American Blood by John Nichols


American Blood by John Nichols (University of New Mexico Press, 390 pp., $19.95, paper), a novel of the Vietnam War, was first published in 1987. The University of New Mexico has seen fit to republish it in 2014 in a new paperback edition.

Nothing about the cover reminds me of the Vietnam War I took part in. I never saw an Army field jacket in Vietnam, for one thing. And what is that around the trooper’s neck? It looks like a wool scarf, not the small green towels that many grunts used to soak up sweat. The netting on the helmet is there to put twigs and leaves in for camouflage, but the way it’s pictured here would catch on vines and limbs when an infantryman tried to make his way through the jungle. So much for verisimilitude.

Since seventy-three-year old John Nichols did not serve in the military and I believe never has been to Vietnam, I expected his novel would display the sort of analytical purity and distance that can come from experiential innocence. Perhaps due to his exposure to the Vietnam War through the media—during the war and in the 1980s with the proliferation of movies and books related to the war—he thought he’d attained the knowledge he needed to write a novel about the war.

The first thing I noticed in American Blood was a lack of specificity of detail related to main character Michael Smith’s service in Vietnam. That would be explained by Nichols’ lack of experience with the military and with the Vietnam War. Nichols includes things that few, if any, Vietnam War novelists and memoirists would  consider.

Paragraph one, for example, includes a list of “Greatest Generation” men who have spoken of the necessity of waging war to make peace possible: Richard Nixon, William Westmoreland, Curtis Lemay, Ronald Reagan, and Douglas MacArthur.” Nichols goes on to quote Gerald Ford, “All wars are the glory and the agony of the young.”

The 1987 cover

This novel is told in the first person by an ostensible Vietnam War veteran, Michael P. Smith, who talks of “performing fellatio on the great god of Carnage, Mars.”  Is this a believable Vietnam veteran? Not hardly, to quote John Wayne.

Gerald Ford is mentioned twice in one short sequence. That’s something that’s never happened in any other Vietnam War novel I have read. Hell, Ford is never mentioned once in any Vietnam War novel I can remember.

As for John Wayne, Smith says, “Far as I was concerned, Jane Fonda and John Wayne could both go fuck themselves.”  Now that is one alienated Vietnam War veteran–but not one I am familiar with, even though I share the sentiment.

Nichols knows New Mexico and has written well about that state. So when Smith moves there to link up with his old Vietnam War buddy, Tom Carp, the book regains a bit of credibility.  But  just as I was lulled by the New Mexico writing, Smith makes a friend, Willie Pacheco, who “was court-martialed out of ‘Nam, dismissed with dishonor.”

Then Nichols has Pacheco saying he is receiving an eighty percent disability check for his war wounds. Note to Nichols: a man with a dishonorable discharge forfeits his rights to government benefits, except under extraordinary (and rare) circumstances.

“We treated the whole country like a free-fire zone,” Smith says, and then gives a list of crimes Americans perpetrated in Vietnam. The list is  headed by Agent Orange and ends with water torture. Smith talks of “terracide against their country, against their souls.”  He goes on to say that we used herbicides against the forests and we poisoned the rice paddies. It’s difficult to argue with any of this, but there was a war going on

Nichols

The rest of the book involves Michael Smith trying to fit into that small New Mexico town.  Because Tom Carp is there—a guy who raped an NVA female soldier in a Huey gunship, and then tossed her out—the reader knows that Smith’s path to a quiet small town life will be rocky.

Smith gets a job with the town newspaper, falls in love with a waitress who works in a local greasy spoon and who has a teen-aged daughter, and they seem to be making a life together.

Spoiler alert: The daughter goes out for a pack of cigarettes and is murdered. Her mother and Smith believe that Tom Carp did it, but lack evidence. They find evidence, but Carp cheats them of vengeance by committing suicide, and our loving couple is free to live happily ever after.

This book is not for the squeamish or for those who bristle at  the stereotype of the deranged killer Vietnam veteran. Michael  Smith, though, is presented as a saint–another Vietnam veteran saved by the love of a good woman.

I highly recommend this book to those who have a love of hyperbolic, phantasmagorical writing, writing that is so extreme it makes you laugh at the wrong moments. If you have trouble with discerning what is fantasy and what is reality, this book is not for you.

I do believe, though, that the Vietnam War provokes writers and artists to wrestle with fantasy and reality and it deserves extreme language. Nichols is just the man for that job.

—David Willson

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Returning Soldiers Speak edited by Leilani Squire

The prose and poetry in Returning Soldiers Speak: An Anthology of Prose and Poetry by Soldiers and Veterans (Bettie Youngs Books, 160 pp., $16.95, paper), a small anthology edited by Leilani Squire, includes testimony from veterans of World War II through the war in Iraq. Squire facilitates weekly creative writing workshops at the West Los Angeles VA Hospital and Wellness Works in Glendale.

I first looked at the book’s table of contents for clues for how it was organized, perhaps in sections pertaining  to a particular war. But the table of contents left me in the dark. Next I read Squire’s introduction, but found no clues there either. So it was only after reading the entire book that I discovered how it was organized. Returning Soldiers Speak starts with pieces related to World War II, then pieces about the Vietnam War.  And so it goes.

The World War II entries were strong and affecting, but I was primarily focused on the Vietnam War sections.  So I read John Rixey Moore’s story, excerpted from his memoir, Hostage of Paradox. This small piece of that huge book focuses on his search through a wilderness of devastation and carnage for a lost Starlight Scope.  Nobody has written better of how we laid waste to Vietnam than Moore has.

Leilani Squire

Next I read the poetry of R. S. Carlson, one of the best Vietnam War poets. He has three powerful poems in this anthology. I recommend Carlson’s book, Waiting to Say Amen. It is a fine one.

Jeffrey Alan Rochlin has four poems in this anthology. “God Bless America” is one of the most powerful poems I have read. Quoting from it does not do it justice, so I suggest buying this book so you can read it.

The book also contains one of the most honest and well-written short pieces on the Vietnam War that I’ve ever read, “Titles,” by Earl Smallwood, Jr. He was brave to write this, as it deals with a very sensitive Vietnam War issue—the fact that most of those who served in Vietnam were not grunts, nor were they Green Berets, Rangers, Marine recon, or SEALs. There were men and women, too—WACs, who spent their tour as clerk typists. How many were there? Solid statistics are elusive, but there were thousands.

As this entry shows, upwards of eighty percent of those of us who served in the Vietnam War were not in direct combat. We supported the combat troops. Smallwood does a brilliant job representing those unsung folks and describing the steps he took to ensure he would be a clerk typist in Vietnam, not a grunt.

“Dogface Soldier” by William Galloway is one of the best modern military stories I have read anywhere. This story is a model of good, clear, powerful writing—storytelling at its best. I would love to read a book written by Galloway. His story of a soldier with a bad attitude—an attitude so bad that his superiors would not ship him out to Iraq—really hit home.

I have tried to give a flavor of this anthology and how worthy it is. The high price that warriors pay for America’s commitment to war is evident on every page of this fine book. I thank those men and women for making the effort to tell their stories in this excellent, hard-hitting book.

The book’s website is http://returningsoldiersspeak.org

—David Willson

The Way of the Warrior in Business by Donald Wayne Hendon

VVA life member Donald Wayne Hendon’s The Way of the Warrior in Business: Battling for Profits, Power and Domination—and Winning Big! (Maven House Press, 216 pp., $19.95, paper), is a how-to marketing book that offers tons of useful information to sales and marketing folks—information that is framed in military terms.

Hendon—a veteran consultant who specializes in marketing, management, negotiation, and international business—says the book “is about knowing and using military strategies and tactics to increase your profits, your power, your ability to dominate your market.”

Donald Wayne Hendon

The book is based on a seminar that Hendon developed and has presented many times. It’s called “Business Warfare.”

The goal is to become what Hendon calls a “Business Warrior,” someone who wins in business adapting tactics and strategies used by famed military thinkers. That list includes the ancient Chinese sage Sun-Tzu, Mao Tse-Tung, Karl von Clausewitz, and even the former North Vietnamese leader Le Duan.

“Business,” Hendon says, “is not just similar to war–it is war!”

The author’s website is www.donaldhendon.com

—Marc Leepson

The Boys of Benning edited by Dan Telfair

The Boys of Benning (Authorhouse, 384 pp., $19.95, paper) is a tribute to fifteen 1962 Fort Benning OCS graduates. The co-editors—Dan Telfair, Zia Telfair, and Thomas B. Vaughn—say they have done more proofreading than editing. The narratives, therefore, come across like tales spun by your grandpa sitting in front of a fireplace.

This book is the result of a 2012 class reunion that took place in Columbus, Georgia. The surviving members of the class renewed a common bond and agreed to write a book together. No man is an island, and while only fifteen stories are presented in the book, many other soldiers are included.

The families of these men deserve credit for their supporting roles during family separations, training, wartime, and well into the retirement years of the former officers. In the Preface, Retired Army Col. Vaughn notes that this book was written primarily for family and friends. “If this book gains a wider audience, we will all be pleasantly surprised,” he says.

This writer thinks a pleasant surprise is in store. Simply put, The Boys of Benning-–and the boys’s families—deserve the recognition. The collection of Benning narratives reminds us that wars are fought by ordinary people who are often called to do extraordinary things. Self-sacrifice, suffering, and death paint a more realistic picture of war than Hollywood and recruiting posters do. Personal integrity is often challenged. An OCS board colonel, for example, asked Rudy Baker:  “Sergeant, are you prejudiced?”  Baker replied, “Yes sir, I guess I am to some extent, considering where I was raised, but it will never interfere in any military duties I have to perform.”

The organizational and leadership skills the men learned in their military training often carried over into their civilian careers. A strong sense of determination to succeed fostered by their OCS training,seemed to last well throughout the 50 years since their graduation. Post-military occupations include a diversity of activities, from flipping burgers at McDonald’s to teaching in college. But among all the men, there continued to be a sense of duty and response to commitments.

While all of the men describe their Vietnam War experiences, some are more graphic than others.  Retired Lt. Col. Ken Weitzel, who grew up in Berea, Ohio, fought in the 1965 Battle of Ia Drang Valley. That engagement was one of the bloodiest in the war, and included hand-to-hand combat, as well as close-in  air strikes. Every platoon leader was wounded and most of them died.

The reader might expect to hear bitterness in the tone of these veterans. It says much about the character of these men, though, that no sense of anger or long-held hostility comes through. What does come through is loyalty to family and country and appreciation for the opportunities that came their way. The bond that was formed in Georgia in ‘62 remains strong today.

Retired Col. Dallas Cox explains that bond by quoting from the diary of Mai Van Hung, a North Vietnamese soldier he never met. “How frustrating life is! To whom should I unburden myself? In whom should I confide? Who can understand my pent-up feelings? No one could possibly, except us, the soldiers!”

—Joseph Reitz

Stained With the Mud of Khe Sanh by Rodger Jacobs

Rodger Jacobs’s memoir, Stained with the Mud of Khe Sanh: A Marine’s Letters from Vietnam, 1966-1967 (McFarland, 260 pp., $29.95), is presented in the form of letters and interspersed comments written recently. It is a high-class, high-quality book, with photographs taken by Jacobs during his tour of duty. The book even has a useful index, something rare in a memoir. Warning, though: the index is not completely accurate.

I immediately checked the index for the usual things I look for in Vietnam War memoirs: Bob Hope, John Wayne, antiwar demonstrators, Joan Baez, Iwo Jima,. baby killers. None of them were in the index, but I found all of them in the book.

So the book is full of surprises. That is not a bad thing, but it does make the book more difficult to use as reference material. I did find body bags, body count, booby traps, Donut Dolly, and Bernard Fall, as well as just about every other thing a reader would want in a Marine Corps memoir.

Jacobs served in the Marines in Vietnam almost exactly the same time I served there in the U. S. Army. I therefore read his book with special interest and attention, finding some of his experiences similar to those I wrote about in REMF Diary.

But Jacobs’s entries are much better than mine. He was ninety yards away from Bernard Fall when the famed correspondent and historian was killed by a Bouncing Betty mine. When I heard the news on AFRTS that day, I was horror struck.  But imagine how Fall’s death struck Jacobs, who was right there. That is only one of hundreds of powerful and immediate sections in this fine book.

Jacobs gives us edited versions of his letters home, and he omits some entirely. He always tells the reader when he is doing this, but he does not tell us why.

Jacobs’s parents must be praised for keeping the letters and photos that his son sent home and for presenting them to him when he was past the most difficult times after coming home from the war.

Rodger Jacobs served with the First Battalion, Ninth Marines, “The Walking Dead,” during the last part of his tour in Vietnam. He was stationed first with A Company, 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Division in Da Nang.

Jacobs is a guy who avoided formal education, but he comes from a middle-class family and his father was a World War II veteran and a veterinary doctor. His book is more evidence to disprove the notion that those of us who served in Vietnam, especially in the Marines, were dead-end kids who lacked smarts.

These letters are well-written and always of interest. Jacobs minces no words about sensitive issues, such as bad commanders and their bad decisions, and the tragic decision to take away M-14s and replace them with M-16s that often jammed.

The Inspector General, for whom I worked, was involved in an investigation about how the M-16 let down the Marines. So when I read how the Marines begged for their M-14s back and were denied them, I got teary about the deaths this casued. Sad stuff, powerfully presented by Jacobs and by his commander who has a letter in the book.

It took Rodger Jacobs many years to find himself after that war. He did it through the intervention of a father who loved him, the love of a good woman, and by finding a craft, wood-turning, through which he has created many fine works of art.

Jacobs can be proud of this work of art, too, one of the finest enlisted Marine Corps memoirs I have read. It stands tall, right next that great Marine Corps officer memoir, Welcome to Vietnam, Macho, Man by Ernest Spencer. I highly recommend Stained with the Mud of Khe Sanh.

—David Willson

The Ugly Secrets of Private Roy by Edward Roy

We’re told on the title page of Edward Roy’s The Ugly Secrets of Private Roy (CreateSpace, 480 pp., $16.53, paper) that this book is about “a young man’s struggle with his loyalty to America during one of the most tumultuous periods in American history.”

The author (above) was raised in Harlem and went through Army Basic Training at Fort Dix, New Jersey, in 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis. He went on to Medical Corpsman School at Fort Sam Houston. Roy wound up serving most of his three-year Army hitch in Europe.

The title of the first chapter, “The Original Black Panther,” sets the tone of the book. One of the chapters is entitled “Blood on the Risers,” a familiar phrases in military works of that era.

I had hoped that this book would be an African American memoir or novel set in the Vietnam War.

Roy alludes to the Vietnam War in his novel, but he does not get there. The main character is out of the military before that war heats up to its hottest.

Many of the chapter headings signal the reader what the depth and coverage of this book are: “The Bitch of Buchenwald,” “A Date with Doctor Death,” “Chickens Come Home to Roost,” “Cries of Wounded Souls,” and “The American Praetorian Guard.”

Roy tells us that this novel “is based on true events and is written in the memory of millions of American soldiers of American slave decent whose unheralded sacrifices for America are buried in battlefields and in cemeteries on every continent of the globe.”

The book includes photographs which enrich the text. A couple of them make the book inappropriate for young adults.

All students of racial discord in the Army during this Cold War period in Europe will find this novel a good read.

—David Willson

Against the War by Roland Menge

Roland Menge informs us that Against the War (Amazon Digital Services, $9.99, Kindle) is a historical novel. It examines the response of the Vietnam War generation to the Vietnam War. The novel closely follows the lives of four young men who graduated from college in 1968.Two of them go off to take part in the Vietnam War; one becomes an Air Force pilot and the other an Army medic.

The other two chose to join one of the organizations set up by the government for white middle-class, educated young men to avoid military duty: VISTA. Each has a female companion or wife, all of whom are closely followed throughout this very long novel.

Menge’s novel reminds me of both Theodore Dreiser and John Dos Passos. The almost overwhelming wealth of detail, backed up by hundreds of end notes, is the Dreiser-like aspect. The use of newspapers, speeches, and magazine articles owes a debt to Dos Passos’s great USA trilogy.

Menge has composed a complex pastiche, a novelized history of the years 1968-71. Virtually everything that happened during these years is in this book, either by reference or stage center with one of the main characters in attendance,k Zelig-like. Woodstock, the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, and everything else of that magnitude is in the book. It’s a vast panorama with enormous attention to detail.

The great strength of the book resides in the sections that deal with VISTA. The conscientious objector, Tom Steward, could be the main character in a free-standing novel about him and his life as a CO.  As Menge writes: “My life of the time somewhat parallels the life of Tom Steward in the novel.” That novel could be mined from this huge book, leaving out the attempt to tell the stories of Matt Brandt, Jim Morris, and Bill O’Rourke as fully as Menge tells Steward’s story.

Menge does fine with the story of Matt Brandt, the other VISTA worker. But when he turns to the stories of Jim Morris, the Air Force pilot, and O’Rourke, the Army medic, he gets himself and the novel into trouble. I lack the space to detail all anachronisms and wrong notes in the military parts of the novel, so l will just focus on the O’Rourke character and his love interest. I could not figure out why the author did not emphasize the difficulties of their romance, one between an Army Spec4 medic and an Army nurse.

Very late in the book I figured it out. Menge was not ignoring the difficulties such a romance would pose. He was unaware of them. Very late in the story O’Rourke and his love interest, Barbara Carpenter, take R&R together. At last, Menge gives Carpenter’s rank, a Spec3.  Menge thinks an  Army nurse is an Spec3. For one thing, there was no such rank. For another, all nurses were officers. Menge also shows his ignorance of the vast gap between officer and enlisted when O’Rourke calls his lieutenant “Cubby,” and is similarly familiar with his captain.

Roland Menge

I am not saying that officer nurses never fraternized with enlisted men—and sometimes have sex with them and sometimes marry them. And some enlisted men did relate in a familiar manner with officers.  But it was unusual enough that it has to be explained and the reader has to be prepared for it. It is jarring for it to be presented as status quo, which it was not.

Because of my personal involvement with Agent Orange (I was heavily exposed to it in Vietnam and am now dealing with Multiple Myeloma), I was bothered by an anachronistic speech given by an NVA major who lectures Major Morris when he is a POW, telling him that AO is causing physical defects in children in Vietnam, and also physical problems “to your own soldiers.”

I can’t swallow that as something that happened. It is excessively didactic, as well as anachronistic.

O’Rourke dies in Vietnam and Major Morris comes home a shell of a man, unable to sexually perform with his loving and beautiful wife who made her living in Las Vegas while he was gone, showing off her body to men professionally while wearing a very brief “costume.”

Morris kills himself. Menge backs up this dire happening with plenty of research and footnotes. Yes, stuff like this happened. But did many POWs come back from the war and eventually manage to have full rich lives, including sexual ones?  Yes, they did.

Ellen, the widow of Major James Morris, gives us the agenda of this book.  “We made them die for a war we didn’t want to win,” she says. “We made them die for a war we should not have even started, a war that was a mistake from the start.”  I’m not arguing with Ellen, but many would.

A lot of folks did want to win that war, whatever winning would have looked like, and many of them helped drop millions of bombs on the people of Vietnam in the effort.  They were sincere in their effort.

Did the author “fairly represent the experience of the whole generation in how they responded to the war,” as he claims?  I did not recognize myself in the book. I did not share the assumption that if drafted I would go to Vietnam, and if I went to Vietnam, I would be at risk, most likely in the infantry. Or that it was likely I would die there. That simply never occurred to me.

Most of the people I went through Advanced Individual Training with did not go to Vietnam.  Most went to Europe or Korea. It was not inevitable that I’d go to Vietnam. I did go, and served with the Inspector General as a stenographer, typing letters and filing. I did not see a character of this ilk in this book.

Another thing that bothered me was the absence of NCOs who would have been between Spec4 O’Rourke and  Lt. “Cubby.”  And why are C-Rats called “canned food”? Why were they heated up in boiling water and not with a little piece of C-4?  Why is wafer spelled “waver?”  Why did combat pilots “kink” rather than jink?  I think that “kink” is flat out wrong, and so are many other little things in the Vietnam War section of this book.

I could have spent my time rereading Tristram Shandy or any two of James Joyce’s big books, but instead I read this one. For a man with a limited amount of time to live, I am not certain I made a smart choice.

The author’s website is: www.againstthewarnovel.com

—David Willson