Afternoon Light by Ralph Beer

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Ralph Beer served for three years in the U. S. Army during the Vietnam War.  He spent much of that time at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. He then was sent for a year to the “super-secret complex” at Nakhon Phanom Air Base in Thailand, Beer writes in Afternoon Light: A Memoir (Casey Peak Press, 340 pp., $14.95, paper; $3.99, Kindle). He goes on to tell the reader that the Vietnam War “was the event of my generation, whether we think much about it now or not.”  He’s right.

Every chapter of this fine memoir is saturated with the Vietnam War. “The suffering it caused the Vietnamese and the American people,” Beer writes, “was biblical in scope and hellish in its lasting pain.” This book deals with the impact of the Vietnam War on Ralph Beer and his love, Sheila, and also with how difficult is to sustain love during times of trouble. And all times are times of trouble. Don’t doubt that for one moment.

Beer includes a long quote from Larry Heinemann’s classic war novel Close Quarters.  He also gives a major nod to James Crumley, who has written as seriously about the Vietnam War as both Heinemann and Beer have. I hope that a book will be forthcoming from Beer about his time in the Army, preferably set in Thailand.  It seems unlikely, as Beer makes the point in this book about how old and infirm he is.

Before his military service Ralph Beer ran off to British Columbia with Sheila—and with scarcely any preparation for the adventure. Things didn’t go smoothly. They filed a Canadian government mining claim and worked very hard to make a go of that project.

Beer failed to confront the realities of citizenship in Canada, though. That led to a disastrous interview with a Canadian immigration official who accused him of every crime short of mopery.

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Ralph Beer

The couple returned to the USA and Beer made things right with his draft board. That led to his service in the Army. Does the relationship survive? Spoiler alert: it does.

Ralph Beer spent much of his life working “for almost nothing” on his grandfather’s Montana ranch. He’s written four books dealing with that experience. They have not made him rich or famous. Far from it.

Beer’s final word on the Vietnam War: It “can only be seen as a tragic and senseless waste for us all,” he says.

He took the words right out of my mouth.

—David Willson

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Brutal Battles of Vietnam edited by Richard K. Kolb

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Richard K. Kolb, the recently retired long-time publisher and editor-in-chief of VFW magazine, has spent more than a decade preparing the newly published Brutal Battles of Vietnam: America’s Deadliest Days, 1965-1972 (VWF, 480 pp., $29.95). This worthy book is the fruit of Kolb’s research, writing, and editing of a long-running series in his magazine called “Vietnam’s Deadliest Battles.”

Brutal Battles is a reader-friendly, heavily illustrated coffee-table-sized tome that, as Kolb puts it, stands as “the first and only” book that presents “a comprehensive U.S. battle history of Vietnam in a single volume.” Kolb and his team of writers (including the noted Vietnam War specialists Al Hemingway and Keith Nolan) do not deal with politics at home, geopolitics, the antiwar movement, life in the rear, diplomacy, strategy, accounts of the ARVN (or NVA or VC)—or any kind of in-depth analysis of tactics. In other words, as Kolb puts it, the book “is not Vietnam 101.”

Instead, Brutal Battles is a compelling, well-written compilation of on-the-mark reports on dozens of Vietnam War engagements that ended in significant casualties. In other words, that is, the deadliest, most brutal, of the war’s all-out battles and other engagements.

Each one gets a relatively short but meaty chapter told from the point of view of the Americans who did the fighting. We get the voices of everyday troops who fought in the battles, along with cogent descriptions of what took place, as well as tributes to those who perished and those who performed courageously under fire.

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Rich Kolb, who served in Vietnam with the Army’s 4th Infantry and 101st Airborne Divisions in 1970-71, shaped the magazine series and the book to include actions involving every American infantry division, independent infantry brigade, and separate regiment that took part in the war. They are presented chronologically through 1972.

What follows is a section on Navy and Air Force engagements. Then comes a tribute to the war’s most highly decorated troops and statistical info, including a 1959-72 combat chronology.

For purchasing info, go to the VFW store.

—Marc Leepson

W.D. Ehrhart in Conversation edited by Jean-Jaques Malo

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W.D. (Bill) Ehrhart enlisted in the United States Marine Corps on April 11, 1966, while still in high school. He left for Vietnam on February 9, 1967, after receiving combat training at Camp Pendleton. When he arrived in Vietnam, Ehrhart served with the 1st Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment as an intelligence assistant and later as assistant intelligence chief.

He took part in many combat operations including Stone, Lafayette, Early, Canyon, Calhoun, Pike, Medina, Lancaster, Kentucky I, II and III,  Con Thien, Newton, Osceola II, and Hue City. Ehrhart was promoted to lance corporal on April 1, and to corporal on July 1.

Bill Ehrhart is the author and editor of a long list of poetry books, memoirs, essays, translations, and chapbooks. Eight of his poems were included in the pioneering 1972 book, Winning Hearts and Minds: War Poems by Vietnam Veterans. He edited two important and excellent poetry collections: Unaccustomed Mercy: Soldier-Poets of the Vietnam War and Carrying the Darkness: Poetry of the Vietnam War. His books of essays include Dead on a High Hill and In the Shadow of Vietnam.

Ehrhart is considered to be one of the major authors of the Vietnam War. I am on record as calling him a “master essayist,” which he is.

W.D. Ehrhart in Conversation: Vietnam, America, and the Written Word (McFarland, 236 pp., $39.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle), edited by University of Nantes English Professor Jean-Jacques Malo, is a companion volume to Malo’s The Last Time I Dreamed about the War: Essays on the Life and Writing of W. D. Ehrhart.

In Conversation contains nineteen interviews of varying length and sophistication with Ehrhart done by folks from many walks of life. I enjoyed reading all of them, and was surprised how much I learned about Bill Ehrhart and his writing. I thought that after reading The Last Time I Dreamed and (full disclosure) having known him for decades, there would be no surprises in this new book. I was wrong.

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Bill Ehrhart

These interviews cover many subjects and three decades of Ehrhart’s life and career. Parades, Jane Fonda, being spat upon, Agent Orange, and many other subjects are covered. Ehrhart is not a cliché Marine. He didn’t want a parade; he was never spat upon; he has nothing bad so say about Jane Fonda.

Agent Orange is covered and in one of the interviews Ehrhart mentions that I am dying of multiple myeloma which the VA believes came to me via exposure to dioxins in Vietnam

If you have the slightest interest in Bill Ehrhart or the Vietnam War, buy this book and read it.  I read it in just a few hours and loved it.

—David Willson

Planet Vietnam By Steve Tate

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Planet Vietnam (CreateSpace, 132 pp., $9.99, paper; $2.99, Kindle) is the account of Steve Tate, who served as a nineteen-year-old with the 229th Assault Helicopter Battalion in the 1st Calvary Division in Vietnam in 1968-69. The book follows Tate to Bunker 48, Dau Tieng, Tay Ninh, and finally an aviation unit performing helicopter maintenance.

At the end of the book Tate questions whether he was “in the shit” or in “the rear.” He goes on to talk about “a new type of discrimination” in the Army in which many soldiers looked down on those with rear echelon assignments.

There are many interesting issues relating to the war that Tate addresses. He vividly describes, for example, the widespread use of drugs and alcohol. “Alcohol was responsible for more deaths and destruction than will ever be admitted,” Tate says. He also recounts how “they” planted two bags of pot in his grip when he was out of the barracks in hopes of framing him.

I found a couple of incidents in Planet Vietnam very interesting. In one, a friend of Tate tries to commit suicide when he receives a Dear John letter from his girlfriend near the end of his tour. Tate also writes about a buddy who shot down his own helicopter firing an M79 shell through the top of the chopper. He also mentions seeing UFOs in the spring of 1968 near the DMZ. “We were being buzzed by UFOs,” Tate says, “and never knew, or cared.”

This is a short book in which Steve Tate brings up many topics I wish he would have explored further. Overall, Tate describes the Vietnam War in a unique way, and I would recommend his book.

—Mark S. Miller

Eye of a Boot by Jerry Lilly

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Looking back to when he was twenty years old, Jerry Lilly tells his readers, “I know that to relax can get me killed. I treat the Vietnamese respectfully.”

Much of what he recalls in his memoir, Eye of a Boot (CreateSpace, 160 pp. $24.95, paper), is told in what Lilly calls “progressive present tense.” In this way, readers can get a better sense, he says, of the “urgency, confusion, and intensity of being there.” In other words, Lilly’s style creates the illusion that his men and he are performing their duties right before the reader’s eyes.

From November 1967 to December 1968, Jerry Lilly served as a Marine infantryman in I Corps, most of the time as a squad leader. At first, he resisted taking the position. Then, he says, “someone of higher rank gave me the responsibility. I had to accept it.”

A deep sense of responsibility for his men’s welfare infused Lilly’s behavior. His worries were purposeful and productive. He tried not to expose his squad to VC or NVA attacks, yet he pressed fights with the enemy. In the field, he constantly believed he was under surveillance from an enemy waiting for the most opportune time to pounce.

His description and analysis of this attitude make the book an outstanding study in leadership. Many chapters provide lessons about the right and wrong ways to work with superiors and subordinates. Lilly describes missions that caused him to question the logic and sanity of his company and platoon commanders, but he nevertheless gave them his utmost support and effort.

The intense manner in which Lilly depicts the flow of combat had me reading well into the night. In particular, Lilly describes a two-day recon mission that ended in daylight when he single-handedly pursued and killed with hate and rage. Compassion emerged at the end, of the fighting, though, when the young Marine realized that he must never forget what happened.

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The imbalance of tactical skill and training between Marines and Viet Cong upset him. He stared at bodies and thought, “My God, look what I did to you. I’m sorry.”

Minutes later, what Lilly did paled in comparison to the actions of a fellow Marine who vengefully and barbarously murdered a wounded VC prisoner. In despair, Lilly wondered, “What is shock?” and “What is real?” His concern for his men grew stronger.

Jerry Lilly’s mind, heart, and soul fill every page of Eye of a Boot.

—Henry Zeybel

The Band Never Played for Us by Ronald G. Goddard

When you first open The Band Never Played for Us: The Vietnam War as Seen by a Marine Rifleman in 1967 (Lulu, 425 pp. $31.49, hardcover; $19.99, paper: $7.99, e book), turn to the chapter titled “Battle at Phu Oc.” It culminates all that came before.

Ronald G. Goddard, who was nineteen when the battle took place, examines that day with frightening clarity. Thirty-one Marines were killed in action and 118 wounded. The order that sent Marines into battle at Phu Oc was “the stupidest tactics I had ever seen for the terrain we were in,” Goddard says.

“There were almost no enemy soldiers visible even though they were all around me. I did not see any recognizable NVA soldiers today; except the shadowy figures I saw running deep in the jungle. I saw muzzle flashes, hands, arms, but I never saw a face or anything that looked like a human being. No one was out in the open.”

Based on his experiences as a squad leader in the 2nd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment from March to October 1967, Goddard concludes: “The problem every American infantry leader had in Vietnam, from a battalion commander to a fire team leader, was that we didn’t know the terrain as well as the enemy, and we never knew what we were getting into until we were in it.”

Wounded three times, Goddard saw more than enough action to validate his opinion. He understood that Marines were both “the hunter and the hunted,” and recognized the “fine line between aggressively pursuing the enemy and getting yourself sucked into an ambush.”

The core of his book describes and analyzes on-the-ground warfare in Vietnam based on Goddard’s experiences and day-by-day accounts of his squad’s activities. Even a reader familiar with Vietnam War infantry operations should find interest in Goddard’s efforts to devise tactics to protect his men and to outwit the NVA. He brings to life what he learned firsthand.

Throughout the book, Goddard’s honesty pleased me, especially when he went off on a “Fuck it all” tangent. Otherwise, he is a life-long, truly proud and dedicated Marine.

The final pages of The Band Never Played for Us contain several maps of his operating areas along with photographs of Marines in Vietnam.

The author’s website is ronaldggoddard.com

—Henry Zeybel

A Catalog of Birds by Laura Harrington

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Laura Harrington has written dozens of plays, musicals, and operas, as well as Alice Bliss, a novel that deals with the Iraq War. Her new book, A Catalog of Birds (Europa Editions, 224 pp. $16, paper; $9.99, Kindle), is set in 1970 when Billy Flynn returns home from his tour of duty in the Vietnam War as a helicopter pilot who had been shot down and very badly burned.

The only survivor of that helicopter crash, Billy returns to his family in upstate New York where his adoring kid sister tries valiantly to help him regain the use of his right hand and arm. Billy had been a brilliant artist, drawing birds with a pencil he can’t even hold with his crippled right hand.

This is one of those tragedy-of-war books that has tears on every page and no easy answers or miracles for Billy Flynn or his sister. There is also a mystery: Billy’s pre-war girlfriend disappears and is never heard from again.

The VA hospital where Billy receives inadequate care is rat-infested and his care givers are skeptical that anything serious is wrong with him. They all but accuse him of faking his injury. Plus, the VA only pays for half of Billy’s rehab; his parents go bankrupt trying to pay for the other half.

What’s more, Billy and his best friend Harlow are treated by people outside the VA as though they are baby killers and monsters. They spend a lot of time drinking away their time and pain.

There is a big discussion about chemicals that the Army used in Vietnam. “There are plenty of vets who can’t smell or taste.” Billy says to his father. “Most everybody has hearing loss. More and more cancers are showing up. The VA says they are slacking off, looking to stay on the dole. Twelve million tons of Agent Orange, Dad. As if the Geneva Convention against chemical warfare did not exist. Think of what we have done, what we are leaving behind.”

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Laura Harrington

This is as bleak a novel about the Vietnam War as I’ve read. Nothing turns out well for anyone. No good comes out of the war either. Harrington—who teaches play writing at MIT—and I see eye to eye about that.

Those who see the war as having done a lot of good should go elsewhere for their reading.

The author’s website is lauraharringtonbooks.com

—David Willson