Lullabies for Lieutenants by Franklin Cox

Gung-ho to the max but realistic nevertheless, Franklin Cox assembles a preponderance of war stories and several mini-essays in his Vietnam War memoir: Lullabies for Lieutenants: Memoir of a Marine Forward Observer in Vietnam, 1965-1966 (McFarland, 220 pp. $19.99, paper; $9.59, Kindle). His revealing war stories mainly relate to humping with his unit, the Second Battalion, Ninth Marines. Cox’s his mathematical magic guided artillery support for search-and-destroy missions against the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army. His essays editorialize on situations outside the battlefield.

Cox’s chronology is a bit jumbled, but it doesn’t matter: Each chapter has a life of its own.

Franklin Cox’s adoration for the Marines does not hinder his ability to recognize the Corps’ weaknesses in the Vietnam War. He took part in the historic 1965 amphibious landing that began the big buildup of in-country manpower. He writes that beyond “a handful of senior offices and salty first sergeants,” the rest of the Marines were new to warfare. They soon became the first American troops assigned to “find and kill the enemy” south of Danang in “inhospitable” I Corps.

“When the last Marine units finally left Quang Nam province six years later the objective was never fully accomplished,” Cox notes.

His account of his first months in country overflows with tragedy. He writes about ten days of “incredible mistakes, one after another, that became numbing, commonplace events that befell the greenhorn battalion from the first days it landed.” In “one two-day period 2/9 took more than 45 casualties from snipers and booby traps and recorded not one official VC KIA.” Meanwhile, the rules of engagement that required multiple levels of cover-your-ass approval virtually eliminated timely artillery support. Inflammatory U.S. media reports further disrupted the Marines’ efforts, Cox says.

For the first half of his thirteen-month tour, Cox watched the world unravel from inside the battalion headquarters’ Fire Support Coordination Center. His life changed drastically when he joined the grunts in the field as a forward observer, and voluntarily took part in everyday combat tasks, including walking point. “Frustration and fatigue consumed us,” he writes, although Cox lavishes praise on superiors who skillfully led. He also bluntly disparages leaders who failed to meet their responsibilities.

Cox engaged in his share of intense fighting, and his combat stories sometimes resemble parables that become cryptic. He recalls, for example, watching a Marine platoon leader make a point—using six 106-mm recoilless rifles of an M-50 Ontos—by flattening a well-established schoolhouse after a village chief denied any affiliation with the VC despite booby traps that ringed the village and killed and seriously wounded three Marines.

The surviving “savage” Marines sadly looked away while women and children screamed and cried. The village chief showed no emotion even when the platoon leader called him a son-of-a-bitch. Cox ends the story by saying: “A few months later something happened to another Marine platoon when it entered the same village. Only someone pathetically dumb would have to wonder what happened.” Still, even today Cox respects the VC and NVA.

Cox in Vietnam

Like a goodnight kiss, he includes a short chapter at the end of what he terms unlearned lessons from the Vietnam War.

Cox offers no notes or bibliography. He derived “the essence of his experience” primarily from “scores of letters” written to his mother, he says. Occasionally, he writes about conversations with longtime friends. The book contains a scattering of in-country photos he took. 

Published in 2010, Lullabies for Lieutenants attained classic status among Marines after winning several awards, including the grand prize in the 2014 Story Pros Awards Screenwriting Contest.

—Henry Zeybel

Brothers in the Mekong Delta by Godfrey Garner

Godfrey Garner possesses exceptional storytelling skills. Along with that talent, he has definitive psychological insights about life and about war. He puts that all together in Brothers in the Mekong Delta: A Memoir of PBR Section 513 in The Vietnam War (McFarland, 192 pp. $29.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle), a memoir of his 1967-68 tour of duty.

 “Following a lengthy break in service,” Garner writes early in the book, “I reentered the U.S. Army Special Forces and fought in Afghanistan where missions were planned and often rehearsed for at least a week.” In his book Garner briefly compares that experience to his Vietnam War tour as a naïve young man.

“Vietnam wasn’t a clean war,” Garner says. “Missions in Vietnam were conceived in the morning and carried out in the evening. Though we were all trained pretty well before deploying to Vietnam, once in the country, we realized that there were no training protocols that could have equipped us for what we encountered. It became more and more unconventional on a daily basis.” Later, he adds, “We never planned ahead. We reacted.”

Garner crewed on—and then captained—a 30-foot Riverine Patrol Boat based at the Sadec River Division 513 compound. Navy PBR crews were the cops of the Mekong Delta waterways. They also provided transportation and fire support for SEAL team operations.

He tells his story through the eyes of a twenty-year-old who is still a teenager at heart, as were the men with whom he crewed and spent most of his free time. Befriended for life by Jack Anderson, David Taylor, and Billy Moore, Garner recollects the “new normal” education of them all. “In many ways,” he says, “Vietnam served as a sort of ramped-up kindergarten of life. Our average age was 19.”

Between nearly daily patrols, while lounging and sharing two-dollar PX quarts of Jack Daniels, they discussed survival and death. “We spent a lot of time talking about inane things,” Garner says. “It was our way of seeking balance at times when we didn’t even realize we had lost it.”

Garner also includes accounts of combat. He reports on good results and bad ones, including watching an explosion and fire consume two close friends. Stories about combat during the 1968 Tet Offensive are his best reporting.

His voice projects adult certainties fogged at times by childlike awe in response to the extraordinary. His ability to drag forth memories from fifty years ago amazes me. His descriptions of interactions between friends and foes repeatedly delighted me.

As much as it is a war memoir, Brothers in the Mekong Delta also resembles a textbook on finding direction for the future. The book should be mandatory reading for high school students.

Finding design within a kaleidoscope of emotions, Garner wraps up his observations with a mini-sermon that serves as a grisly reminder of the “strange maturity” brought on by war and the difference between “good” and “right” in combat. Both ideas translate to everyday living. He suggests that understanding the difference of the latter borders on a sacred miracle.

Garner in Afghanistan

In opposition to such absolute certainty, Garner cites a remark by David Taylor that concluded a deep philosophical discussion:

“Course, you realize how seriously fucked up that actually is.”

Garner is his own best example of applying method toward outcome. Today, he is a professor at Mississippi College, as well as an adjunct at Tulane University and Belhaven University in Homeland Security and Counterterrorism. In addition to his doctorate in counseling psychology, he is working on a second PhD at the University of Southern Mississippi.

Godfrey Graner retired from the Army in 2006. He wound up serving two military and six civilian government-related tours in Afghanistan as an intelligence analyst. He has written several books and more than fifty magazine articles on counterinsurgency.

—Henry Zeybel

As Leaves are Prey to Wind by John F. McGowan

John F. McGowan’s novel, As Leaves Are Prey to Wind (Grace O’Malley, 512 pp., $24.99, paper), looks at one Australian soldier’s experiences in the Vietnam War.

The novel’s protagonist, Brian Fronton, volunteers for the Australian Army. As he and two buddies are about to fly off to Vietnam, his father tells him, “Be a man son, like your uncles, be strong and take care.” He then shakes hands with his typically unemotional dad who says, “Come on son, man up for Christ’s sake, give me a firm handshake, you’re not holding a limp dick in your hand. are you?”

This is one of those novels that pretty well drops you right into the action. The young men arrive in Vietnam on page eight of the is 500-plus page book, flying into Tan Son Nhut on a QANTAS Boeing 707 commercial jet. They are then flown to Nui Dat in a C-130. The big plane lands, slows, turns around, and the men jump out the back while the plane begins rolling for takeoff.

Fronton decides to write regularly in a journal. He hopes to use the material later to help him become a “great novelist.” He’s assigned to a relatively safe base camp, but his job as a radio operator means he frequently goes out on patrol. After a few weeks, he writes, “My life is an adventure” in his journal. One night a buddy of his says, “I bet 99 out of every 100 Gooks are no different from me. Just poor dumb pricks in the hands of fanatic wankers.”

At one point he is dropped into the jungle to replace an injured signaler and is welcomed to what he’s told is the real war. But it’s not the one with the Viet Cong. Instead, it’s about being “tired, sore, wet and feckin miserable.” The mission is pretty single-minded: Seek out the enemy, track them, hunt them down, and kill them.

After talking with buddies about Australia’s World War I experience at Gallipoli, followed up with reading some Kipling, he notes to himself: “I had never thought about my possible death in war, but suddenly I am afraid. I do not want to die because Australia needs to keep trade relations with America.”

McGowan

On another patrol he’s told again that the real war is not the one with the “Feckin Gooks,” but the one with spiders, carnivorous ants, poisonous snakes, scorpions, and tigers. And leeches. Soldiers around him stop removing leeches from their bodies knowing they’ll eventually drop off.

Fronton writes in his journal that actual combat is not as bad on the nerves as dreading the constant possibility of contact.

“It’s the knowledge,” he writes, “that at any moment the world around you could erupt into death and destruction.”

The novel’s title, As Leaves Are Prey to Wind, refers to how little control humans have over what happens in our lives. That sense of helplessness becomes even more vivid during times of war. It is well expressed by John F. McGowan—who served in Vietnam with the Third Battalion Royal Australian Regiment—in this solid Vietnam War novel.

McGowan’s website is johnfmcgowan.com

–Bill McCloud

Storms Over the Mekong by William P. Head

William P. Head’s fascination with the Vietnam War stemmed from the number 176 he drew in the 1969 Selective Service lottery, which put him on the verge of being drafted into the U.S. Army. Many of his friends did serve, and some never came home, he says. Head had entered college in 1967, eventually earned a doctorate degree, and became a United States Air Force historian—as a civilian—and Chief of the Office of History at Robins AFB, Georgia. Over the past thirty-plus years, concentrating mainly on the Vietnam War, he has written and edited many books and articles about warfare.

Head’s latest book, Storms Over the Mekong: Major Battles of the Vietnam War (Texas A&M University, 480 pp. $40.00, hardcover; $24.99, Kindle), approaches the war by presenting and analyzing “the most significant and game-changing combat events” as he sees them. Head chose the events he says, based on the consensus of “the opinions of reputable participants, scholars, and analysts.”

The book begins in 1963 with the Viet Cong defeating the South Vietnamese Army at Ap Bac. It ends with the North Vietnamese Army capturing Saigon in 1975. The battles fit into two categories: “War on the Ground” and “War in the Air.” Head presents them chronologically, thereby pretty much telling the story of the entire war. He looks at ground encounters at Ia Drang Valley, Khe Sanh, Saigon and Hue during the 1968 Tet Offensive, Hamburger Hill, the 1972 Easter Offensive, and Xuan Loc. Interspersed air battles describe Rolling Thunder, Arc Light, Commando Hunt, and Linebackers I and II.

Some of the accounts previously appeared in other places, Head says, but he has revised them with “current data and historical information.” His studies of Rolling Thunder and the Easter Offensive are new work.

The book repeatedly claims that, despite America’s extravagant investment of manpower and money at the start of its military commitment, national unwillingness to fight a protracted war against a determined enemy was the fundamental reason for the conflict’s outcome.

Head recreates the self-defeating hesitancy of President Lyndon Johnson and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara to apply air power over North Vietnam during Rolling Thunder in 1965-68. Head describes the operation as “Too Much Rolling and Not Enough Thunder.”

Johnson’s fear of greater Chinese or Soviet intervention in the war dictated his reticence throughout this time, Head says. Paralleling that feeling was Johnson’s contemptuous disregard for his generals’ opinions, which contradicted the respect shown to them in past wars. At the same time, Head faults the generals’ acceptance of unimaginative and ineffective strategies.      

The voices of political and military leaders from the U.S., South Vietnam, and North Vietnam are heard throughout the book. Background on North Vietnam’s planning and execution of Tet are particularly enlightening.

Head typically analyzes battles from high levels of command. Even the 1969 Battle of Hamburger Hill, in which American infantrymen paid an enormous toll, is overwhelmingly viewed from the battalion commanders’ level. In recalling the “senseless nature” of eleven attacks in ten days, Head quotes just two sentences from grunts.   

When editorializing, Head stays within reason, and his conclusions are to the point. For example, in the chapter about Hamburger Hill, he calmly names and indicts certain commanders for starting—but mostly for continuing—a battle in which significant casualties resulted and nothing was gained. He concludes that the defeat at Ap Bac was “a wake up call that the United States would have to take over the fight, the path American leaders chose twenty months later.” He summarizes the frustration bred by presidentially decreed air strategy as “what you get when airmen do not fully control air assets and run an air war.” 

His assessment of the battle of Ia Drang Valley concisely consolidates the opinions of American and North Vietnamese thinkers. McNamara’s perceptive interpretation of the battle’s outcome is a high point of the book.

Bill Head’s overall conclusion about the war chastises America for not learning the primary lesson from its involvement and thereby committing itself to duplicating similar protracted wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He judges this as a betrayal of all those killed in the Vietnam War.

Storms Over the Mekong provides a package of facts supported by voluminous footnotes and an extensive bibliography. Well-placed maps and photographs enhance the discussions. The book should serve as a handy reference for old timers, as well as a textbook for students and others newly interested in the Vietnam War.

—Henry Zeybel

Far and Away by Frank Light

Frank Light’s Far and Away (Finishing Line Press, 21 pp. $14.99, paper) is a poetry chapbook containing five poems—or eight, depending on how you count them. Its twenty pages tell of several lifetimes and a few trips around the world, including to South Vietnam during the American war. Light was drafted into the Army and served a 1967-68 Vietnam War tour of duty in Nha Trang.

The title of the first poem appears to be a made-up word–something a writer can more easily get away with in poetry. Said title, “Cotophrasis,” comes from the idea that it’s an ekphrastic poem about a painting by Frederic Edwin Church of the volcano called Cotopaxi in the Andes. The first line of this first poem is a great one: “Church went south of south.”

The second poem, “World of Wonders,” is divided into four parts. Each is also a stand-alone poem. One of them is a prose poem that creates a Swedish scene that comes to life as you read the descriptive stanzas. Another one makes interesting use of the space on the page and includes a French phrase that can be read as both a question and a reply, a great use of word play. This poem also deals with two groups in southern Morocco, non-believers and believers. Or perhaps it’s non-believers becoming believers.

The third part of the second poem drops us into the Long An Province in the Mekong Delta in southern Vietnam. The fourth part—a prose poem that includes a sentence that is 118 words long and contains seven commas—puts us in a Spanish town near the French border.

While reading these dense (that’s a good thing) poems we end up dropping anchor or pitching a tent in Gibraltar, the Congo, the Casbah, Dakar, the Canaries, the Sahara, and other places, primarily in the Middle East. Memories of past conflicts and wars keep bubbling up.

In Frank Light’s poetry there are no add-on or throw-away lines, so there’s great significance in words such as “her sunglasses which you broke rolling over.” This is a personal, challenging, small collection of poetry that rewards the reader who confronts these human adventures. Despite the title, I’m left with the sense that one can go far without actually going away. The final poem, fittingly, tells of a fruitless search for a certain gravestone in a cemetery.

Here are my favorite lines from the collection:

Full roof, half moon. Stars swoon.

Make a wish.

The book’s page on the publisher’s website is: finishinglinepress.com/product/far-and-away-by-frank-light/

–Bill McCloud

Spreading Ink Blots by David Strachan-Morris

During the Vietnam War the United States Marine Corps’ counterinsurgency program was successful—a minor success, perhaps, but nevertheless, still successful. David Strachan-Morris reaches that conclusion in Spreading Ink Blots from Da Nang to the DMZ: The Origins and Implementation of U.S. Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Strategy in Vietnam, March 1965 to November 1968 (Helion, 158 pp. $49.95, hardcover).

This book takes on the heavyweight challenge of explaining the deeply felt conflict between the Marine Corps and U.S. Army early in the war. That battle matched the Marines’ emphasis on counterinsurgency practices against the Army’s preference for conventional strategies, primarily search-and-destroy missions.

The book originated as Strachan-Morris’ PhD thesis at the University of Wolverhampton. In expanding his study, he had full cooperation from Marine archivists, which resulted in a wealth of footnotes and a potent bibliography. Over the past decade, Strachan-Morris has written three other books on warfare and lectured at the University of Leicester School of History.  

The Marine concept of counterinsurgency, Strachan-Morris says, aims at uniting civil and military efforts in partnership with local indigenous forces to use economic and political means to pacify local areas. The idea is that these areas (“ink blots”) will gradually expand and link up until a whole region, or nation, is brought under government control.

These civil-military economic and political efforts are as important as the use of force. In other words, for some strategists, pacification and winning the hearts and minds of a citizenry are the most appropriate countermeasures for defeating insurgents such as the Viet Cong, Strachan-Morris says. 

The 1st and 3rd Divisions of the III Marine Amphibious Force operated under these principles in I Corps of Vietnam, the area of responsibility under Gen. Lewis Walt. Primarily, the Marines’ job was to secure and defend their bases at Phu Bai, Danang, and Chu Lai, and to conduct clearing operations in areas contiguous to those bases.

In 1965, Walt placed great faith in Combined Action Platoons, small Marine units that lived, worked, and trained alongside local Regional and Popular Forces in their villages. The CAP Marines sought to win the people’s support by patrolling the area, defending the villages, and carrying out small-scale civil projects to raise living standards for villagers. One platoon soon grew to a company of ten teams in the Phu Bia area. An immediate highlight of CAP was Operation Golden Fleece, which prevented the Viet Cong from extorting their biannual rice taxes from the villagers’ harvests.

Army Gen. William Westmoreland, who commanded all U.S. forces in-country, judged the Marine approach as simply a smaller version of conventional war and largely unnecessary in the Vietnam War, Strachan-Morris says. Westmoreland preferred the search-and-destroy strategy to buttress President Lyndon Johnson’s overriding exhortations to kill more Viet Cong. Army leaders fomented animosity between the two services by accusing the Marines of “sitting back and waiting for the enemy,” according to Strachan-Morris.

Spreading Ink Blots examines the opposing viewpoints by providing a history of worldwide counterinsurgency efforts from well before the Vietnam War. Strachan-Morris cites successes and failures of the most influential thinkers and doers. He then discusses the development of strategy and the measurement of progress of pacification efforts in Vietnam in 1966-67. He explains how conditions fluctuated significantly and inter-service tensions deepened at the same time that the South Vietnamese political situation grew unstable.

And then came the 1968 Tet Offensive when Marine-Army relations reached their lowest ebb, Strachan-Morris says. He focuses here on the defense of Khe Sanh, which exacerbated tensions among American political and military leaders—and which distracted from the overall strategy of the war.   

Strachan-Morris’ concludes that counterinsurgency is “a useful operational level tool but it is not to be conflated with nation building, nor is it enough by itself to win wars.” His subtext, based on the Marine Corps’ experiences in Vietnam, rates counterinsurgency as effective at a tactical level to achieve a specific objective, within a specific area, and (ideally) for a specific period of time. Beyond those parameters, he says, it is ineffective.

At the same time, he contends that Marine CAP efforts prevented a “general uprising” among the South Vietnamese and aided “Project Recovery,” the South Vietnamese government’s post-Tet reconstruction plan.

I am amazed that a book this thin can foment so much controversy.

In my mind, analyzing and comparing military counterinsurgency operations from different wars in different eras provides limited guidance. For example, the British flaunt their success with counterinsurgency in Malaya after World War II, yet observers contend the British used force and human rights abuses to get results.

Similarly, no two counterinsurgency programs have been alike. Each was tailored through trial and error to fit specific situations. The nature of the insurgents, the terrain, and the political landscape differ in each situation, as Strachan-Morris says, so too do the counterinsurgents themselves. Experts on the strategy provide general principles, but they leave specific methodology to be determined by the situation.

Two recently published books also touch on Marine counterinsurgency operations. Tiger Papa Three by Edward F. Palm, a grunt-level member of a Combined Action Platoon, tells of living with villagers near the DMZ in 1967. Palm reports that villagers acted indifferently to the Marines, did not buy into civic action projects, “and never had any great call for our medical services.” What’s more, the PF avoided maneuvers that involved risk taking. Palm, an extremely well-read and self-made man and a dean of two colleges, seems to have never stopped growing up and sharing what he learns. I trust him.

A Final Valiant Act by retired Marine Col. John B. Lang calls the CAP “a success wherever it was instituted.” Beyond counterinsurgency, Lang’s book describes two complex amphibious operations in 1967—at Duc Pho and along the DMZ—that validate the Marines’ willingness and ability to fight conventionally. The book is a good read about the Vietnam War, but Lang was not there and reports from a historian’s perspective.

That boils down the discussion to two Marines and two opposing opinions: Take your pick.

—Henry Zeybel

What’s Going On by Michael Hayes

Before I began reading Michael Hayes’ What’s Going On: A History of the Vietnam Era (Tine Day, 139 pp. $19.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle) I wondered how it would be possible for Hayes to approach such a complex time in America’s history in such a short book. The U.S. was undergoing great turmoil over major and unresolved social issues in the midst of the Cold War. Incredibly, the United States then entered into a war in Vietnam that further fractured American society and intensified the fires of domestic discontent. Would it be possible to do justice in a short book to a very complicated era?

Hayes offers an abridged summary of the historical background to the Vietnam War with references to domestic social issues in the United States and key personalities. He flavors this overview with vignettes in the words of those who experienced the war and the era and with his own words illustrating personal incidents showing the divisions within American society and the abuse of power by those supposedly protecting the public.  

Hayes—who served in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War and has taught U.S. history at the collegiate level—only briefly summarizes complicated events and issues. He often does this without the benefit of balance, when in many cases these topics are controversial. Perhaps he found this necessary in order to keep his book brief, but with an awareness that those issues warrant much greater clarification and amplification, perhaps in a lengthier book.   

The book is written in a style intended for an audience of readers younger than anyone with first-hand memories of the war and the social disunity of that period. The target audience is young adults, who are separated by a half century from that incredible time and are most likely uninformed about the pivotal events of their parents’ and grandparents’ world. Hayes has given them, in most cases, the bare essentials to minimally grasp what issues the American public—particularly war veterans—were confronting during that time of intense combat in Vietnam and serious social and political divisions at home. 

What’s Going On, then, is a sort of primer to whet the appetite of someone with little or no knowledge of the war or the era, and provides the basis for pursuing more comprehensive scholarship. To that end, Hayes provides in end notes and a three-page bibliography with recommended sources for further reading.

A minor criticism is the author’s occasionally one-sided account of history. I say this as a war veteran and activist who remains highly critical of the war, but who seeks impartiality in any discussion of it. Hayes, for instance, reminds readers how the Vietnamese people were subjugated by France’s imperialist policies, but never mentions that the Vietnamese were in their own right imperialists who subjugated non-Vietnamese people (the Chams, Montagnards, and Khmers). 

He also describes the heavy-handed policies of South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem, while failing to note the North’s brutal suppression of opposition groups. In today’s political climate objectivity is of key importance.  

That said, this book is a good starting point for anyone unfamiliar with the Vietnam War and its milieu. 

–John Cirafici