A Shadow on our Hearts by Adam Gilbert

Writer and historian Adam Gilbert’s purpose in A Shadow on Our Hearts: Soldier-Poetry, Morality and the American War in Vietnam (University of Massachusetts Press, 304 pp., $90, hardcover; $32.95, paper) is to deepen our knowledge and understanding of the Vietnam War through an examination of the poetry produced by those who fought in the conflict. Looking at the poetry “through the lens of moral philosophy,” Gilbert notes how historians of the war have all but neglected it.

He quotes from almost 400 poems by more than sixty “soldier-poets.” I know many of the poets and have met many of the others. I should note that I am predisposed to love this book as my name is in the index, and the author writes positive things about poets and poetry I have a high opinion of.

With a book of this sort, I always first go to the index and look for my name. And there I was. Next, I look for the name of my closest friend, a poet of the finest sort, but one often overlooked because he is a novelist and poet-novelists often are unfairly given short shrift.

Gilbert makes the point that he deliberately has not included certain sorts of poets, and I am one of them. I was not a “soldier” according to his standards, even though I was drafted into the U.S. Army and served in the Vietnam War. But I was a REMF. In his eyes, I was far removed from the role of soldier. It hurts my feelings, but I won’t let that cause me to say bad things about this fine book.

Few “real soldiers” have suffered more pain that I have during the last ten years while I’ve been dying from Multiple Myeloma, but I was not in combat in Vietnam. Agent Orange, which caused my bone cancer, was there in Vietnam during the war for all of us.

I found it pure joy to read what Gilbert has to say about DS Lliteras, W.D. Ehrhart, R.L. Barth, Horace Coleman, David Connolly, Yusef Komunyakaa, Leroy Quintana, Dale Ritterbusch, Bruce Weigl, and many other poets I have met, spent time with, eaten dinner with, given readings with, and so on. I loved this book and think others will too, while learning a lot about the Vietnam War and about what its veterans think about it while we are seriously reflecting and pondering upon it.

Vietnam War veteran Bill McCloud recently reading his poetry to a veterans group at an Oklahoma Corrections Center

I apologize for making this review so personal, but I fear that if I don’t, potential readers will turn away from the book, thinking it too scholarly and serious to be fun to read. Yes, much of this book was far from fun to read—and wasn’t intended to be fun—but the book still is engrossing and even enthralling in parts.

I highly recommend A Shadow on Our Hearts to all who have a serious interest in learning more about the Vietnam War and about the people who went off to that war, not knowing what to expect, but dealing with it when they got there the best they could.

—David Willson

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Vietnumb: Poems by Fred Rosenblum

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Fred Rosenblum served in the Vietnam War with the 1st Marines. He says that his first book of poetry, Hollow Tin Jingles, “began as an exercise in expurgation.” His new book, Vietnumb: Poems (Fomite, 104 pp., $15, paper),  is a result, he says, “of my inability to retch-up and rid myself of that entire toxic mass that’s kept me bellyaching all these years.”

Rosenbloom sees his poems as “a lyrical analgesic to others who bear some degree of residual shame for that era.” He goes on to write that “the war machine thrives today as it has never thrived before.” I can’t argue with that.

This short page book of short poems deals with many of the same issues Rosenblum dealt with in Hollow Tin Jingles, but it is well worth reading and revisiting those subjects. I started noting my favorite poems as I read the book, until I realized that I had marked most of the poems in the book. Finally, I winnowed out poems until I had just two favorites:  “Confessions of a Recluse” and “The S.O.B. Was Just Like Me.”

“Confessions of a Recluse” grabbed me because of the lines “I am a bearded man/with a long moustache that collects debris from meals

My hair (what’s left of it)

Is in a constant state of dishevelment

I wear overalls that are filthy

And grimy from my war in the woods

With the beavers who are trying to flood my property

My wife hounds me about my slovenly nature

And if I am not wasted I will submit to her requests to clean-up

Brush my teeth,

whatever

She keeps records of my medications and dispenses them

Per the prescribed instructions

It is too difficult for me to remember what pill and when

It should be taken

 

The man in this poem is not exactly me, but he’s close enough so that I don’t need to write that poem myself.

The other poem deals with the Seattle VA, a place where I’ve spent a lot of time having my head examined—and if not my head, what’s left of my feet. Fred Rosenblum says that the place is “sort of institutional dump that had the feel of incarceration.” He nailed it, for sure.

In his poem, he runs into a friend from the past, just as I have several times. I was born in Seattle, educated in Seattle, and drafted in Seattle, so it’s no kind of miracle that I’d bump into folks at the VA that I’ve known off and on for fifty years.

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Rosenblum

Rosenblum describes a mutual acquaintance of ours: “Lester was mad as a hatter/and had croaked from the fusion/of alcohol and pharmaceutical inclusion/that one might imbibe and ingest in those days

The concluding stanza is:  “a kid I’d known/yet the S.O.B. was just like me/ancient, anhedonic, Vietnumb

There it is.

Thank you, Fred Rosenblum, for writing these poems.

He refers to “the Duke” in these pages, the man that many young men sought to emulate by becoming Marines. Sad fate for them, which reminds me that Lee Ermey just died—the Drill Instructor  in Full Metal Jacket, from the book by Gus Hasford, a man I’ll never run into at the Seattle VA, as he’s long since dead.  RIP Lee and Gus.

—David Willson

The Psychological War for Vietnam, 1960-1968 by Mervyn Roberts III

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The extent to which psychological warfare was used by all sides in the Vietnam War is staggering and so multi-faceted it almost seems like a barometer of the chaos and shifting strategies that occurred throughout the war.

There were leaflets—smuggled over borders, dropped from airplanes and fired from howitzers; radio and television campaigns; messages broadcast from helicopters and C-47s; newspaper accounts; disinformation and behavioral modification efforts by medical aid teams and brutal assault squads; blocks of ice dropped by parachute to persuade the enemy that troops had swept in overnight.

By the end of the war, psyops teams were employing thousands. Leaflets were distributed by the millions. And the goals were as varied as the methods.

There were efforts to boost defections; to destroy morale; to build support; to alter perceptions of success or failure; to taint image and credibility; to foment dissent or encourage resistance; to persuade opponents their war was being lost, and supporters that theirs was being won.

Mervyn Roberts III wrote The Psychological War for Vietnam, 1960-1968 (University Press of Kansas, 432 pp., $39.95) originally as a doctoral dissertation after a career in the Army. He served two tours in the war in Afghanistan and was a psyops specialist. He’s a professor of history at Central Texas College and a reserve instructor at the Joint Special Operations University at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa.

In his book, Roberts quickly traces the evolution of psychological warfare from its early use in the Revolutionary War through World Wars I and II and the Korean War. He shows that in the Vietnam War, psyops grew in fits and starts and that its uses shifted like the wind in a confusing cacophony. Why? Mainly because of inconsistent U.S. policies, bureaucratic chaos, and political instability on both sides of the border.

The American effort focused on selling the idea that U.S. troops were there to protect the country from communism and to bring peace and prosperity. From the North came the message that U.S. medicines were laced with fishhooks and that villagers could avoid being drafted into the South Vietnamese Army if they amputated their trigger fingers.

There were battles over messaging and debates over psyops’ effectiveness. Roberts traces that evolution in enormous detail. He looks at campaigns that started and stopped and others that shifted emphasis and grew to unprecedented proportions. In the spring of 1965, for instance, U.S. teams were distributing 500 million leaflets per month to support a war Lyndon Johnson wanted no part of.

There were successes, such as the U.S. Chieu Hoi campaign to encourage Viet Cong defections, and the North’s assault on the Americans’ use of defoliants, calling it a toxic campaign designed to kill livestock and crops and force the population into concentration camps.170px-vietnampropaganda

Roberts details the shortcomings. In addition to the constantly shifting priorities, there was inadequate training, a lack of cultural understanding, and a lack of language skills and inadequate measurements to assess what worked.

On both sides troops who behaved badly fed new material to the other side’s propagandists. Plus, in Vietnam and in the U.S., support for the war shifted constantly.

Roberts’ grasp of the historical context is impressive, although some readers may find the treatment somewhat academic. But, as he points out, there has been no truly comprehensive look at psyops tactics and their role in the Vietnam War until this book.

The author’s website is https://mervynroberts.com/about-the-author/

Michael Ludden is the author of the detective novels, Tate Drawdy and Alfredo’s Luck, and an upcoming collection of newspaper remembrances, Tales From The Morgue

Big Guns Firing by Patrick Goodrow

Patrick Goodrow is a great raconteur. The stories he tells about his two tours in South Vietnam’s I Corps in Keeping the Big Guns Firing: The Vietnam Story You Do Not Know (History Publishing, 239 pp. $8.99, paper and Kindle) fascinated me from start to finish—and what a finish.

In 1965 Goodrow was among the first Marines on the scene at Da Nang. In his memoir, Goodrow first details his duties as an E-4 Section Head in a 9th Marine Expeditionary Brigade Ordnance Maintenance Company in 1965-66. He then recreates events from his 1969-70 tour as an E-6. He kept everything from 4.2-inch mortars to 8-inch SP howitzers operational by solving nightmarish problems, sometimes with disasters included.

The book lives up to its title: It told me everything I did not know about maintaining big guns in a combat arena. Occasionally, Goodrow slips in what appear to be passages from tech orders, but does so in an easily understandable manner. These details enhance the impact of his stories and should connect with artillery aficionados.

His descriptions of events are both serious and funny and often come with unexpected twists. Early in the book, he resembles a babe in the woods. At the same time, though, he is the cleverest kid on the block. On his second tour, which is the best part of the book, he is a savvy, team-oriented pro. His flashes of comedic insight, coupled with a subtle, smart-ass attitude when confronted by irrational or misdirected leaders, scored smiles from me. At all times, he is highly likable.

Goodrow saw his share of needless death. He often ponders the fragility of life and the inevitability of death in combat, deliberate or accidental. His work took place mostly behind the lines, but he frequently went into the field to service guns.

“Many support troops faced just as deadly dangers as the grunts did,” he writes, “maybe a little more subtle and a little less obvious, but whatever position you held in Vietnam was just as deadly as the other.”

In his book Patrick Goodrow delivers worthy messages about war, duty, and leadership. He deserves to be read.

—Henry Zeybel

The Good of the Order by Gerard Shields

Gerard Shields’ The Good of the Order: America’s Last 80 Years Through they Eyes of One Tiny Veterans Club (Hilliard & Harris, 168 pp. $16.95, paper) could easily feel like a piece of nostalgia for a great neighborhood bar. But there’s so much more to this book—and to the old AMVETS club tucked into a tiny corner of a rust-covered, steel-town community in east Philadelphia that Shields and the late Joseph Vincent Manko (who founded the club) write about.

Indeed, the factories are gone. What remains are the veterans of three generations of war. And the men and women who care deeply about what happens to the kids and the poor and the neighborhood itself.

Returning home from World War II, the men and women of Kensington Memorial AMVETS Post 146 in East Philadelphia, helped—from their small corner—turn America into the greatest economic power on the planet.

There’s “Rouse” O’Brien, who could throw you out of the place so quickly it would make your head spin; legendary brawler Gus Hagan; Tommy “The Minute” Bell; Joe Dougherty, who brought a pig to the place on St. Patty’s Day and started a tradition; “Beans” Cannon; “Jocko” McGinley, whose closing-time announcements always brought a smile; “Butch” Dugan, the mayor; and John Sharkey, whose antics can’t be repeated in a family book review.

Shields talks about Vietnam War veterans returning home to find a lukewarm—if not worse—reception. But at the Philly AMVETS they were received with open arms. One veteran who had just returned home, for example, heard a knock on the door. It was a couple of guys from the club, inviting him to come on down and meet people. For him, and for many others, the club became a home away from home.

There’s also the story of Johnny Everly, a Vietnam veteran whose life was spared when the prayer card in his pocket caught a load of shrapnel. And a guy who says it always takes him two hours to leave the place because he has to say goodbye to everyone.

The book is based on recently discovered archives, photos, and newsletter stories dating to 1947. A veteran national newspaper reporter who grew up in the neighborhood, Shields loves the place and the people. He calls it a fortress and a life raft in rough times that mirrors what many veterans’ halls across the nation are facing.

“Anyone who grew up in a small American town with a tightly knit neighborhood and a club whose antics and anecdotes seemed larger than life will love this book,” said Bernard Elliker, a Korean War veteran.

The AMVETS Post 146 “personifies the highest accolade occasionally applied to such a recounting: Gee, it’s almost like being there,” Elliker said. “Its characters remain in my memory bank.”

It’s about attitude and kindness and booze and fun and patriotism and growing up tough. And kind. The club helps kids left homeless after a member’s house burns. It pays for the burial of a local family’s teenage son. And much more.

The club celebrated its 70th anniversary in November after struggling to keep its doors open. It continues to be a neighborhood force of unity. And, as always, it struggles to survive.

For the Good of the Order, we hope it remains.

—Michael Ludden

Michael Ludden is a former Orlando Sentinel Deputy Managing Editor. He’s the author of two detective novels, Alfredo’s Luck and Tate Drawdy, and a soon-to-be-released collection of newspaper remembrances, Tales From The Morgue. 

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From Enemies to Partners by Le Ke Son and Charles R. Bailey

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A look back at the chemical abuse that the United States perpetrated against the population and topography of Vietnam during the American war dictates a look forward about the enduring effects of that action. Defoliation of the countryside by the use of Agent Orange/dioxin and other toxins took place between 1961 and 1970; its effects are still apparent fifty years and several generations later.

Making amends for the use of Agent Orange has been difficult. Le Ke Son and Charles R. Bailey promote this effort in From Enemies to Partners: Vietnam, the U.S. and Agent Orange (G. Anton, 242 pp. $29.99, hardcover; $19.99, paper; $9.99, Kindle). Son and Bailey have collaborated on this problem since 2006. Son holds a PhD in toxicology; Bailey has a PhD in agricultural economics. Both men have worked with agencies such as the Red Cross and Ford Foundation on correcting the damages inflicted by Agent Orange.

From 1975-2006, Agent Orange was “an extremely sensitive and controversial subject,” the authors write. “Official views were polarized, information was scant, disagreement was rife and suspicions on both sides ran high.” They counter this situation by assembling enough data to make Agent Orange a discuss-able topic. The book highlights the contributions of people and organizations that have helped to compensate for Agent Orange’s misuse.

The thoroughness with which Son and Bailey examine the Agent Orange/dioxin situation  is spellbinding. They have assembled a wealth of data that arguably amounts to more information on the topic than may be found in any other single publication.

They open their argument with a province-by-province review, complete with charts and studies, that shows—among other things—that dioxin still exists in Vietnam. They then examine dioxin’s impact on people and the ecology. There also are charts, tables, and studies to promote awareness among Americans and Vietnamese about the problem and the needs of victims. The book ends with a summation of bilateral efforts to date and proposals for the future.

The magnitude of future problems relates to locales, expenses, and people. American bases at Da Nang, Bien Hoa, and Phu Cat were Agent Orange’s most toxic areas. Da Nang has been cleansed of poison. The cost of remediating Bien Hoa is estimated at $375-$500 million and will take a decade, the authors say. Meanwhile, several hundred thousand young Vietnamese with birth defects linked to AO exposure passed on through their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents await help, according to the authors.

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Son and Bailey argue for continued collaboration between the United States and Vietnam and urge greater funding by Americans to finish tasks such as sanitizing the Bien Hoa Air Base.

A raft of color photographs pays tribute to people who have supported the cause. An appendix cites the Ford Foundation and seventy-eight of its grant recipients. Another appendix—”Fifty-Five Years of Agent Orange: Timeline of Key Statements, Decisions and Events 1961-2016″—provides an excellent twenty-four-page summation of the book’s theme.

—Henry Zeybel

Last Chance of a Crazy Virgin by Dennis Latham

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Dennis Latham’s novel, Last Chance of a Crazy Virgin (YS Gazelle, 200 pp., $16, paper; $2.99, Kindle), is fiction, almost embarrassingly so. Latham is a Marine Corps veteran who served in Vietnam. The book’s blurbs refer to constant laughter provoked in readers by the crazy antics of the characters in this novel. I didn’t have that problem.

The plot of the novel—first published in 2009—concerns the plight of John Elvin, who is twenty-four years old and still a virgin. He is determined to change that status, but he has no idea how to go about doing that. Not a clue. The virgin he meets, Lori Anderson, is eager to help Elvin with his plight, but her eagerness does not translate to anything much happening with any dispatch.

There is a crazy Vietnam veteran in this novel, John’s brother. He was wounded in the war so that his head resembles a butt, which seems funny to everyone but me.

This book has large print and wide margins and can be read in a jiffy, but it still seemed slow going to me. It takes place the summer of 1982, “before HIV made sex an extreme risk, back when condoms were called rubbers,” Latham writes.

It was a different, primitive time. No cell phones, home computers, or satellite TV. So, I guess the book works as a cultural artifact of a certain time and place in America. But I did not find it to be funny.

—David Willson