1000 Yard Stare by Marc C. Waszkiewicz

Many fine photography books have come out of the Vietnam War. Some, like Larry Burrows’, are breathtaking achievements that meld art, science, and a profound depiction of war. Others—often just as compelling—bring together images by multiple photographers. Marc Waszkiewicz’ 1000 Yard Stare: A Marine’s Eye View of the Vietnam War (Stackpole Books, 328 pp., $39.95, hardcover and Kindle) is neither of these, although at first that’s not apparent.

With the help of by Lea Jones and Crista Dougherty, Waszkiewicz—who served three Vietnam War tours as an artillery forward observer—has produced instead a fine photo album chock full of compelling images. As in all photo albums, the most recurring subject is its author.

That’s not a bad thing. What we get are photos Waszkiewicz took and some his buddies took. Between them all, Waszkiewicz does a very good job of presenting a visual record of his tour in Vietnam—and afterward. With insatiable curiosity he records the countryside, the villagers, the combatants, the prisoners, and the weaponry.

But more importantly, he also records his life and the lives of the young Marines with whom he served. Sometimes they were frightened, sometimes grieved, and sometimes they were just goofy. Waszkiewicz captures something that most Vietnam War photo books miss: the spunky resilience of the young American men who served there; their inability to consider themselves victims; and their indefatigable insistence on making the best of bad situations.

Waszkiewicz in Vietnam in 1969

There’s not a bad joke left untold, not a single joint left unsmoked. He and his fellow troops worked hard and played hard. If you had to be in hell, you should do your best to dupe the devil. And if you had to be in Vietnam during the war, Marc Waszkiewicz was a good guy to have around.

The last part of the book record trips he made with other veterans to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and to Vietnam. As the chapter title suggests, these trips are about trying to find peace.

These later images lack the sharp, compelling edge of the Vietnam War photos, but they’re quite nice.

Sort of like life itself.

—Michael Keating

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The Revolution of Robert Kennedy by John R. Bohrer

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In The Revolution of Robert Kennedy: From Power to Protest after JFK (Bloomsbury Press, 384 pp. $30, hardcover; $9.99, Kindle) the journalist John R. Bohrer analyzes Robert F. Kennedy’s impact on America by examining three years of his life following the November 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy. During that period, RFK transformed himself into a national leader with aspirations to win the presidential election of 1968.

Bohrer explains how Bobby Kennedy shifted his persona from that of an upper-class, nationally known politician to that of a close friend of the working man. Before then, he had primarily served as JFK’s closest advisor and as his Attorney General.

Military manuals define leadership as “The art of influencing and directing men in a way that will win their obedience, confidence, respect, and loyal cooperation in achieving a common objective.” Bohrer shows how RFK’s evolution touched each aspect of leadership with underdogs, but also created rancor among Washington big dogs, particularly President Lyndon B. Johnson.

By 1966, after winning a seat in the U.S. Senate, Bobby Kennedy’s causes included supporting migrant farm workers, civil rights workers in the South, and those suffering under apartheid in South Africa. Furthermore, he backed the War on Poverty, which included correcting a general imbalance in the distribution of property and raising the welfare and educational levels of poor blacks. He also challenged the need for American involvement and increasing use of military power in the Vietnam War.

Bohrer clearly describes the turmoil of the era by citing contradictory opinions of influential American leaders on all of those social and political issues.

The Revolution of Robert Kennedy is Bohrer’s first book. His writing credentials include work as a reporter, interviewer, television news producer, and historian. One can only speculate that Bohrer has plans for a follow-up volume on the year and a half after this one ends, which would cover the 1968 assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy.

—Henry Zeybel

 

Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai

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Thanhha Lai was born in Vietnam and moved to Alabama at the end of the American war.  She now lives in Kansas with her family.  Inside Out and Back Again (HarperCollins, 277 pp. $16.99, hardcover; $7.99, paper; $4.99, Kindle) is written in free verse.  This children’s book—a bestseller that won the National Book Award when it come out in 2011— tells the story of Ha and her family’s journey from Saigon to America.

Thanhha Lai decided to use poetry to tell her story rather than a novel or short stories. It starts in Saigon in 1975,  the Year of the Cat. The reader gets a poem dated February 11, Tet, in which everyone eats sugary cakes and wears new clothes. It is a time for starting over.

The next poem is dated February 12, and the reader realizes the book is written as a journal in poetry.  At the end of the book we are on January 31, Tet, once again. In between, we get a year of Thanhha Lai’s life, her journey, and that of her family.

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Thanhha Lai

 

Here’s a brief sample from “Life in Waiting,” one of the poems that offers a taste of the author’s voice and great talent.

A routine starts/as soon as we settle/into our tent.

Camp workers/teach us English/mornings and afternoons.

Evenings we have to ourselves.

We watch movies outdoors/with images projected/onto a  white sheet.

Brother Quang translates/into a microphone,/his voice sad and slow.

If it’s a young cowboy/like Clint Eastwood,/everyone cheers.

If it’s an old cowboy,/like John Wayne,/most of us boo/and go swimming.

The Disney cartoons/lure out the girls,/who always surround/Brother Vu,

begging him to break/yet another piece of wood.

I can still hear them begging/when I go sit with Brother Khoi,

who rarely speaks anymore/but I’m happy to be near him.         

This is a fine book, both sad and funny–and not just for children.  Read it.  The Vietnamese point of view is elusive and seldom appreciated.

—David Willson

The Discharge by Gary Reilly

Gary Reilly died in 2011. He left behind a treasure trove of unpublished novels. Among those is a trilogy which relates to his military service. Reilly’s protagonist in that trilogy is named Pvt. Palmer. In the first novel, Palmer is drafted and trained to be a military policeman.  In the second, The Detachment, Palmer serves his year in Southeast Asia.

In the recently published The Discharge (Running Meter Press, $14.95, paper; $2.99, Kindle) Pvt. Palmer is “back in the world,” and like most of us who served in uniform in Vietnam, he confronts a new America, one that is very different from the one he left behind a year earlier. Reilly accurately portrays the confusion of Palmer as he struggles to find his direction home.

The strategies that served him well in Vietnam don’t help much in Denver, San Francisco, or Los Angeles where he goes to pursue a movie career. Palmer’s “California dreamin’” comes to naught and soon enough he’s back in Denver behind the wheel of a cab.

Our hero had some fun adventures in California—Strother Martin, Gunsmoke, and the La Brea Tar Pits come into play. It’s a near thing that Palmer doesn’t end up in the pits along with the saber-toothed tigers and the ancient giant tree sloths. He also played phone tag with Jack Benny, Buster Keaton, John Steinbeck, and Woody Allen.

Palmer’s return to America also involves his fear about his role in baby killing. He tries to play an early Animals album that has “We Gotta Get Out of this Place” on it at a party, but is told that it  was not “the right sound for now.” No sounds Palmer comes up with are, as he tries very hard to become a part of things, but all his efforts fail miserably.

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Gary Reilly

No book I’ve read better captures the anomie that poor, befuddled Palmer struggles with. Behind the wheel of a taxi, Palmer finds his place in America—permanently on the move, always changing his destination—a destination chosen by others.

The Discharge prepares us for The Asphalt Warrior series—eight books so far—all of them comedy classics.  Read them after you read this one, if you haven’t already.

The publisher’s website is theasphaltwarrior.com

—David Willson

Across The Fence by John Stryker Meyer

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“Across the Fence” refers to secret recon missions run by the SOG (Studies and Observations Group) in Vietnam.  The “fence” is the Vietnam border. SOG teams went out on missions across the border into Laos and Cambodia when U.S. forces were not supposed to be in these neutral countries. Across the Fence: The Secret War in Vietnam (SOG Publishing, 334 pp., $24.95, paper; $3.29, Kindle) is a memoir by  John Stryker Meyer, who was in the Army Special Forces assigned to SOG from April 1968 to April 1970.

Members of the SOG group wore sterile fatigues and carried no IDs or dog tags. The government never admitted they were active-duty troops. If captured or killed, they were spies. They were all known by code names. Meyer’s was “tilt.”

Specials Forces members of SOG were sworn to secrecy. They could not tell their parents, girlfriends, or buddies what they were doing, and they agreed to keep quiet for twenty years. The recon teams consisted of six-to-eight men, and each team had several South Vietnamese Army members. The 219th Vietnamese Air Force transported the recon teams using H-34 helicopters nicknamed “kingbees.” They could take more enemy fire than any other helicopter and still fly.

Stryker’s writing gives vivid accounts of the secret missions into Laos and Cambodia. His description of being plucked from a landing zone in Laos and dangling by a rope under a speeding Kingbee moments before the LZ was overrun by North Vietnamese troops was breathtaking. The NVA knew that these missions were operating across the fence, and a large bounty was placed on SOG heads.

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Meyer (right) in country

 

Most striking about the book is the high volume of photos and the information on what happened to SOG veterans Stryker chronicles. He includes a conversation that took place 31 years later between SOG member Lynne Black and the NVA general his team encountered.

This book gives an excellent first-hand account of little-known Vietnam War operations and the people who carried them out. It’s a great read.

The author’s website is www.sogchronicles.com

—Mark S. Miller

Aztec File by Dale A. Dye

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Dale Dye, the former Marine who served in Vietnam in 1965 and in 1967-70 and in the mid-eighties re-invented military technical advising in Hollywood (think Platoon, Saving Private Ryan, Band of Brothers, The Pacific, Born on the Fourth of July, et al.), also has written a slew of novels, including seven in the Shake Davis series.

Sheldon (Shake) Davis is a guy who manages to be where the action is and knows what to do to forestall disaster. In Dye’s seventh and newest in the series, Aztec File (Warriors Publishing Group, $14.95, paper; 280 pp.; $6.99, Kindle), Shake is suspicious about some bad guys who are up to something along the Mexican-U.S. border.

Shake’s suspicions lead him to another problem-solving exercise in the nick of time, which he specializes in. Spoiler alert: At the most extreme point of danger, Shake yells “Bomb!”—which I do not recommend as the first step in dealing with a group of jihadis who have built a huge explosive device out of oil barrels and fertilizer and fuel oil and are on the brink of exploding it in a crowd.

Shake receives an award for his action, which is not the result I predict if you or I did the same thing.  We’d get shot or blown up—or both—but Shake gets decorated and afterward everyone eats barbeque and drinks his or her beverage of choice.

This is the best and most exciting Shake Davis novel so far. I enjoyed seeing the jihadis defeated, along with some Mexican gang bangers who are thrown into the mix. They kidnap Mrs. Shake and mistreat her. Their reward for that is brutal and final.  Yes, Shake Davis is a “hard man,” but we need such men in hard times.

If you are a fan of Dale Dye’s fine series of thrillers featuring Shake Davis and his band of faithful helpers, buy this book. You will not be disappointed.

—David Willson

White Water, Read Hot Lead by Dan Daly

In 1967-68, Dan Daly served as the skipper of a fifty-foot-long Swift Boat in Vietnam. He delivers a highly personalized account of that experience in the new edition of White Water, Red Hot Lead: On Board U.S. Navy Swift Boats in Vietnam (Casemate, 413 pp., $32.95, hardcover; $9.99, Kindle), which was first published in 2015.

Swift Boats worked relatively unfettered by assignments from headquarters. Daly and his five crewmen primarily intercepted trawlers carrying supplies to NVA units in South Vietnam.

Daly describes Swift Boat life starting with training in California. In country, he and his men encountered frequent firefights, ferocious weather that once capsized their boat, and harassment from superiors who considered Swift Boaters too independent and macho. Daly also recollects the onset of his lasting love for a Navy nurse from the U.S.S. Repose.

His crew’s combat action mainly took place offshore near Da Nang. To fill out the Swift Boat picture, Daly describes in detail an operation in which one of his friends picked up Special Forces troops at the southern tip of Vietnam near the Cambodian border.

Daly holds a lasting fondness for his crewmen and fellow Swift Boat skippers. Through his eyes, his men saw themselves as elite sailors working hard to maintain that status. His book makes a strong case for an overwhelming sense of teamwork and dedication to duty among Swift Boat crews.

Daly and crew

Throughout the book, Daly has blended an excellent collection of photographs, most of which he shot, with the text.

The author’s website is whitewaterredhotlead.com 

The book is available for a 50 percent discount for members of Vietnam Veterans of America. To order, call 610-853-9131, or go to casematepublishers.com, tell them you are a VVA member, and provide the code VVA-50. The offer is good through September 30, 2017.

—Henry Zeybel