Lost in Vietnam by Chuck Forsman

 

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Back in the 1950s the Swiss photographer Robert Frank photographed the United States. Frenetically racing back and forth across America’s highways, he amassed a vast collection of photographs—stark and unyielding images seen through a foreigner’s trained eye. He was sympathetic but detached. His photos shocked by their suddenness and how the moment stood for the eternal. His seminal book was The Americans.

In Lost in Vietnam (George F Thompson Publishing/Casemate, 192 pp., $45) Chuck Forsman, a University of Colorado Professor of Art Emeritus, has done a similar thing in Vietnam—albeit traveling by motorbike. Like Frank, he has eschewed the monumental landscapes and the historical documentation. There aren’t any grand temples or grandiose French public buildings, although Vietnam’s long history whispers in every one of the book’s 112 images.

And perhaps surprisingly for a Vietnam War veteran who is also an accomplished photographer and painter, there’s little indication of the country’s wartime past. Forsman’s images are crammed with people, but there are no celebrities or politicians—just folks going about living their lives.

In Forsman’s book Vietnamese live and work and play and work some more. They’re tourists and brides and cooks and laborers and fishmongers. Bicyclists wend their way through monsoon-drenched city streets and boys play soccer in a field shared with water buffalo. Everywhere life is hard, and everywhere life is beautiful—and full of color and light.

Forsman’s work doesn’t have the gritty rawness of Frank’s grainy black-and-white images. Forsman also has been nurtured by “the decisive moment,” art photography, fashion photography, and travel photography. And, of course, it’s all in color.

But mostly Forsman’s work is remarkable for its curiosity and its respect for the people and culture of Vietnam. With each carefully composed image, he asks, “What’s this?” Or at least says, “Look here!”

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This is a remarkable book and a remarkable documentation of the lives and cultures of the Vietnamese people. The photos are preceded by a heartfelt and loving introduction by Le Ly Hayslip (When Heaven and Earth Changed Places) about Mẹ Vietnam—Mother Vietnam, its significance to the Vietnamese, as well as its history and continuing fascination.

Forsman’s website is chuckforsman.com

–Michael Keating

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Hippie Chick by Ilene English

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Ilene English’s memoir, Hippie Chick: Coming of Age in the ‘60s (She Writes Press, 344 pp. $16.95, paper; $8.69, Kindle), is a book I very much enjoyed reading as someone whose entire teen years fell within that decade. I also believe that many people not yet born during that time would find this book an interesting, enlightening look at the most significant decade in post-World War II American history.

English was born in 1945, the youngest of six children, into a family operating a luncheonette in Irvington, New Jersey. Growing up in “a household filled with tension,” English flew cross-country to live in San Francisco with an older sister and her husband shortly after her mother died. She was just sixteen.

Still a teenager, she felt destined to live a life inspired by books, beginning with the classic children’s novel, Pollyana. Before long, English writes, she had been fitted with a diaphragm, lived with three male roommates, began smoking marijuana, and lost her virginity. She later moved with a girlfriend to a place on Haight Street, got pregnant, lost her job because of her pregnancy, and had an abortion. She was eighteen years old.

San Francisco was becoming a city where it almost felt like you could overdose on life, she writes. The city “had taken me in like family. It felt so right to be there.” English began going out with black men to jazz clubs, even smoking pot one night with Dizzy Gillespie. On the pill and practicing what once was called “free love,” she dabbled in LSD while hanging out in Haight-Ashbury and Golden Gate Park.  Soon she went into analysis with a Freudian therapist. She experienced the beginning of “The Sixties” as we would come to know and remember that time period.

In 1966 English became interested in astrology and older men while commiserating with her brother who was in the Army and hoping not to be sent to Vietnam. She moved to Hawaii where she enjoyed taking college classes and new boyfriends. On a visit to San Francisco, probably in 1968, Janis Joplin sang “Happy Birthday” to her. English didn’t know Joplin, she says, but “we were both free spirits and yet both always looking for love.”

Back in Hawaii she became fascinated by stories friends told her about the big antiwar demonstrations in Berkeley. She remembers seeing American troops walking the streets of Waikiki while on R&R from Vietnam and recalls that “the blank stare in their eyes frightened me.” In 1969 she tried magic mushrooms and managed to make it to a concert by Jim Morrison and The Doors, which, she writes, was “both fascinating and shocking.”

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Eileen English & daughter, circa 1980

At this point, we’re half way through the book, which continues into the Eighties. English then leaves Hawaii, and spends the next phases of her life on the West Coast of the U.S. where she gets married, has a child, and watches love come and go more than once.

This is a devastatingly honest memoir, bolstered at the end with updates about all the main people and places English mentions in the book.

The author’s website is hippiechickmemoir.com

–Bill Mc Cloud

My Long Journey in Baltimore by Lawerence E. Mize

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Lawerence Mize enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1966, and did a tour of duty as a combat medic with the 101st Airborne Division in Vietnam. He then served as a police officer in Baltimore for close to thirty years, retiring in 1999 as a sergeant.  In the early 1980s he was troubled by PTSD and dealt with that problem by writing the poetry collections Tortured Soul (1997) and Dead Men Calling (2002).  Both of those works are based on his experiences in Vietnam and helped him cope with the issues he was having with PTSD.

Mize’s latest collection, My Long Journey in Baltimore (Dorrance Publishing, 92 pp., $23, paper; $18, e book), contains eighty pages of poetry. The titles of the poems give away their subjects. “Cu Chi,” “Dead Men Calling,” “Screaming Eagle,” “Memories of Nam,” “My Gun,” and many more poems deal with his war, his family and his career in law enforcement.

 

Here are a typical few lines from “Screaming Eagle”:

Walk in the vills

Down beaten paths

Worm through the tunnels

I’m here to kick ass. 

I’m young and I’m strong

As hardcore as they come,

Humping in the Nam.

Keep Charlie on the run. 

Morphine syrettes, filling sandbags, big orange pills, PTSD, baby killers, cowards at home, rats fleeing to Canada, traitors should be shot in the head, napalm canisters—all of that rhetoric flavored the poetry with the politics of the time.

Read this book and weep. That’s the kind of book it is. I read it and wept myself and for myself.  Of course, these days it is a rare book that does not provoke me to tears because of the medication I’m taking—or the subjects of the books.

I recommend this book for anyone looking for poetry that captures the extreme language of the 1960s.

–David Willson

Executive Order 14900  by Gary A. Keel

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Gary Keel joined the U.S. Army, served in the Vietnam War, came home, and went on to a long career with federal government. His first novel, Executive Order 14900 (Aperture Press, 267 pp., $28.95, hardcover; $15.95, paper; $4.99, Kindle), is a political tale with a shadow over it. In the book, President Jerome Elliott is elected with overwhelming support from the American people. But  he loses that support following a series of bad decisions on his part—and suspicions about his motives.

Things get so bad that thirty-four governors call for a constitutional convention to reform the federal government and the Elliott fears he is losing control. So he orders the 82nd Airborne Division to march on the convention and arrest the participants for being domestic insurgents.

The Georgia National Guard, however, mobilizes to stop this from happening. The two military forces clash in the small town of Madison. The entire country threatens to erupt into violence. Television reporters Nicole Marcel and Luke Harper race to uncover the truth behind President Elliot’s actions and expose his past.

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Gary Keel

As the publisher notes, “if the dark truths are realized, they risk sundering the very fabric of American democracy.”

This is scary stuff, indeed. Gary Keel has produced yet another political thriller that seems fated to be made into an exciting movie—one I can hardly wait to see.

The novel is well-written. The characters are interesting and the plot moves right along.

I recommend it to all political thriller fans.

The author’s website is garyakeelauthor.com

–David Willson

Fun, Fear, Frivolity by Ian Cavanough

Ian Cavanough’s, Fun Fear Frivolity: A Tale of the Vietnam War by an Aussie Grunt (352 pp., $4.99, Kindle) is a very interesting look back at his months of training in the Australian military and his year of service in South Vietnam in 1970 and 1971.

With a high-school education, Cavanough volunteered for National Service, similar to the American draft. He reported for training at Kapooka Base, near Wagga Wagga in southern New South Wales in July 1969. He then went through several months of basic training, followed by infantry and jungle training.

Traveling in Australia he was expected to wear civilian clothing “because of the controversy surrounding the Vietnam War,” Cavanough writes. Some days during training he and fellow soldiers were not even allowed to go into the nearest town because of demonstrations against the war.

In South Vietnam he was based at Nui Dat in Phuoc Tuy Province as a member of the Second Battalion, the Royal Australian Regiment/New Zealand Battalion. Their general area of operations seemed to be in a pretty swampy region between Saigon and Vung Tau.

Cavanough points out that the Australian military’s experience in South Vietnam was quite different than that of the Americans. The Australians mostly confined themselves to one province, Phuoc Tuy, and did not throw lots of resources into the war, nor engage in large battles.

The self-described “dumb grunt” tells most of his stories from the infantryman’s level. There’s no big-picture description of the war here, nor would I expect there to be. Cavanough writes his story in a conversational manner, as if his readers were circled around him holding on to every word.

Since his platoon spent more than 300 days out on operations, he seems to take great pleasure in detailing his few days of in-country R&R at Vung Tau. He devotes an entire chapter on Vung Tau, which he titles “Rest in Country and the Bar Girls!” During my year in Vietnam I was based at the airfield at Vung Tau where I worked alongside Australians on almost a daily basis. Cavanough insists on noting in his book that the Australians stationed in Vung Tau were “not involved in actual combat,” as he and his buddies frequently were.

As for his combat experiences, Cavanough writes: “It’s a strange feeling being shot at. You can hear each round as it passes overhead … crack, crack, crack, crack, crack. You then hear where the rounds are coming from as a thud, thud, thud, thud, thud. You know exactly where the shooter is even though you can’t see him.”

 

Australian troops landing at Vung Tao in 1965

Cavanough uses a great deal of humor in relating the experiences he shared with mates, such as guys he refers to as Digger, Johnny Three Fingers, Killer, Moon, and Wooly. He peppers the story with quite a bit of Australian slang. That required this American reader to pay closer attention and to engage more with the author and the book. That’s never a bad thing.

The book includes a few operational maps from the time and a great many interesting photographs. I enjoyed reading it.

Cavanough is offering an emailed version of the book to Vietnam Veterans of America members at no cost. Email him at iancavanough@gmail.com and when you do please mention you read about his book on The VVA Veteran‘s Books in Review II page.

–Bill McCloud

Ambush Valley by Eric Hammel

The prolific author and journalist Eric Hammel has written fifty books and nearly seventy magazine articles on military history. He specializes Marine Corps activities. The republication of his Ambush Valley: I Corps, Vietnam, 1967—The Story of a Marine Infantry Battalion’s Battle for Survival (Casemate, 310 pp. $22.95, paper) demonstrates the high value of his research and expertise. Originally published in 1990, the book tells the story of four companies of the 3rd Battalion 26th Marines matched against a North Vietnamese Army regiment near Con Thien.

Hammel’s account of the fighting is a work of art because he weaves together exhaustive interviews with nearly two dozen men who were there. He began the interviews in 1983 and the final round took place in 1989. As for official documents, Hammel found merely three pertaining to the battle. One was inaccurate; the others were illegible and incomplete.

He gives space in the book to men of all ranks who speak repeatedly and at length describing those memorable six days in September 1967. Hammel puts the reader into the middle of the battlefield and shows multiple perspectives and differing mentalities of men under fire. An aura of disaster permeates much of the interviewees’ reflections.

Readers are expected to understand everyday details of field operations. Hammel, for example, offers no explanation about how a Claymore mine works.

The book’s story line is simple: NVA soldiers that had operated south of the DMZ for more than a year repeatedly outmaneuver U.S. Marines. The fighting at Ambush Valley was bloody. Both sides suffered enormously. Desperation dictated many decisions for the men of 3/26.

Along with being nightmarishly outnumbered by waves of NVA forces, 3/26 also confronted a full array of other problems: indecisive higher-level planning that bred fatigue and a “hurry up and wait” lethargy among the troops; poor ammunition resupply; limited artillery and air support; loss of its tanks; and NVA troops disguised as U.S. Marines.

Military historians believe that the Americans prevailed by the narrowest of margins. In the early morning hours of September 11, the NVA disengaged and disappeared. During the final day of battle, American artillery and air power had finally coordinated and left “hundreds of North Vietnamese bodies scattered around American positions,” Hammel says. Mixed among them were many dead Marines.

Hammel’s research for Ambush Valley completes the story of a battle otherwise reduced to merely a body count.

—Henry Zeybel

Vietnam Reconsidered by John Ketwig

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John Ketwig’s 1985 book and a hard rain fell…: a GI’s True Story of the War in Vietnam stands among the top American Vietnam War memoirs. And that’s saying something as that conflict’s literary canon contains dozens of memoirs that are among best writing on war—any war.

Ketwig’s sprawling, ambitious new book, Vietnam Reconsidered: The War, the Times, and Why They Matter (Trine Day, 480 pp., $24.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle), is his attempt, as he puts it, “to say more about the war and modern-day militarism in America.” And say more Ketwig does in this lengthy book that contains what he calls “a mosaic of historic fragments,” along with his analysis of that history and the lessons he takes from the American war in Vietnam and other U.S. “military adventures.” Ketwig also includes first-person accounts of his life before, during, and after serving in the Vietnam War, an experience, he says that “devastated my heart and soul.”

Ketwig—who joined the Army in December 1966 with the draft breathing down his nineteen-year-old neck—deserves credit for some compelling writing and some well-executed parts of the book. The long history part, however, which includes many statistics, is presented with little attribution and without footnotes or end notes. Why? Because, Ketwig says, “most readers ignore them and they impede the joys of reading.” He does include a very long bibliography—nine pages of books, some of which he recommends, but none of which are annotated. So this is not the book to go to for a fact-checked history of the Vietnam War or the Vietnam War era.

Some of the facts he presents, in fact, do not check out. For example, Ketwig states as fact that there have been “200,000 suicides” by Vietnam veterans since the war. In reality, there are no reliable statistics on suicide in the U.S., much less on Vietnam War veteran suicides. Those who have looked into the subject trace extremely high suicide figures (such as 200,000) that people cite to a thoroughly debunked myth that sprung up in the early 1980s that more Vietnam veterans had killed themselves after the war than were killed in the war.

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John Ketwig

Another example: In Ketwig’s short section on R&R he says that American troops “were allowed a five-day R&R… once a year.” There may have been a once-a-year rule, but it was regularly broken. And some of the R&R destinations, such as Sydney and Honolulu, were for seven days. He also writes that GIs “disembarking from the R&R center” were “immediately accosted by a huge throng of ‘agents’ or pimps…”

That may have happened to Ketwig and others of his acquaintance, but for thousands of others nothing remotely like that occurred.

At its heart, Vietnam Reconsidered is a smart, well-read, highly political Vietnam War veteran’s interpretation of that still-controversial war, replete with John Ketwig’s strong antiwar opinions and some strong writing.

—Marc Leepson