary war that killed millions.

No character in this novella—not even the well-drawn female ones—is more tragic than Sergeant Donaldson, who sums up the fate of the soldier as “romantic fatalism,” when he says, “I am a soldier. I go where they tell me to. “

I felt a huge connection with him when he said that. I’ve used similar words myself many times when I’ve been confronted by veterans of the American war in Vietnam who served in the infantry.

“Why did you stay safe in the rear with the beer and the gear? I would have grabbed an M-16, hitched a ride out into the boonies and got me some. It’s guys like you who lost that war for us. If you’d had any balls, you could have at least volunteered to be a helicopter door gunner.” And so on.

My answer: The Army told me what they wanted me to do and trained me to do it. Sergeant Donaldson said it well. Sometimes a soldier would rather not do what he is ordered to do. Gold’s character speaks for me better than I could for myself.

Jerome Gold’s powerful aphoristic writing made this book a great pleasure to read. My favorite nugget of wisdom was from the retired colonel. To wit: “Perhaps patriotism begins with the love for a single person.” The word “perhaps” is the crucial one. Another of my favorite lines: “…the paths our lives take are not made by us, but exist to be discovered.”

Betrayal of friendship, war as a justification for killing, and what compels a man to select women to love–women who will always betray him—are the themes at the heart of this novella.

We learn what caused the American-trained Vietnamese lieutenant to join the National Liberation Front and rise to the rank of colonel. He used his training and experience with the Americans against us. But then he left the military and became a poet. That choice made me chuckle.

On the first page of his story, he makes it clear that his mother disapproved of his pursuing the literary life of being a poet. That scene linked me emotionally to him from the get-go, as I’d had that very same conversation with my own mother.

The dialogue went something like this:

“Can poets make a living doing that? Writing poetry?”

“Not usually.”

“Well, then, why do it?”

The retired colonel tries to return to poetry “after half a lifetime away from it.” Good luck with that. There’s a whole generation of old soldiers turning to the literary life now if my huge stack of new books written by Vietnam veterans is any indication. Most try hard and fail miserably.

Jerome God is a Vietnam veteran who is a great storyteller and a brilliant writer. But don’t take my word for it. Read this book and find out for yourself.

—David Willson

Everything Happened in Vietnam by Robert Peter Thompson

Robert Peter Thompson served in the U. S. Marine Corps from 1967-69.  In Vietnam, he was in Headquarters Battery of the 1st Battalion, 13th Marines.   In his book Everything Happened in Vietnam: The Year of the Rat  (Blue Moon Publishing, 234 pp., $11.95, paper) Thompson makes it clear that he was not a grunt, and that he was a clerk corporal who went along “as a warm body and a worker bee” on patrols. He also notes that he got jungle rot on his whole body, including on his lips. 

This is a phantasmagorical book, and often takes the form of a meditation on the deaths of his friends Tater, Johnny the New Guy, and Sandy. I’ve read a lot of Marine Corps memoirs, and this is an unusual one, and one that is very readable on every page.

It’s hard to explain why I find this book so singular. The author gives us some clues on the title page. “This is not a work of fiction,” he says, “although I have written it more like a novel than a narrative.”

He goes on to call the book, “true fiction,” and warns the reader that the final chapter contains an event that isn’t  “digestible as literal truth.” Thompson is right about that, but the book is filled with these kinds of events and is the better for it.

Some scholars of literature call this sort of writing magical realism. It works well with the material in this Marine Corps memoir.

Often there are passages and pages that remind me of Ernest Spencer’s great Marine Corps memoir Welcome to Vietnam, Macho Man, and sometimes of the poetry of Bill Shields, who served as a Navy SEAL in Vietnam and wrote a great book of poetry called Drinking Gasoline in Hell.

The language of the book is a mytho-poetic style that is often more poetry than prose, and the book is arranged in short, powerful chapters. It is very novelistic, as Thompson warns us early on.

Many of his phrases were so memorable that I found myself jotting them down. That includes this one, describing the view from a helicopter: as “the emerald embrace of the vegetal world.”

My favorite chapter is “The Letter.” It packs such a powerful punch in three and one half pages that I recommend buying the book just for that chapter alone. It is worth it.

His chapter “Mamason” contains the best description I have read about experiencing Agent Orange spraying on the ground. To wit: “I was walking through some bush that was black and withered and the only way that I can describe it is that it was slimy, like a million snails had oozed across every leaf of every bush and turned them black and shriveled in their wake and the slime was getting all over me.”

A bit later Thompson says, “This must be Agent Orange.” He goes on to offer a defense of the use of the stuff, as the defoliation aspect of it enabled him to see a landmine before he stepped on it. Agent Orange saved his legs and his life.

Some of the iconic recurring motifs of Marine Corps books appear in this book—in powerful guise. One of the VC sappers found dead in the camp wires, for example, is the Vietnamese barber who cut the author’s hair. At one point Thompson asks, “What would John Wayne have done?”  He says that it wasn’t like a movie in Vietnam, but more like a dream. Probably a bad dream.

The author keeps a “short time dream girl calendar” that he consults only when alone, and says is almost a “sacred object.” He heats C-Rats with C4. And survives doing it.

This fine book is dedicated to the author’s friend, Sandy, who died in Vietnam, leaving a beautiful “18 year old fiancée.”  Thompson shows us Sandy as a wraith at the end of the book. But our author is one of the lucky ones who goes home as living flesh and blood.  As he tells us, he “snuck back into the world. Like a thief.”

If you are up for reading another Marine Corps Vietnam War memoir, this is a fine one. It is short and sweet and can be read in one or, at most, two sittings. I read it in a great rush, eager for what was coming next.  You will too.

—David Willson

Don’t Mean Nothin: Vietnam War Stories by John Mort

John Mort served with the First Cavalry Division as a point man and RTO in Vietnam in 1969-70. Five of the dozen stories in his latest book, Don’t Mean Nothin: Vietnam War Stories (Stockton Lake, 246 pp., $11.95, paper) previously appeared in his book TANKS. Three of them appeared in The Walnut King.  No evidence is provided that the two stories, “A Man’s World” or “Where They Have to Take You In,” were previously published. 

I enjoyed all the stories, most of which I’d read in Mort’s earlier books as I’m a big John Mort fan and have been since I encountered TANKS, which was published in 1985. In this collection, I most enjoyed Mort’s Afterword, “My Vietnam,” a twenty-plus page essay all but buried at the end of the book.

The essay starts with a great sentence that I identify with: “I wrote about half of these stories in the mid-1980’s, during a period when my dad died, my marriage ended, and I was hounded out of a job.” As a matter of fact, my father died and a marriage ended then, too. I was not hounded out of my job until 2000. Maybe my skin is thicker than Mort’s. Or maybe the hounds were bigger and had sharper teeth where he was working.

I loved Mort’s stories of that period so much that I tried to locate Mort so I could call him and talk to him about them. I remember finding his work phone number and calling and being told in a snotty tone that he no longer worked there. Sad stuff. But for me, John Mort had attained that tiny sweet spot of publishing a work of excellent Vietnam War fiction.

Mort advises the reader that he pulled together the best of his stories for this volume and carefully revised them, intending to improve them. I dug out my collection of John Mort books (I have them all) and painstakingly made comparisons. It pleases me to say that his stories were great to begin with and they are served up even better in this handsome collection.

The second part of the fascinating “My Vietnam” essay gives the nonfiction background to Mort’s stories. They are dark, powerful stories. Mort wanted to be a writer, which he sees as an explanation for his participation in the Vietnam War.

“It was a bad war,” he says, “but it was the biggest story of my generation.”  I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Note should be taken of Mort’s title. He chooses to pay homage with the title to Susan O’Neill’s classic 2001 collection, Don’t Mean Nothing: Short Stories of Vietnam, which is based on O’Neill’s tour of duty as an Army nurse. Of course, titles cannot be copyrighted and Mort does remove the final “n” from “nothing” so O’Neill and Mort have slightly different titles.

I enjoyed Mort’s reference to Fort Lewis, the chilly air, and the fun of buying a six pack of Olympia beer in Roy, Washington, near Fort Lewis, to drink with his buddies when he was supposed to be suffering on a night field exercise. That’s how Mort showed his mastery of “escape and evasion.”  He nailed the Pacific Northwest in that story.

Later he says, “it seemed no one cared about us.” He’s right. Those who were cared about (Dick Cheney, George W. Bush, John Ashcroft, Bill Clinton, et al.) were at home or in Europe. That was no accident. Those of us in Vietnam were cannon fodder to one degree or another. ”It’ll make a man out of you,” I was told by my old Boy Scout Master who had never served in the military.

Mort writes about shit-burning detail, a chore he, “almost grew to like,”  he says. I agree. I liked it for the same reasons he did. You could take your time and nobody pestered you while you stirred the burning excrement. It gave you time to contemplate the Human Condition.

“Vietnam vets were all but criminalized in the public imagination, fed by the media.” Mort says a mouthful here. I remember countless episodes of the TV show “Streets San Francisco,” in which the plots were driven by the pursuit of yet one more crazy Vietnam War veteran, with cops played by Michael Douglas, who was the right age for Vietnam, and his mentor Karl Malden, who was not.

“A Man’s World” is a great story of a woman in Vietnam, a Red Cross worker—Arlene, a pretty girl. That might be my favorite story of the bunch. But it’s hard to pick.

An interesting and compelling undercurrent of religion runs through many of these stories. That undercurrent is expressed most forcefully in “Called of God,” and “Where They Have to Take You In.” These are great, dark stories.

I was pleased that the famed C-rat, ham and limas, got name-checked in this book. Mort’s reference to them made me laugh out loud. His character said they tasted just like a dish his mom used to make. Mine, too. That’s no compliment to my mom.

Mort got “a deep appreciation for simple pleasures” from his time at war.  He’s a wise man, a philosophical one, and a fine short story writer. Buy and read his dozen stories. You’ll be using your time and money wisely.

—David Willson

Blowtorch by Frank Leith Jones

Robert Komer earned the colorful nickname “Blowtorch” for his decidedly unwarm personality. Komer was “prickly, irascible, and abrasive, but always in command, always willing to speak without reservation, his thoughts expressed directly, interlaced with curses and profanity,” Frank Leith Jones writes in his admiring biography, Blowtorch: Robert Komer, Vietnam and American Cold War Strategy (Naval Institute Press, 416 pp., $52.95).

Although he had a long career as a high-level national security expert under Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, Carter, and Reagan, the book includes an in-depth look at Komer’s work in Vietnam, primarily as the head of the Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support program. He arrived in Vietnam in May of 1967 to put the program in motion. As CORDS director, Komer, a CIA man who held ambassadorial rank, was in charge of a diverse counterinsurgency program operated by the military, the State Department, AID, and the CIA.

And then there is the controversial Phoenix Program, which Komer ran. That effort sent thousands of military-civilian pacification teams into every district of South Vietnam with orders to root out the Viet Cong. Phoenix led to the deaths of some 20,000 Viet Cong and suspected Viet Cong after Komer left Vietnam in November of 1968 to become U.S. Ambassador to Turkey.

Robert “Blowtorch” Komer

Jones’s book covers Komer’s early life, goes on to look at his work as a National Security Council staff member during the Kennedy administration, and then bores in on his impact on the Vietnam War, where he was a staunch exponent of “hearts and minds” pacification programs. Komer later worked with Carter administration Secretary of Defense Harold Brown, specializing on re-energizing NATO, as well as with the Reagan administration.

—Marc Leepson

Fielder’s Choice by J. Mark Hart

No information is given in Fielder’s Choice (TradeWorks, 470 pp., $16, paper) indicating that author J. Mark Hart has military experience. The biographical information on the back cover notes that he “grew up in Birmingham during the Civil Rights and Vietnam eras dramatized in this novel.”  We are also told he is an avid baseball fan. The handsome cover features a photograph of a red-stitched baseball with a black peace symbol in the upper left corner. 

Given these clues and the title it was my conclusion this is a baseball book. I grew up in Yakima, Washington, in the 1950’s, just a couple of blocks away from the stadium where the Yakima Bears played every spring and summer. But I was not a baseball fan then and am not now. I found this book interesting and a page turner, anyhow, due to the considerable story-telling skills of the author.

The first word of this book is “baseball.” I will quote the sentence: “Baseball might save my life—it just might—if I didn’t get my young white skinny ass shipped off to Vietnam, that is.”  Next, we learn that it is the spring of 1969.

I immediately began worrying that this book would turn out to be a Vietnam War novel written by an author who never set foot in Vietnam. I worry too much. The narrative voice of this book, from the very first page, reminded me of Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye, which I liked.

By page two, the novel was a “world of work novel,” specifically the world of Birmingham’s steel mills. I love a well-written novel about men working, and the steel mill pages are powerful and evocative, right down to the detail of the men plugging their nostrils with Vaseline to catch some of the black smoke inhaled, since they didn’t wear protective masks. Then you’ll blow out “a bunch of black snot,” just like we did in Yakima during the fruit tree smudging season.

The author does equally well with the concrete details of high school baseball, family life during the last 1960’s, church attendance, and antiwar activities. He also gets the painful details of young love right.

The plot and suspense of this fine novel of life in Birmingham, Alabama, during this time period for a talented baseball player in a barely integrated high school hinge on not knowing if our hero, Brad Williams, gets a college baseball scholarship or if he gets a bad lottery number and is destined for Vietnam.

Much of the plot is driven by the fact that he has lost his shortstop position to the only black player on the team, Robbie Jones. There is a lot of racial discord and racial name-calling in this book, and I believe it is accurate to the time and place. The baseball coach is portrayed as hitting the players and using abusive language to inspire them to work harder. He is not portrayed as a racist, though. The teams they play and the spectators from other towns do not deal well with Brad’s team having a black star shortstop.

J. Mark Hart

I enjoyed the accurate portrayal of mothers and fathers of that era. The mothers are concerned with what the neighbors think, and Brad’s father is deftly shown to be a man of his times. He was a “serious, unpredictable, irritable, middle-aged-man who worked overtime hours” so that his wife did not have to work, and he could be the sole breadwinner of the family.

The Vietnam War is present in every chapter and just about on every page of the novel. The draft lottery, something I never really gave any thought to as I got my draft notice in 1965, is much on high school kids’ minds. Young people who are perceived as hippies are also characterized by some of the folks in the novel (not the author) as communists.

When antiwar protesters appear late in the novel, they are presented as thinking it was a nifty idea to obtain sheep’s blood to throw on soldiers returning from Vietnam. Our hero and his girlfriend are outraged at that, as I was.

Of course, I found myself wondering if arrival logistics actually allowed for such a thing to be done. I hope not. Brad Williams’s closest hippie friend goes off to Woodstock near the end of this book. Brad never hears from him again.

I enjoyed this novel. I will not spoil the story by giving out information about whether Brad gets a good or bad lottery number, or if he slides into college on a baseball scholarship.

I’ll leave that up to your imagination. If you are a lover of baseball books, this book is for you.

—David Willson

Warrior, Wayfarer: A Novel by Robert P. Miller

Robert P. Miller served in Vietnam during the later stages of the war as a combat engineer officer. Before his time in the Army, he’d graduated from the University of Wisconsin. His novel, Warrior, Wayfarer (CreateSpace, 362 pp., $11.95, paper)  follows a member of the Combat Engineers, Lieutenant Press Patrick, who’d entered the Army as a draftee, but who chose to become an officer by going through Officer Candidate School.

I found this novel totally engrossing from the first chapter. Even the discussions of Beethoven and Seneca held my interest. Press Patrick’s journey as a draftee into the Army leads to his tour of duty in Vietnam at Ben Than Combat Base, the home of the 101st Airborne Division and Echo Company of the 99th Engineer Battalion.

The Army puts this political science graduate into an engineering job. That’s how the Army often works. Patrick is charged with road building. His commanding officer warns him, “You can get it from a mine, booby trap, ambush or mortar.” Not to mention multitudes of poisonous snakes.

Miller is both a gifted storyteller and a fine writer. So this reader was held rapt as Lt. Patrick transforms himself into a combat engineer. His girlfriend’s brother had died at Khe Sanh in 1968, so it is only fitting that he ends up with the assignment to build a road through the jungles up the hills and across streams to Khe Sanh. Much is made of the red laterite soil that permeates Patrick’s pores. They seep out blood red when he showers in Hawaii with his girlfriend. She isn’t stupid and figures out that he is not stationed in a safe base camp as he has told her.

I was totally engrossed by the story of Press Patrick transforming himself into a more-than-competent road engineer. Miller works his writerly magic to make every page of this book compelling reading, even though I knew from the beginning that the Army would abandon the road once it was built.

How could I know that?  Because I am a Vietnam veteran, and that’s what we did in Vietnam. Too often, we expended huge resources of men and equipment to build a road or take a hill. Then, once men had suffered and died to accomplish the task set for them by the leadership on high, we walked away.

Robert P. Miller

This fine book reminded me of two classic novels of men and machines, or at least of men and construction: The Sand Pebbles by Richard McKenna and The Bridge on the River Kwai by Pierre Boule.  Both were bestsellers and were made into classic movies. That hasn’t happened with Warrior, Wayfarer, and probably won’t.

Why not?  It’s not because Warrior, Wayfarer is inferior in any way. It’s because publishers don’t believe there is a mass audience interested in reading about an Army engineer accomplishing heroic things building a road in 1970’s Vietnam when the war was winding down,and so-called Vietnamization was at full throttle.

It’s not right and it is not fair, as a movie made from Warrior, Wayfarer with Ryan Gosling in the starring role as Lieutenant Press Patrick would be one hell of an interesting and entertaining flick.

I recommend that you buy and read this novel if you are hungry for the sort of book that used to be written and published by major publishers, but is no longer. It’s filled with strong, interesting characters and it hits many of the usual hot spots of the Vietnam War: Bob Hope, Bernard Fall, baby killer epithets, Agent Orange, C-rats, you name it.

You won’t be disappointed if you spend a few hours with this book.

—David Willson