In Liberating Strife by Steve Atkinson

“Love and war happened simultaneously for me” in the 1960s, Steve Atkinson writes in Liberating Strife: A Memoir of the Vietnam Years: Vol. 1, The Track of a Storm (City Limits Press, 395 pp. $29.95, paper; $7.99, Kindle). This declaration sets the stage for Atkinson exhuming his memories, from a highly personalized perspective, about how that decade’s dynamics influenced him while he was a high school senior and college student from 1963-69. At that time the Vietnam War, he says, “was the root cause of most of the domestic disturbances.”

Atkinson analyzes the pros and cons of the disturbances—communism, thermonuclear weapons, racial conflict, women’s rights, Selective Service practices, illegal drug use, and the antiwar movement—along with trying to find a lifelong mate—in this memoir. He digs up minutia that ought to register a touch of nostalgia among those who lived through the era, and his thoughts might teach a lesson or two to people unfamiliar with those years.

A week after completing graduate school finals, Atkinson became an Army draftee. The book’s second half describes his military training (nothing new here except a drill instructor who becomes a friend) and gives equal time to his relationship with wife-to-be, Bev Minear. He quotes from their letters and spends a lot of time on how they opened each other’s eyes to the enjoyment of intellectual pursuits. He convinced me that they definitely were made for each other.

Suffice it to say that Atkinson did not enjoy Army life. In October 1969, three weeks after finishing AIT, Atkinson went to Vietnam. In Liberating Strife, Vol. 2  (631 pp. $36.99, paper; $7.49, Kindle) he tells the story of his role in the war.

Trained as an infantryman, Atkinson ended up as a clerk typist. During his year in-country, he served at Lai Khe with the 1st Infantry Division Adjutant General; at Di An in the Message Center; and at Long Binh with the 16th Public Information Detachment.

Initially, he worked a twelve-hour, seven-day-a-week schedule. As American units deactivated because of Vietnamization, his workload diminished to an hour a day. He filled his free time by writing letters, reading, watching movies, and listening to music. By mail, Bev and he doted over classical literature and music.

His vices were drinking beer and limited dope-smoking. He describes his gun-toting duties as follows: “Standing guard on the rear perimeter [at Long Binh] is among the experiences that I remember most vividly. I knew it was highly unlikely there would be any trouble, yet there was still the remote possibility that I might be called upon to kill a man that night—an agonizing decision.” Atkinson puzzled over how fate had put him “in this strange little corner of the world,” but was pleased that it played out as it did.

Actually, Atkinson’s heart and mind never left Minneapolis. He intersperses accounts of his activities in Vietnam with information from Bev’s letters and other hometown sources. As he did in Volume 1, he analyzes historical events pertaining to the war and the strengthening of antiwar sentiment. He frequently writes more about problems regarding Bev, his family, and Minnesota than those of the war.

“The most important and beneficial lasting legacy of the Vietnam War was the abolition of the military draft,” he writes. “The draft is both an unwarranted imposition on individual liberty and too powerful and dangerous a tool to put in the hands of our elected leaders.” He labels it “involuntary servitude.” Throughout both volumes, he offers other controversial pronouncements.

With almost the same breath, however, he says, “I can honestly affirm that I do feel a certain pride in my service. I answered my country’s call to duty amid a time of strife and ambiguity. These pages have made it clear that I arrived at that decision in the face of considerable misgivings.”

In Atkinson’s case, love conquered all: Bev and he have been married since he returned from Vietnam. Atkinson, a member of Vietnam Veterans of America, focuses his book on their long-distance romance and underplays the war angle. That choice—and his job assignment— eliminated suspense and drama from his story.

The two volumes contain nearly 400 photographs, most taken by Atkinson, and illustrations, all of which were new to me. He shot large batches of pictures on R&Rs to Tokyo and Hong Kong. The collection includes more than two hundred pages made up on three scrapbooks that partially tell his story by themselves.

—Henry Zeybel


Nightmare by Robert E. Ford, Jr.


Robert Ford served in Army Intelligence in the Vietnam War. He’s another in a long line of American boys who enlisted in the Army to avoid serving in the infantry. Ford figured that if he got drafted, carrying a rifle would have been his fate. He deployed to Vietnam in April 1969 and volunteered to extend his term to serve a second tour.  Ford’s novel, Nightmare (Dorrance, 178 pp. $15, paper; $9.99, Kindle), is based on his real-life experiences.

Nightmare is the story of Army Staff Sgt. Jack Butler, who undertakes a dangerous mission into Viet Cong-controlled territory. Aside from the enemy, he must put up with “an inexperienced ‘cherry’ lieutenant” who always knows best because he’s a lieutenant and everyone else is enlisted scum.

I’ve read other infantry novels featuring green lieutenants who have instincts to do everything wrong,  such as insisting on being saluted in “Indian Country,” even though that makes them a prime target, and crossing rice paddies because the land is open and looks totally harmless. This LT places himself and everyone else at risk, which leads to his men considering the option of fragging him.

The novel is barely half over and this stupid lieutenant gets cut in half just above the waist by “a previously unseen machine gun.” At that point all of the conflict drains out of the book with the LT dead and gone.

I missed him terribly. I wished he or a substitute would have returned to give the novel some piss and vinegar. Didn’t happen.

Later in the book, Ford, a life member of Vietnam Veterans of America, has returning veterans getting spat upon in San Francisco—not just once, but five times. Ham and motherfuckers get star billing in this little book and REMF’s get the usual attention.


Robert Ford, Then & Now

The novel centers on a Quick Reaction Force unit. Gen. Westmoreland ordered each unit in III Corps to create, train, and maintain a QRF for the direct defense of the Saigon area.

“One such platoon of rear echelon, clerks and jerks, was headquartered in a compound in the Saigon suburb of Gia Dinh,” Ford says in the book’s Prologue.

The book moves right along and has a useful glossary. It’s good that there is a novel dealing with a QRF. It’s the first I’ve stumbled upon.

–David Willson

Sadec Province: by Gordon Bare


Gordon Bare’s Sadec Province: A Memoir of War and Reconstruction in the Mekong Delta (Politics and Prose, 160 pp. $17.95, paper) is based on a journal the author kept during his two tours of duty in the Mekong Delta of South Vietnam. Bare served with U.S. Army as an Assistant Province Adviser with Army Advisory Team 65.

A retired Army Reserve Colonel who also worked in middle and high-level positions in the State Department, Bare now devotes time to Team River Runner, an organization dedicated to helping wounded veterans through whitewater kayaking. The proceeds of this book go to that worthy organization.

Sadec Province was initially a slow and laborious read mainly because of the scores of end notes. The reader would have been well served had these notes been embedded in the text or placed as footnotes on their associated pages. That said, this was a very good book for me to read

The first chapters set the stage with history, organizational structures, policy evaluations, and the like, and paint a fairly good picture of a part of the Vietnam War of which not too many of us are aware. The book is more than Bare’s memoir of his time in a small area inside the Delta. It’s a melding of those experiences and what he has learned about the war since then.

He has assembled a trove of information that brings to light obscure information about the war, the mindset of the Viet Cong, hidden successes of Vietnamization, mistakes of American strategists at the highest levels, how the war’s lessons learned are being applied today in the Middle East, and much more.

The final two chapters contain Bare’s afterthoughts and evaluations. Of particular interest to me was that as awful as the Vietnam War was on the people of South Vietnam, no one fled the country by boat. It took a communist regime to accomplish that.


Also, that it has been suggested that the American war gave the rest of Southeast Asia time to get its act together and limit the falling dominoes to Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. And that there has been no recognition of the culpability of Americans who denounced the war in Vietnam and then denied that a bloodbath occurred. These statements, and others, have given me a more secure feeling that our involvement in Vietnam was necessary and to a certain extent, successful.

I recommend Sadec Province to anybody who served in the Vietnamization programs—Phoenix, CORDS, USAID, MAGG, MACV—as well as to anybody who served in the Delta or to those simply interested in learning more of behind-the-scenes military activities in Vietnam during the war.

I am glad I read the book. I was truly enlightened.

— Bob Wartman

The Peninsula by Michael Burns


The Peninsula (Amazon Digital Services, 455 pp. $4.99, Kindle) is a novel by Michael Burns about an American plot to assassinate the Supreme Leader of North Korea. The crew of the USS Nemesis, whom readers met in the previous book in this series, The Horn, are an important part of this scheme.

Sailing into the waters of the Korean Peninsula, the Nemesis is tasked with giving support to a highly classified mission to kill Kim Jong-un. If they pull this off, they will avert nuclear war. If they screw up, a nuclear exchange with North Korea is all but guaranteed.

Burns’ novel The Horn also deals with the U.S. Navy–in this case taking on Somali pirates. The pirates have declared war on the Navy, but get more than they bargained for. In the book, a rookie Navy lieutenant must land a SEAL team on the coast of Somalia. The crew includes the first female warfare operators and various specialists, all of whom are disguised as civilians. They sail to shore aboard a luxury yacht equipped with high-tech weapons and the best food and chef that the world has to offer.

Did I mention that the women are all highly trained to wear bikinis, dance, and look like arm and eye candy?

Their mission is to hunt down and kill a dangerous group of pirates who are now connected with Islamic radicals. They team also is after an arms dealer who is supplying the pirates with state-of-the art missiles.

Burns, who served in the Central Highlands in the Vietnam War, writes what he calls “high-concept” novels. I believe this means that they contain a lot of action, beautiful women and fast-paced, extremely difficult stunts and encounter coincidences that are beyond unbelievable.


Michael Burns

I don’t feel that I’m giving anything away when I confess that the attempt by the specially trained American crew to kill Kim Jong-un in The Peninsula is not successful.

The reason is that a naked teenager who has been raped and tortured by the Supreme Leader finds a razor-sharp knife, hides it in her underwear, and uses it to murder the Leader.

That scene left me scratching my head. I loved it that she killed him with a knife that she hid in her gauzy underwear—but really?

If you love books of this sort, then Peninsula and The Horn are for you.

–David Willson

Black Officer, White Navy by Reuben Keith Green


Reuben Keith Green’s memoir, Black Officer, White Navy: Thriving While Black and Sailing Second Class in the Post-Zumwalt Navy (CreateSpace, 351 pp. $19.45, paper; $4.99, Kindle), recreates the author’s sixty years of life to validate an unspoken resignation that black skin overwhelms all other characteristics of a person. The fact prevails across America, but is particularly true in the United States Navy despite efforts by leaders such as former Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Elmo Zumwalt to halt discrimination, Green argues.

At least, that’s the way I interpret his story.

“People always notice skin color and make judgments and decisions based on it. They may not be conscious of it, but it happens,” Green says. I agree.

The theme of Green’s book challenges the elitist mindset of white Navy personnel of all grades. He notes that the Navy has been historically slow to recruit and promote blacks and other minorities. Fundamentally, Green provides a history lesson on discrimination based on his own life.

His role models were his father, who also served in the Navy, and Zumwalt. Their beliefs led Green to accept complex duties for which he had only basic schooling and limited experience. He worked hard and learned by doing. He understood the rules of the Navy and of life in general, and expected others to act accordingly. At the same time, he was patient with prejudiced thinkers—up to a point.

Born in 1957, Green dropped out of high school, enlisted in the Navy in February of 1975,  and served twenty-two years in the post-Vietnam War era, working his way up to lieutenant commander. As an officer, he served three back-to-back tours at sea aboard the frigate USS Vogue, the guided missile frigate USS Boone, and the hydrofoil USS Gemini.

The only black officer aboard those ships, Green experienced discrimination, prejudice, and racial taunts from fellow officers, chiefs, and petty officers. Some of them attempted to make him look bad by not cooperating on jobs for which he was responsible. Their actions turned simple tasks into major problems. Primarily, he fought back administratively with irrefutable “wheel” book documentation against those above and below him in rank.

Initially in the book, a sense of humor peppers Green’s rhetoric. For example, after explaining the effects of a crushing workload, he says, “You may cry here, but briefly.” As his rank increased and his encounters with discrimination grew, Green occasionally reached the “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore” level of fighting back. In those cases, he resorted to any means available to foment change.

Green puts his personal brand on discrimination and related problems with creative acronyms: Post Traumatic Sea Service Discrimination Disorder (PTSSD, pronounced “pissed”) and Women Hysterical About Men’s Manners (WHAMM, pronounced “wham”).


Reuben Keith Green

I enjoyed Black Officer, White Navy because Reuben Keith Green shows the good and the bad in himself and in those around him. His evaluations appear fair. He recalls villains who made his life miserable, and he names heroes who helped to advance him and his causes. His perception of life in the Navy made me nod in agreement, shake my head in wonder, and occasionally laugh out loud.

Many readers might not like this book because Green is nearly always the offended party, and they might categorize him as oversensitive or self-indulgent.

I retired from the Air Force the same year that Green enlisted in the Navy. At that time, race relations and affirmative action classes were in their infancy. I recall that many sergeants—even in the ultra-liberal Air Force—opposed that teaching based on racial bias.

Green taught similar classes in the Navy prior to his commissioning. He applied the principles of those programs as he attained greater rank, which is what one expects from a true leader.

Green believes that conditions have not adequately improved since way back when.

I’ll take his word for it.

—Henry Zeybel