Vietnam Veterans Unbroken by Jacqueline Murray Loring

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In 2010, working in conjunction with a Vietnam War veterans group in Hyannis, Massachusetts, Jacqueline Murray Loring began studying the resiliency of Vietnam vets and their assimilation into the American social structure after coming home.

Loring, a poet and writer of stage plays, movie scripts, and articles, labels herself a “non-military writer.” She wholeheartedly acknowledges the support she received from the group’s Director of Counseling, Jack Bonino.

With Bonino’s help, she compiled interviews and writings from seventeen Vietnam War veterans (including her husband) to broaden her understanding of how they overcame the trauma of exposure to combat. Seven of her subjects served in the Marine Corps; eight in the Army; and two in the Navy.

Loring’s research culminated with her new  book, Vietnam Veterans Unbroken: Conversations on Trauma and Resiliency (McFarland, 212 pp. $29.95, paper).

This book resembles other Vietnam War memoirs that provide the life stories of a group of veterans who enlisted or were drafted from the same region and returned there following their military service. However, rather than providing complete memoirs one after another, Loring separates each person’s experiences into four parts that she then collects into the following groupings:

  • Growing Up in America and Arriving in Vietnam
  • Coping with Coming Home
  • Post-Traumatic Stress
  • Resiliency and Outreach

That structure helps the reader distinguish similarities and differences among the interviewees at four critical junctures in each of their lives.

The veterans—one woman and sixteen men—provided information in a questionnaire that is not included in the book. Their most common problem was the inability to speak about their war experiences. In general, civilians were not interested in stories of what the returnees had done overseas; likewise, most returnees did not want to talk about their experiences, which compounded their emotional problems.

The veterans describe their common feelings in everyday life: anxiety, depression and hopelessness, sleeplessness, anger and rage, nightmares and flashbacks, and suicidal thoughts or attempts. They talk about dealing with emotions that intensified low-level confrontations at home, in the work place, and in therapy. The depth and duration of their therapy to treat PTSD far surpassed what I had imagined.

Loring presents the facts and allows readers to reach their own conclusions about psychological outcomes. I concluded that the returnees’ major need was social acceptance and a method to unravel their innermost feelings, a task for which they received virtually no support.

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Jacqueline Murray Loring

That might sound like self-evident truth, but more than anything else, Loring’s book reconfirms how long it took for doctors and counselors to recognize the long-term psychological damage inflicted by the Vietnam War. Fortunately, these veterans found the resilience to construct at least a semblance of normal existences.

Although Loring’s work focuses on Vietnam War veterans, her findings will help those who served in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As one of the Marines interviewed for the book put it: “The young kids coming home today are facing the same quandary.”

Overall, the book is cathartic. It includes no battle scenes. It mainly displays the resiliency of a small group of veterans who paid a steep psychological toll for serving their country.

The book’s page on the author’s website is jacquelinemurrayloring.com

—Henry Zeybel

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Maxwell Taylor’s Cold War by Ingo Trauschweizer

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As the commanding general of the Army’s 101st Airborne Division, Maxwell Taylor parachuted into Normandy on D-Day. He later became an architect of Vietnam War policy during his tenure as a White House military adviser and then as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the Kennedy Administration, and ultimately as ambassador to South Vietnam from 1964-65 under President Johnson. Taylor died in 1987.

He was called a hero, an optimist, a manipulator, a micro-manager, a wise man, and by some, a liar. He never wavered in his belief that the Vietnam War was lost on the home front.

Maxwell Taylor’s Cold War: From Berlin to Vietnam (Unirvesity Press of Kentucky, 328 pp. $45, hardcover and Kindle) by Ohio University historian Ingo Trauschweizer examines Taylor’s role in developing U.S. military strategy and doctrine. It is an academic work that chronologically recounts policy debates and bureaucratic conflicts in detail. The book is based extensively on newly declassified government archives.

This is not a biography. The book seeks instead to provide a “more complete” picture of “military, strategic, policy, institutional, intellectual, international, and diplomatic history”—a rather tall order that sometimes gets as bogged down as the Vietnam War itself. Ultimately, what stands out is Taylor and other decision-makers’ arrogance, mis-assumptions, and wishful thinking, particularly with Vietnam War policymaking.

Maxwell Taylor stepped into controversy in 1960 when his book, The Uncertain Trumpet, came out after he’d retired from the military as the U.S. Army’s Chief of Staff. Trauschweizer describes the book as a “scathing indictment of the national security system and the shortcomings of massive retaliation” as a deterrent defense strategy.

In the book, Taylor called for building capacity and flexibility for “limited wars” with graduated pressures. Vietnam became the stage on which to test components of the doctrine as a “layered structure” of air war, ground war, counterinsurgency, and pacification. One major flaw in Taylor’s argument, Trauschweizer points out, was the failure to anticipate the dynamics of escalation. Another was a fatal misreading of the resolve of Hanoi’s leadership—and the Vietnamese people—in refusing to be figuratively and literally bombed into submission by the United States.

Later, in hindsight, Taylor cited several factors that led to the failure of his doctrine in the Vietnam War: the lack of a formal declaration of war, the lack of hard intelligence data, and the lack of “a comprehensive media information campaign” directed at the American people—something that also might be called a massive propaganda campaign.

For decisions to go to war in the future, Trauschweizer describes Taylor’s idea of a clear-headed, four-point test of the “national interest”:

  • The gain to be anticipated by success
  • The probable cost to achieve success
  • The probability of failure
  • The additional costs that failure would impose

Taylor also emphasized, in Trauschweizer’s words, “the need for a president to be absolutely certain of sustained popular support and to rely on a military prepared to win quickly and decisively.”

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Secretary of Defense McNamara, Joint Chiefs Chairman Maxwell Taylor, and President Kennedy at the White House, January 15, 1963 – JFK Library photo

One is tempted to respond: “If pigs had wings had wings, they could fly,” or at least to add that it would be advisable that every president contemplating war has a perfect crystal ball. For Taylor’s scenario to work, limited wars probably require the massive application of military power at the outset to avoid the risk of becoming protracted wars. Unforeseen consequences are also often inevitable.

If nothing else, Maxwell Taylor’s prescription can be used to assess the Unites States’ wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and today’s risk of war with Iran, whether intentional or miscalculated.

–Bob Carolla

10 Cents and a Silver Star by Bruce D. Johnson

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I’ve been waiting many years to read a novel of the Vietnam War and its lasting impact that is as enjoyable as Bruce D. Johnson’s 10 Cents and a Silver Star… A Sardonic Saga of PTSD  (Edit Ink, 386 pp., $19.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle )

Johnson begins his book with the main character, also named Bruce Johnson, pretty casually receiving a Silver Star. It’s 1969 and he is awarded the medal for actions he took while fighting in South Vietnam’s III Corps with Army’s the 173rd Airborne Brigade.

Specialist Johnson gets no comfort from the medal, believing it to be the result of some “bureaucratic blunder.” He’s pretty sure it was actually intended for his best friend, Bill Hastings, who died in Johnson’s arms while they were engaged in combat.

In that way, his sense of survivor’s guilt becomes even more complicated by receiving a medal he is sure was meant for his buddy. Johnson’s actions during the firefight may have been worthy of a Silver Star, but he was so stoned at the time that he has no idea and certainly doesn’t think so.

Johnson considers the Vietnam War to be “the insane asylum of this planet,” and notes that actions taken by American troops in Vietnamese villages sometimes made those soldiers appear to be “the Peace Corps in reverse.”

The story is told by someone who apparently has determined that life is merely time filled with one absurd incident after another. Johnson is sent to a Fire Support Base for just one day but a misunderstanding keeps him there for six weeks. That’s long enough for his original unit to consider him missing and for his parents to be notified.

Or maybe they weren’t. You can’t be sure if all the things that are supposedly happening in the book are actually happening. It leads you to constantly wonder what is real in this fictional world and what isn’t. So this is not a book you just read, but one you’re forced to engage with, which isn’t a bad thing.

After his year in Vietnam, with the war basically over “except for the shooting,” Johnson returns home to Chicago. He has that Silver Starl which he’s been told will get him a cup of coffee anywhere—if he also has a dime.

It turns out, though, that the medal serves as almost a good-luck charm. It opens up many doors and provides many opportunities that would not have been available to him otherwise. Yet he constantly struggles with the realization that the medal really isn’t his, and belongs to his best friend who paid the ultimate price for it.

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Bruce Johnson

Johnson decides to locate the parents of Bill Hastings and present the medal to them.

 

This novel is written in a hilarious fashion. It’s not often that I laugh out loud when I read something, yet I did several times while reading this book. It’s filled with jokes that keep coming at you in machine-gun style, probably averaging three a page, and at least eighty percent of them work.

They work because—as funny as they are—you are constantly reminded of what the source of the humor is. It’s an attempt to deal with (and make sense of) a world and an existence that is often cold, cruel, and senseless.

Bill McCloud

The Fourteenth of September by Rita Dragonette

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Rita Dragonette’s novel, The Fourteenth of September (She Writes Press, 376 pp., $16.95, paper; $8.69. Kindle) is based on her personal experiences as a college student during the Vietnam War beginning in September 1969. That’s when she witnessed a confrontation between ROTC trainees and antiwar student demonstrators who were not sympathetic to those who had ended up in ROTC. This complex novel is, in essence, an inquiry into the domestic politics of protest when the world seems to stop making any sense.

The publisher describes the book as a “coming of conscience novel.” I read the book trying to make sense of that description. My guess is that the main character, PFC Judy Talton, wakes herself up politically by joining the campus anti-Vietnam War movement on her nineteenth birthday.

She is apparently not aware that by doing so, she is jeopardizing her Army scholarship, as well as alienating her military family. She asks her herself, “Who is she if she stays in the Army? Who is she if she chooses to leave?”  Good questions. Neither is easily answered.

The late summer of 1969 is a pivotal time in the Vietnam War, and it becomes a pivotal time in the life of a young and callow young woman who is riven with doubts about her identity and the identity of those around her. Are they her friends? Can she trust them to try to understand what is going on with her?

Few books have taken the time—and space—to examine so thoroughly the collegiate antiwar movement in small-town America. The story held my interest and reminded me of what was going on in Pullman, Washington, around the same time. The tone rang true in every line.

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Rita Dragonette

I was interested in the impact that the draft lottery and its rippling effects had on a generation heavily influenced by the chance uncertainty the lottery had on hundreds of thousands of young people. I had barely paid attention to the lottery because I was one of the young men drafted before the it was instituted.

 

This novel opened my eyes to issues that my thick skin and my age had protected me from. We are admonished to read this book and weep, and I actually did shed a tear or two of sympathy.

If you’re like me, after you read this well-written novel, it will be difficult to put it out of your mind.

The book’s page on the author’s website is ritadragonette.com/projects/the-fourteenth-of-september

—David Willson

Recon by Fire by Mark Paloolian

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Mark Paloolian was drafted into the Army and served a year in the Vietnam War. Recon by Fire: Fighting with the 1st BN 5th (Mech) Infantry in Vietnam (Hellgate, p. 150 pp., $12.95, paper; $4.99, Kindle) is the story of Paloolian’s military experience from 1966-68. In it, he chronicles his recruitment, training, and deployment to Vietnam as an infantry armored personnel carrier driver with the  5th Mechanized Infantry Battalion in the 25th Infantry Division. This is Paloolian’s second book. His first, Brutality: The Tragic Story of Stanley Ketchel, the Michigan Assassin is a boxing history published in 2007.

Recon By Fire is a short book with many illustrations, a detailed glossary, and two appendices which contain statistics about the war and military draft conscription numbers from 1917-73. The twelve short chapters deal with the details of driving and operating armored personnel carriers. We learn quickly that you don’t ride inside the machine. That was a good way to die.

Paloolian started writing fifty years after he’d served in Vietnam. The stories and photographs are his, but the experience of being in this war is universally unique and “sadly universal on Planet Earth,” as he writes.

Chapter Two gives an excellent overview of what the author’s training at Fort Knox was like. Soon he is in Vietnam and in the field working bridge security. His first firefight is described eloquently. I kept getting the feeling of déjà vu and then remembered Black Virgin Mountain, a very similar memoir written by Larry Heinemann, who also wrote Close Quarters, the classic novel of life and service in the Vietnam War in a mechanized Army unit.

Recon By Fire is a more workmanlike book than Heinemann’s memoir and novel. Close Quarters is a fine literary novel that takes its place on the short shelf of classic books about service in the Vietnam War.

I highly recommend that a reader read both books and make some comparisons. That would be an instructive exercise for a student of the Vietnam War. Paloolian went back to Vietnam thirty years after he came home from the war. His observations about how the country had changed are intelligent and worth reading. It’s a trip I never made, but I can see where it would be worth the time and the trouble to do so.

 

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Paloolian in Vietnam in 1967 with APC hit by an RPG

Mark Paloolian mentions many of the usual things that former infantrymen can’t seem to resist cataloging in their memoirs: John Wayne, Agent Orange, free fire zones, VC tunnels and booby traps, the “Land of the Big PX,” shit burning, friendly fire, the movie Platoon, and many more.

His ability to type saved his life, Paloolian writes. I have to agree. My entering Basic Training with typing skills also went a long way toward saving my life. My D in high school typing made me a man among men in the U.S. Army of 1966.

–David Willson

Our Man by George Packer

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“Idealism,” writes George Packer, “without egotism is feckless; egotism without idealism is destructive.” This was the central tension of Ambassador Richard Holbrooke’s life and death, a struggle to balance a blinding ambition with American virtue.

Packer is a writer at The New Yorker and The Atlantic whose best-selling book, The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, won a National Book Award in 2013. Producing his latest book, Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century (Knopf, 609 pp., $30), was not a dispassionate undertaking for him. He starts Our Man with: “Holbrooke? Yes I knew him. I can’t get his voice out of my head.”

This initial conversational prose continues throughout the book, primarily in the first person by Packer, but occasionally by a third-person narrator. At times, Packer cedes narrative control to Holbrooke, using the former diplomat’s diary to fill an entire chapter.

George Packer’s simpatico relationship with Richard Holbrooke is underscored by their mutual support for the war in Iraq. That influenced Holbrooke’s third wife and widow to allow Packer unfettered access to her husband’s previously private papers and diaries. Packer also conducted more than 250 interviews for the book.

The brilliance of the end product is in revealing the essence of Holbrooke. He is not necessarily a likable figure, and Packer is unafraid to portray the more profane aspects of his personality. Yet Holbrooke’s ambition propelled him into achieving great things for his country, most notably negotiating a peaceful end to the conflict in Bosnia.

Richard Holbrooke arrived in South Vietnam in the spring of 1963 as a Foreign Service Officer in the JFK mold. He stayed for three years before leaving for Washington to work for pacification czar Robert (“Blowtorch Bob”) Komer. He would stay in Washington long enough to write a volume of The Pentagon Papers and participate in the Paris Peace Talks in 1968.

Under President Carter, Holbrooke became the youngest Assistant Secretary of State. He met his match in National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, though, who bested Holbrooke bureaucratically and consistently proscribed more-effective policies. Exiled during Reagan-Bush years, Holbrooke would fail in his life-long goal of becoming Secretary of State. He served in the Clinton and Obama presidencies in various roles, including as special envoy to the Balkans, and as special representative to Afghanistan.

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Holbrooke in South Vietnam in the early sixties

As it was during his time in Vietnam, Holbrooke’s ambition was sweeping and shameless, a characteristic Packer finds humanizing—but one that others may find revolting. Packer seemingly spares no salacious detail in the book. “He didn’t want to miss a minute of life,” Packer writes. He carried on many affairs (one famously with Diane Sawyer), played video games, watching an endless stream of movies, and wooed his best friend’s wife.

The journalist and biographer Walter Isaacson contends that if one was to read only one book about America’s foreign policy in the past fifty years, Our Man should be the book. This may be too sanguine, but it is not without merit.

Holbrooke’s perspective on foreign policy was forged by the Vietnam War, with its paradoxical mélange of exploited patriotism and sincere idealism, of earnestness and hubris, which has established the rhetorical framework for the use of American force since. His support for the war in Iraq showed that Holbrooke did not learn this lesson, allowing his egotism to destroy his idealism. When he tried to apply these lessons to his time as Special Representative to Afghanistan, he lacked the temperament to work with President Obama.

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Holbrooke at the table at the Paris Peace Talks

Our Man is a biographical masterpiece, but Packer’s history lacks a serious analytical framework. The second half of the title, “The End of the American Century,” seems to have been absorbed from others as a commentary about the current administration. In the scope of this magisterial effort, this seems like trifling criticism.

Our Man is captivating, infuriating, and engrossing. Much like Holbrooke himself.

–Daniel R. Hart

From 4-F to U.S. Navy Surgeon General by Harold M. Koenig

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In the spirit of Horatio Alger, the title of Harold M. Koenig’s book tells the whole story: From 4-F to U.S. Navy Surgeon General: A Physician’s Memoir (McFarland, 215 pp. $35, paper; $9.99, Kindle).

Koenig won an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy in 1958, but attended classes for only a year because he lost hearing in one ear. Categorized as 4-F—medically unfit for military duty—he worked his way into Baylor University Medical School in 1962.

He was set to graduate in 1966 when the Vietnam War sped up. The Navy needed doctors and—ignoring his 4-F status—enticed him to enlist by offering an Ensign’s commission and paying his college loans. In exchange, Koenig agreed to serve three years following his internship.

He and Deena Prescott married in 1965. They had three sons who all became Navy officers. Deena accompanied her husband on his first assignment in Japan, from 1967-69. “I was happy I would not be going to Vietnam,” Koenig says. Thereafter, he mentions the Vietnam War only fleetingly.

His memoir chronologically works through a thirty-two year career in the Navy. It held my interest because Koenig held many jobs in many locations and provides details and perspectives about all of them. His competence in solving problems earned him increasingly difficult trouble-shooting assignments that built a reputation as an effective leader. He feared no confrontation and made patients’ welfare his primary concern.

Koenig says the hardest job he had was when as “junior to about two-dozen captains,” he commanded the re-accreditation of the Navy hospital in San Diego. His chapter on those two years of duty teaches lessons about how to cope with one nightmarish problem after another. Success in that job cinched his promotion to admiral.

Koenig repeatedly worked for the same bosses and gave them his total loyalty. He also never forgot those who worked for him.

09-9004-2On his way to the top, he continued to solve difficult problems. They included:

  • finding medical manpower for the first Iraqi War
  • improving TRICARE and Medicare for troops and their dependents
  • working with—and against—members of Congress on Base Realignment and Closure
  • remedying a shortage of doctors
  • attending meetings that frequently improved policies, especially inter-service sessions.

Koenig closes his memoir by recalling his social life and travel during his Navy years. His perks included lunching at the White House with President Clinton, marching among the midshipmen at Army-Navy football games, and flying with the Blue Angels. Fact-finding travel took him to virtually every military hospital in the United States and to dozens of places around the world.

The message from Koenig’s memoir: Hard work and friendships pay off.

—Henry Zeybel