Hearts, Minds, and Coffee by Kent Hinckley

Kent Hinckley served in Army Intelligence in Vietnam. His novel, Hearts, Minds, and Coffee: A Vietnam Peace Odyssey (Reyall, 282 pp., $14.95, paper), begins in January of 1970. The author informs us that “the time period corresponds to my tour in Nha Trang as a lieutenant.”

Hinckley was against the war, but served anyhow—like many of us. He salutes all the men and women who answered their country’s call.

The novel’s protagonist, Slater Marshall, is an officer who participated in ROTC purely as a way to pay for his college education.  “After being in Vietnam for forty minutes, he concluded he should have escaped to Canada as many draft-dodgers had done.”

Slater is targeted as a dissident during his advanced infantry training. When he arrives in Vietnam, he and four others of his sort are made Special Forces, according “to the needs of the service,” and placed in the middle of “Indian Country” to keep their ears open. Nothing they learn, however, is ever listened to.

They are given M-14s with only blanks to shoot, no live ammunition. But they make do and forge powerful bonds with each other and with the inhabitants of the village of Phan Loc.

You may have already discerned that this is not a typical Vietnam War infantry novel. It is a fable, a satire, and a dark comedy. Often it evoked for me Asa Baber’s classic Vietnam War-themed novel, Land of a Million Elephants, and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22.

Slater’s hero is anti-Nazi German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Slater adopts Bonfoeffer’s philosophy that when you are thrust into adversity, you accept it and take action—even if it places your life in jeopardy.

The coffee of the title relates to a coffee plantation that is the dream of the local VC leader. Slater and his men make it possible for him and the community to realize that dream.That is one way they wage peace—through economic development.

Kent Hinckley

This satire touches virtually all the bases that we expect to be touched in such a novel, and it is the stronger for it.  We hear the Animals sing “We Gotta Get Out of This Place.” We learn that the ARVN are not well-trained or well-equipped to fight. We find out about hearts and minds that must be won; shit is burned; and the heat and stink of Vietnam is evoked.

Agent Orange and napalm rain down. John Wayne is mentioned,. and the men are told to “saddle up and move out.” Ham and lima beans are eaten, with gusto.

When they rotate out of Vietnam, they are called “baby-killers” in the airports—in this case at Sea-Tac, the very airport I flew into when I returned home. The soldiers are described honestly. To wit:  “They believed in their government, Jesus, and apple pie. They thought they made America free.”  I remember being one of those soldiers.

Hinckley has written a great Vietnam War novel. I salute him and the characters of his book who jumped off the page and into my mind. I wish I had encountered them when I was in Vietnam, but my tour was real life, not a fantasy.

The author’s website is www.kenthinckley.com

—David Willson

Never Too Late by Ralph T. Jones

COver333333333333333333How does one classify a book that begins with an author’s note that says: “The events I have written about of my tours are those I have control of and may not be in the order they happened. My mind is full of many partial and unclear actions, some still may only be cruel images of my imagination”?

That’s what Ralph T. Jones writes in Never Too Late (Red Feather Publishing, 401 pp., paper). Jones, a VVA life member, also says that he chose to use nicknames or fictional names for the people in the book. The protagonist is seventeen-year-old Tim. With his mother’s consent, Tim joins the Army, trains as an infantryman, and arrives in Phouc Vinh, South Vietnam, in October 1965.

Jones takes the reader on a step-by-step journey of Tim’s experiences. It includes firefights, search-and-destroy sweeps, the death of a best friend, and bouts of drunkenness. Along the way, the reader sees the death of Tim’s youth and the birth of his disillusionment. All of this leaves him torn between fear and love of combat.

Tim returns to the United States, marries, and becomes a father. But he cannot find meaning for his existence. He rejoins the Army and in 1970 returns to Vietnam as a UH-1H crew chief and gunner. Tim’s two Vietnam tours fill the first half of the book.

The book’s second half describes Tim’s post-war life. Intent on making a career of the Army, Tim suffers a catastrophic car wreck. He spends much of three years in the hospital, which leads to his involuntary retirement. Left in  a state of physical and psychological pain, the rage within him builds up so much that he turns into a truly hateful man.

From this point, Jones takes the reader on a second journey that follows Tim through a battle to regain his humanity. This journey is as equally enlightening as the first.

Jones tells Tim’s story in a sort of chronological shorthand: Dense but brief paragraphs with few transitions comprise each chapter. At times, the book reads like a movie script. Jones first published Never Too Late in 1990, and this edition is a revision of the original.

—Henry Zeybel

Defend and Befriend by John Southard

In Defend and Befriend: The U.S. Marine Corps and Combined Action Platoons in Vietnam (University Press of Kentucky, 232 pp., $40, hardcover) John Southard brings a scholarly perspective to a Vietnam War Marine counterinsurgency program that hitherto has been discussed primarily by Marine Corps historians.

Combined Action Platoons, or CAPS, consisted of a Marine squad, a Navy Corpsman, and an equivalent contingent of Popular Force (PF) fighters from the village in which the CAP operated. CAPs might field fifteen-to-twenty-five men, but also could call upon Army fire support.

They were visible troops, and vulnerable. To be effective, they had to operate in areas under at least nominal South Vietnamese government control. CAP commanders were often twenty-year-old lance corporals with no language training. But over time, the training improved. At its peak, there were 114 CAP units providing a kinder, gentler imprint than Marines were historically known for.

The Marines arrived in South Vietnam in 1965 as an amphibious force designed, a la World War II, for assaults. General Lewis Walt, the commander, soon divined that that was the wrong strategy for the jungles, swamps, and mountains of I Corps. By trial and error, he and his field officers devised the CAP concept to defend villages near the coast while fighting units penetrated the Highlands.

Walt’s Marines were under the overall command of General William Westmoreland, whom Walt and other Marine officers felt did not fully endorse the CAP philosophy. Westmoreland believed that the way to win the war was through attrition—that is, the body count. Corollary to that belief, tieing down Marines in CAPs meant that fewer infantrymen were available to fight in the Highlands.

After reaching 114 villages, the CAP program stalled. In the book’s cogent conclusion, Southard quotes the Marine historian Curtis Williamson, who estimates that placing a CAP in every South Vietnamese village would have required 32,000 Marines (or soldiers), and 70,000 PF personnel. Williamson feels that with such an approach the communists would not have defeated South Vietnam.

Southard, a visiting lecturer in the History Department at Georgia State University,.is dry and somewhat repetitive. But his account is valuable for reporting on a program not everyone is aware of. With the long view of history, the CAP program was at least a qualified success, and it has contributed to military thinking both in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

– John Mort

Red Stick One by Kenneth Kirkeby

Kenneth Kirkeby served in the Marine Corps as an intelligence specialist in the Vietnam War. He draws from that experience in Red Stick (K. Kirkeby, 272 pp., $15.95, paper), a fine thriller/adventure novel.

The book opens in April of 1970 on “the plateau” in Vietnam. I love precise writing in fiction and this novel is written with precision on every page. Whether it’s a recently shot deer being skinned out or coffee being made, the reader is involved in all the details and they are rendered in exact and descriptive language.

We are introduced to Staff Sergeant Virgil Cleary on the first page. In the course of this book we learn a lot about him. As the novel opens Virgil Cleary is a lance corporal in his fifth month in country, and the point man and leader of a five-man recon team.

I was immediately involved and eager to learn the outcome of the team’s struggle to reach the plateau amid rock slides and deep finger ridges. Things do not go well, but it is not until deep into the novel that we revisit this episode in Virgil’s life. Before that, we spend a lot of time with Virgil as he evades the enemy and eventually is rescued.

Virgil is a man of few words, (he is half Creek Indian and was raised in isolation by his grandmother), but occasionally offers profound statements. One example: “War is mostly about having friends and losing them.”

After we hear about Virgil’s boyhood and his adoption (of sorts) by a foster father, the novel becomes an on-the-road story novel in which Virgil journeys across the country (mostly hitchhiking) from the east to west pursuing the killer of his foster father. He has many adventures. We encounter a Vietnam veteran who sells guns in Butte, Montana, and tells Virgil that “guys at the airport are spitting at guys like you and me when we are rotated back.”

This rousing thriller/adventure novel of pursuit has a hero who is easy to root for. I know I did. He’s a little guy, an underdog, half Indian with dark skin, who is often underestimated by adversaries. I’d like to see him in another novel.

I am a big fan of the outdoor adventure novels of C. J. Box, and Kirkeby—a VVA member—belongs in that lofty league. I highly recommend this novel to those who are looking for a book to take their mind off of their troubles. It is the perfect escape from the humdrum.

—David Willson

My Story by Gary Lyles

 

The purest truths come from personal experiences. Gary Lyles’ My Story: Vietnam 1968, 196th Light Infantry Brigade (E-Book Time, 263 pp., $14.95, paper; $5.95, Kindle.) scores an A-plus for honesty in recollecting his experiences as a United States Army infantryman in Vietnam.

The book came to life from “a barely legible pile” of “random handwritten thoughts” and “a shoe box full of memories,” Lyles says. For decades, he could not write about Vietnam. He believed he needed to incorporate what “he had learned about the war” to give his experience perspective.

But Lyles finally decided, he writes, that that effort would “add little to the personal story.” He realized that what he had done spoke for itself, and that incorporating the history of the war did not relate to his combat life. Consequently, Lyles writes with a candidness that might embarrass lesser men.

From the day he arrived in-country and was assigned to the 196th Light Infantry Brigade, Lyles knew he had entered a nightmare world. Fear was his constant escort. Within a month, he was ordered to kill two prisoners, refused to do so, and watched in stunned horror when two fellow soldiers carry out the murders. Several months later, with great disinterest, he watched an American apply pressure to a VC’s chest wound by standing on it until he died.

Lyles spent most of his tour in the Central Highlands where his unit “stayed in the field continuously.” He took part in many firefights. He learned as much as possible from more-seasoned grunts. Chosen to lead a squad, he mastered the art of directing artillery, as well as setting and avoiding ambushes. Two Bronze Stars, a Purple Heart, and promotions from E-3 to E-6 within a year validate Gary Lyles’ battlefield proficiency.

As much as he learned to hate the enemy Lyles also respected their skills. As he puts it: “I knew that the NVA would be advancing behind the barrage of artillery fire. Years of experience had given the NVA the ability to walk artillery in toward their objective with the ground troops following extraordinarily close behind the exploding shells.”

Lyles’ imagination often became his strongest enemy. What he saw compounded his fear for what might happen next. When his unit deployed to the DMZ, his worst fear materialized during the battle for Nhi Ha village: He and four other men were cut off while manning a listening post.

“As I peered up over the edge of the crater, my heart sank,” he writes of that horrific encounter. “Hundreds of NVA soldiers had just cleared the wood line and were advancing at a slow walk. Artillery flares lit up the night sky. The flares swinging from the falling parachutes made the shadows of the advancing soldiers move in an eerie manner. They were uniformed soldiers camouflaged with leafed branches attached to their helmets, pistol belts, and webbing. They were moving in our direction with bayonets fixed.”

The 196th Light Infantry Brigade crest

His courage, though, constantly overpowered his fears. Lyles and three of the other men survived being overrun, but in a footnote he says, “The vision is seared into my brain. I had nightmares for years because of it.”

Lyles does not waste words. He describes and gives his opinions about events and people and then moves on without explanations. His just-the-facts accounts of interactions between American soldiers and Vietnamese civilians introduces many questions to ponder. He fully understands—but without specifically saying so—that his knowledge is truth born of battle.

Books such as My Story offer history lessons that subliminally reveal that there is no truth to history beyond what each individual learns on his own.

—Henry Zeybel

Women Made Me Do It by Tony Marlin Buchanan

WOMEN COVERRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR

For Tony Buchanan, life and two tours as an advisor to a Vietnamese Ranger Company (in 1966-67) are inexorably wrapped up in the arms of two women he had loved since childhood. Buchanan, who joined the U.S. Coast Guard Reserve in 1957 as an underage E-1, went on to serve three stints in the 101st Airborne Division and as a MACV advisor in 1966.

In Buchanan’s memoir, Women Made Me Do It (Warwick House, 105 pp., $9.95), he writes about his ten-year rise from Private E-1 to Staff Sergeant and his difficult assignment with an under-strength South Vietnamese Ranger Company. He spells out the details of a scrappy, tough, lonely childhood and how he grew to manhood in the rice paddies, jungles, and villages near Xuan Loc.

Throughout all of it, Tony Buchanan longed for the love, tenderness, and comfort of two different women who sheltered and embraced him: Frances and, later, Linda.

Buchanan was one of nine children who grew up in grinding poverty in Brevard, North Carolina. Constant movement plagued his early years. Eventually the family returned to North Carolina, but Buchanan’s father drifted in and out of the picture. They struggled to eat, to live, to get by. At one point, the family lived out the summer in a tent.

Tony Buchanan’s long-suffering mother held the family together. Schooling was spotty, difficult, and ended for him in seventh grade.

He caddied at a golf course, got into scrapes with his brothers and older boys, developed into a pint-sized boxer, and didn’t take kindly to sitting still in class. He stole a car, went on a joyride, vandalized property, and learned his way around street people. He was headed for worse trouble when he met Frances, his first love.

But after Frances dumped him, Buchanan freaked out. The next morning the five-foot-three, 117-pound, fifteen-and-a-half year old visited five military recruiters. The Coast Guard recruiter told him to get the family Bible and write in it that he was eighteen years old. That bit of mischief got him into the Coast Guard Reserve.

After six months active duty, he came home. Frances spurned him again, so at age eighteen Buchanan transferred to the U.S. Army. He had Infantry School at Ft. Benning and jump school at Ft. Campbell. In 1961 he got married, but almost from the beginning the marriage began crumbling. His wife moved back home, he had a string of new lovers, and then Buchanan volunteered for the Vietnam War.

He served with a Ranger Advisory Team working with a South Vietnamese Ranger Company that was dispirited, under strength, and underpaid. Visits from ARVN family members in the field, corruption, and patronage plagued the unit. American advisors could make recommendations, but did not command the units they worked for. Morale was often dangerously close to mutiny.

A U.S. Army Ranger working with South Vietnamese forces circa 1966

Buchanan tried to instill American-style discipline, but learned that the company did better with guerilla-style raids, night ambushes, and hit-and-run ops. His street smarts helped make him effective—and lonely for women. Throughout the next year, Buchanan sought out prostitutes and ignored his stateside family.

Buchanan served well, and instilled a fighting edge in the men he advised. He also was wounded, went through a divorce, and faced near exhaustion from combat.

Buchanan—who received  the Bronze Star, Army Commendation Medal, Purple Heart, and Vietnamese Ranger Badge—was discharged in September 1967. He found his second great love, Linda, in 1978.

In his memoir Buchanan’s writing is honest and direct. But a weakness of the book is that he does not explore his emotional responses to the traumatic events in his life. His mother instilled toughness in him, so maybe we should not complain too much about the small details of a true warrior.

—Robert M. Pacholik

Condemned Property? By Dusty Earl Trimmer

In Condemned Property?: Our Most Unpopular War Continues for Americans Who Fought in Vietnam… WHY? This is Their Story and Mine (Dog Ear Publishing, 484 pp., $29, hardcover; $25, paper) “Dusty” Earl Trimmer provides a look at his service in the 25th Infantry Division in Vietnam in 1968-69. The book also contains the stories of other Vietnam War veterans, along with Trimmer’s strong opinions about the war and those who fought in it.

Trimmer wrote the book, he says, “to honor our fallen warriors during and after the Vietnam War,” along with “living warriors of that war who are still fighting their demons.”

Trimmer believes that the war “should have and could have ended… with a complete American victory!” He lays a large share of the blame for the fact that there was no “American victory” on Americans who protested the Vietnam War, as well as the U.S. news media.

The war, he writes, “was always about stopping communism. It was not a revolution by loyal patriots, as the Viet Cong were used and discarded by North Vietnam. The Ameri-Cong left-wing media and the left-wing protestors were also used TO DEFEAT THEIR OWN FELLOW AMERICANS!

Trimmer goes on to say that Vietnam veterans “are NOT condemned property. Although the media would have Americans believe that, with generations of very inaccurate reporting—actually, they have been LYING! Many of us are still fighting to survive; many of us are winning again, just as we as a generation have always been…winners!

A note about the book’s subtitle: the Vietnam War certainly was, as Trimmer notes, “unpopular.” However, it wasn’t “our most unpopular” war; that sobriquet belongs to the American Civil War, which divided the nation so drastically that Americans took arms against other Americans.

—Marc Leepson