Shock Peace by CieCie Tuyet Nguyen

Ciecie Tuyet Nguyen was thirteen years old when she witnessed the events she bases her novel, Shock Peace: The Search for Freedom (Tate, 444 pp., $39.99, hardcover; $30.99, paper; $14.99, Kindle), on. Through the character of Trinh, she relives her memories of communist takeover of Saigon in 1975.

Why the author chose the title she did is a mystery to me. Reading the title, I figured that the novel would not be written in good English because the title makes little sense. But I was wrong; the novel is quite well written. There is the occasional jarring phrase such as “fresh as a cucumber” rather rather than “cool as a cucumber.”

A much better title would have been The Fall of Saigon through the Eyes of a Survivor.

Ciecie Nguyen continued to live in Saigon after April 1975 until her escape by boat to Australia with her family. Her mother arranged the escape and was the source of the family’s great strength through the horrors of the three years it took to get together the money and supplies necessary to leave Vietnam.

I’ve read many books about the so-called boat people and their brave attempts to get out of communist Vietnam, but none tells the story better than this novel. Nguyen reveals the barbarism of the North Vietnamese toward the South Vietnamese with an immediacy that hit home in a way that it never did before to me.

We get to know all the people involved in the escape, and we care about them and want them to get away from the horrors that have been brought down on them. They do make it and we learn about their lives after their escape.

Ciecie Tuyet Nguyen

Learning English is the biggest challenge for the Vietnamese once they learn the social customs of Australia. There is a funny section in which the refuges struggle to figure out why the Australians who live above them are so angry at them when they cook their dinner.

For some reason, the Australians hate the smell of the fish sauce and the garlic. They terrorize the Vietnamese by screaming at them and pounding on their door when they cook. Of course, the refugees have no idea what they are doing wrong. And there is nobody to tell them.

The author graduated from pharmacy school and now owns her own pharmacy in the western suburbs of Sydney. My respect for the authors’ academic and career successes is huge.

—David Willson

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The Nix by Nathan Hill

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The first thing that came to mind as I pondered my reading experience with Nathan Hill’s The Nix (Knopf, 625 pp., $27.95), is the oft-used (but still prescient) line that Leo Tolstoy wrote in Anna Karenina: “All families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

This very long book is, at heart, a meditation on one very unhappy fictional family. To wit, a baby boom generation mother who has made a giant, stinking mess of her entire life and her adult son who is about to follow in her footsteps. Said messes include terribly unhappy childhoods, messy adolescences, and emotionally distressing adulthoods.

The mother in question, Faye Andresen, is brought up in a stifling Iowa town in the fifties and sixties and has a catastrophic, aborted college experience in Chicago in 1967 and 1968. Her son, Samuel Andresen-Anderson experiences a tortuous childhood, especially after his mother walks out on his family with no warning and for no apparent reason.

Samuel somehow survives his childhood and adolescent traumas, and becomes a college professor. The work is singularly uninspiring and Samuel descends into depressing—and countless hours playing some adolescent on-line game.

Then things go from worse to worse after Faye sort-of attacks a demagogic politician and Samuel has his entire world fall apart after an self-deceiving, selfish student falsely accuses him of mistreating her.

Hill spins out this yarn flashing back and forth in time, including a long section near the end in which Faye is caught up in the mayhem of the police riot during the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago–which is where the Vietnam War comes in. That and a small part earlier in the book where Faye’s boyfriend back home wrestles with the biggest question that every male of that generation faced: what to do about the Vietnam War draft.

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Hill is a more-than-capable storyteller and novelist. He brings his mostly over-the-top characters alive and created dizzying, almost-believable plots and subplots, often with ironic humor–and frequently with painful emotional and physical consequences for his characters.

His (almost literally) blow-by-blow rendition of the mayhem that occurred in the streets of downtown during the Democratic National Convention is intense–and probably (like the rest of the book) about twice as long as it should be.

That long set piece also is the vehicle Hill uses to let the reader know several secrets and to bring resolution of sorts to the careening lives of Faye and Samuel.

—Marc Leepson

Where the Flowers Went by John Henningson

 

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John Henningson enlisted in the U.S. Army in July 1968. He was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant in August 1969. He went to Vietnam August 1970.

As Henningson writes in Where the Flowers Went In Poetry and Pictures (Mira Digital Publishing, 66 pp., $20, paper) when he shipped out to Vietnam he left “his wife who was 7 months pregnant with their first child behind.” In Vietnam he was assigned to the 3rd/82nd Artillery, which was part of the  the Americal Division in I Corps. Most of his time, he writes, was spent with infantry units as an artillery forward observer and later as a battalion artillery liaison officer.

Henningson’s  military memoir is entitled A Reluctant Warrior: 1968-1971. He tells us that Where the Flowers Went “builds on the prose” in that book, and that his “intent is to go beyond the direct recitation of events but rather to express how those experiences continue to affect my thinking today.”

Henningson’s poems are concrete and packed with detail about his tour of duty. I’m sure that much of the poetry came right out of his memoir, little changed other than to make some of the lines rhyme.

His poems have titles that let the reader know their subjects. “Baby Killers,” for example, is about his encounters with students when he drove his Jeep to bars near a university campus to drag drunken EMs home after trying to pick up college girls. “Their blame was misdirected not against the politicians who caused to all, but rather against those heroes so had answered their Nation’s call,” Henningson writes.

Other titles include “Night Lager,” “Grunts vs REMFs,” “When Death First Came to Call,” “A Grunt’s Feast,” and “Friendly Fire.”

Henningson can wax mighty poetical occasionally as in: “Suddenly a group of Cong appear and sprint toward a patch of trees/ We all draw down and fire at them but they disappear like a bit of smoke wafting in the breeze.”

“Grunts vs REMFs” is one of the best delineations of the eternal war between those two groups that I have read. It is well worth reading, as is every other poem in this fine collection.

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John Henningston in country 

Where the Flowers Went is one of the few poetry books written by a non-poet that I enjoyed reading. Why?  Because it is written from direct experience and that direct experience is on the page in a no-nonsense way. I look forward to reading Henningson’s next book.

I also enjoyed the many color paintings in the book. They remind me of the work of the great 18th century English poet and painter William Blake.

The author’s website is www.henningson.net

—David Willson

Vietnam’s High Ground by J.P. Harris

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Clarifying the fine points of exactly how the United States became involved in the Vietnam War might keep historians busy forever. Of course, the Domino Theory offers an obvious answer—one nation falls to communism and that pushes over others. But that choice resembles a conclusion such as “Joe committed suicide after growing tired of living” without examining Joe’s broken marriages, job losses, PTSD, and Agent Orange symptoms.

In other words, examining underlying details reveals reasons for the war that are far more interesting.

In 2015, Charles R. Shrader published A War of Logistics: Parachutes and Porters in Indochina, 1945-1954 in which he described the First Indochina War—fought by the French in the Red River area of North Vietnam, then called Tonkin—as a “war in which logistics decided the outcome.” Research proved his conclusion in the sense that poor logistical support can (and, in this case, did) defeat an army. Schrader based his argument on what he found in declassified contemporary French official documents and U.S. intelligence material, as well as “reports and memoirs of French participants and Western observers,” plus a wide range of secondary studies.

In Vietnam’s High Ground: Armed Struggle for the Central Highlands, 1954-1965 (University Press of Kansas, 552 pp. $45, hardcover; $27.99, Kindle), J.P. Harris provides a fitting continuation to Shrader’s history. Harris—a senior lecturer in war studies at the Sandhurst Royal Military Academy in England—moves the action southward and makes large-scale use of Vietnamese communist sources and American archives. His research examines the evolution of military action in Vietnam’s Central Highlands from subversion, insurgency, and counterinsurgency through the major battles of 1965.

Despite the dates in its subtitle, Vietnam’s High Ground focuses on military action in the 1960s with the last half of the book devoted to 1965. Concluding his accounts of fighting that was costly to both sides in the Ia Drang Valley, Harris says, “It would have taken a reckless pundit to pick a winner at this stage.”

Harris’ book is formidable. Opening it to any page provides a wealth of facts and explanations on major and minor events of the time and area. All of it offers perspectives of actions from all participants. Excellent maps, photographs, and forty-five pages of notes perfectly complement the text.
Reading the book made me feel humble. Harris covers all that I was familiar with about the early fighting in the Highlands. Well beyond that, though, he delves into actions that were unknown to me. His depth of investigation presents a stand-alone education about that phase of warfare in Vietnam.

Vietnam’s High Ground adds valuable insight to The University Press of Kansas’s Modern War Studies Series.

—Henry Zeybel

Flapjacks and Fish Sauce by Jim Barker

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Jim Barker’s Flapjacks and Fish Sauce: Asymmetrical Vietnam Humor (115 pp., $12.95, paper) is a compilation of stories from veterans who served in Vietnam during the war. In his introduction, Barker (at left in the photo) says of war: “Like a Texas tornado, conditions can be quickly brewed up that make ‘saints of sinners,’ and occasionally vice-versa. In this colosseum of intensity, the extraordinary, absurd, unusual  and comic find fertile ground.”

The stories Baker has compiled prove his point. Some are outright funny. Some are of a gallows humor that makes one cringe.

One story tells of a man who lost his rifle in a rice paddy. He “fished around” for it, and thought he found it, only to come up with a severed arm.

The less gory tales can be laugh-out-loud funny. There’s the one about a guy on guard duty who felt something tapping on his shoulder.  He thought it was his team leader trying to keep him awake. A little later his rear was firmly squeezed. He yelped and turned around to find he was being groped by an orangutan.

Jim Barker served in Vietnam in 1971-72 as an adviser and linguist with MACV in II Corps.

For ordering info, email the author at erodemango@yahoo.com

—Loana Holyman

Relfections by Andrew P. O’Meara, Jr.

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Andrew P. O’Meara, Jr.’s Reflections: Memories of Sacrifices Shared and Comrades Lost in the Line of Duty (Xlibris, 103 pp., $29.99, hardcover, $19.99, paper; $3.99, Kindle) resembles a fragmentation grenade—small but impactful. The book aims to praise Col. George S. Patton–the son of the famed World War II general—and to find fault with journalists who reported the Vietnam War. It accomplishes both missions.

O’Meara served two Vietnam War tours: initially with the 1st Cavalry Regiment (ARVN) in 1962-63, and then with the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment (Blackhorse) as the S-2 Intelligence Officer in 1968-69. Patton commanded the latter.

O’Meara describes Patton as “a marvelous teacher and inspirational leader” who was his “coach and mentor.” He also rates Patton as a “tactical genius.” He credits the Colonel with guiding him in building an Intelligence staff whose plans (including targeting of two dozen B-52 Arc Light strikes) solidified Blackhorse’s control of its Area of Operations near Long Binh.

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Col. Patton in Vietnam

In firefights, Patton often led the advance.  “Every other commander I had served under hunkered down when he came under enemy fire,” O’Meara writes. “That wasn’t Patton’s style. His unspoken response was: ‘Let the enemy hunker down.’  His aggressive actions became our shield in battle.”

O’Meara followed Patton into situations that a lesser man would have avoided. He graphically portrays these encounters and credits Patton as the leader who “taught all of us who served under his command how to fight.”

Showing “the war as American combatants saw it,” O’Meara compares their sacrifices to war correspondents’ accounts. “Instead of being portrayed as defenders and liberators, [American soldiers] were wrongly depicted as war criminals,” he says.

In this regard, he sets new standards for how old problems might have been resolved differently. For example, he says, “Just as leaders prepare soldiers for what they will face in combat, they also need to prepare them for what they will face in a hostile homecoming.”

—-Henry Zeybel

Arizona Moon by J.M. Graham

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J. M. Graham enlisted in the U. S. Navy in 1965 and served as a corpsman in Vietnam with the 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines in 1967. His novel Arizona Moon (Naval Institute Press, 320 pp., $29.95), tells an exciting combat story of three men whose lives are intertwined in Vietnam.

In the course of this well-written, involving Vietnam War in-country combat novel we get to know these three men well—Cpl. Raymond Strader, a Marine Corps squad leader who has just a few days left in his tour of duty; Lance Cp. Noche Gonshayee (Moon), an Apache warrior caught between two cultures; and the “enemy,” Truong Nghi, who is involved in a pre-Tet Offensive munitions transfer and who is a patriotic zealot.

Cpl. Strader has two days and a wakeup left in country when the helicopter he’s on goes down with Moon on board. They are taken captive by Truong Nghi and the three end up playing a game of cat and mouse in the Ong Tu Mountains. The NVA desperately tries to protect its cargo. The Marines, who never leave a comrade behind, try to retrieve their brothers-in-arms.

I agree that, as the cover claims, this novel is “compelling and relentless.” This is one of the best of the Marine Corps Vietnam War thrillers I’ve read, and I highly recommend it.

We get lots of cowboy and Indian imagery, a debunking of John Wayne, the myth of the Island of the Black Clap, much ham-and-motherfucker talk, rear echelon bashing, seeing of the elephant, and Iwo Jima references. ARVNs are bashed, too.

All the usual stuff, that is, plus an exciting thriller that kept me on the edge of my seat.

If you are looking for a Marine Corps thriller, make this your next one.

—David Willson