Path to a Lonely War by Richard Schaefer

path-to-a-lonely-war

In Path to a Lonely War: A Naval Hospital Corpsman with the Marines in Vietnam, 1965 (Texas Tech University Press, 163 pp. $29.95, hardcover) Richard W. Schaefer says he did not want to write a war story. But he includes several depictions of exciting and graphic battlefield action in this memoir of his Vietnam War experiences—where, he says—“we were involuntarily in the process of wearing away any remnants of innocence we had brought with us to this hellhole.”

Dick Schaefer’s main hopes in 1965 were to relate to others and to transform from an eighteen-year-old high school graduate into a battle-hardened man. As he tells that story, Schaefer shares his thoughts and analysis of the war in Vietnam and its effect on those at home.  After his four-year Navy tour, Schaefer returned to civilian life in Iowa, got married, and raised a family.

Some artists create pictures with lines and shapes. Schaefer creates pictures with words, artfully “painting” mind-drawn images throughout his book. For example, he writes that older generations sat and “watched” the radio, and from the mesmerizing words they heard visualized characters and scenes in their minds. In that manner, I did not so much “read” this book, as I “watched” it.

In his short, powering opening acknowledgements section, Schaefer shows a true understanding and respect for the Marines with whom he served. Eventually, he became one with them.

He uses the phrase “lonely war” not to depict sadness but to describe the isolation that he and others serving in the Vietnam War felt. I could sense this feeling of isolation from cover to cover.  Not a dark isolation, but a need to be alone in his thoughts and tend to his duties. Throughout it all, Schaefer shows a high degree of professionalism.

5a861e8c72795-image

The book and the author

Dick Schaefer was a typical Navy Corpsman: brave, strong beyond his size, and truly concerned for the health and well being of everybody around him. He received two Bronze Stars with V devices during his 1965-66 Vietnam War tour of duty.

After reading this book, I had mixed feelings. I felt I was missing something, so I read it a second time. I’m glad I did. I wound up loving Path to a Lonely War.

— Bob Wartman

 

Advertisements

Keep Forever: A Novel by Alexa Kingaard

41979rjy9al-_sy346_

In her novel, Keep Forever (BookBaby, 268 pp., $14.99, paper; $6.99, Kindle), Alexa Kingaard thanks the Veteran’s Writing Group in Oceanside, California, which gave her “shelter from the storm.” Keep Forever, she writes, is based on her experiences living with and “tragically losing” a Vietnam War veteran.

The book tells the story of Paul O’Brien, a Marine who returns from the war with terrible burdens he shares with those he loves. “It was inspired by the Vietnam neterans I have known and loved,” Kingaard writes, “and their lifelong struggles with PTSD.”

Paul O’Brien wants to make a nightmare-free life for himself, but his sleep is disturbed by guilt. Blurbs from readers say that they couldn’t put the novel down once they started reading it, even when they were sobbing. I admit to shedding a few tears myself.

Late in the book we are told that “no amount of visits to the VA were fixing the problem, and the answers from the overworked and understaffed medical facility were always the same. ‘It’s the best we can do. We don’t have the resources. You have to wait like everyone else. It’s a long line.’”

That’s the tune my friends and I frequently heard in the years immediately after the war and for a long time after that. However, things have improved at my local VA (in the Seattle area).They may not have not improved elsewhere.

Paul O’Brien comes alive on the page as a seriously disturbed veteran, but also as a believable one. He keeps a duffel bag packed at all times to take with him when he leaves the house so he is prepared for all exigencies. He is very slow to get ready and is usually late for all appointments—if he makes them at all.

91y12qiaz7l-_uy200_

Alexa Kingaard

When his wife suggests he see a therapist, his reaction is, “Definitely not. That would be cowardly and weak.”

He remains on high alert at all times. He postpones going to see his doctor, even though he has serious symptoms.

When he finally goes to the doctor, he’s told he has stage-four prostate cancer, and it’s too late for Paul O’Brien. He was a lifelong collector, storing and hoarding his treasures intending to leave them as his legacy to those he loved. Or so he told himself.

He would have been wiser to give them the gift of himself. Most likely all that junk would prove a burden to his loved ones.

If you are looking for a very sad book that tells the familiar story of a veteran unable to get past his war, this book could be the one for you.

The author’s website is alexakingaard.com

–David Willson

The Veterans Cemeteries of Texas by Michael Lee Lanning

81kl2bsmkapl

In a crisp and clear style Michael Lee Lanning uses  his new book, The Veterans Cemeteries of Texas (Texas A&M University, 178 pp.; $29.95, hardcover), to spread the word about what you need to know about those facilities. What applies to Texas’s  state and national veterans cemeteries applies to the those in the rest of the states—or it should. The book itself is a compact, user-friendly piece of perfect design and printing.

The introduction explains how burial grounds for veterans are chosen and developed. Lanning goes on to set out the official procedures for interment and practices for continued honoring of the deceased.

The book’s core devotes far more space to six VA-run National cemeteries in Texas than it gives to the four Texas State veterans cemeteries. In Texas, National cemeteries are in the heart of the vast state at distances inconvenient to reach for many of its citizens.

“Over the years,” Lanning says, “the VA has sought to provide sufficient cemeteries across the United States so that there is one within seventy-five miles of every American veteran.”

In 2001, in response to the VA’s goal to provide “special resting places, close to home, where friends, family and fellow Texans can honor Texas veterans,” a statewide election approved a bond for construction of state cemeteries at Killeen, Mission, Abilene, and Corpus Christi. They opened between 2006 and 2010.

National facilities in Texas date back to 1867. They are located in Dallas, El Paso, San Antonio (which has two), Houston, and Kerrville.

In a cemetery-by-cemetery breakdown, Lanning explains the origins, history, and present condition of each one. With short accounts of their lives, he cites notable people buried at each site, emphasizing Medal of Honor recipients. Many of them are native Texans. These accounts include unusual tales about rioters, prisoners of war, and other seemingly undeserving men buried in the cemeteries.

Each cemetery has its own character. San Antonio National Cemetery, for example, has no more space for burials because the city surrounded it. Consequently, it accepts only cremated remains. Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery is the only one in Texas with access to a horse-drawn caisson for funerals of sergeants major and officers. I have walked through that cemetery and attest to the dignity of the facility and its caretakers. Kerrville National Cemetery, the smallest in Texas, operated only from 1923-57 and now is closed for future interments.

Appendices provide rules governing eligibility for burial in National and State cemeteries; emblems of belief for headstones; and floral arrangements. A directory of Texas sites is also included.

Lanning snapped a wealth of photographs for the book. Printed on glossy paper, most of the images reflect the serenity and beauty of the landscapes.

michael_lee_lanning

Michael Lee Lanning

Even for non-Texans, The Veterans Cemeteries of Texas should teach need-to-know knowledge not found elsewhere.

Lee Lanning has written more than twenty military history books, including his two Vietnam War memoirs, The Only War We Had: A Platoon Leader’s Journal of Vietnam, and Vietnam 1969-1970: A Company Commander’s Journal.

A retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel, he served as a 199th Light Infantry Brigade platoon leader and company commander in the Vietnam War.

His website is michaelleelanning.com

—Henry Zeybel

The Gunpowder Prince by Michael Archer

My USAF C-130 crew flew LAPES and CDS supply drops over besieged Khe Sanh in 1968. Our best flight there, however, took place on the day the siege ended. We landed and on-loaded a hundred Marines led by a captain whose humongous grin is still imprinted in my brain.

“I’ve never been this happy to leave anyplace,” he said, and thanked us at least a dozen times.

Khe Sanh is legendary in military history as both a high and low point for Americans and North Vietnamese. Thirty thousand NVA soldiers surrounded 6,000 United States Marines for ten weeks at that remote combat base in Quang Tri Province. The NVA failed to capture the base. After the siege lifted, however, the Americans abandoned the base and destroyed it.

Michael Archer, a nineteen-year-old Marine PFC at the time, served as a radio operator in the Khe Sanh Fire Support Coordination Center. He helped keep aircraft free from the line of fire of outgoing artillery, working alongside Capt. Mirza Munir Baig, a man with “a head like a computer,” who programmed the artillery.

Archer pays tribute to Baig in The Gunpowder Prince: How Marine Corps Captain Mirza Munir Baig Saved Khe Sanh (Amazon Digital Services, 145 pp. $14.95, paperback; .99, Kindle). Born to a royal family of India, Baig became an American citizen and chose a warrior’s life. He arrived in Vietnam in 1963, two years ahead of Marine combat units, and roamed the countryside developing a spy network and interrogating prisoners. In 1966 he saw action as an artillery officer in Operation Hastings before returning to in-country counterintelligence the following year.

Baig’s leadership skill rested on three factors: knowledge of past tactics followed by Vo Nguyen Giap, which allowed him to anticipate enemy maneuvers; an ability to predict enemy troop deployments based on listening to audio pickups from a top-secret sensor system; and an art for segmenting terrain into target areas, which expedited delivering firepower ranging from artillery shells to B-52 bombs.

Additionally, when targeting, Baig took advantage of the NVA’s lack of radio discipline: They often led him to themselves. Archer shows how these talents stifled buildups of NVA men and equipment necessary to overrun Khe Sanh, thereby forcing the enemy to switch from assault to encirclement tactics.

Baig’s biggest problem was poor intelligence. He felt “uninformed and in constant peril” while awaiting information that sped up the chain of command but trickled down slowly, Archer writes. That information was “old, incomplete, and almost always useless” to him. My own Vietnam War experience also included intelligence briefings that lacked timely data.

While lauding Baig, Archer analyzes the siege from both sides. He discusses the decisions of President Johnson and Gen. Westmoreland, which are familiar to many Americans. Of greater interest, he presents the thinking of the North Vietnamese. They recognized, Archer writes, that “an absurd series of mishaps, flukes of incredible bad luck, and appalling security blunders” kept the NVA from repeating a Dien Bien Phu-type victory.

Recent English translations of Vietnamese books and articles are providing insights that confirm or deny ideas that, for half a century, have been speculation among western thinkers. Archer refers to such sources throughout his book.

Similarly, by researching NVA archives, Istvan Toperczer of the Hungarian Air Force revealed the enemy’s side of the war in his books, MiG-17/19 Aces of the Vietnam War and MiG-21 Aces of the Vietnam War. Furthermore, information is now available regarding inadequate NVA defensive actions along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, particularly efforts to reduce large-scale transportation losses to American AC-130 Spectre gunships.

The Gunpowder Prince is Archer’s third book about Khe Sanh. It contains a great deal of new material. Archer has done his homework and presents scholarly arguments. At the same time, he finds interest in everyday events.

He provides an array of photographs to enhance the text. Both of his previous books have won awards.

The author’s website is www.michaelarcher.net

—Henry Zeybel

Jellybeans in the Jungle by Bob Whittaker

jellybeans-in-the-jungle-book-cover

When Bob Whittaker was a student in the sixties, his sympathies were with the antiwar movement. He was working as a primary school teacher in western Queensland in Australia when he was drafted into the Aussie army in 1969.

In his memoir, Jellybeans in the Jungle: From Teacher to NASHO and Back (EIEIO, 165 pp., $32, AUD, hardcover; $7.50, AUD, e book), we learn the details of recruit training, after which Whittaker was assigned to the 7th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment, which deployed to Vietnam in 1970.

Whittaker describes his service in Vietnam which included deadly encounters with the enemy as well as humdrum service in the rear where he worked as a projectionist—a job he’d learned as a civilian teacher on a similar Bell and Howell machine. We also learn a lot about R & R in Bangkok.

Whittaker writes about his re-entry problems after coming home to Australia. He encountered many of the same sorts of prejudices that Americans did when they returned home from the Vietnam War. He had no brass band waiting for him in Toowoomba.

Whittaker says that in the book he focuses mostly on the lighter aspects of his tour of duty. But he also describes incidents of friendly fire and includes a discussion of the effects of carpet bombing on the indigenous population, as well as details about Agent Orange and what it did to the people and environment in Vietnam—and what it did to him personally. He is convinced that one of his offspring was born dead due to his extreme exposure to the highly toxic defoliant.

“More than thirty-five years later, in the summer storm season at my home in Toowoomba, the sound of distant thunder reminds me of the rumbling sound of B-52s carpet bombing suspected North Vietnamese concentrations,” Whittaker writes.

Whittaker in the jungle

I was especially interested in the comments he makes about the ARVN being not good soldiers and that there were “some very good American units.” He goes on to say, though, that he didn’t “trust the Americans after witnessing a live-fire demo” during his first week in-country.

The jellybeans of the title (and featured on the cover) do appear in the book, but how they appear is too complicated to explain here. Buy this fine book and read more about jellybeans than anyone needs to know.

For ordering info, go to the book’s website, jellybeansinthejungle.blogspot.com

—David Willson

Best We Forget by Bernard Clancy

For much of Bernard Clancy’s novel, Best We Forget (Indra, 420 pp., $16.50, paperback; $7.99, Kindle), we are locked inside the head of a young Australian serviceman, Donkey Simpson, where we are never far from what Clancy calls “a slice of madness.”

Donkey Simpson is stationed in Saigon for a year. He spends much of that time swimming in beer, hoping and praying to survive. But it’s not just his life Simpson wants to retain. It’s his sanity, his sense of order and, perhaps, his patriotism.

It isn’t long before the wide-eyed Simpson comes to realize there is no order here, only chaos. As for the mission, it changes from day to day, depending on who’s giving the orders and what mood they’re in.

There is occasional violence and a backdrop of intrigue. But mostly there is gnawing heat and relentless boredom. Simpson struggles to pass the time and lusts for a young Asian woman who turns out to be a spy. Given what he will learn about the lives of the “nogs,” as he calls them, Simpson is torn between a sense of sympathy and one of betrayal.

So he swings between caring and hatred—for her and for all the faces he passes on the street. The solution: bar girls, beer and—when he can find it—air conditioning.

Best We Forget is fiction. But the author, who served in Vietnam in 1968-69, paints a realistic picture of the desolation of the country, the lack of clarity in the mission, and the uncertainty of the allies’ commitment.

Truth and clear-headedness often comes—not from the leadership—but from privates and corporals, as we see in an early exchange between two young soldiers talking about the Tet Offensive.

That will never happen again, one says. “Don’t bet on it,” comes the reply. “Charlie’s got nothing to lose and everything to gain.”

After months of duty, Simpson begins to wear down.

“He began going out more often, drinking more,” Clancy writes. “He even began buying Saigon teas for bar girls, anything to relieve the boredom, to escape the crushing reality of what, like so many before and around him, he was beginning to see as a complete and utterly pointless exercise. Worse, he felt chained into a madness which suffocated and choked. And the more he squirmed, the tighter the chains twisted.”

about_bernard_clancy_author_playwright_journalistelement95

Clancy

Clancy paints a vivid picture of life in Saigon.

“As Matthews weaved the Land Rover through millions of motor scooters and motorbikes, pushbikes and the clapped-out relics of French cars, he saw a huge, filthy, stinking slum. People wandered listlessly among roadside huts made from cardboard boxes and slabs of American beer-can stamped sheet metal; rubbish, filth, refuse, everything just dumped everywhere. Buildings, filthy, old, dilapidated, falling to pieces.

“The stench almost turned Donkey’s stomach inside out. Exhaust smoke from the motorbikes blued the air. And God it was hot.”

 

Clancy is at his best when he shows us what he’s seen. For that reason, some readers might wish for a bit more description and a bit less escapism.

The author’s website is bernardclancy.net

—Mike Ludden

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

The American War in Viet Nam by Susan Lyn Eastman

The author of The American War in Viet Nam: Cultural Memories at the Turn of the Century (University of Tennessee Press, 238 pp., $39.95), Susan Lyn Eastman, is not a Vietnam War veteran, nor any other kind of military veteran. She was raised in a small town in New Hampshire that was off the grid, attended a two-room school house, and her father is a Vietnam War veteran. Eastman is particularly interested in the treatment of veterans following the war. I suspect that relates to her father’s decision to get far away from modern post-war America.

In her book, Eastman, an English professor at Dalton State College in Georgia, examines a wide range of cultural productions. She discusses war memorials, poetry, and cinematic and fictional narratives. Eastman begins with a short Preface in which she recounts reading thirty names at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and giving in to tears when she did so. She says that the memorial does not account for the deaths of many others caused by the war, certainly not the more than one million Vietnamese dead.

Most interesting to me was Chapter 7, “Unfinished Remembrance: Beyond the United States and Vietnam—Jessica Hagedorn’s Dream Jungle and Frances Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now Redux.” I’d read a couple of Hagedorn’s books but not this one. I ordered the book, but decided to plod forward with this review.

The most useful aspect of this fine book was that it motivated me to do more reading about the Vietnam War. I was arrogant enough to imagine that I’d not missed the paramount books written about the war. So this book was a wake-up call for me.

The few black-and-white photos in the book were useful to the extent that they helped with the analysis of Vietnam War and veterans memorials. But they are muddy and not celebratory in any way, just useful to scholarly purposes.

Lyn Susan Eastman

The bibliography and the index are excellent. I spent much time pouring over them and then going to the references to see what I’d missed.  A book like this without an index and a bibliography is worse than useless, as all of us who have grappled with such messes will attest.

The author’s honesty about being the daughter of a Vietnam War veteran and how this affected her research and her point of view drove the book’s orientation and its power. Thanks to Susan Lyn Eastman for using her own life story to produce a useful and powerful interdisciplinary study that probes deeply where other books have only gone lightly.

–David Willson