Some of the Best by Thomas Calabrese

Amazon  tells us that Thomas Calabrese’s Some of the Best (Amazon Digital Services, 220 pp., $2.99, Kindle) is an “action adventure story set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War.” That is true as far as it goes— which isn’t quite far enough. The garish cover, showing a set of otherworldly staring eyes under the edge of a helmet, visually communicates elements of fantasy and science fiction.

Calabrese, a VVA member, dedicates the book to the men of Lima Company, Third Battalion, 26th Marines. He goes on to say that the book was “inspired by true events.”  It’s safe to assume that Calabrese was a member of that unit. His use of detail, rank, and other Marine Corps details is the result of more than just arduous research. The book seems to be written by someone who has been there and back.

The cast of Marine Corps characters includes Ward, Berkeley, Thornton, Mac, and the narrator, Gaetano.  A machine gunner, Gaetano is a man who envisioned himself as a Fighting Leatherneck based partly on the images of John Wayne he saw in the movie Sands of Iwo Jima, John Garfield in Pride of the Marines, and Van Heflin in Battle Cry. Gaetano idolizes another Marine he meets in Vietnam, a man he identifies as “a strange one.”  The strange one becomes the “quiet Marine.”

The narrator says of the quiet Marine: He “seems to know exactly where he is going, unlike the rest of us.”

In this book the reader must pay close attention or he’ll miss something important to know, something about the essence of the Eternal Soldier. I don’t want to spoil anything, so that’s all I’ll say about that. That quiet Marine, by the way, becomes a sergeant who leads his men, including Gaetano, through an amazing series of combat situations.

There is enough killing here to fill up a dozen other books of this sort. There also are plenty of grisly scenes of Marines violating the Geneva Convention by—among other things—whacking the heads off dead enemy soldiers.

We get some of the usual Vietnam War stuff in this novel, including mentions of ham and lima beans, immersion foot, and R&R’s. But a lot here is new and different. Calabrese uses the techniques of magical realism, fantasy, and dreamscape to take us into new realms, including poppy fields where Taliban forces are lurking.

Some of the Best reminds me of a couple of Joe Haldeman science fiction classics, including War Year, right down to the cover. That is high praise.

—David Willson

My Summer on Haight Street by Robert Rice, Jr.

Robert Rice, Jr. served in the U. S. Air Force from 1966-1970. His novel, My Summer on Haight Street (Fox Point, 296 pp., $14.99, paper), deals with the so-called 1967 Summer of Love from the perspective of a young man who has arrived in San Francisco from Milwaukee in a remodeled milk truck intent on learning the meaning of life at the center of the hippie universe.

I spent that summer in balmy South Vietnam, so I was eager to read about what I’d missed. I visited Haight Street in 1961 and again in the early 1980s. I saw nothing special either time. As a wise man once said, though, timing is everything.

Robert Ralston is the main character in this novel. We are with him as he graduates from high school and when he drives west with one of his best high school friends, Jim Gaston, who leaves the scene at a Colorado commune on the way.  Earlier we were with him as he said goodbye to another close friend, John Haus, known as “Hoss,” who joined the Army and then was sent to Vietnam.

Robert Rice in uniform

The stories in the book are presented in short, alternating chapters that focus on different characters, sort of the way Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote his amazing Tarzan novels. It is a very effective technique and held this reader’s attention as I wondered how Rice would pull all the threads together. He manages to do so.

Nothing good happens to Hoss in Vietnam. Jim Gaston is disillusioned when he realizes that a lot of the people on the commune want to get high and cavort rather than work hard to get the crops in. As for Robert, he falls into the hands of the FBI.

The book takes a serious political position; twice the author goes out of the way to have a character comment negatively on Robert McNamara, calling him an “asshole.”

The novel entertainingly takes us to a Doors concert and to a rabble-rousing communist meeting at which there are Weatherman Underground members present, including one killer bomber. When the main character looks for a room on Haight Street, he picks out the old Victorian house in which the bomber made his bombs. The landlady is a beautiful professor (and a communist) who is attracted to our hero to the extent of having sex with him in the shower. Although the main character has the same first name as the author, I don’t believe that this is a thinly fictionalized story of his time on Haight Street as a teenager. That would not be possible.

In the last couple of chapters we find out what happened to the main character in his long life when he returns to the San Francisco to accept a cheap plaque from the company he spent forty years working for selling insurance. There is a lesson there somewhere.

I enjoyed the book, but think my summer in Vietnam was just as big an adventure—plus, it it was free of the risks that Robert ran on Haight Street.

The author’s website is www.mysummeronhaightstreet.com

—David Willson

Cologne No. 10 for Men by Richard Morris

Richard Morris was a rifle platoon leader with the First Cavalry Division in Vietnam in 1967. His main character in his 2007 novel Cologne No. 10 for Men (iUniverse, 214 pp., $24.95, hardcover; $14.95, paper), Lt. Wilfred Carmenghetti, is a platoon leader of a company in the First Cav in Vietnam. I suspect that the author drew on his experiences in Vietnam to write this satirical novel, as the details are all keenly observed and perfectly represented. 

The cover blurbs compare this book and the exploits of Carmenghetti to Catch-22 and MASH. Kirkus Reviews called it “a funny and serviceable satire about the gross rationalizations that propel war and peace.” The novel is much more than serviceable. It serves the reader well on every page, oftentimes being often both funny and poetical in the same paragraph.

Richard Morris

The blurb is right about Cologne No. 10 being a Catch 22 of the Vietnam War. It could not have been written without the model that Joseph Heller provided with his World War II novel’s man character, Yossarian, who was convinced that somebody was trying to kill him. Somebody is trying to kill Lt. Carmenghetti, too—a sniper who can’t shoot straight because of his long finger nails.

Many of the subjects usually found in Vietnam War infantry novels are here: shit burning; winning hearts and minds; hippies demonstrating back home for peace; enlisting in the Army to avoid the draft; saving the world from godless communism; 90 percent of the troops being in the rear with the beer; the bloodthirsty news media; search and clear; and—of course—body counts. The good news is that Morris uses all of these oft-mentioned subjects to satirical effect and they seem fresh and new most of the time.

We also get a lot of strong and well-delineated characters, including several Vietnamese, a rarity in an American Vietnam War novel. One of the heroes of the book is an African-American point man; another is a lieutenant who is spaced out much of the time reading Finnegan’s Wake. Well, he is more of an antihero.

This is a short book. I read it pretty much in one sitting, eager to find out how Morris would pull all the plot’s loose ends together. Carmenghetti figures out a way to end all killing in Vietnam, and it involves body counts. I won’t spoil things with any more details.

There aren’t very many funny Vietnam War infantry books. This is one of them. Read it and be amazed.

The author’s website is www.RichardMorrisAuthor.wordpress.com

—David Willson

Coming Home by John Wilson

John Wilson served as a Navy journalist in Vietnam supervising radio news for the Seventh Fleet’s Saigon Detachment from during his 1968-69. tour of duty. After Vietnam, Wilson worked in law enforcement for thirty-two years. He is the author of 203 Reasons Not to Vote for Barack Obama, and is working on two more books about the Obama Administration.

Coming Home: Reflections of Vietnam (CreateSpace, 98 pages, $5.77, paper) contains forty-two rhymes and verses (the unkind might say doggerel) that deal with many of the perennial concerns of Vietnam veterans. I keep a detailed list of recurring motifs I have encountered in the hundreds of books by Vietnam veterans I have read. I wondered how long it would take me to get a reflection on “baby killer.” I did not have long to wait.

I first encountered it on the back cover. To wit: “Those who survived returned home to the sight of protests, flag burning, chants of ‘Hell no, we won’t go,’ and unfeeling questions of ‘So, how’s it feel to be a baby killer?’ The author goes on to tell us he was asked this question at his first job interview after he returned. The reader encounters this story again at the end of the book in the four-page epilogue.

Wilson leaves the question unanswered. I would have liked an answer. If I’d been asked that question in a job interview, I would have asked a question or two back. Something like: “How does it feel to send us over there to kill babies?” Or: “What part of the necessity of war to kill don’t you get?”

These sincere, heartfelt rhymes decry flag burning (I lost track of mentions at about eleven), the treasonous Jane Fonda, hippies, protesters, and no parades or appreciation from the American public. That oldest of clichés even showed up, the friendly Vietnamese barber who is a VC at night, treacherously slitting throats of those he barbered during the day.

Wilson bravely acknowledges that there were Vietnam veterans who demonstrated against the war, including members of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. But he then says that they committed slander against “our troops.” Presumably, he means against themselves, as they are one and the same.

For those who are eager to read a book of rhymes dealing with these and other familiar concerns, I suggest you read this book. If you do, you’ll be treated to rhymes such as:

This was Vietnam

And a war that we could win

But instead we chose to lose

By Presidential pen.

I am going to order Wilson’s book on Obama.

—David Willson

Russ & Daughters by Mark Russ Federman

Mark Russ Federman’s maternal grandfather Joel Russ opened Russ’s Cut Rate Appetizing store on the Lower East Side of New York a hundred years ago. Russ, who came this country at age twenty-one in 1907 from Poland, soon turned the Jewish delicatessen over to this three daughters, and the rest is New York deli history: Russ & Daughters today is still on the Lower East Side, is still billed as “appetizing” store, and still specializes in delicacies such as smoked salmon (lox) and pickled herring.

Mark Russ Federman ran the store for thirty years until he recently retired. Before that, he served for three years in the U.S. Army, including a year in the Vietnam War.

Federman describes his brief Army career in his sprightly written family history/memoir, Russ & Daughters: Reflections and Recipes from the House That Herring Built (Schocken Books, 205 pp., $25.95). He went to Alfred University in upstate New York in 1962, mainly to get far enough away from the family business to be sure he wouldn’t be asked to work there on weekends.

ROTC was mandatory for male students for two years. Federman opted for four. Most students, he says, “were glad to be done with the drills, the short haircut, and the spit-shined shoes. To this day I can’t answer the question, ‘Why did you volunteer to stay in?'”

Federman graduated in 1966, he writes, “with a bachelor’s degree in liberal arts, a commission in the United States Army as a second lieutenant, and a deferment to go to law school.” He chose Georgetown Law School over New York University’s—again, to get away from the family business. After receiving his law degree in 1969, Federman faced a two-year commitment. The Army’s “plan,” he writes, “was for me to spend one year at Fort Polk, Louisiana—famous for large mosquitoes and even larger rednecks—and then one year in Vietnam.”

Mark Federman behind the counter at Russ & Daughters

The new law school graduate managed to talk the Army into letting him serve two years at the base of his choice, followed by one year wherever the Army chose to send him. Federman wound up serving two years in San Francisco, duty he characterizes as “an office job with a dress code.” Then came orders for Vietnam. He arrived in country in 1971 and was shipped to an advisory team in “the southernmost part of the Mekong Delta,” replacing “another officer who had been blown up in his Jeep by a Claymore mine.”

His C-130 arrived “in the middle of a rice paddy in the middle of a monsoon in what looked like the end of the world,” he writes. “This was no place for a nice Jewish boy like me. After a month, I was transferred to Saigon and worked as an Army lawyer.”

As for his homecoming, Federman writes: “Like many other returning vets, when I received my discharge from the Army, I threw away my uniform. There were no brass bands welcoming us home. We were led to believe that we should be ashamed of our service, so it took years before we would admit to it.”

Federman soon married, had two children, worked as a Legal Aid lawyer and then as a prosecutor in New York City, but the pull of the family business proved to be too strong. In 1978, he chucked the law and went to work at Russ & Daughters. Today, his son and daughter are the fourth generation of the family to work behind the deli counter.

—Marc Leepson

Command and Control by Eric Schlosser

The acclaimed investigative journalist Eric Schlosser brings the Vietnam War into play several times in Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Incident, and the Illusion of Safety (Penguin, 632 pp., $36), his riveting, best-selling book that focuses on accidents and near-misses, as well as on more positive aspects of nuclear weapons technology in the U.S. since the end of World War II.

The subtitle alludes to what happened on September 18, 1980, when an unlikely accident in a Titan II missile silo near Damascus, Arkansas, came within a hair’s breath of detonating a nine-ton W-53 thermonuclear warhead. That bomb, “the most powerful weapon ever carried by an American missile,” Schlosser notes, contained “about three times the explosive force of all the bombs dropped during the Second World War, including both atomic bombs.”

Eric Schlosser

As for the Vietnam War, Schlosser gives disgraced Kennedy Administration Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara credit for his “tireless and sincere” efforts “to avoid a nuclear war” during his time in Washington, from 1961-68. He notes, though, that when he resigned in 1968 McNamara “left office as one of the most despised men in the United States” because he arrogantly dismissed the advice of the Pentagon’s military men and disastrously micromanaged the Vietnam War.

Then there was Gen. Curtis LeMay, the USAF Chief of Staff from 1961-68. LeMay, to his credit, opposed sending large numbers of combat troops to Vietnam. On the other hand, he was in love with massive air power, including nuclear weapons. LeMay’s “anger at how the Vietnam War was being fought—and his belief that both Democratic and Republican candidates Hubert H. Humphrey and Richard M. Nixon were willing to appease the Communists—persuaded him to run” as George Wallace’s vice presidential candidate in 1968.

At his press conference announcing his candidacy, LeMay “refused to rule out the use of nuclear weapons in Vietnam,” Schlosser notes. That sounded “heartless and barbaric” as “images of Vietnamese women and children burned by napalm appeared on the nightly news.”

Speaking of heartless and barbaric, Schlosser covers Richard Nixon’s “madman theory,” which he and his close adviser Henry Kissinger developed after Nixon took over the presidency in 1969. The idea was for Nixon to make it appear he was willing to use nuclear weapons in Vietnam, in the hope that the “madman” image would convince the North Vietnamese to end the fighting.

How to show the world he was a “madman”? Nixon and Kissinger came up with a plan in 1969. They ordered the Strategic Air Command to go on airborne alert for two weeks. “Ignoring the safety risks,” Schlosser notes, “B-52s loaded with hydrogen bombs took off from bases in the United States and flew circular routes along the coast of the Soviet Union. Neither the Soviets nor the Vietcong was fooled by the bluff.”

—Marc Leepson

Nightmare Range by Martin Limon

I can’t say it better than Lee Child:  “Martin Limon is one of the best military writers ever. His stories are addictive entertainment today—and valuable slices of history tomorrow.”  The two protagonists on the seventeen stories in Limon’s Nightmare Range: The Collected George Sueno and Ernie Bascom Stories (Soho Crime, 400 pp., $26.95, hardcover, $14.95, paper; $12.99, Kindle), and also of Limon’s series of gripping novels, are in their early twenties, full of juice, and self-described “rear echelon pukes” in early 1970’s Korea.

These Army CID agents are an odd couple; George was raised in a series of foster homes in East L.A. and Ernie is from an East Coast family with money and education, stuff he’ll have nothing to do with. Ernie Bascom is a Vietnam veteran who did two tours in Chu Lai where he acquired some bad habits. He has long since kicked heroin. But he’s still addicted to the U. S. Army—three hots and a cot, etc.—as well as the adrenaline rush of fighting authority and chasing bad guys. George is that rare American who can speak enough Korean to get along, and Ernie has a gift for fitting in with the dregs of humanity, no matter how low.

They are perfect for undercover operations as Army C.I.D. agents, mostly wasting their time chasing down housewives who do black market deals. But they also get the occasional murder. Limon’s peerless credentials include ten years in Korea and twenty years in the Army, as well as a singular talent for story telling, especially stories of the rough and tough, back-alley brawling type, with some occasional deep thinking and mystery solving by his super bright Agent George Sueno.

Martin Limon

I’ve loved every one of Limon’s novels and each of these short stories packs as much punch and excitement as most writers’ full-length novels.  If you are a reader who hungers for stories of an exotic and dangerous world where there are beautiful women and killers down every alley, these stories of Korea where a protracted war that has never ended continues to kill, maim, and soak up billions of dollars a year, this collection of stories is for you.

Martin Limon gets the U. S. Army right on every page: the language, the details of assignment and training, the subtle differences of rank, the drinking and gambling, all of it. If you are tired of authors who just don’t seem to know what Army life is all about, and you have yet to read the works of Limon, wait no longer. Martin Limon ranks right at the top, along with James Jones.

My favorite quote from these stories is: “In the Army, the less you know, the safer your career prospects.” You said it, Mr. Limon.

—David Willson