Song I Sing by Bao Phi

Bao Phi, the author of Song I Sing: Poems (Coffee House Press, 170 pp., $16, paper) was born in Saigon in 1975. He was raised in the Minneapolis suburbs and today Minnesota is his home base. Bao Phi’s poetry kicks ass; I have not read a more powerful book about the individual Vietnamese-American experience.

This is the guy I’d like to sic on the authors of Vietnam War books filled with name-calling of Vietnamese and Asians. I’d like him to shout his great poem “Vu Nguyen’s Revenge—Nguyen, Vu-Sacramento” at them. It begins: “Fuck you, Chavis Johnson, for pushing me down in ninth grade and calling me gook.”

The book is filled with references to Agent Orange, Oliver Stone, and other Vietnam War icons such as Senator John McCain. Bao Phi’s three-page poem, “Dear Senator McCain,” is a classic. It starts off with two quotes from McCain: “I hate the gooks. I will hate them as long as I live.”

The poems do not pull punches— in fact, they are punches, right in the face to those who have scorned and vilified Asians of all stripes and types. Bao Phi bravely calls out those who have sinned with their mouths and acts, and holds them accountable.

Some lines—among many—that stood out: “I write this letter on jungle leaves/and the skin of a white man”  and “I am gook,/I ate your motherfuckin cat.”

Bao Phi

Bao Phi’s CD’s are Refugiography and The Nguyens EP. They show off his abilities as a performance artist of what is called slam poetry. He is a two-time Minnesota Grand Slam champion and a National Poetry Slam finalist, and he appeared in the HBO series Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry.

The blurb on the back of the book tells us that the poet performs across the country and works as an Asian American community organizer. That job is a known springboard to the presidency, so I have hopes Bao Phi will be our first Asian president.

Anyone curious about how Vietnamese Americans are getting along in America should buy this book. The answer is here.

The author’s website is www.baophi.com

—David Willson

Cao Bang: Brothers in Arms by Richard E. Baker

44444444444444444444444Richard E. Baker served in the U. S. Army with the 4th Infantry Band. He did not spend his time in Vietnam marching on parade grounds playing his horn, though. He was in the field, setting up ambushes and the like. He has suffered a life-long battle with PTSD.

Cao Bang: Brothers in Arms (CreateSpace, 276 pp., $11, paper)  is part of Baker’s French Foreign Legion in Vietnam historical fiction series. Baker has done thorough and painstaking research for his recounting of the “retreat from Cao Bang [which], marks one of the largest fiascos in military history,” as he puts it.

Both the French and the Viet Minh are presented precisely and accurately in a narrative populated with memorable characters of many nationalities and disparate personalities. Baker is first a fine storyteller, and then a historian. But he never pushes his research down the throats of his readers. Still, you will know a lot more about the French War in Indochina after you have read this book.

I especially enjoyed the characters that Baker brought alive and the context in which they lived and fought. Baker’s great gift of knowing what to include in a list benefits the reader again and again in a book that is populated with lists along with unforgettable characters, both European and Asian. Even Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, the Viet Minh commander, a minor character in this book, comes alive in his few scenes. Baker has Giap say, “I’m not concerned about winning battles, just in winning the war.”

I am compelled to quote part of one of Bake

Richard Baker

r’s fine lists, just to show how he brings French Indochina in the 1950s alive.

“Tables of meat stood under cover: pig, dog, and cow, heads stripped of skin, buckets of entrails, tails undressed of hide, bowls of eyeballs staring blankly as if they could still see, thick tongues, brains piled like wet cauliflower, hooves, penises, legs crisscrossed across the wooden tables, and piano keys of ribs waiting for the delicate fingers of some mad and carnivorous musician.”

Baker shows the Legionaires “in search of small pleasures at cheap prices.” I could easily identify with them. Much is made of the pleasure that the soldiers took in smoking cheap cigarettes. I loved the comment from one of the villains: “With a single idea, much can be accomplished.”  This accomplishment is fired by cigarettes.

My favorite line comes near the end: “Many top generals were poor leaders; that is how they earned promotions and became top generals.” That was my impression from my one meeting with Gen. William Westmoreland.  All he wanted to talk about with me was that I needed a haircut. He had no interest in my theories about why he was losing the war.

This is a brilliant and enjoyable novel of the French debacle in Indochina, and it is prophetic of how the American War would go. We, too, were ignorant of history and scorned and dismissed both the French effort and the Viet Minh who beat them. America is always convinced of our exceptionalism. We turned out to be more like the French than we would admit.

I highly recommend this novel and all novels by Richard Baker. He is creating one of the great bodies of work about war in Vietnam—an entire shelf of books worth reading.

—David Willson

 

A Common Virtue by James A. Hawkins

James A. Hawkins served eleven years as a U. S. Marine, and is a veteran of the Vietnam War. His Marine Corps Vietnam War novel, A Common Virtue (Naval Institute Press, 240 pp., $29.95), takes place during the 1968 Tet Offensive.

Paul Jackson, an eighteen-year old recon Marine sniper, is the lone survivor of a massacre on a hillside. This is the information we are given in the cover blurb. It goes on to say that the book “is about growing into manhood in a toxic America and a world gone mad.”

That is the true subject of this first novel. I had expected and hoped for a Marine Corps adventure novel. The author seems filled with bitterness about America. The book begins with a brief author’s note in which Hawkins mentions that Marines “returned to a thankless nation.”  Later he says that Marines served in a war “that even today America despises.”

That led me to believe that Hawkins is pissed off about not getting a homecoming parade in which Sousa’s “Semper Fidelis” was played. I hoped this attitude would not undermine the entire novel. I also hoped that the book contained no anti-Jane Fonda rants and no scenes of returning veterans being treated badly in an American airport by a braless hippy chick.

The writing in this novel is for those who are deaf to cliché and insensitive to plodding prose. Someone, for example, actually says, “We’re all gonna die.” And Hawkins writes: “His scarred face looked as if it had been burned by napalm and somebody had put it out with a garden rake.”

On the very same page we get: “The malevolence in his voice chilled Rivers to the bone.” All the way to the bone? As I read that my expectations for the novel sank even lower.

We get the usual John Wayne references found in Marine Corps books:  “John Wayne routine,” “John Wayne incarnate,” and “instructions on how John Wayne would use a knife to cut a throat.”  We get two references to “feather merchants,” and countless “saddle up’s.” I lost track of how many times they got out of Dodge, but there were at least five of them.

We get a mention of lima beans and ham, which I was thankful for, but when I read, “happier than a pig in shit,” I was compelled to ask myself, how happy is that pig? I believe that pigs actually prefer to be clean whenever they can be. When an NVA is shot, he “dropped like someone slugged in the stomach with a baseball bat.”  I’ll bet he did not.  And it was likely to be “darker than midnight in a coal bin” when that happened.

We get a reference to “hippy bastards,” and when our hero passes through an airport, he has to deal with “a large gathering of long haired, scantily clad demonstrators” One of their signs reads, “Welcome Home, Baby Killers.”

Were the “scantily clad” demonstrators wearing bikinis? I’d love to know since I went to a lot of antiwar rallies and never encountered anyone who was scantily clad. I wish I had been so lucky.

Civilians are casually described as “fat, dirty.” REMFs are mentioned countless times in the novel—never in a kind way.

The one true villain in this novel is a REMF Marine Corps officer, who vilely undermines the authority and credibility of the hero, Paul Jackson, causing the deaths of many Marines.

I would have liked to have read a lot more of Marines in combat, and more about the setting up of the “two-man reconnaissance-team concept in the Vietnam War” and a lot less social commenting.  My theory, based on the author’s comments, is that Hawkins could not help himself. The book was his chance to express long-lived bitterness, and he let it rip whenever he could jam it in.

It does not benefit what could have been an exciting Marine Corps novel about an exceptional teenaged Marine. At least Jane Fonda went unmentioned.

—David Willson

Arrow Moon by James V. Ventresco

James V. Ventresco’s Arrow Moon: Reflections of the Sixties (CreateSpace, 288 pp., $11.50, paper) follows four college friends as they deal with the challenges of the sixties. Ventresco is enlisted in the Army to avoid being drafted. He served in Vietnam and received the Bronze Star, an Army Commendation Medal, and a Combat Infantryman Badge.

The four main characters seem to be there for every important event of the 1960s. And if they are not actually present, it is made clear that the events had a mighty impact on them. Probably the event that is presented most stirringly, and one that most of them experienced, is the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

Matt Santorri seems destined for Vietnam, but the book quits before he gets there. I’d like to read a sequel in which he makes it to the war zone.

Dave, his slacker friend in college, never applies himself to his studies, so I thought he might get grabbed by the draft, but no such luck. He has bad eyes, and his trigger finger is damaged in Chicago by the police in the park.

AJ spends the novel busy making money selling rolling papers and marijuana. He already has served in the military, so he is home free as far as the Vietnam War is concerned.  Johnny, the boy from Texas, seems also headed for Vietnam at the end of the book.

Many of the minor characters have served in the Vietnam War or actually are there during the length of the book, so the novel has an important Vietnam War component. The war lurks on every page.

One character, for example, remarks, “he was sure the big capitalists and bankers were doing everything they could to keep the war going.”  Another says: “I’m really getting worried about that fucking Vietnam War.” He has reason to worry.

Iwo Jima gets a mention from a priest at the funeral of a Korean War veteran. The priest served as a chaplain during World War II and spent time with the Marines on Iwo.  “If Christ has wanted to remind us that there was a hell, Iwo Jima was his way of showing it,” he says. “Today we are sending our sons to Vietnam to fight godless communism. At what cost?”

I enjoyed this novel, but I believe it could have benefited from a few thousand more commas—not to mention more glue in the binding. By the time I finished it, I had a bundle of loose pages.

That being said, it is an enjoyable primer to the main events of the sixties and the impact they had on young men. I was a young man during that period, and most of the things covered in the book resonated with me.  If you missed the sixties, this would be a great place to start catching up.

—David Willson

Year of the Rooster by Ben Wanderin

Larry D. Goodson served two years in the U. S. Army and then returned to his home in the Pacific Northwest in 1970. The cover blurb of Year of the Rooster (CreateSpace, 250 pp., $15.95, paper) tells us that it is “mostly a short story collection from the memories of a combat veteran of the Vietnam War mingled with present day thoughts and actions ”  This book—written under the pseudonym “Ben Wanderin”—didn’t read like any short story collection I have in my collection.

In 1969 the main character is nineteen years old and is from the Pacific Northwest—somewhere near Seattle, perhaps, which is where I was living when I was drafted into the Army and where I returned when my war was over. I feel a kinship with this author for that reason and quite a few others.

I part company with the main character when he says, “the last thing he wanted was to feel like he had avoided the draft.”  I would have been okay with that.

Goodson uses a progression of emotion-distancing names for his main character. He starts as Cherry Boy. Next he is called Rifleman. Soon he is Gunner. Eventually he becomes Survivor. And also REMF.

Our hero describes his arrival in Vietnam in familiar terms. As he “stepped from the air-conditioned freedom bird into the blast furnace of the dry season, the stench had hit his nose like a fist.” Soon after that he gets a detail during which he burns shit in a steel drum. He says, “If you’ve never stirred burning shit with a stick…”  Thank you, I have done that.

At Cu Chi, our hero joins his unit, then heads for Trang Bang, then Fire Base Pershing, and then Firebase Stuart or Stewart. Both spellings are used.  “Cherry Boy would come to believe that the squad he joined was made of the greatest guys in Viet Nam, maybe in the world.”

As Rifleman, his main assignment is to be part of a squad that clears mines. “The idea was to find the mines in the road and keep the convoy from being ambushed while bringing supplies to the little sandbag fortress called home to some 105 howitzers, plus 4.2 and 81 MM mortars.”  With less than three months in the field, our hero becomes the machine gunner and senior man of his squad.

He becomes disillusioned and thinks that perhaps he wasn’t in Vietnam to “protect the people of South Vietnam from those evil communists he had been hearing about since the day he could hear anything at all.”  It seemed likely that we were, instead, “creating enemies every day out of neutral or friendly people.”

The Gunner is transferred to Cu Chi where he has a better chance to survive. This is when his name is changed to Survivor. And then he becomes a REMF.

“They were a part of the ten to one ratio of people in support of the one to ten outside the wire being referred to as combatants.” He becomes a combat correspondent.  For “a healthy person with all his marbles the job would have been a dream come true.”  He wasn’t that person.

Our hero’s time in Vietnam hits him hard.  “By now about the only things he really felt were fear or rage and most of the time he couldn’t tell the difference.”  He goes on to say, “Killing people is a fucked-up business to be in, but if it’s the job you’ve got, you’d better pay attention or you’ll be the one not telling your friends anything.”  I appreciated that piece of wisdom.

On the plane home, the so-called Freedom Bird, Survivor thinks, “people would respect him for what he had survived.” Think again, Survivor.

This novel reads like an elegy—an elegy for lost innocence, lost youth, and lost lives—both American and Vietnamese. While reading this book, I kept thinking of The Red Badge of Courage. Year of the Rooster has more in common with that classic than with any Vietnam War book I’ve read—both in tone and in distance.

Year of the Rooster is well-written and accessible. I would like it to be required reading in high schools, especially by those who think that joining the Army will result in a happier life.

—David Willson

 

Dear Mom and Dad, Love From Vietnam by Joe Abodeely

Every Vietnam War story has value, even the ones you have heard before. Repetition produces truths. Recently, I read three autobiographies by soldiers who experienced combat in Vietnam during the 1968 Tet Offensive. The best book was whichever one I was reading—the most recent being Dear Mom and Dad, Love from Vietnam (282 pp., $20, paper) by Joe Abodeely, a lieutenant back in the day.

Abodeely’s memory relies heavily on daily journal entries he wrote in-country and long letters he sent to his parents at least weekly. In this memoir he reflects on that material.

He led a platoon in the 1st Cav for five-and-a-half month before transferring to a staff job. Abodeely recorded his proudest achievement in his journal: “Well, I did it. I went through my tour in the field and never lost a man. None killed.”

Abodeely and his always-undermanned platoon engaged in air assaults, sweeps, patrols, ambushes, search and destroy, and search and clear missions, and one time escaped after being surrounded. They “walked in on Highway 9, where no one before could travel because of ambushes” as the first replacements for besieged Marines at Khe Sanh. Shortly thereafter, his platoon was airlifted into the A Shau Valley to support Operation Pegasus.

Often in Vietnam War books, the big picture tends to repeat itself; therefore, vignettes and turns of phrase fascinate me. Abodeely nicely filled those squares. For example: “In a firefight, you did not see a person shooting at you—bushes shot at you. It was ominous. It was as if the NVA were ghosts.”

And: “My point man was a guy we called ‘Hippy.’ He was a lanky guy and had a peace symbol on his helmet. He found the machine gun and an NVA helmet and a bag of raw opium. The NVA used opium for medicinal purposes. I told Hippy to take the bag to turn it in. I never checked to see if he did.”

Abodeely watched an operations officers carrying a dead NCO and reported: “Before he set the dead soldier down on the ground, the body started regurgitating—the involuntary action of the body after death. I had never seen that before. That was another reminder of my mortality.”

Regarding prisoners, Abodeely noted: “First and third platoons captured some VC. The interrogators beat the hell out of the VC who confessed.”

Joe Abodeely at the Arizona Military Museum

Yet he also felt compassion. After an ARVN soldier tortured a young mother suspected of being a VC by kicking her in the face, crushing her milk-filled breasts, and rubbing chili peppers into her eyes, Abodeely took control and returned the baby to the woman. “We moved out with 38 refugees interspersed with the troops,” he writes. “The ‘VC’  girl was falling behind, my platoon sergeant yelled to me that she was: I just let it go. I don’t know if she was a Vietcong, but I thought she had suffered enough.”

Life changed significantly for Abodeely after he switched to S-4 Logistics. He describes his job as “requisitioning, scrounging, and stealing” to obtain material for new buildings at Camp Evans in I Corps. He spent his last two months at Quan Loi, a III Corps hot spot near the Cambodian border. Working on S-3 base defense and landing zone duties, he experienced the war from a new perspective. When half of his former company became casualties in one afternoon, he developed a hint of a political conscience.

The other books about 1968 in Vietnam I mentioned are reviewed on these pages: Gray Horse Troop: Forever Soldiers by Charles Baker (a major) and My Story: Vietnam 1968, 196th Light Infantry Brigade by Gary Lyles (a sergeant).

–Henry Zeybel

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Burning Room by Michael Connelly

Maybe it’s just a coincidence, but my two absolute favorite detective fiction series feature main characters who are Vietnam War veterans. That would be Dave Robicheaux, the flawed Cajun detective hero of twenty smashingly good procedural/thrillers by James Lee Burke, and Harry Bosch, the complicated Los Angeles Police Department detective at the center of nineteen thriller/detectives by former L.A.Times police reporter Michael Connelly.

Which brings us to Connelly’s latest, just-published Harry Bosch, The Burning Room (Little, Brown, 388 pp., $28). It’s been two years since the last Bosch, The Black Box (Little Brown, 416 pp., $27.99). I was more than ready for the latest installment in the adventures of the smart and dedicated—but sometimes ornery and emotionally fragile—former Vietnam War tunnel rat, now nearing retirement working in the LAPD cold-case division.

I devoured the rapid-reading Burning Room as I had its eighteen predecessors. Once again I was impressed by Connelly’s story-telling abilities. The plot hummed along with plenty of twists (maybe one or two too many). The characters were well drawn and believable. The physical landscape of the greater Los Angeles area sketched vividly and convincingly.

The plot follows Connelly’s main Bosch formula: working with a new partner, Harry uses his brains and experience (and stretches legal limits a tad) to solve a perplexing crime. There are plenty of roadblocks, including the fact that the case is ten years old and it leads him to a related, second heinous crime to investigate. Harry runs into trouble from self-serving bureaucratic higher-ups and has to juggle work vs. family responsibilities, namely being the single father of a high-school-age daughter.

Michael Connelly

This is a police procedural with thriller elements, so we more or less know who the bad guys are fairly quickly. But that doesn’t hamper the page-turning quotient. Connelly keeps things moving quickly to a conclusion that including a surprise element.

Bosch’s service in the Vietnam War plays a very small part in the book. The first mention doesn’t come until about a third of the way in.

He’s discussing interrogation techniques with his young partner, whose grandfather (!) served in Vietnam. The topic of “enhanced” methods and “tools of interrogation,” Connelly writes, “threatened to trigger Bosch’s own memories and he didn’t need that now. He brought the discussion back on point.”

Later, Bosch comes across a Vietnam War-era M60 machine gun. “Those who carried the M60 through the Vietnamese jungle had a love/hate relationship with it,” Connelly writes through Bosch’s eyes. “They called it ‘the pig’ whenever they had to lug the heavy weapon out on patrol. But heavy or not, it was the best gun to be holding in your hands in a firefight.”

As usual, Connelly, who was in middle school during the height of the Vietnam War, does very well in the accuracy and verisimilitude departments when dealing with the Vietnam War and Harry’s service in it.

Connelly’s website is www.michaelconnelly.com/novels/burning-room

—Marc Leepson