War: The Eighty Greatest Esquire Stories of All Time

War: The Eighty Greatest Esquire Stories of All Time (Byliner, $3.99) is a digital book that, as the title says, contains a huge collection of essays about war that appeared in the pages of Esquire magazine.

Those essays include three seminal pieces of writing about the Vietnam War:

John Sack’s 33,000-word “M” (the longest article ever in the magazine), from the October 1966 issue, in which the author wrote about an Army company that he followed from basic training at Fort Dix to combat in Vietnam.

Michael Herr’s “Hell Sucks,” a new journalism piece of reporting about the situation in Vietnam after the 1968 Tet Offensive, which formed the foundation for Herr’s famed novelistic book of war reporting, Dispatches.

Marine Vietnam veteran William Broyles Jr.’s 1984 essay, “Why Men Love War,” in which he writes:

“Ask me, ask any man who has been to war about his experience, and chances are we’ll say we don’t want to talk about it—implying that we hated it so much, it was so terrible, that we would rather leave it buried. And it is no mystery why men hate war. War is ugly, horrible, evil, and it is reasonable for men to hate all that.

“But I believe that most men who have been to war would have to admit, if they are honest, that somewhere inside themselves they loved it too, loved it as much as anything that has happened to them before or since. And how do you explain that to your wife, your children, your parents, or your friends?”

—Marc Leepson

The Last Man Home by Susan Preiss Martin

Susan Preiss Martin’s The Last Man Home (CreateSpace, 94 pp., $11.95, paper) deals with the mysteries surrounding the death of a Special Forces soldier, Staff Sergeant Robert F. Preiss, Jr. The author is SSGT Preiss’s sister. Susan Preiss Martin tells us that she is not an author or a writer, but a story teller. She does have a story to tell. 

Bobby Preiss was deployed to South Vietnam for his first tour of duty December 1966. His sister tells us that Preiss was a high school dropout and a small town troublemaker who was given that classic option by a judge: jail or the Army.  In those days the Army needed cannon fodder, so Preiss went into the Army. Preiss did well in the Army, responding particularly well to the training and the discipline.

He didn’t do so well when he returned to civilian life, so he re-upped without losing his rank because he had been out of the Army less than a year. The last letter Bobby Preiss wrote to his mother was received on May 9, 1970.  In it, Bobby Preiss reminded his mother he had just six months left to serve in South Vietnam. He had just returned from an R&R in Australia. 

“He wished his mother a Happy Mother’s Day and that was that,” Martin writes. 

The family wanted to know more about had happened to Bobby Preiss. His status had started out as MIA, but it was then changed to KIA. The author says, “We knew we would never find out the truth.”

General Westmoreland took time from his tennis game to write the Preiss family. “Perhaps you may find some measure of comfort in knowing that he served his nation with courage and honor at a time of great need,” the General wrote. 

Both of SSGT Preiss’ parents died without knowing the details of their son’s death. His mother died of a broken heart, Martin says, half thinking that her boy was wandering lost in Southeast Asia. His father died bitter and angry about the lies the Army told him.

Bobby Priess’s siblings kept up the fight to learn the truth about his death, and also demanded that the government retrieve Bobby’s remains for proper burial in the U.S. I won’t ruin the suspense by spelling out what was discovered about SSGT Preiss’s death in Laos as a leader of a MACV-SOC Long Range Recon Team, but I will say that I was satisfied with this story when Preiss received a hero’s burial at Arlington National Cemetery. This happened in 1998, twenty-eight years after his death.

The author comments at length about how different Bobby’s welcome home in 1998 was than it would have been in 1970. Different and better. He did get parades and ceremonies and honors bestowed, but the thought looms large for me that Bobby was dead.

Martin discusses how returning Vietnam War veterans were treated badly and that had Bobby returned alive in 1970 he, “would have been treated like a leper.”  She goes on to say that all of the men who returned from Vietnam “were treated like lepers. Yes, it was horrible how Vietnam veterans were treated then and still today.”

I believe that Martin has gone a bit overboard here. But I agree with her statement that: “those who have not died since from medical issues are still fighting for justice and health benefits.”

As Martin implies, SSGT Preiss, her beloved brother, avoided all the problems that a returning Vietnam veteran encountered in the 1970’s, perhaps even PTSD, Agent Orange issues, and other related problems.  We’ll never know. Bobby got no chance.

Martin tells us that her brother “floundered” after his discharge in October 1968.  As she puts it: “I don’t think he brought his heart home.”

While home, he discovered that some of his childhood friends had “got married, some went to jail, and some died.” Bobby missed the discipline, respect, and purpose of being a Green Beret. So he opted to return to Vietnam, knowing there was the possibility of dying in action. And it came to pass.

This book includes many photographs of Bobby Preiss, his medals, and his family. The book is a monument to him. Read this book for an inside look and a griping story of how a soldier’s decision to return to war had a huge impact on everyone in his family. The survivors now have closure and a feeling of peace and reconciliation.

If you wish to read an exciting book about what Green Berets such Bobby Preiss did in Vietnam and Laos, a good one to read is John Rixey Moore’s Hostage of Paradox. Moore beat the odds and came back home and wrote a great memoir. Read it in Bobby’s memory.

 —David Willson

Minimal Damage by H. Lee Barnes

Minimal Damage: Stories of Veterans, a collection of short fiction by H. Lee Barnes which we reviewed in the March/April 2008 printed edition of The VVA Veteran, is now out in paperback (University of Nevada Press, 200 pp., $19).

Here are excerpts from our review from 2008:

Back in 1995 I was blown away by Gunning for Ho, a collection of seven very, very good short stories, most of them set in Vietnam during the war, by H. Lee Barnes. All of them featured precisely drawn, realistic, yet off-kilter main characters—the hallmark of good short fiction. The plots took off in different directions in clever, sometimes surreal, ways. In one story, American troops and their NVA adversaries took a long time out from the war to play a baseball game.

Minimal Damage is another brilliant, beautifully rendered collection of short fiction. Each piece (there are six short stories and a terrific novella) centers on a veteran of an American war. This time Barnes—a former Green Beret who served in Vietnam and who teaches English and creative writing at the Community College of Southern Nevada—spreads the wealth. Three of the main characters, including the guy at the center of the gripping novella “Snake Boy,” are Vietnam War or era veterans; the others fought in Panama, the first Gulf War, Grenada, and Somalia.

H. Lee Barnes

Aside from a compelling main character, each of the stories has an intriguing plot that hums along rapidly. “Punishment,” which centers on a veteran of the fighting in Panama and the hours leading to his execution on death row, is an especially taut, tense tale.

“Private,” which takes place at basic training at Fort Polk, manages to shine fresh light on all the crazy-DI tales you’ve ever heard (and experienced). “Snake Boy” kept me on edge to the last sentence.

My highest compliment: I didn’t want any of the stories to end.

The author’s website is www.hleebarnes.net

—Marc Leepson

Reining In the State by Katherine A. Scott

Katherine A. Scott’s Reining In the State: Civil Society and Congress in the Vietnam and Watergate Eras (University Press of Kansas, 248 pp., $34.95), is a well-written look at a group of good-government types who used “judicial, legislative  and civic oversight of the executive branch” to bring to light and challenge Presidents Johnson and Nixon’s expansion of the government’s domestic surveillance during the Vietnam War era. 

Scott, the U.S. Senate’s Assistant Historian, focuses on a handful of politicians, journalists, and military men who worked within the system to throw light on these illegal infringements of individual private rights and to “rein in the state.” That group includes  Washington Post editor Russ Wiggins, Rep. John Moss and Sen. Sam Ervin (of Watergate fame), Army Captain Christopher Pyle, American Civil Liberties Union Director Aryeh Neier, and Morton Halperin, a former National Security Council staffer in the Nixon White House.

Scott calls these men “unsung heroes who battled to reinvigorate judicial, legislative, and civic oversight of the executive branch to prevent abuses by government agencies in the future.”

—Marc Leepson