An American Soldier in Vietnam By Steven Alexander

I had to really dig to figure out if An American Soldier in Vietnam (Page Publishing, 202 pp., $14.95, paper) was a memoir or a novel. In the Afterward, author Steven Alexander tells us that the book is a “fictionalized story based on my life experience.”

Alexander goes on to say didn’t keep a “dairy” in Vietnam, so he couldn’t write a memoir. I think he means a “diary.” He further confesses that he “embellished some of the battle scenes.” His afterward goes on to rant about the “hatred and disgust” Vietnam veterans received when they returned from the war. I have read this in many books by Vietnam veterans, which makes me feel special as I never encountered any hatred or disgust.

After his Afterward, Alexander presents a section called “Four Interesting Myths vs. the Facts About the Vietnam War.”  He tells us that “America did not lose the war. South Vietnam lost the war.”  That seems like a quibble to me, but I know it does not to Alexander. He also states that America has only gone to war to fight evil, and that America has never gone to war for territory or earthly goods.

The main character in this short novel is Ray Anderson. We meet him on the first page on the day after Thanksgiving 1968 in Chu Lai at the headquarters of the Americal Division. Our hero gets on a C-130 to fly to Duc Pho, headquarters of the 11th Light Infantry.

The first dramatic incident involves Anderson being treated “with disgust and rudeness” by an overweight, sloppy, rear echelon soldier, a supply sergeant who had “been with local prostitutes” and carried venereal diseases that couldn’t be cured. This scared Anderson “half to death” even though his morals prevented him from consorting with prostitutes. He seems to think this REMF might somehow transmit a disease to him through osmosis. I served in the rear in Vietnam, and even though I was very thin and not sloppy, I am thin-skinned about this portrayal of a REMF. 

The cover blurb tells us that “Anderson embarked upon a new life, one in which he must fight to preserve the freedom of world, by attempting to stop the tyrannical aggression the North Vietnamese inflict upon its Southern brothers and sisters.”  That is one explanation of what we were doing in Vietnam.

Anderson is a member of a 105 mm howitzer crew in Vietnam. Alexander does a fine job describing what that consisted of. Anderson spends a lot of time giving soldiers haircuts due to his barbering skills. He is rewarded by having electricity installed in his living quarters. He almost gets a job at China Beach as a lifeguard, but his captain refuses to sign the order.This results in much bitterness. Due to a ruptured ear drum, he gets a better deal than many draftees. He could have been a rifleman in the infantry. Light artillery is a big step up from that.

Anderson gets through his tour of duty by keeping a Bible close and by not using foul language. The only bad word I remember encountering in this book is his reference to “shit burning.”  Many of the usual things and people are name checked: Bob Hope, John Wayne, Donut Dollies, Jane Fonda, fragging, Agent Orange, rats, C-4 for cooking, baby killer, being spat upon, marijuana (smoked only by REMF’s).

Anderson and the author, Alexander, came home from the war very angry, and the author seems angry still. One of his favorite interests, he tell us, is “intense patriotism.” The author states that he thinks that all peace demonstrators were “cowards and communist sympathizers and are traitors to our country.”

Strong words. If you agree with these sentiments, this book might be the one for you.

—David Willson

Blood on the Risers by Michael O’Shea

Michael O’Shea, the author of Blood on the Risers: A Novel of Conflict and Survival in Special Forces During the Vietnam War, (AuthorHouse, 500 pp., $35.99, hardcover; $26.95, paper), left college and enlisted in the Army in 1966. He volunteered for  Vietnam in 1969 and went on to serve as the commanding officer of a Special Forces A Team on the Cambodian border. At twenty-one, O’Shea was the youngest captain to command a Special Forces A-Team in Vietnam.

This long novel is more than half over before the main character, Michael Shanahan, reaches Vietnam. The first half of the book is an engrossing, dynamite story about a way of life as alien to me as life on Mars. It starts in Texas on the edge of the King Ranch with a couple of teenage boys, high school jocks, on private property poaching deer and driving souped-up cars to elude the game warden. This part of the book seems right out of Robert Mitchum’s Thunder Road.

I figured the two boys, of whom Mike is one, would grow up to be career criminals. I was wrong. They become heroes in Vietnam. The boys I knew in Yakima, Washington, in the 1950s who led this sort of life did end up in prison, or they died young in car accidents.

The author is not kidding when he tells us that the book is based on a true story. Mike Shananhan’s story closely follows the early boyhood and war exploits of Michael O’Shea.

There is a lot to like about this book, and also a lot to loathe. The punctuation is a major stumbling block. O’Shea, for one thing, uses the ellipsis instead of comas, semi-colons or dashes, all honorable methods of punctuating a sentence. He doesn’t seem to know that the ellipsis is used to indicate that something has been left out.

O’Shea (above) uses as many as ten sets of ellipsis in a single sentence and as many as fifty on one page. There are thousands of them in the book, and every time I encountered one, it made me pause.

What had the author left out?  Nothing—he just doesn’t know the fundamentals of writing. And he didn’t hire an editor who could help with that and with the many, many word-usage errors in the book.

The author finds room to mention Bob Hope, draft card burnings, baby killing, and John Wayne so many times I lost track, but General Westmoreland didn’t make an appearance. If you didn’t know better, you’d think that Bob Hope and John Wayne played an important part in the Vietnam War.

And then there’s Jane Fonda. It seems that Vietnam veterans who have the time, money, and motivation to write and self-publish books about their time in the military—O’Shea included—have forgotten that Jane Fonda was a popular pin-up in Vietnam for American soldiers in Vietnam.

Near the very end of the book, when Mike Shanahan is returning home from his tour, he indulges in a rant about “Hanoi Jane Fonda.”  Jane Fonda’s ill-advised trip to Hanoi, for which she has apologized endlessly, was in the future, 1972. I believe that Mike Shanahan was home well before that date. This error illustrates the lack of fact checking that mars this book.

The end of the book is dominated by such false memories.  At this time, Jane Fonda did not hold “the admiration and support of the sheep back home.” Far from it. Fonda got little attention for her supposedly being a traitor by going to Hanoi before the war was over—something a good number of other Americans did as well—until several years after the war. Nobody thought of Jane Fonda as “Hanoi Jane” in 1970 or 1971.

If you want to read a Vietnam Special Forces book, please consult my earlier reviews of such books—books that are well punctuated and not marred by false memories.

—David Willson

Proud to Be, edited by Susan Swartwout

Proud to Be: Writing by American Warriors, Vol. 2  (Southeast Missouri State University Press, 320 pp., $15, paper) is the second volume of essays, short stories, interviews, poems and photographs by veterans, active-duty military personnel, and their families edited by Susan Swartwout. As with the first volume, which was published in 2013, this book is a co-production of the SE Missouri State University Press, the Missouri Humanities Council, and the Warriors Arts Alliance.

I was a reference librarian for more than thirty years, and I view this anthology as a reference book that is very hard to use. I expended a lot of time trying to figure out the organization of this book, but I failed to find one. The book seems random to me: an interesting jumble of writing about several of America’s wars: World War II, the Vietnam War, and our wars in the Middle East, including in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

Some authors are represented by more than one piece, but are not grouped together. The book has no index to enable a curious reader to locate stories by a particular author, or pieces dealing with a particular war. To find all the entries dealing with the Vietnam War, my area of focus, I had to read the entire book, page by page. That was instructive, but very time consuming. 

There are several of those new-fangled stories that are well written and engrossing and emotionally involving and then quit right before the main conflict is resolved so the reader never knows what happened and remains forever annoyed at being left hanging.  A superb example is “Acts of Contribution” by Kathleen Toomey. I was not surprised when I read her biography and discovered that she has been published  “in a number of literary journals.”  

On the other hand, there are several stories of the classic sort, such as “Escort” by Jarrod L. Taylor. His is the best in the book—everything a reader hopes for in a fine story. I’d love to read an entire book by Taylor. He knows how to say a lot with a few words and to fully enable the reader to visualize scenes. 

“The Colonel’s Brain” by William Childress is another story that is worth the price of the anthology.  “Making Jello” by Marcia Upchurch is a short story that packs a wallop—a must-read story.

I read John Mort’s story, “Pitchblend,” first, as I am a big fan of his work. I was not disappointed. I found a lot to identify with in that story.  

There is poetry in the book, too. It’s hit and miss, but I loved the poem by Fred Rosenblum so much that I immediately ordered two copies of his book, Hollow Tin Jingles. It is a great-looking volume, and I am sure I will love it. It is a limited printing, so order your copies fast before they are gone.  

There are also many photographs in this anthology, and I am sure they are fine ones, but the reproduction is so bad that it is impossible to tell. Nevertheless, I highly recommend purchasing this large book that is chock full of great stuff to read. There is enough good stuff that you can skip over the dull, offensive, or just-plain-crazy material.  

I wish I’d skipped over the rant that suggests that Jane Fonda was a traitor who should be put in a tiger cage and tortured. Jane Fonda was the most popular pinup in Vietnam in 1968-69 due to her poster from Barbarella. Read “Hanoi Jane” for a full explication of why some Vietnam veterans vilify Jane Fonda, but don’t have a single bad word for LBJ, Nixon, McNamara, or Westmoreland, the people responsible for the war and millions of war casualties. 

—David Willson

Team 19 in Vietnam by David Millie

Team 19 in Vietnam: An Australian Soldier at War  (University Press of Kentucky, 411 pp., $40) is an Australian army officer’s (and pilot’s) account of his year (1968-69) of service in the Vietnam War in Quang Tri Province in the northeast corner of the former South Vietnam near the DMZ.

Millie was an advisor to ARVN troops, and effectively became a liaison to American army units as well. A point he makes repeatedly is that the ARVNs could be an effective force, despite what American grunts thought. Difficulties in communications often were the true reasons for ARVN ineffectiveness when working alongside Americans.

Millie tells of many ARVN engagements in his detached, after-action style. The South Vietnamese troops come across as heroic, unwilling, and foolhardy—much as any group of conscripts.

Conscription was universal for males who were of age, but often you could get out of it by joining local militia or police forces. Also, if ARVN soldiers lacked motivation, it may have been because of the corrupt bureaucracy that ran things. For one thing, they often served without pay. Their pay went to officials in their villages or provinces who were supposed to pass it on, and often didn’t. As a writer, Millie is pretty dry, reflexively insisting on the passive voice. Here he is describing his return to Quang Tri Province in 2012: “The tour objectives were centered on friendship, pilgrimage, and veteran curiosity.” This, in fact, was an exhilarating personal trip, not a cautious diplomatic probe. It’s as though Millie can’t break the habit of impersonal after-action reports.

                                           David Millie

Millie’s comments on the legacy of the Vietnam War are conventional, but deeply felt, and contain some striking insights. He feels that the struggle between communism and democracy in Vietnam took all the oxygen out of fighting elsewhere in Southeast Asia, allowing fledgling democracies to stabilize and put down their own insurgencies. Presumably, he’s referring to Thailand or the Phillipine, or even Indonesia. It’s an interesting thought.

David Millie emerges as a devout Catholic, a dedicated family man, and a principled officer who believed in his mission. As a commander, he sometimes had to discipline fellow Aussies with drinking problems, or those who had broken down under the stress. Millie’s remedies went by the book, but also were thoughtful and compassionate. He seems like a commander any soldier would be glad to have. In the 1970s, Millie became active in the settlement of Southeast Asian refugees to Canberra, of which he is justifiably proud.

In the end, despite his dry style, Millie has given us penetrating insights into the ARVN side of the Vietnam War, and into Australia’s unique contribution.

—John Mort

Family, Faith, Land and Mysticism by Robert Osenenko

Robert Osenenko’s Family, Faith, Land and Mysticism: The Spiritual Traveler Myth (Outskirts Press, 232 pp., $27.95, hardcover; $13.95, paper) deals with his hometown of Toms River, New Jersey, and its Pinelands Reserve. The book also contains details about his family members and his service in the Vietnam War.

Osenenko joined the U.S. Army in 1967, and had Basic Training at Fort Jackson and Quartermaster AIT at Fort Lee in Virginia. His next assignment was a brief one at the Army Radar and Air Defense Command at Travis Air Force Base in California. He went on to serve a June 1968-July 1969 tour of duty in Vietnam with Company A of the 2/27th Infantry (the Wolfhounds) of the 25th Infantry Division.

“Grandma Anna said openly, ‘Vietnam changed you,'” Osenenko writes, describing his homecoming. “No doubt it had, and I was not foolish enough to deny it. It certainly made me think deeper, and count the consequences for my behavior. Secondly, I came out with no bitterness toward the army, the country, people, or myself.”

The author’s website is http://dragonflyandthepinesnake.com/orders.html

—Marc Leepson

Hal Moore by Mike Guardia

Mike Guardia’s Hal Moore: A Soldier Once… And Always (Casemate, 229 pp., $32.95) is a concise, admiring biography of retired Army Lt. Gen. Harold “Hal” Moore. That is at should be, as there is a lot to admire about Hal Moore, who is best known for his outstanding leadership during the 1965 Battle of the Ia Drang Valley in Vietnam.

Author Mike Guardia, an active-duty Army officer and author (American Guerrilla, Shadow Commander), concentrates on Moore’s military career, beginning with his graduation from West Point in 1945 and highlighting his infantry service in the Korean War and in Vietnam.

Moore’s Vietnam War story has been told before, primarily in the two books he wrote with former Vietnam War correspondent Joe Galloway: the classic memoir We Were Soldiers Once… and Young, (1992), and We Are Soldiers Still (2008), the sequel that tells the back story of the battle and a 1993 TV documentary that brought Moore and Galloway back to the battlefield.

Mike Guardia

As we wrote in our review in print edition of The VVA Veteran: “Told in Moore’s strong first-person voice, this readable narrative goes over the basics of the November 1965 actions at Landing Zones X-Ray and Albany, the fiercest components of the 34-day Battle of the Ia Drang Valley.

“Moore, then a lieutenant colonel, showed exceptional courage and leadership as he saved his under-strength battalion from certain obliteration under a withering attack from a 2,000-man North Vietnamese Army regiment. Galloway, a UPI reporter, had a front-row seat for the vicious fight that lasted almost three days.

“In their new book, Moore and Galloway present revealing portraits of two former enemy commanders, Gens. Nguyen Huu An and Chu Huy Man, whom the authors met—and bonded with—in Vietnam nearly three decades after the battle.

“This book (along with its prequel and the Randall Wallace Hollywood film We Were Soldiers) proves that Hal Moore is an exceptionally thoughtful, compassionate, intelligent, and courageous leader of men. He was one of a handful of Army officers who studied the history of the Vietnam wars before he arrived. Since the war ended, he has been a strong voice for reconciliation and for honoring the sacrifices of the men with whom he served.”

Guardia leans heavily on the two books in his account of Moore’s life, along with interviews he conducted with his ninety-year-old subject, with members of his family, and with veterans who served with him.

—Marc Leepson

An Unsung Soldier by Robert S. Jordan

“It is a point of principle and a point of honor with me—I have never turned down an assignment, and I have never asked to be relieved of any task.” That 1974 statement by Gen. Andrew J. Goodpaster could well be the theme of Robert S. Jordan’s An Unsung Soldier: The Life of Andrew J. Goodpaster (Naval Institute Press, 240 pp., $40.95).

Retired USAF Lieut. General Brent Scowcroft opens this biography of Gen. Goodpaster (1915-2005) with a forward that provides a brief, admiring summary of the general’s life. A list of agencies and their abbreviations is provided for ease of reference while reading the text.  A suggestion: Paperclip this page for referencing as the book is filled with pages of well-organized and well-documented information.

An Unsung Soldier is not a book to be read quickly with a light touch; the wisdom within merits time for reflection. Throughout his narrative, Jordan—a former professor at the U.S. Naval War College who also has lectured at the Army and Air War Colleges and the British Imperial Defence College—includes many worthy Goodpaster quotes. They provide deeper insight into the mind and character of his subject, who was widely viewed as one of the brightest men in America.

Perhaps it was his childhood responsibilities growing up on a farm that developed his life-long sense of responsibility. Goodpaster was the first West Point senior to attend a Council on World Affairs Conference where his brilliance and self-confidence began to be noticed.

Germany invaded Poland shortly after Lt. Goodpaster graduated from West Point. After going on active duty, he advanced quickly through the ranks. In 1943, Lt. Col. Goodpaster fought in the Italian campaign with the 1108th Engineer Combat Group and was wounded by a shell fragment .

Following WWII, Gen. Goodpaster was instrumental in developing the nation’s first national defense program. He became a working partner with Gens. Eisenhower and Marshall in dealing with the Soviet Union in the fifties. Goodpaster also had a vital role in developing NATO.

When Pres. Eisenhower suffered a stroke in 1957, he began to rely more and more on Goodpaster. Jordan suggests that one of the reasons these two men worked so well together was because they had similar thought and work processes.

Gen. Goodpaster was directly involved in the Vietnam War for barely a year, but during that time he became familiar with the confusion and indecisiveness at the highest levels of American policy making. When Gen. Fred Weyand asked Gen. Creighton Abrams, “What’s the mission?” Abrams replied, “Who the hell knows?”

Gen. Goodpaster accompanied  Assistant Secretary of State Averill Harriman to the Paris Peace Talks in 1968. Contrary to President Johnson’s directive to negotiate but not compromise, Harriman decided to try to end the war with the best deal possible. Gen. Goodpaster made it clear that that wasn’t his understanding of his commander-in-chief’s orders. In the ensuing argument Goodpaster had the last word.

On 1 July, 1969, Goodpaster became NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander. He brought a unique quality to the group as he had been one of its original founders. One of his greatest challenges was to keep the United States committed to the organization. U.S. forces in Europe had been reduced by 25 percent between from 1963-69. The war in Vietnam and social unrest at home also contributed to the lack of support to NATO.

Working closely with Presidents Nixon and Ford, Goodpaster encouraged the Europeans to do more in NATO while America was doing less. Jordan writes that much of Goodpaster’s success at NATO was due to his temperament, his understanding of politics, and his conviction that NATO was going to succeed.

Goodpaster was contemplating retirement when in 1974 he learned that his assignment would be terminated, and Gen. Alexander Haig would take over at NATO. The White House put out the word that Gen. Goodpaster had requested retirement, which definitely was not the case. He did not attend the change-of-command ceremony.

The final thoughts about the general in the concluding pages are worth the price of the book.

—Joseph Reitz