A Spear-Carrier in Viet Nam by Michael E. Tolle

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The strength of A Spear-Carrier in Viet Nam: Memoirs of an American Civilian in Country, 1967 and 1970-1972 (McFarland, 201 pp. $35.00, paper; $9.99, Kindle) derives from author Michael E. Tolle’s ability to reconstruct his youthful observations of what turned out to be a failed mission.

The book is “not a researched work of history,” Tolle says. A self-professed libertarian conservative of white privilege, he primarily worked from memory to draw a picture of a politically and economically corrupt South Vietnam. The broad cultural gap between American expectations and Vietnamese values, he says, doomed most projects on which he worked as a civilian.

Tolle’s first adventure in South Vietnam followed his sophomore year at Georgetown University. He spent that summer as a volunteer for the World Relief Commission, a Protestant missionary organization, in Da Nang. After graduating from college and completing a year of Vietnamese language training, he served a second tour with the U.S. Agency for International Development as an Assistant Relief/Rehabilitation Officer with MACV Advisory Team 38 in Bac Loc and Saigon.

His father’s position as a USAID education adviser helped Tolle enter diplomatic ranks as “both the youngest and lowest-ranking member of the USAID staff in Viet Nam,” he believes. “I made no policy while there, but only executed the policies of others,” he says.

Despite his underling status, Tolle accepted responsibilities beyond his pay grade and found himself engaged with a profusion of problems. His ability to circumvent rules (or the lack thereof) allowed him to perform remarkably well. Working mainly with refugees, Tolle’s tasks included:

  • Dealing with more than 10,000 Cambodians—overwhelmingly farmers with no belongings—who were fleeing ethnic cleansing.
  • Distributing building materials such as cement and 4-by-8-foot sheets of corrugated steel.
  • Finding use for food provided by America—such as bulgur wheat and a mixture known as CSM—that the Vietnamese considered inedible. Concurrently, guarding highly desirable vegetable oil from theft.
  • Preventing corruption and deceit that surrounded any project that involved doling out money to local contractors.
  • Briefing general officers who appeared to be merely filling squares.

In discussing his interactions with American and Vietnamese leaders, Tolle eventually resigned himself to their selfish behavior. “Siphoning off” America’s “copious material wealth was an understood fact of life at every level,” he says. Likewise, the Vietnamese ignored American pacification strategies.

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Michael Tolle

An assignment to Saigon made Tolle’s final year in-country relatively pleasurable. His American wife had a job in the city, and together they enjoyed short visits to Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos.

Tolle looks back on the war as a “transformative experience” for him. With a career in Foreign Service in mind, he had attended Georgetown because of its strong international relations program. By the end of his service in Vietnam, however, he determined that he “was simply not suited for that kind of work.”

Tolle also has written What Killed Downtown? Norristown, Pennsylvania: From Main Street to the Malls, and They’ve Been Down So Long, Getting Up’s Still On Their Minds, both of which deal with the demise of Pennsylvania steel mills.

His website is michaeltolle.com

—Henry Zeybel

Still Come Home by Katey Schultz

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Katey Schultz’s Still Come Home (Apprentice House Press, 241 pp. $26.99, hardcover; $16.99, paper; $6.29, Kindle) is a work of literary fiction. Many books are written by people who have a story to tell and do so the best they can. Schultz, on the other hand, is a gifted writer who focuses in this book on a three-day period in 2009 in Afghanistan and on three main characters.

Aasey, seventeen, lives in “a village the size of a flea” in the middle of a war. Three years earlier her entire family had been murdered, victims of false rumors, and she was forced into a rushed marriage to her father’s cousin. She feels trapped in a culture that forces her to dangerously push boundaries as she longs for more independence.

U.S. Army 2nd LT Nathan Miller is on his fourth tour of duty in Afghanistan. His six-year marriage is shaky. That situation is not helped by his life being one of saying “goodbye, and goodbye, and goodbye, and goodbye.”

Rahim, Aasey’s husband, who is twenty-three years older than she is, finds himself working for—but not with—the Taliban. He’s torn between shielding his wife from the horrors he’s seen and dealing with her independent streak, which sometimes makes him want to “shove her into the wall.”

Miller is preparing to lead his men away from their routine of watching movies and playing pickup football games to one final humanitarian mission. His unit gets orders to drive their armored vehicles fifty kilometers across the desert to do something a helicopter drop could have handled in a few hours. But the Army knows you get a better sense of what’s going on in an area by being on the ground.

So Miller and his men prepare to go to the village of Inmar, Aasey’s home, just as she has become concerned about the Taliban’s renewed presence there. After all, it was the Taliban who “stole everything from her but her own heartbeat.” One bright spot in her life is the friendship she’s developed with a younger, mute orphan boy.

Miller has never gotten over the death of an NCO on a previous tour. He begins to question the rules of engagement and increasingly considers the brass to be giving orders for a different war than the one he and his men are fighting.

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Katey Schultz

An old battered paperback copy of a Merriam-Webster dictionary becomes almost a character in the story and there is at least one major surprise.

It’s a shame that in the decades since the end of the Vietnam War, wars are still taking place for people to write about. On the other hand, it’s a blessing that we have novelists like Katey Schultz to tell stories of those wars in an enlightened and empathic manner.

The author’s website is kateyschultz.com

–Bill McCloud

Unremembered Victory by Dennis H. Klein

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Unremembered Victory (Truth in the Hills Press, 176 pp. $8, paper; $2.99, Kindle) is a short historical novel by Dennis H. Klein. It deals with American military concerns and actions along the DMZ between North Korea and South Korea in 1968. Klein says all the stories in the book are true, but he uses “poetic license” in telling them.

The focus of the story is on what’s been called the 1968 “DMZ War” or sometimes the “Second Korean War.” Klein says all the characters are based on people he served with or met during his twenty-one months in Korea.

Four thousand American troops found themselves stationed near the DMZ a fifteen years after the Korean War ended in a stalemate. These men were considered neither the best nor the worst of what America had to offer. It was commonly believed that the best troops at the time were serving in Vietnam. But so, it was believed, were our worst troops because of Secretary of Defense McNamara’s lowering of the mental standards to fill out numbers for the war in Vietnam.

Plus, the West Point graduates serving as officers in Korea were rumored to have graduated in the bottom third of their class. As if that wasn’t enough, it seemed that the equipment sent to Korea was all “antiquated junk” because the good stuff was going to Vietnam.

Assuming this is basically true, that left a Second Infantry Division with average troops and questionable equipment and a second-rate officer corps to face the North Korean Army, the fourth largest in the world, which was hell bent on invading South Korea.

With North Korea’s seizure of the U.S.S. Pueblo in January 1968, Americans along the DMZ went from their usual “state of high lollygag,” as Klein puts it, to preparing for a war that “could start anytime. Clerks, mechanics, medics and cooks were now infantry soldiers.” There were firefights up and down the line and the extremely lethal North Korean commandos were known to sometimes cross surreptitiously into the South.

Students in South Korea began marching in protest—not against the possibility of war with the North, though. They were in favor of a war in order to unite North and South Korea.

Washington did not want to fight another war while engaged in Vietnam so the Army’s job was to control things so they didn’t develop into a big news story. Yet there also was talk of the possible use of nuclear weapons. While this didn’t become a major war, it was certainly war enough for the American troops on the ground.

“Once you are north of the fence long enough, you are out on the line in your head all the rest of your days,” was a commonly expressed thought.

A phrase heard in writers’ circles is if you can’t find the book you want to read, then write it. That’s what Klein has done, maintaining that the Vietnam War “should not be the only story told of our generation.” The 1968 face-off with North Korea was a “victory,” as opposed to our defeat in Vietnam, which, he says, “forever brands us as a bunch of losers.”

This is an interesting look at a story in danger of being lost in the mists of history.

–Bill McCloud

The Deserter by Nelson DeMille & Alex DeMille

The Deserter (Simon & Schuster, 544 pp., $28.99, hardcover; $14.99, Kindle; $49.99, audiobook) is the first novel by Nelson and Alex DeMille, a father and son team of writers. The father (Nelson) has written many best-selling thrillers, several of which deal with the Vietnam War. This one is little different than his previous novels. The Deserter features two new DeMille characters: Scott Brodie and Maggie Taylor.

The plot is a familiar one. The two protagonists journey to the heart of darkness—this time in Venezuela—in search of a bad guy, Former Army Delta Force Capt. Kyle Mercer, who has committed evil acts. Mercer has been spotted in Caracas in a part of the city that is off  limits to all but the worst criminals.

The team must enter this section of the city and somehow convince Capt. Mercer to return with them to civilization for trial and punishment. Brodie is suspicious of his partner, primarily because he thinks she’s a secret CIA operative.

The team goes up river in a boat which they steal, and which is hardly dependable. When Mercer has been captured, things go wrong, which is what this reader expected.

The novel is filled with the usual hairpin plot twists and black humor that I expect from a thriller from Nelson DeMille, who served a Vietnam War tour of duty as a 1st Cavalry Division LT. It is impossible to discern which portions of the novel were written by father and which by the son. Does that really matter?  Not to me.

There is much talk of black ops, winning hearts and minds, and raising rhubarb. Even Rambo gets a mention. Also being in “a world of shit.” The Vietnam War comes up several times, as does the Mekong Delta, “beans, bandages and bullets,” and Vietnam veterans.

I found the novel to be involving and fun to read. It was a bit on the long side, but for fans of DeMille that is a good thing.

The book’s page on Nelson DeMille’s website is nelsondemille.net/books/the-deserter

–David Willson

 

 

 

 

 

Elbridge Dubrow’s War in Vietnam by Ronald Bruce Frankum, Jr.

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American involvement in the Vietnam War continues to confound. It is unfathomable that such a small country exacted such a profound toll on America.

Building upon decades of work by historians to answer the question of who shaped American foreign policy in Vietnam in the early years of American involvement (1957-62) , Millersville University Professor Ronald Bruce Frankum, Jr. in Elbridge Durbrow’s War in Vietnam: The Ambassador’s Influence on American Involvement, 1957-1961 (McFarland, 271 pp., $49.95,, paper) attempts to answer the question by examining the turbulent relationship between American Ambassador Elbridge Durbrow and South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem.

Frankum has written extensively about the American war in Vietnam, including books on Operation Rolling Thunder, the U.S. role in the migration of a million Vietnamese from North to South Vietnam in 1955, America’s relationship with its wartime ally Australia, and a Vietnam War historical dictionary. Frankum’s new book is a companion to his Vietnam’s Year of the Rat: Elbridge Durbrow, Ngo Dinh Diem, and the Turn in U.S. Relations, 1959-1961, which came out in 2014.

In his new meticulously researched analysis, written in clear and accessible prose, Frankum indicates that Durbrow and Diem’s disagreements were partly personal and partly cultural, though neither doubted the other’s anticommunist bonafides. The crux was on how to best govern South Vietnam. This discord spread to their departments, with MAAG commander Gen. Samuel T. Williams—and to a lesser though notable extent, Edward Lansdale—on the pro-Diem side. Frankum’s analysis of the inter-connectivity of Laos and Cambodia, Diem’s management of his foreign policy, and American reaction to it, is particularly strong.

The narrative at times falls victim to the exhaustive nature of the research, lessening the drama, for example, of the 1960 attempted coup of Diem. Frankum’s allegiance to limiting the book to Durbrow and Diem’s relationship from 1957-61 is laudable, but more background and context would have strengthened the work.

How much, for example, did Durbrow’s work in Eastern Europe and Russia influence his perspective? Was Williams influenced by Eisenhower’s special representative Gen. J. Lawton Collins, a member of the anti-Diem group, who in 1944 had demoted Williams? Was there significance to the coup occurring just two days after the 1960 U.S. presidential election?

Regardless of Durbrow’s heavy-handed treatment of Diem and the internal strife between Williams and Durbrow, the political situation in South Vietnam was dire. There were, for example, expressions of outrage over Ngo Dinh Diem’s leadership, includingthe failed coup and the Caravelle Manifesto, a political tract produced by South Vietnamese intelligentsia that criticized Diem’s rule.

Frankum believes that Durbrow and his team were largely to blame for the mistrust. He presents a largely sympathetic portrayal of Diem, while Durbrow is seen as arrogant and jingoistic. Frankum criticizes Durbrow for being more concerned about perceptions than actual situations, but in politics and diplomacy there rarely is a clear distinction.

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Ronald Bruce Frankum, Jr.

If the origins of distrust did start with Durbrow, then the Kennedy Administration sought to address the issue by following Lansdale’s advice and removing Durbrow in favor of the accommodating Frederick Nolting, providing Diem with someone he could trust and respect. That the political situation deteriorated further under Nolting—who, along with MAAG commander Paul Harkins, supported Diem—suggests the incompatibly of American involvement.

The systematic issues with American foreign policy in South Vietnam are manifest throughout the book, including the willingness to accept authoritarianism to defeat communism, the fissure between the Defense and State Departments, and the temporizing and equivocating in Washington. For all the problems with strategy, there was an unquestioning adherence to the axiomatic principle: A loss in Vietnam would have deleterious consequences on the United States. In the end, even Durbrow believed that Diem was the best option.

Along with Frankum’s earlier work, this is an important book and a positive addition to the record of America’s early involvement in the Vietnam War.

–Daniel R. Hart

 

Vietnam Photographs from North Carolina Veterans by Martin Tucker

There are two kinds of photo searches. One is a focused, narrow pursuit of a particular subject or time. The other is more meandering, more casual, and the results are more often than not delightful surprises.

Vietnam Photographs from North Carolina Veterans: The Memories They Brought Home (The History Press, 192 pp. $26.99, paper; $12.99, Kindle) is an example of the latter. While teaching photography at the Sawtooth School for Visual Art in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Navy veteran (1967-69) Martin Tucker conceived the idea of soliciting negatives from area Vietnam War veterans for students to use to practice their darkroom-printing skills. As side benefits, veterans would receive high-quality prints; the students, a history lesson.

The project both failed and succeeded beyond Tucker’s dreams. Most of the veterans didn’t have negatives; they had prints. Many had been stored away for decades. As word got out and Tucker’s benevolent intentions were confirmed, though, images started coming in. Soon there were thousands—all of which needed to be carefully scanned and cataloged.

Recognizing the significance of the collection he had inadvertently amassed, Tucker edited the images down to a manageable number. Then he printed and framed them, and exhibited the collection at the Sawtooth School. The veterans were invited to the exhibit, and their reactions to their images recorded. They became the captions for the photos in the book. The exhibit toured the country for two years and is now permanently housed at the North Carolina Museum of History in Raleigh.

The book does not attempt a narrative. It simply presents photographs taken by young troops of a very novel world they had fallen into. Sometimes facing images repeat themes or concerns; more often, they don’t. There are photos of Vietnamese people and others of the countryside. But mostly these are photos of the young men themselves navigating a strange, enticing, and very dangerous terrain.

The book does not contain photos of combat or lurid depictions of the war. Nonetheless, the war lurks behind every image. The book shows the things that the young men of North Carolina saw during their tours: The way they lived, the guys they hung out with, and the everyday experiences they shared. At their best, these are the clear-eyed, optimistic, and ever-curious images of American young men.

Mike Callahan, at the end of a Vietnam photo album he assembled for his daughter, wrote: “For sure, I did other things, some tedious, some terrible. This accounting is what I choose to remember and it is how I would like to be remembered.”

Callahan’s remarks, which conclude this volume, could speak for the entire book.

–Michael Keating

Invisible Scars of War by Dick Hattan

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At the age of twenty-five in 1971, Dick Hattan served in the Vietnam War with the 101st Airborne Division at Phu Bai. His intelligence and his college degree qualified him for a clerical position at division headquarters, a job he readily accepted.

“I didn’t live through any firefights,” Hattan says in his memoir, Invisible Scars of War: A Veteran’s Struggle with Moral Injury (Woodstock Square Press, 188 pp. $15.30, paper; $7.95, Kindle). “I never really thought that I was out of danger, though.” The danger came from occasional mortar rounds that struck the base and guard duty he performed along the base’s perimeter.

“This was my war, my life,” he says, “eleven months gouged out of my young life.”

Hattan discusses his Vietnam War tour in Invisible Scars of War, which also recounts life-long emotional problems he has had that were caused by betrayals from the Army, the United States government, and the Catholic Church. He describes himself as “a man of peace” who “suffered wounds that were not visible to the naked eye,” and cites God for going AWOL during the traumatic periods of his life.

The institutions in his life, Hattan writes, forced him to “do something against my better judgment, antithetical to my own moral code.”  Conflicted emotionally, he hated himself for participating in an unjust war, although he was proud to fulfill his duty.

When he was drafted into the Army, Hattan believed he would be a citizen-soldier who owed allegiance to his nation. His father and other neighborhood World War II veterans, as well as his Army instructors, overwhelmed him by emphasizing “My country, right or wrong.” He never considered fleeing to Canada or claiming conscientious objector status.

He debates the morality of war and the taking of human life at length in his book. Much of his argument relies on the teaching of Jesus. Regarding the Vietnam War, he writes that the United States failed to meet even one of seven principles that decide whether or not a war is morally valid.

A former altar boy and wannabe priest, Hattan felt betrayed by the Catholic Church after realizing that its bishops’ neutrality in not speaking out against it, condoned the Vietnam War. The acceptance of war by Army chaplains particularly offended him. Eventually, he left the church.

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Dick Hattan 

To my disappointment, he offers no solutions to stop our government from arbitrarily starting new wars. Still, Hattan characterizes America’s long-time involvement in Iraq as “an unnecessary war.” Sometimes his arguments lapse into a low-key style that sounds as if he is trying to convince himself of the validity of his feelings and conclusions.

Hattan’s post-war life confirms his sincerity, however. During forty-four years as a health care executive, Dick Hattan discovered that his calling was healing. He worked with war veterans to mend what he cites as “fragmentation of the soul.” Performing pastoral care in his church led him to expand his education and become a priest in the Independent Catholic Church in 2015.

Hattan summarizes the Vietnam War as a “seminal event in the lives of many young men who did what they were asked, often unwillingly, but were afraid to refuse.”

His website is dickhattan.com

—Henry Zeybel