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.

Sullivan in country

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

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Mission of Honor by Jim Crigler

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Jim Crigler, author of Mission of Honor: A Moral Compass for a Moral Dilemma (Panoma Press, 326 pp., $21.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle), was drafted into the Army and served as UH-1 helicopter pilot in the Vietnam War.  A Warrant Officer, he was assigned to the 129th Assault Helicopter Company, and distinguished himself during thousands of combat missions. He has also distinguished himself in many ways as a civilian.

Throughout history, fighting men have been known as warriors. Recently, the term “Air Warrior” has emerged. This book is a great depiction of the men who wore Air Warrior wings in the Vietnam War, and the many challenges they faced every day in all aspects of their lives—before, during, and after their military service.

Crigler writes about being in high school, trying to find his niche in life. He notes the humility needed to admit failure and continue to strive for greatness. He had a moral compass, being true to doing what is right because it is right. He writes of finding a “right direction,” then following that direction, making adjustments along the way as he gained more knowledge in the course of his life.

An important aspect of this autobiography is Crigler’s realization that slowly but surely an emotional “coldness” has to be achieved in order to survive in war. This coldness is something that is achieved slowly enough that a person has little awareness that it is happening. In that regard, Crigler brings out memories of war in an eloquent manner.

He also shows very clearly that achievements in war require great tenacity and courage, but once that level achievement is reached the honors of life begin to be bestowed. I have always had great respect for those who have done this.

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Jim Crigler

Crigler writes of achieving a “oneness” with his mission, something that bestows honor. Honor has to be earned by a person’s actions, not words. Crigler notes this in repeated references to the commitment of his brother warriors, and through his paying tribute to those men.

I wholeheartedly recommend this book to veterans, and also to Gold Star families and the families of those who have endured the ravages of war.

The author’s website is missionofhonor.org

—Edward Ryan

Improvising a War by Benjamin L. Landis

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If you want an accurate picture of how the United States Army General Staff functioned during the early years of the Vietnam War, you should read Benjamin L. Landis’ Improvising a War: The Pentagon Years, 1965-1967: Reminiscences of an Untried Warrior  (Merriam Press, 186 pp. $11.95, paper).

Landis, who graduated from West Point in 1946, wrote the book based on his staff work as a lieutenant colonel at the place and time of the title. The representative of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Personnel, his job was to see that requested and approved units went to Vietnam on their scheduled dates, he says.

That sounds easy: Cut the orders and ship the troops. But it didn’t work that way because President Lyndon Johnson would not let the Army use National Guard and Reserve troops. That left an undermanned and under-equipped Army to fend for itself.

From among a crowd of lieutenant colonels who filled junior positions in their section of the Pentagon, Landis ended up in a job for which he had no background or training. As the newest guy, he had led an ad hoc inter-staff committee designed to find, equip, and train enough men for deployment to Vietnam, a duty that no other LTC wanted.

By that time, four big combat units had been sent to Vietnam. But they were not in good-enough shape to perform their missions, as Landis saw it. The need to improve the system was exemplified by Landis’ “disillusioned and frustrated” boss, a senior colonel who told him, “If I’m going to go down because of this, I’m not going alone.”

With tacit approval from his superiors, Landis enlisted Maj. William Duba and together they “skirted [and] circumvented, rules, regulations, policies, chain of command. I exceeded my authority regularly,” he says. “We did whatever we had to do to get the required people into the units deploying to Vietnam. We were not always 100% successful. We were in a bureaucratic morass that at times engulfed us.”

During his first year at the Pentagon, Landis worked without a computer despite needing to search Army records worldwide to fill assignments. Guidance came from Army Regulation 220-1 Field Organizations Unit Readiness. Landis attaches a copy of that reg at the end of his book. He also includes photographs of the most important players involved in the deployment program.

Improvising a War is a good read because Benjamin Landis wrote it fifteen years after leaving the Pentagon when his on-the-job notes and vivid memories were fresh. In 2012, he pulled the draft from his files, edited it, and added anecdotes from his long military career, then published it this year.

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His writing style delighted me. He uses real names, and the guilty are not forgotten. Landis describes a fellow officer as “undoubtedly the worst lieutenant colonel I ever encountered” who “could very well have been the worst lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army at that time.” He says an orientation talk about his new job from his new boss was “cordial, concise, and imprecise.” He tells a story about a major general who carried “tradition to the outer limits of absurdity.”

Landis, by the way, also lauds his heroes.

His insight into the dreams, schemes, and machinations of full and light colonels in quest of their next promotions validates the suspicions often held by lower-ranking personnel. The book also provides an eye-opening lecture on Army readiness in the mid-sixties.

Shuffling paperwork can be a lackluster pursuit, but Landis has turned his deployment task into a management adventure as entertaining as any I have read.

Vietnam veterans who served in the 9th or 25th Infantry Divisions or the 196th Infantry Brigade should find interest in Landis’  inside stories of the war-time deployment of their units.

—Henry Zeybel

Logical Family by Armistead Maupin

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Armistead Maupin, the writer best-known for his best-selling, six-volume Tales of the City series, served as an officer in the U.S. Navy after graduating from the University of North Carolina. That service included a tour of River Patrol Force duty in the Vietnam War.

Years ago, I attended a reading Maupin gave in Seattle. I asked him afterward if he had any plans to write a memoir dealing with his Navy service. Maupin said something about how long ago and far away the Vietnam War was, and that he thought it unlikely he would ever do that.

I encouraged him to write that memoir and told him how rare it was for a professional writer to write his own life story. He muttered something about how he didn’t think he remembered enough detail to write that book.

The good news is that Maupin has just written that memoir, a  Logical Family: A Memoir (Harper, 304 pp., $27.99, hardcover; $26.36, paper; $14.99, Kindle). It is a wonderful piece of work, that’s just as warm, witty, and personal as his novels and journalism. Maupin tells us he joined the Navy to make his conservative father proud of him. He goes on to reveal a lot of fascinating detail about his naval duties, during which he hobnobbed with officers at the top of the Navy hierarchy—a mighty contrast to how most of the other men of his age (24-25) spent their Vietnam War tours.

In this book, Maupin mentions John Wayne a couple of times, and Joan Baez and Leadbelly in passing. The tragedy of Agent Orange gets some important space. Maupin writes that he missed the Vietnam War so much that he chose to return there as a civilian to work on a housing unit for disabled South Vietnamese naval veterans. Mostly this was a propaganda effort.111111111111111111111111111111111

Maupin is one of America’s greatest story tellers and this book is jam-packed with stories, many of them indiscreet and some of them downright ribald. Warning: Some of Maupin’s tales are sad and will provoke tears. But that is as it should be when a master story teller brings his genius to bear on his life and on the Vietnam War.

Maupin has spoiled me for reading homemade memoirs by veterans whose sincerity is no substitute for talent and skill.

—David Willson

Nam: The Story of a Generation by Mel Smith

Mel Smith was born in Helena, Montana. He joined the Naval Reserves in 1966 and went on active duty in July 1968. He served on the destroyer U.S.S. Taylor out of Pearl Harbor as a member of the deck force, the tough ship maintenance division. This crew is sometimes referred to as deck apes. He transferred to the U.S.S. De Haven on a West Pacific tour and got an early out in April 1970.

Smith’s novel, Nam: The Story of a Generation (First Steps, 360 pp., $33.64, hardcover; $24.95, paper; $6.99 Kindle), follows the lives of three young men—two Americans and one North Vietnamese, a starry-eyed patriot.

The main character, Mark Cameron, has a best friend named JT, who does not make it. Their counterpoint character, Dat, becomes a general on the other side. Cameron spends his tour of duty in Vietnam in the Brown Water Navy, on a PBR.

His backstory is based on that of the author. The book jumps around chronologically, but the sections are clearly labelled as a kindness to the reader. The book starts in 1948 and 1998, and then leapfrogs back and forth through time to give a full picture of the Vietnam War Generation. The story ends in California, in August 1998.

Mark Cameron intersects with Dat, who had been a North Vietnamese general, and is now a civilian wearing a $600 suit. Dat is now known as Van and owns a string of convenience stores. The encounter is totally friendly and rings true to this reader’s ears.

As is not unusual in such a book, John Wayne’s name pops up more than once. Plus,  there is a big stateside scene in which one of the characters returning home from the war is called a baby killer and has eggs tossed at him.

Mel Smith

This is one of those rare semi-autobiographical American Vietnam War novels that includes a substantial cast of well drawn and realistically portrayed Vietnamese characters. In one realistic scene among Americans in Vietnam, the main character confronts a c-ration can of ham and limas and is warned off. He winds up being served a ham sandwich instead by a minor character who has access to the mess hall.

I highly recommend this well-written book.  It held my attention and more.

—David Willson

Donut Dollies in Vietnam by Nancy Smoyer

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“I’d rather be heard than comforted,” Nancy Smoyer writes near the end of Donut Dollies in Vietnam: Baby-Blue Dresses & OD Green (Chopper Books, 250 pp., $15.00, paper). By that point in the book, Smoyer has fulfilled that goal in this memoir that looks at her time in South Vietnam during the war and its aftermath.

The core of Smoyer’s book describes the pride and dedication she developed toward servicemen as a Donut Dolly in Vietnam in 1967-68. “I still refer to it as the best year of my life,” she writes, “and the worst.”

Smoyer was one of 627 women in the Red Cross Supplemental Recreation Activities Overseas program, which lasted from 1965-72. The largest number of women in-country at one time, she tells us, was 109 in 1969. All of them were college grads and volunteers. They inherited the nickname “Donut Dollies” from Red Cross workers who performed similar duties in Europe during World War II.

The women worked throughout South Vietnam. They took helicopter to the most forward positions. Their chores varied from serving 3:00 a.m. breakfasts to men girding for at-dawn assaults, to organizing C-ration picnics, to playing made-up games. Talking to the troops for any length of time, Smoyer says, “is the most satisfying part of the job. When we go to the field we just talk to the guys as they work.”

She was twenty-five years old. “We were there to boost the morale of the troops, plain and simple,” Smoyer explains. “Everything I did revolved around the men, and I don’t regret a minute of it.”

Being in-country and exposed to the same threats as the men in uniform, Donut Dollies encountered common war and post-war problems. After coming home Smoyer suffered PTSD, predicated on survival guilt, which was compounded by her brother’s death in action a few months after she returned to the United States.

On a visit to Vietnam in 1993, Smoyer says she overcame her PTSD by learning compassion for the Vietnamese—something that she had not allowed herself to feel before.

The second half of the book deals with post-war events. Many scenes involve emotional encounters at The Wall where Smoyer began serving as a volunteer guide shortly after its 1982 dedication. “Those days when emotions were raw, none of us knew how to act,” she says, “but we connected on such a deep and immediate level.”

Over the years, Smoyer extended her volunteer work to many other areas dealing with veterans. Serving in Vietnam gave her life its ultimate purpose.

111111111111111111111111111111111She closes the book with letters in tribute to her brother—a Marine lieutenant—from his teachers, coaches, and friends.

While telling her story, Smoyer makes references to the experiences of many other former Donut Dollies. She has maintained contact with them through email, letters, tapes, reunions, musings, and conversations.

Like Nancy Smoyer, they have a lasting commitment to helping veterans.

Smoyer is donating proceeds from the sale of her books to the Semper Fi Fund.

—Henry Zeybel

An Idea, and Bullets by William Haponski

William Haponski graduated from West Point in 1956. He earned a Ph.D. in English Language and Literature in 1967 while teaching English at his alma mater. The next year Haponski volunteered to go to Vietnam.

He first served as the senior staff officer in the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment under the command of Col. George S. Patton (the son of the famed general). Then, from January to July of 1969, Haponski commanded the 1st Squadron of the 4th Cavalry in the First Infantry Division.

His sterling academic credentials and battlefield credibility are on display in An Idea, and Bullets: A Rice Roots Exploration of Why No French, American, or South Vietnamese General Could Ever Have Brought Victory in Vietnam (CreateSpace, 582 pp., $19.99, paper; $5.49, Kindle). This is a well-written, well-researched examination of the French and American wars in Vietnam based on a primary and secondary sources and on Haponski’s  on the ground in Vietnam during the war. The book also has a thesis: its long subtitle’s contention that the American and French wars in Vietnam were unwinnable.

After more than 450 pages of history and analysis, Haponski sums up the book’s message in its last two sentences.

The American war in Vietnam, he concludes, “was lost before the French Expeditionary Force fired its first round, before the South fielded its first soldier in the National Army of Vietnam, before the first U.S. advisor set foot in the country. An idea—independence and unity—would triumph over bullets.”

Bill Haponski in country

Haponski’s main point, that is, is that most Vietnamese saw American intervention as another attempt by a foreign power (after China, Japan, and France) to prevent all Vietnamese from uniting into one nation. And—more importantly—that the North Vietnamese, Viet Cong, and their civilian supporters possessed the will to see that ideal realized.

As Gen. Dave Palmer says in the book’s forward, the enemy in Vietnam had “the will to persevere unto victory no matter how long it took or how powerful the cost.

“In the end, willpower trumped firepower.”

—Marc Leepson