Not Enough Tears by Dave Wright

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I try to read a Vietnam War memoirs as if it was the first book I’ve read on the subject. Despite that, I recognize similarities from previous books. Consequently, the depths to which a writer reveals personal experiences influences my reaction to a book. In other words, I often judge a book based on the writer’s willingness to share his or her most horrific war stories and reactions to them.

In Not Enough Tears (Author House, 277 pp. $14.95, paper; $4.99, Kindle), Dave Wright generously opens his mind and heart to tell what he did and saw as a twenty-three-year-old Army infantryman. He was assigned to the 1st Battalion/26th Regiment of the First Infantry Division at Lai Khe during his 1968-69 Vietnam War tour.

Wright took part in two encounters that wiped out his squad, but left him unscratched. He justified—but at the same time questioned—surviving those and other traumatizing events as the result of his faith, which began when he was eleven.

“God let me ‘sense’ when we were walking into trouble,” he says.

Draftee Wright hated the war. “By three months,” he writes, “I was sick of life as a grunt.”

Yet he strove to keep others safe, choosing to walk point to protect new guys after watching too many of them get killed too quickly. Because he was a few years older, his fellow soldiers called him “The Old Man” or “Father.” They admired his good luck.

A natural leader, Dave Wright developed a philosophy whereby, when possible, he bypassed the enemy. His rationale centered on the certainty that his men would suffer casualties regardless of how many VC they killed, wounded, or captured. So avoiding firefights protected them from harm.

Wright discusses progressive mental and physical problems that made him resort to a “sham” and other schemes to get an easier job after eight months in the field. “I needed someone to recognize that I had done all I could, for as long as I could,” he says.

He was reassigned to a newly formed recon platoon made up of twenty-five “eight balls from the whole battalion,” as he calls them. The job was safer, but he started having “anxiety attacks just hours before it was time to go out into the jungle,” he says, and “was getting closer and closer to becoming a mental casualty.”

Despite his covenant with God, Wright worried about the future: “What if I screwed up and made Him mad,” he thought. “Would He stop protecting me and all those around me?” Eventually, Wright ended up in a support company where he felt relief. But he also felt guilt for “getting off line almost two months early,” he says.

You don’t have to be Sherlock to figure out the cause-effect of Wright’s PTSD. He provides the facts of his experiences and the effects naturally follow. For example, he reached “a new low,” he says, when he ripped open a dead VC’s face to help another soldier extract a gold tooth. He acted atrociously and no punishment followed, which complicated his “Why me, Lord?” puzzlement.

Back home and newly married, Wright slowly recognized that he had little control over his life compared to the control he felt when walking point. Depression, anguish, and pain followed. Work and church became the foundation for his life.

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Dave Wright

By writing Not Enough Tears, Wright was able to examine the changes in his personality that had resulted from war experiences. God provided salvation. As he puts it: “My stories are certainly not of biblical quality, but they are a true record of what Jesus has done in my life.”

Originally published in 2004, Not Enough Tears was recently re-released with revisions and photographs.

Richard Charles Martinez, author of Grunts Don’t Cry, served in the same 1st Infantry Division platoon as Wright in 1968-69. Their books complement each other.

—Henry Zeybel

 

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The Hardest Part by Bruce I. McDaniel

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Bruce McDaniel enlisted in the Army in September 1967 and spent a year as a medic with the 198th Light Infantry Brigade in Vietnam. He wrote about that experience in a 2016 memoir, Walk Through the Valley: The Spiritual Journey of a Vietnam War Medic, which we reviewed on these pages.

In  Homecoming Stories from the Vietnam War (Lulu.com, 64 pp., $8, paper) McDaniel uses those experiences to create a group of short stories that explore his feelings about the challenges of returning to America after his tour of duty. He did not anticipate the troubles he would encounter.

McDaniel’s service as a medic saving lives in the Vietnam War did not make him popular in the civilian world when he returned home.  Some of the stories he uses to explore what it is like to be back deal with a Vietnam veteran on leave who chooses to travel in his uniform because of the advantages he thought that would give him as a traveler.

The story I appreciated most was about a veteran who enrolls in college with his war wound dogging him, but not a wound that is readily identifiable. He lacks one eye, which was damaged by a tiny piece of shrapnel. He’s actually told by a fellow student that it served him right for being in Vietnam.

Nobody has told me that about my Agent Orange-connected disability, but the world has changed a lot since 1968. The story made me wonder, though, if the occasional person might have that thought. It wouldn’t surprise me.

These stories frequently provoked me to fits of thinking, which is what one hopes for from good fiction. There are far fewer than seventy-five pages is this little book, but it packs a punch.

In fact, it packs several punches, and I highly recommend it to all veterans. I believe the stories would be especially helpful to read and discussed by a group of veterans dealing with stubborn, painful issues that have refused to fly away into the clouds.

I appreciate that Bruce McDaniel used his memories and imagination to produce these powerful stories.

—David Willson

The Smell of Light by Bill McCloud

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Bill McCloud dropped out of college in his second semester and volunteered for the Army. He entered the service on the ninety-day delay program, and was in uniform from September 1967 to September 1970. He served in Vietnam from March 1968 to March 1969 as flight operations coordinator with the 147th Assault Support Helicopter Company (the Hillclimbers) on the airfield at Vung Tau.

McCloud—who teaches U.S. History at Rogers State University and is best known for his book, What Should We Tell Our Children about Vietnam?—arrived in Vietnam just as I was leaving. He was stationed in a spot I thought of as an in-country R&R center for Americans—and for the enemy.

I wondered as I started reading his new book of poetry, The Smell of the Light: Vietnam, 1968-1969 as Told through Personal Poems (Balkan Press, 158 pp., $14.99, paper; $4.99, Kindle), how long I had to wait before there was a mention of John Wayne. Page sixteen rewarded my patience with an entire John Wayne poem, one of the best poems of the Vietnam War and certainly one of the top two poems I’ve read dealing with John Wayne

I present Bill McCloud’s “John Wayne” here because it will give you an idea about the high quality of the poetry in this book and because it is pithy and well worth reading.

 

We keep hearing rumors

That they’re currently filming

A John Wayne movie about Vietnam

Everyone’s excited now about John Wayne

Everyone’s excited now about going to Vietnam

Now it’s a John Wayne war

 

That’s a hard poem to top.

51abellxphl-_sx314_bo1204203200_1McCloud, a member of Vietnam Veterans of America, used his letters home as source material for many of these poems. I believe he was writing better and higher-quality letters home than many of us. Mining my letters for poetic nuggets would be a painful task, fraught with horror.  Not something I’m tempted to do.

McCloud deals with other universal Vietnam War experiences such as shit burning, but he does not weigh his poems down with this stuff. That is a  strength of these fine poems.

This book of Vietnam War poetry sits very near the top of the heap. Right up there where the star would go if this were a Christmas tree.

Thanks, Bill McCloud, for this beautiful book.

—David Willson

Syllables of Rain By D. S. Lliteras

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Syllables of Rain (Rainbow Ridge Books, 152 pp., $16.95, paper) is a poetic novel of pure genius by the novelist and poet D.S. Lliteras. A former Navy combat corpsman with the First Recon Marines in the Vietnam War, Lliteras received a Bronze Star for his courage under fire.

This work surpasses his earlier books that dealt with the Vietnam War: 613 West Jefferson, in which a returning Vietnam veteran tries to make sense of the terrible world he has returned to, and Viet Man, which shows what veterans dealt with while serving in Vietnam. Both are master works.  But neither book grapples with the things that Syllables of Rain takes on.

Syllables of Rain should be placed on the book shelf next to Karl Marlantes’ novel Matterhorn as an antidote to giant books that seem to last as long as the war itself did.  Syllables of Rain lets the reader know what happened to Marines after the war, experiences weighed down by great sadness—as Matterhorn is burdened with blood, thunder, and death.

Llewellyn and Cookie, the friends at the heart of Syllables of Rain, are easily imagined in the world of Matterhorn and it is easy to imagine them buoyed up by Jansen, a larger-than-life Zen master who influences the rest of their lives. Llewellyn and Cookie had intersected years before, but their lives were ordained by fate to become intertwined yet again.  They stand, confronting each other on a street in Baltimore, face to face with their mortality and with assessing what their lives have measured up to.

Will they have a future with the women they love? Will they come to terms with their shared past and go on to deal successfully with their war and their emotions? They and we can only hope.  Some of us will even pray that they will. Llewellyn asks the question, “Is it wrong to be lost?”

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D.S. Lliteras

My favorite kind of Vietnam War book is short, poetical, and filled with hard-fought truths.  Every page would be purest poetry, quarried from the marble of experience. This is that book. D. S. Lliteras brings his unique genius to bear on the world of the Vietnam War veteran, sometimes homeless, often heartsick from love lost.

Viet Man is a gritty in-country novel; Syllables of Rain is the poetic novel of a lifetime of coping with war, of struggling “to make peace with Vietnam” with the war that “separated us from everybody else.”

I’d thought that D. S. Lliteras’ previous book, Viet Man, was un-toppable, but I was dead wrong.

—David Willson

The Pentagon’s Wars by Mark Perry

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If you are looking for an inside look at the most important military discussions that took place in the last thirty years, read Mark Perry’s The Pentagon’s Wars: The Military’s Undeclared War Against America’s Presidents (Basic Books, 368 pp.; $30, hardcover; $17.99, Kindle).

Perry—a military historian, author, and a former editor of The VVA Veteran—presents behind-the-scene arguments based on his three decades of on- and off-the-record interviews with the nation’s highest civilian leaders and senior U.S. military officers. This book includes the fruit of eighty-two interviews Perry conduction with more than fifty military officers in the last two years.

Perry first explains the technical Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA), which began in the 1970s. He ties it to the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act. Combined, the two actions aimed to end inter-service competition and required the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps “to plan and fight together, or ‘jointly.”’ It didn’t always work that way, Perry explains.

Goldwater-Nichols took the Joint Chiefs of Staff out of the chain-of-command and reduced them to organizing, training, and equipping tasks. Thereafter, the chain went from the President to the Secretary of Defense and then to unified commanders worldwide. That included “functional” commands of special operations, strategic nuclear weapons, and global force projection.

In essence, the act gave the President a more direct link to men in the field. The change also increased the tactical and strategic advantages provided by RMA. But each general still sought a share of glory in his service, Perry says.

He goes on to lay out the story of civilian-military relations from Desert Storm to the rise of the Islamic State. That includes a wide variety of situations such as an evening meeting in the President’s limousine and an early-morning argument in a stuffy hotel room in Dayton, Ohio. In doing so, Perry conveys the emotions (and too often the pettiness) of American leaders. The scenes he describes—including the planning of Desert Storm—ring with authenticity

Naturally, Perry focuses on conflicts surrounding presidents, Secretaries of Defense, and strong military leaders such as Colin Powell, Wesley Clark, Tommy Franks, “Mad Dog” Mike Mattis, Mike Mullen, Martin Dempsey, and David Petraeus. Perry highlights confrontations between Bill Clinton and Powell and Donald Rumsfeld against nearly everybody.

The 2005 “Generals’ Revolt” against Rumsfeld makes a most interesting chapter. In it, Perry explains the difficulties that America, as the world’s lone superpower, endured in finding capable leaders and tending to “overreach” to “shape the world as it saw fit.” In these respects, more than thirty years after the end of the Cold War, military leaders still have not had their voices fully heard.

Although men in uniform retained the right of freedom of speech, they frequently were bypassed in decision making, particularly on subjects that civilian leaders saw as minor issues such as those involving gay and transgender service members. Problems compounded themselves when generals failed to have their thoughts considered on issues of greater importance, Perry says.

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Mark Perry

The Pentagon’s Wars closes by pointing out that today “American soldiers [are] fighting in more wars in more countries, and with less success, than at any time since the end of World War II.”

Perry concedes that civilians “elected by the people, choose which wars to fight and when.” But he champions a need for generals to have a more-influential voice. “Those in uniform deserve better,” he says. “And so do we.”

How does The Pentagon’s Wars relate to the Vietnam War? What happened there greatly influenced the thinking of the generals cited in the book. As young officers, they established reputations and proved their credibility in Vietnam, to which they refer repeatedly.

—Henry Zeybel

Between the Walls of Time by Michael Stafford

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Michael Stafford did a lot of research about war before writing his novel, Between the Walls of Time (Grey Swan Press, 485 pp., $36.95). When his main character Cyrus Kohler thinks about war, he “knew that war damaged souls, left them with unhealed wounds. The pain came unexpectedly, and on many levels, and often brought along its companion, hopelessness.”

This rang true to me. Certainly I experience it that way, thanks to having to deal with multiple myeloma, which is related to my exposure to Agent Orange in the Vietnam War.

The first section of this book focuses on the main character’s time in that war.  Lt. Kohler, an Army Ranger, participates in the Americans’ last big land battle of the Vietnam War, the 1970 fight at Firebase Ripcord, serving with the 101st Airborne, 2nd Battalion, 506th Infantry, the Currahees. In that fight, four battalions of American troops confronted an entire division of North Vietnamese Army troops.

In the novel, due to incompetent leadership, Lt. Kohler and his men are abandoned, but Cyrus survives. In the thirty years after he returns home, Kohler gets his PhD and becomes a university professor, something few returning Vietnam War veterans have done.

We are told that during this thirty years,Cyrus witnessed “the decline of America” and he “is compelled to form a third political party, which he names “the Front.’” That is what the rest of the book is about. Stafford manages to get a reference to Jane Fonda into the narrative, although he devotes far more space to her one-time husband and fellow antiwar activist Tom Hayden.

The prose is sometimes demanding. For example: “The sky grimaced, the palette of its wet, gray, monsoon overwhelmed by so many ascending souls.”

As I read that passage near the book’s beginning, I asked myself, “Can I stand reading almost 450 more pages with sentences like that? It’s going to be a long hard slog for me.”  Thankfully, the book lightened up after that—at least the prose did.

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Michael Stafford

My favorite parts involve the action pieces. There’s a character, a bald eagle named Myoconda, who kills one of the primary bad guys by descending from the sky and dispatching him with his talons and his beak. Good riddance to him.

The bad guy in question had just murdered one of my favorite characters in the book, an ancient Shawnee woman named Tante Colleen, a reputed voodoo sorceress. Her great grandmother had walked The Trail of Tears.

The book was enjoyable and I recommend it to those who like reading about folks who are trying to save America by forming new political parties.

The author’s website is johnmichaelstafford.com

—David Willson

Firebase by Mark Anthony Sullivan

Mark Anthony Sullivan served in an Americal Division field artillery unit in Vietnam. In Sullivan’s Firebase: A Novel of Wartime Suspense and Romance (306 pp., $14.75, paper; $5.99, Kindle) the main character, Mike Ward, also serves with that unit at a forward firebase.

Ward arrives in the Vietnam War zone as troop withdrawals are in full swing with the Nixon administration’s policy of Vietnamization. It’s May 1970 and Ward is in the middle of a breakup with his longtime girlfriend who thinks that he should have stayed home and been a good boyfriend. That’s how she sees life.

Mike Ward had the option of serving in an Army Reserve appointment. His high morals caused him to see that as a copout, so off to Vietnam he goes.

He gets assigned to the 23rd Infantry Division (the Americal) out of Chu Lai. He doesn’t realize until later that that’s the Americal’s numerical designation. The book provides much detail of what the life of a Spec. 4 assigned to field artillery in the Vietnam War is like.

There’s also a lot of detail about the girl he left behind and her anger at him for choosing the Army over what she saw as his obligations to her. The entire novel is told in letter format and Sullivan makes it work well. He tells us that he had plenty of letters to work with and that he relied on them for information, tone, and other details.

His evaluation of our efforts in Vietnam is simple: “We’re going absolutely nowhere.” The difference between the Vietnam War and World War II makes it difficult for the characters to see progress. No land is captured and held. A war measured in body counts seems to be a war with no progress.

The Paris Peace Talks are discussed and dismissed as pointless as the participants could barely decide on the shape of the table, let alone on anything of importance.

John Wayne gets a mention or two, and shit burning is discussed, as does Agent Orange. My Lai also comes up, as it was attached to the Americal Division in peoples’ minds. Even though it took place when our main character was home in law school, he somehow gets blamed.

There is a lot of ill feeling aimed at soldiers serving in the war. The notion seems to be that if they only chose not to go into the Army, there’d be no Vietnam War. As if it was that easy.

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This is a serious novel, well-written and well-organized. It has an ending unlike any I’ve encountered  before in Vietnam War fiction. Mike Ward’s girlfriend manages to redeem herself, at least in my eyes, by doing something that doesn’t just border on magical realism, but tests my brain in all possible respects. I won’t spoil it for the prospective reader.

Suffice it to say that the ending took my breath away. I read it over and over again, trying to get it straight in my mind. I never did manage to wrap my mind around it.

That’s my fault, I’m sure.

—David Willson