Hystopia by David Means

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David Means is the author of four story collections. His first novel, Hystopia (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 352 pp., $26), is an alternative history of the seventies in which John F. Kennedy has survived multiple assassination attempts and is still president while the Vietnam War continues.

Means has created yet another in a long list of novels that take us to the heart of American darkness in the Vietnam War. In this one faith in high-tech sensors designed to detect VC urination patterns goes unbounded. With our fire power and our sneaky-peepy expertise, the book seems to say, how can we lose?  Well, let me count the ways.

I now wish I hadn’t used the word “phantasmagorical” to describe previous Vietnam War novels. I should have reserved the word for this book. But, then again, I didn’t know this one was coming.

Means has produced many brilliant short stories. Some of his most serious fans had given up on him producing the Great American Novel they hoped for from him. But here it is. And it’s a Vietnam War novel, sort of.

It has everything—and I do mean everything: elephant grass, rice paddies, the Mekong Delta, jungle rot, slogging, ambushes, crew cuts, taking a hill, losing a hill, choppers, water buffalo, dust-offs. And that list is on just one page.

Means’ novel is mostly about an all-encompassing federal agency that JFK has created:  the Psych Corps. “Dedicated to maintaining the nation’s mental hygiene by any means necessary.”  Can traumas be overcome? This novel seems to hold little hope for that.

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David Means

Characters opine that rich kids evaded the war and that most of the folks who went fell into the group called Mac’s morons. Means uses a lot of pop culture fodder in this book: the Phantom Blooper, Norman Rockwell, the Big Two-Hearted River, Huckleberry Finn, Tarzan, the Rolling Stones, and the Beatles.

We get asked how many Vietnam veterans it takes to screw in a light bulb. The answer: You can’t know; you weren’t there.

There’s lots of pontificating about what it is that makes up a true war story. Tim O’Brien grappled with that question decades ago in The Things They Carried. I believe he provided a better answer.

This book lacks a story that make me care about any of the characters, even though JFK’s sister made me sad. Still, I would suggest dipping into this book and seeing what’s there. You’ll find a lot of food for thought.

But I didn’t really need more of that. Or didn’t want any more.

—David Willson

The Gambler’s Apprentice by H. Lee Barnes

H. Lee Barnes, who received the Vietnam Veterans of America Excellence in the Arts Award in 2013, is a novelist and short story writer who teaches English and creative writing at the College of Southern Nevada. His latest novel, The Gambler’s Apprentice (University of Nevada Press, 304 pp., $27.95), is a fast-paced, latter-day Western (it begins in 1917) tale starring Willie Bobbins, a Texas teen-aged outlaw and gambler whose life turns around as a result of the 1918 influenza pandemic.

The book has received rave reviews. Here’s what one reviewer, Robert Lamb, wrote:

“Except once in a blue moon, when else do you find a story packed with action and adventure involving big-as-life characters in settings and situations ready made for the silver screen? Moreover, the author’s powers of description rival those of Cormac McCarthy in showing that the outback of the Tex-Mex border is no country for old men, and that even young ones age quickly there.

This novel has an appeal as wide as Texas and a historic sweep that is purely American. Willy can’t read or write, but he represents the pioneer stock who settled the West, fiercely independent, amazingly resourceful, but touchingly bewildered by developments beyond their rustic ken: world war, plague, drought, and a rapidly oncoming future in which they seem to have no place.”

 Barnes’s website is hleebarnes.net

Barnes in Vietnam, at left, in 1966

 

Vietnam What? by Gianni Ruffo

Gianni Ruffo, the auther of Vietnam What? The True Story of Fictional Characters and Real People (190 pp., $7.99, paper; $4.99, e book), lives in Campobasso, Italy, and works for a bank. He has no military background, but has always been “keen on military history,” he says, particularly World War II and the Vietnam War. He tells us he has a collection of more than 300 documentary items about those wars.

The promise made in the book’s subtitle is kept in the body. We encounter many fictional characters, including Johnny, the protagonist, and we also find that the author has put to good use many of his reference artifacts, especially the books. We get potted encounters and dialogue from such Vietnam War icons as the sniper Carlos Hathcock, Lt. Col. Hal (We Were Soldiers Once) Moore, and a surprise from Dieter Dengler, the German-born Navy pilot who was shot down in Laos, taken prisoner, and later escaped from his Viet Cong captors.

This reader encountered too many clichés, and soon got sick of phrases such as “ready in a wink,” “saving their bacon,” and “straight from the horse’s mouth.” Johnny is a totally unbelievable CIA agent. His frequent use of words and phrases such as “knackered,” “car bonnet,” “rookies” for newbies, and “stinks like a polecat” did not help bring him to life. When he noshed on meatballs, I was tempted to quit reading. But I persisted.

The book gets us to the 1968 Tet Offensive, and Johnny goes on and on about how we could have won the war if we’d only used A bombs. “A couple of atomic bombs,” he says, “could do the job.”  I did hear that said from time to time when I was in Vietnam, but most folks didn’t want it to happen. Or so they said.

Dieter Dengler after his release

Spoiler alert:  At the end of this little book we find out that it was all a dream. I was relieved.

If you are going to read only one novel or memoir about the Vietnam War, you’d do better to go elsewhere. The book did amuse, but I believe Dieter Dengler’s Escape from Laos would be a better place to start reading.

—David Willson

T.I.N.S* by Darrell Bain and Will Stafford

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Darrell Bain and Will Stafford are Vietnam War veterans who found each other on the Internet and became computer pen pals. Their years-long correspondence resulted in Bain narrating and publishing most of those exchanges in a book called T.I.N.S.* (CreateSpace, 290 pp., $11.99, paper). The book’s cover tells us that T.I.N.S. is an acronym for “This is no shit.” Humor is the basis for every story.

Or, as the subtitle says: “Hilarious stories by Vietnam vets, zany tales from the war, childhood craziness, and post-war foibles.” The difficulties of childhood and teenage development, along with mid-life aging, dominate the storytelling. This made me feel shortchanged as problems related to marriages, dogs and cats, professions, food and dieting, illnesses, and smoking dominated too much of the text.

At times, these exchanges resemble a game of can-you-top-this. They heighten the entertainment, but also create scenarios bordering on repetitive and mundane chores familiar to most people.

I wanted to hear more about the military careers of Stafford and Bain. Both men spent two tours in Vietnam. Stafford flew helicopter gunships and Chinooks. Bain served as an Army medic. Their few stories about the Vietnam War and military life in general lift the book to a higher level. These stories also are humorous, but deal with activities, events, and places far beyond ordinary life.

Regardless of the topic, Bain–the author of Medics Wild!— generally plays straight man to Stafford and makes him the star of the book. Both men display highly perfected senses of humor.

Bain extends a caveat: “This book contains the complete and unabridged books, Toppers and More Toppers,” both of which he wrote.

Bain’s website is darrellbain.com

—Henry Zeybel

The Boy with a Bamboo Heart by Amporn Wathanavongs

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The opening chapter of The Boy with a Bamboo Heart: The Story of a Street Orphan Who Built a Children’s Charity (Maverick House, 2812 pp., $15, paper: $2.99, Kindle) has a newly orphaned five-year-old Thai boy named Lek next to his mother’s flaming funeral bier in a rural Thai village attempting to hold her burning hand. He is simply unable to face life without her, a frightened boy who will be thrust into a life on his own in which he must steal to survive.

“The village held nothing for me but bad luck,” author Amporn Wathanavongs writes in this memoir. “I wanted to leave this place and never see it again ever.”

Lek walks away alone, stows away on a train, and gets off at the first stop. Each rung of his life ladder to adulthood comes with a name change. His first new designation is the nom de guerre “Boney,” which the teenager acquires when recruited into mercenary action against the French.

The Indochina War from 1946-54 spilled over from Vietnam into neighboring Cambodia. Suddenly Boney finds himself in fighting in the jungle. After a brutal fight he is the sole survivor of his unit. Suffering from the stresses of battle and the loss of his family leads to two suicide attempts. Taking the advice of his hospital nurse, Boney returns to Thailand.

“There, in my natal village, I would claim my right to a family of my own,” the author writes, “or I would join my parents in death.”

Introducing himself to the Abbot of a Buddhist temple led to another name change, this time “Nehn Amporn,” a moniker presented to him along with the orange robe of a novice monk. Amporn learns to read while absorbing Buddhist philosophy from his teacher. “Words were sweeter to me than mango sticky rice,” he writes

Amporn was advised to move on from his small village temple to continue his education in Bangkok, sometimes called the City of Angels. Unable to afford admission to a large temple, he joined a smaller one with only three monks, all of whom were thirty years older. “That would allow me to study without making too many demands. I was seeking intellectual enlightenment,” he writes. This led to the third name change. He was ordained as “Bikkhu Visalo” in 1958.

His introduction to an English teacher was also his first exposure Christianity. He soon decided he was a “fake monk,” and decided to renounce Buddhism. This step led to his final name change, Amporn Wathanavongs.

He found employment at a Jesuit school called Angel Center. His celibate temple life had ended and he met his future wife near the center. “Her eyes,” he writes, “like raindrops on a banana leaf in the morning, mesmerized me.”

His marriage and earning a Master’s Degree in the Philippines completed Amporn Wathanavongs’s rise from being alone and poor to being an advocate for children in poverty. “With the Vietnam War over,” he writes, “I knew it was only a matter of time before the Americans packed up and went back home.”

Funding for humanitarian projects was difficult to find. He was hired by the non-governmental agency, The Christian Children’s Fund, and when he retired, he chartered his own agency, The Foundation for the Rehabilitation and Development of Children (FORDEC), on Valentine’s Day of 1998. He was 61 years old.

In appreciation of his work on behalf of children, King Rama IX of Thailand decorated Amporn Wathanavongs with the Most Exalted Order of the White Elephant. In 1996 he received an honorary doctorate from American Coastline University of Louisiana.

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Amporrn Wathanavongs with children at FORDEC

I recommend this concise, well-written (with the help of Chantal Jauvin) memoir to anyone who served in Southeast Asia.

All author proceeds will be donated to FORDEC, the charity founded by Amporn Wathanavongs.

Co-author Chantal Jauvin’s website is chantaljauvin.com

—Curtis A. Nelson, Jr.

The War after the War by Johannes Kadura

 

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Four minutes before six o’clock on the morning of January 28, 1973, I awoke in my Tan Son Nhut BOQ room when four mortar rounds hit the base. We were six hours ahead of Greenwich, where it was nearly midnight and the start of the ceasefire designated by the Paris Peace Accords. No further rounds followed, but Big Voice kept ordering people to shelters. I rolled over in bed and smiled.

The North Vietnamese were telling us that they hadn’t quit, I thought with a touch of admiration. Two years and three months later, the NVA rolled into Saigon.

Events that led to that morning and followed it are the subject of The War after the War: The Struggle for Credibility During America’s Exit from Vietnam (Cornell University Press, 231 pp.; $45) by Johannes Kadura. The story revolves around the Indochina endgame strategy employed by Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford with counsel from National Security Adviser/Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.

Nixon and Kissinger, Kadura explains, used two basic plans to counterbalance defeat in Indochina and simultaneously preserve presidential credibility as an opponent of communist expansion. They called their plans “equilibrium strategy” and “insurance policy.” Kadura discusses the plans and then offers his “new interpretation” of what occurred during the years immediately before and after the signing of the Peace Agreement in Paris. He focuses on the U.S. perspective and does not attempt to tell the Vietnamese version of the story.

The book is a masterpiece of research that is carefully footnoted. Kadura holds a doctorate in American history. He studied at Yale and Cambridge. He is Managing Director of AKRYL, an Internet company based in Hamburg and Beijing.

After American forces departed Vietnam and our POWs returned home, Nixon and Kissinger “stressed the idea that the war in Vietnam had actually successfully ended,” Kadura says. “The implications were obvious: the United States had fulfilled its basic obligations and could focus on more important things; the South Vietnamese had to figure out the rest on their own.” Nixon and Kissinger soon shifted their attention to more critical international matters, such as the Yom Kippur War, the oil crisis, and relations with the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China.

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Johannes Kadura

The book convincingly argues that Nixon and Kissinger foisted the blame on Congress for America’s lack of post-1973 support for the vulnerable nations of Indochina, particularly when Congress reduced military and economic aid to those nations each year.

Nixon’s distraction by Watergate and his eventual resignation forced Kissinger to guide America’s foreign policy for a considerable period, Kadura says. Ford, however, proved to be his own man, no more so than when he pardoned Nixon. Ford, emulating Nixon, continued to blame Congress for Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos ending up under communist rule.

The book presents information that filled gaps in my education. Like many people, I had stopped worrying about Southeast Asia in 1973. Material new to me included the fact that some 207,000 NVA regulars moved into South Vietnam after the signing of the Paris Accords; the North’s paving of the Ho Chi Minh Trail; and its construction of SAM sites at Khe Sanh and A Shau—all in preparation for its final offensive. I also didn’t know about Nixon’s gross failure to take decisive action against cease-fire violations and of the political machinations that led to the fall of Cambodia. Kadura’s history lessons ensure that the reader sees the big picture.

Overall, Kadura convinced me that among Nixon, Ford, and Kissinger, pessimism prevailed throughout the post-peace agreement period. Their goal had been to exit Vietnam without looking like they were running away (“peace with honor”), and they feared being accused of having done exactly that. Kadura barely mentions “peace with honor,” which was a byword of the era. He does discuss the “decent interval,” a goal that might have resulted in more favorable outcomes for Vietnam, Cambodia, and Loas. A two-year interval was not long enough.

The end of South Vietnam triggered a lot of soul searching in this country. Study groups from the State Department, Joint Chiefs of Staff, and National Security Council came up with conflicting summaries of lessons learned. Kissinger’s insistence that “Washington had bought vital time for Southeast Asia’s non-communist nations to develop” became a popular but questionable conclusion because America had not prosecuted the war with that goal in mind, according to Kadura. The “buying vital time” claim, however, reassured other allies that Washington would help them fight communist aggression.

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Nixon in China

Looking “beyond defeat in Indochina,” Kadura shows that America retained post-Agreement influence in Southeast Asia during the Mayaguez incident, as well as with our denial of help to Hanoi, and through worsening relations with China.

Kadura’s conclusion: “The overall effects of Washington’s defeat in Indochina were quite limited. The strategic balance did not shift decisively in favor of the Soviets or Chinese. Washington emerged tarnished yet relatively strong. Nixon, Ford, and Kissinger did manage to control the damage caused by the U.S. defeat.”

The author’s website is johanneskadura.com

—Henry Zeybel

 

 

Havana File by Dale A. Dye

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Dale Dye, best known as the guy who re-invented military technical advising in Hollywood when he worked his magic in the movie Platoon in the mid eighties, is a retired Marine Corps captain. He served in Vietnam in 1965 and in 1967-70 and survived thirty-one combat operations.

Dye, who also has acted in many films and has written a slew of novels (including Laos File, Run Between the Raindrops, and the novelization of Platoon) is a superb story teller who gets his details and language right. Havana File (Warriors Publishing Group, 306 pp., $14.95, paper; $7.99, Kindle), the sixth book in his Shake Davis series, is a military thriller told mostly in short, snappy chapters. It moves right along from the first page. When you pick up a Dale Dye book, you know it will be professional, well-written, and a page-turner.

I will emulate Dye’s style and not say too much about the story right off the bat. I was thrilled to encounter Marine Cpl. Gus Hasford in this book, but saddened when he was killed. I like how Dye uses the names of people from his time in the Marine Corps as characters’ names and how this gives the dead ones immortality of a sort.

The book is about a team of Marine raiders that lands on Fidel Castro’s private Cuban island and rescue a missing American intelligence agent. It contains a fair amount of what I’d call ranting, including how ill it was to have normalized relations with Castro’s Cuba.

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Dale Dye

President Obama, who is not named, is described as the “guy in the White House who’s looking to justify his Nobel Peace Prize even if it destroys the country he’s sworn to preserve.”

John Wayne is mentioned. So are Jack Reacher and Jimmy Buffet. The Vietnam War appears as a scene that takes place in 1968 at the Cua Viet River in I Corps.

I know that many people who have read the first five books in Dye’s fine Shake Davis series, have been Jonesing for the sixth. Here it is. It stands up well to the expectations awakened by the first five.

I was happy with it and read it straight through. Thanks, Dale.

—David Willson