Albert Viator’s An Accidental (PSY) Warrior: One Soldier’s Recollections of the Psychological Operations Efforts during the Vietnam War (Palmetto Publishing, 278 pp. $19.99, paper) is, as the subtitle says, a recounting of the author’s tour of duty in the Vietnam War as a psychological warfare (PSYOPS) specialist.
Al Viator enlisted in the Army in 1967 with the hope of obtaining an education in journalism. He signed up for three years, made it into the Army’s Defense Information School, and received a dual MOS of 71R 20 (journalism) and 71Q 20 (broadcasting). He then volunteered to go to Vietnam—not to save the world from communism, but to get on-the-job training in his two occupational specialties.
The plan was to as a broadcaster for the Armed Forces Vietnam Network Radio or as a journalist with the Stars and Stripes newspaper. But to his dismay, Viator was assigned to the 4th PSYOPS Group in Saigon and then sent to the 6th PSYOPS Battalion in Bien Hoa. After a few months, he was transferred to the 199th Light Infantry Battalion in Lai Khe.
For most of his tour, Al Viator was on his own and found himself in many combat situations. Infantry units wanted him on hand to broadcast messages over a high-powered PA system to try to get enemy troops to defect. When he wasn’t slogging through rice paddies with the grunts, Viator could be found in a Huey or aboard a small plane littering the landscape with paper leaflets promoting the Chieu Hoi program, which encouraged enemy troops to come over to the South Vietnamese Army
Viator completed his tour in Vietnam, put in another year in the Army stateside, and mustered out in 1970. After earning a degree from Boston University, he spent more than 30 years traveling the world as a journalist and a video producer for National Geographic, ESPN, PBS, CNN, and other media outlets.
In a very casual manner, Viator tells a lot of interesting stories in his war memoir. Throughout much of the book I felt as if I were having a conversation with him and could envision many of the places he described.
I enjoyed reading An Accidental (PSY) Warrior and highly recommend it.
Never Forget: A Veteran’s Journey for Redemption & Forgiveness (282 pp. $9.95, paper; $1.99, Kindle) is a novel about how discussions about a war that led to dividing a family may later be the very thing that brings them back together. The author, Andy Adkins, a life member of Vietnam Veterans of America, served in the U.S. Navy from 1973-77.
The book opens in 2001 and we find Tom Reilly, a single dad, in a troubled relationship with his son. Worse, he’s also estranged from his father; they have not spoken in decades. Then Riley gets a phone call from a retirement community, saying they need to speak to him about his father’s care now that he’s been diagnosed with early-stage Alzheimer’s. The two had had a big falling out over the war in Vietnam.
Tom often chain-smokes and sometimes smokes in public places even though he knows he shouldn’t. He drives a ’67 GTO and his favorite band is Creedence Clearwater Revival, although he has to listen to them on an Oldies radio station. He’s not a reader and doesn’t know anything about computers or the Internet—and is not bothered by any of that.
He’s not sure if he even wants to reconnect with his father, but he drives to the facility. To his surprise, the two seem to hit it off pretty well and he decides to begin making regular visits. Father and son start communicating again, but avoid talking about their fallout.
Reilly begins taking his son, encouraging him to meet the grandfather he has never known. A man who has never spoken about his World War II infantry experiences. Not coincidently, Tom Reilly has never talked to his son about his infantry experiences in Vietnam. But the fact that both men served in a war seems to have a positive effect on the old man’s memory.
He says: “I can’t remember what I had for breakfast this morning, but I can tell you what I ate on Christmas Day, 1944.”
The grandson decides to do school projects based on interviewing the two older men. Over time, Tom Reilly finds himself being drawn closer to both his father and his son. While the two men visit the boy learns about how different their personal wartime experiences were—and the many ways the two wars were different from each other.
Andy Adkins has created a “small world” novel in which Tom Reilly encounters several Vietnam War veterans, including a man who is a part-time preacher and a healthcare worker, as well as the son of one of his father’s friends, and the former husband of another healthcare professional.
In addition, the boy’s history teacher is a Vietnam vet, and a prominent attorney in the story lost his son in the war. At the very least, these different voices provide more perspectives on the war.
Adkins pulls these parts together in a manner that is ultimately satisfying. This book should be shared by members of different generations who have an interest in learning about the Vietnam War and its continuing effects on those who were involved.
R. L. Barth’s Learning War: Selected Vietnam War Poems (Broadstone Books, 72 pp. $18.95, paper) is a powerful collection of poetry based on Barth’s experience with the Marines during the war. This book brings together poems from a half dozen of Barth’s previous collections. He is also the author of No Turning Back: The Battle of Dien Bien Phu (2016), a group of poems related to that seminal battle in the French Indochina War.
The 74 short poems included here—some epigrams, some couplets—average a mere eight lines each. But that’s enough to get the job done.
The book is divided into three sections with titles such as “A Child Accidentally Napalmed,” “A Letter to the Dead,” “One Way to Carry the Dead,” “Don’t You Know Your Poems Are Hurtful?,” and “Tonight You Bitch …” A handful of poems appear as though they were written from a War, a Staging Area, the Bush, an Observation Post: Near An Hoa, and the World.
Here are three complete poems.
Survive or die, war holds one truth:
Marine, you will not have a youth.
A sergeant barked, “Your ass is Uncle’s!” though
It wasn’t clear if he meant Sam or Ho.”
Tell them quite simply that we died
Thirsty, betrayed, and terrified.
In another poem Barth uses the phrase, “War’s war,” and then we find ourselves sharing a World War I trench with the British poet Siegfried Sassoon. These are poems of the infantry. Fighting takes place under a “leech-black sky.” Life and death decisions are sometimes based on a roll of the dice.
The troops deploy. Above the stars
Wheel over mankind’s little wars.
If there’s a deity, it’s Mars.
He knows how men will die
In jungles. I am he.
He is not I.
At night, such lovely ways to kill, to die.
Even suppose a man is brave one time –
Is truly brave, I mean – will he be brave
A second time?
Two poems that could have served as bookends for this collection are these:
“Saigon: 16 VI. 1963”
In chaos, judgement took on form and name:
The lotus flared; more men burned in your just flame.
“Saigon: 30 IV. 1975”
We lie here, trampled in the rout,
There was no razor’s edge, no doubt.
Though the poems are short, I suggest not to read them quickly and then move on. This is not a book to be rushed through.
Read a poem, then read it again. Give it your full attention. There are things to be learned in these short poems, things to never be forgotten.
William M. Murphy served as rifleman with the 9th and 27th Marine regiments in 1969-70 in the Vietnam War. In his Vietnam War memoir Not for God and Country (Koehler Books, 286 pp., $26.95, hardcover; $18.95, paper), he accomplishes three significant literary feats.
First, the many battlefield stories Murphy describes confirm the thesis inherent in the book’s title by emphasizing that he and his fellow Marines were fighting “to protect the life of the nineteen-year-old grunt next to us, and he was returning the favor.” In doing so, Murphy strongly illuminates the feelings of his comrades, who came to believe the war “did not have to happen.”
Riflemen fighting a war together form a strange brotherhood, Murphy says. Men who in the real world would not have been friends become friends. Grating attitudes and personalities are overlooked. Men who would never have been beer-drinking buddies back home bond. In the jungles of Vietnam they would die for one another. It was that simple, Murphy says.
Second, Murphy examines Operation Allen Brook, an all-but-ignored sustained Marine attack on North Vietnamese Army reinforced bunkers on Go Noi Island south of Da Nang that lasted from May to August of 1968. He details the horrors of a stalemated battle replete with accumulating dead bodies. He withholds nothing in describing the effects of weapons on flesh and bone. Late in the operation, the Marines resorted to a near-suicidal frontal assault against heavily defended fortifications. The U.S. government downplayed Allen Brook in fear of a public outcry because of the high number of American casualties.
Murphy also vividly recalls his unit’s frequent engagements during Operation Dewey Canyon six months after Allen Brook, “wandering the mountains and seeking out the enemy.” His fascinating recollections center on the exploits of four Marine Medal of Honor recipients—three of whom were young enlisted men recognized posthumously.
Recalling his Marine Corps career from enlistment to separation constitutes Murphy’s third notable literary achievement. Basically, he provides a primer about an enlisted man’s military life in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
He describes the ins and outs of political influence on the military, on duty selection, training, deployment, and repercussions associated with returning to civilian life. He compares those who fought in the Vietnam War with today’s troops and the conditions under which they operated. The book is an excellent starting point for young people seeking knowledge about military service.
Not for God and Country closes with sections that break down Vietnam War casualties by deaths per year, followed by KIA data: age, home state, race, pay grade, branch of service, and country of occurrence. It also includes MIA information and the numbers of allied nations’ KIAs.
Bill Murphy served one enlistment. Afterward, for thirty-five years, he excelled in an environmental law career, and has written six guidebooks about touring the Great Lakes region. His website is williammurphyauthor.com/books
Susan Hunter’s 77 Letters: Operation Moral Booster: Vietnam (Dakota Publishing, 286 pp. $14.99, paper; $9.99, Kindle) stems from a mission the author’s mother, Joan Hunter, embarked on during the Vietnam War: to write letters to as many troops in Vietnam as she could. She began simply, by writing to a few commanding officers in the First Cavalry Division, enclosing letters that she asked to be distributed to men who weren’t getting any. Her letters, composed on a 1964 IBM electric typewriter, were filled with positive news about her home life with an adoring husband and three toddlers. They brought lots of replies.
As Susan Hunter writes, her mother enlisted Scout troops, students at her children’s school, and teenagers taught by her husband at a Boston high school to participate in her letter-writing campaign based at her home in Scituate, Mass.
A reply from career Army Sgt. Robert Johnson caught Joan Hunter’s eye. Soon, they were corresponding regularly, the beginning of a connection that would continue for many years. Their “conversations” dealt with child-rearing, combat injuries—Bob Johnson received four Purple Hearts during his four tours of duty—interracial marriage, poetry, the visual arts, and good-natured maternal counseling. Johnson visited the Hunters during one of his stateside leaves.
The book came about after Susan Hunter found a box in the corner of the attic filled with the 77 letters that her mother and Bob Johnson wrote, along with photos, drawings, and newspaper clippings. When she began reading the letters to her mother, who was suffering from dementia, they proved to be therapeutic.
The letters trace Joan Hunter and Bob Johnson’s relationship through ups and downs in the lives of both. After they finished sharing the letters, Susan Hunter began an Internet search for Johnson. She made contact with his daughter, which opened a new chapter in the story.
77 Letters is a nice read from a first-time author.
Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Yusef Komunyakaa’s new book, Everyday Mojo Songs of Earth: New and Selected Poems, 2001-2021 (Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 288 pp. $35, hardcover; $16.99 (Kindle), contains a dozen new poems and more than a hundred from his five previous volumes with the same publisher. It does not include any of his classic work published by Wesleyan University Press, such as Dien Cai Dau (1988), his book of Vietnam War poetry, or Neon Vernacular, which received the Pulitzer Prize in 1993.
Komunyakaa is an Army veteran of the Vietnam War. He received an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of California, Irvine, and teaches at New York University. War as part of the human experience continues to be a major theme in his poetry. But Komunyakaa is no longer writing about the Vietnam War; he is now considering war throughout all of time, from the prehistoric years to the present—and beyond.
He dedicates this new collection to his daughters and granddaughter, who receive a reference in the first poem. When that poem mentions “Lucy,” we realize we’ve been taken back to the Australopithecus beginnings of human existence.
In the early poems Komunyakaa writes about working in the fields, “unearthing what we live to eat.” There are “Lessons of earth,” a mention of “the first tongue,” and “storytellers drunk on grog.” Then, quickly, there are blues to be played and highways to be walked.
We were young as condom-balloons
flowering crab apple trees in double bloom
& had a world of baleful hopes & breath
A reoccurring theme is the sense that life is a race to try and get as much done as possible before the end comes and we meet the maggots. In “Ode to the Maggot,” for example, we read: “no one gets to heaven/Without going through you first.” We encounter the use of torture in the human experience, but there also is desire—and nymphs and sex organs, real and manufactured.
The line “I deal in cosmic stuff” follows others about jazz greats sniffing gasoline and Sylvia Plath’s head going into her oven. Those and other tragedies abound in these verses—including the failings of the human body, mutilations, and massacres.
There are lines clearly aimed at engaging with the reader, such as: “The day opened like a/geisha’s pearl fan”, “How did the evening star/fall into that room?” and “Her skin is now a lost map.”
In “The Towers” the words are printed on the page in such a way as to resemble the actual Twin Towers on that fateful day in 2001. The poem mentions people writing e-mails, dead cellphones, exploding windows and, finally, search dogs.
He also writes of “flirtatious mermaids,” people who are “born to teach horses to dance,” and “late April kisses.”
Yusef Komunyakaa is known for his use of the ampersand in his poetry instead of the word “and” as a stylistic decision to move a poem ahead at a slightly faster pace. Its use is a point of minor controversy among contemporary poets.
Some of Komunyakaa’s work is considered to be difficult to understand, but I’ve found that it’s best to relax and read every word and, subliminally, you’ll understand more than you think.
It’s poetry you feel in your bones before it gets to your heart or brain. It goes deep and stays with you. Komunyakaa is a master.
Running Toward the Guns: A Memoir of Escape from Cambodia (McFarland, 167 pp., $29.95, paper; $17.99, Kindle) is a sleeper. At first glance it seems to be a pleasant little book that recounts, in almost transcription-from-interview prose, an eight-year-old girl’s escape from Cambodia in 1975. But soon the reader realizes that nothing pleasant happened to Chanty Jong after she was taken by the murderous Khmer Rouge and forced to endure what became a holocaust against the Cambodian people.
Jong’s father was an elementary school principal in Phnom Penh. She was in the third grade and just learning to read. That meant she was on the way to joining a learned family in the eyes of the Khmer Rouge, who were wreaking havoc on the Cambodian people during the infamous Pol Pot regime.
The descriptions of her tribulations written by Jong with the help of her American family physician, Lee Ann Van Houten-Sauter, are graphic in their details of the violence and the jungle camps where she was forced to work as child slave laborer, building roads by hand, as well as the areas she fled through as she made her way to a refugee camp in Thailand. She survived there for months until an interview with a UN aid official afforded her the opportunity to emigrate to America.
During her captivity, the Khmer Rouge camps were overrun by Heng Somren fighters, supported by the Vietnamese. During one raid Jong ran toward the oncoming troops through a hail of bullets in an effort to escape the Khmer Rouge, a act that gives the book its title.
Learning English was always one of the her goals, yet she arrived in the U.S. with the barest knowledge of vocabulary or grammar. She began studying the language in earnest after she arrived. Jong came to the realization, through meditation and self-examination, that all was not right within her psychologically. She describes the best self-diagnosis of intense PTSD I’ve ever read.
In the last 50 pages of this book, Jong takes the reader through the memories and mental jungles that have populated her sleep—and nearly every waking moment. She also describes her therapeutic use of deep meditation, grounding techniques, identifying triggers, compartmentalizing, and memory confrontation.
Even with a few grammatical and punctuation errors, this book offers a true, self-help opportunity for struggling survivors of most traumatic events—not just the horrors of war. This small book also was a pleasure to read—and to experience.
Warfare engraves unforgettable memories in the minds of its participants, a fact convincingly confirmed by the Vietnam War veterans whose stories are told in Echoes of Our War: Vietnam Veterans Reflect 50 Years Later (BookCrafters, 286 pp. $29.95, paper), which was put together by Retired Marine Col. Robert L. Fischer. Some memories are as vivid as the events were a half century ago.
In reacting to witnessing a wartime atrocity committed against Vietnamese civilians in 1968, for example, former Navy Corpsman Dennis E. Sedlack says: “I experience gut-wrenching terror. I am so angry, and I have horrific rage at God, my government, and life in general. My feeling is I want to kill everyone in sight. The desire to kill all or to flee has never gone away. To this day, when life closes in and gets too heavy, that same urge still shows up.”
Sedlack provides a dynamic study in sheer terror and exposure to carnage. He records what he saw and did in Vietnam with astounding honesty, particularly the fear and anger. His battlefield stories and thoughts rank among the most revelatory I have read in reviewing more than 300 books about the Vietnam War. He sets the standard for the recollections of nine Marines—eight one-time grunts and one F-4 Phantom jock—in Echoes of Our War.
Paralleling Sedlack, the other veterans offer life-altering accounts of their war experiences. PFC Bill Purcell describes 13 days of “seemingly hopeless” combat in Hue City during the Tet Offensive before wounds took him out of action. His description of building-to-building fighting is a masterpiece of observation and recall.
Reporting battles on the eastern edge of Hue, Corp. Grady Birdsong complements Purcell. Birdsong served an extended 20-month tour starting in February 1968. He is the foremost contributor to the book. Along with his experiences, he provides a footnoted analysis of the entire war, including a short history of how the U.S. became involved going back to 1880.
Recollecting his 26 days in Hue, Corp. Gary Eichler gives a different view of door-to-door and room-to-room fighting. He finished his year by patrolling the area near Khe Sanh. His writing reflects a mood of “What the fuck am I doing here?”
Sgt. Tom Jacobs, also in-country for Tet ‘68, recreates just about the ugliest ambush that a company has ever experienced. He survived untouched, but four months later a mortar round explosion took him out of the war with a 100 percent disability wound.
Lt. Bob Averill and MSgt. John Decker also add their version of the war’s history to their personal accounts. Averill succeeded as a company commander by relentlessly using massive firepower. He then led a Combined Action Company and developed an overwhelming sense of responsibility toward the Vietnamese that continues to this day. Decker served two tours separated by seven months spent recuperating from the effects of wounds. He chops through fields of government, media, and military mistakes as if harvesting history. His thinking is original and his writing style flows with an entertaining voice.
Capt. Dan Guenther, Lt. C.R. Cusack, and Lance Cpl. Mike Frazier write the book’s shortest chapters with differing perspectives of the war. Guenther discusses the logistics of his 19 months in Amphibious Tractor operations. Cusack tells a couple of flying stories focused on other people. Frazier walked point on at least forty patrols before a wound ended his tour. He sticks to facts and tells it like it was.
Dedication to the U.S. Marine Corps is a dominant theme of the book. Men who fought at Hue express fault the U.S. Army’s lack of cooperation in procuring food, water, and ammo and its undisciplined approach to combat. Most of the veterans sling accusations of incompetent decision making at American presidents. They label politicians as “consummate cowards” and inefficient administrators as “pogues.” One says Gen. William Westmoreland was “a pompous showboat and fool.”
The book is the brainchild of Bob Fischer. The ten writers were selected from more than 160 Denver-area veterans from all wars, members of “Cooper’s Troopers,” a group founded by Fischer, “China Marine” Ed Cooper, and Iwo Jima veteran Al Jennings that meets monthly. Co-editors Guenther, Birdsong, and Mark Hardcastle finalized the manuscript.
Fischer and his crew gave the writers a list of questions dealing with combat assignments, their thoughts on past controversies, the value and morality of the war, examples of its impact on an individual, racial problems, regrets, and lingering personal issues such as PTSD.
Photographs, maps, and a large glossary round out this informative collection of timeless memories.
Richard Moore’s An Officer’s Journey: Coming of Age in the Vietnam Era, (203 pp. $10, paperback; $1.99, Kindle) is written in the form of a journal covering Moore’s first engineering job after college and his two years in the U.S. Army, including one in the Vietnam War.
Rick Moore graduated from college in May 1969 with a bachelor’s degree in Civil Engineering. Having also completed ROTC training, he was immediately commissioned a 2nd lieutenant in the Army Corps of Engineers. For a few months, while awaiting his active-duty reporting date, he worked as a field engineer for a company that designed, fabricated, and installed large steel tanks.
In September, he reported to Fort Belvoir and spent a year teaching engineering principles and techniques to enlisted and commissioned Army personnel assigned to the Corps of Engineers. While at Belvoir, he received orders for Vietnam, where he served the balance of his two-year commitment as a platoon leader in the 815th Engineer Battalion in the 18th Engineer Brigade at Camp Dillard in the Central Highlands.
With the front cover showing the author in battle gear and toting an M-79, you might think the book contains accounts of wartime action. It doesn’t. In An Officer’s Journey Moore describes his thoughts about the possibility of attacks, but none took place during his tour of duty. Moore and others have surmised that the VC and NVA purposely did not often bother engineers, believing that they would win the war, and the more roads the American military built, the better shape they would be in when they eventually took over.
When the war strategy changed from search and destroy to Vietanamization, morale began to deteriorate. Moore discusses problems with drugs, booze, racial strife, and deteriorating discipline.
Throughout the book, Moore is painfully honest about his actions and his feelings. He seems to have been affected by some of the same issues experienced by other Vietnam War veterans. Like many American troops, his overriding goal was to survive unscathed, go home, and get out of the military.
The two main themes in this book are Rick Moore’s personal dealings with life in general and his descriptions of civil engineering and road construction activities.
“I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president.” Coming at the end of a 45-munite speech on the Vietnam War on March 31, 1968, President Lyndon Johnson’s words sent a shockwave through America. Veteran reporters, including Roger Mudd, were speechless. Given the day before, many believed it was an April Fools’ Day prank. In the days before DVRs, viewers couldn’t rewind to watch what they’d just heard, and incredulously turned to each other asking, “What did he just say?
The origin story of the speech is the basis for David Zarefsky’s new book, Lyndon Johnson, Vietnam and the Presidency: The Speech of March 31, 1968 (Texas A&M University Press, 256 pp., $45). Zarefsky is a professor emeritus of communication studies at Northwestern University and the author or editor of twelve books, including President Johnson’s War on Poverty: Rhetoric and History.
My first thought is that the title and subtitle ought to be reversed since as the book is an in-depth analysis of the March 31 speech. This is a minor quibble, though, about this well-researched and accessible volume of 190 pages of text and 36 pages of end notes. Zarefsky divides the work into seven chapters. The first two provide the historical context of the speech and the subsequent ones detail the design of the speech and its three main components: the bombing halt over much of North Vietnam, the limited increase in the number American troops, and Johnson’s withdrawal from the 1968 presidential race. The conclusion examines the speech’s afterlife.
Zarefsky’s contextualizing of the speech suffers from a few unforced errors: after World War II, there was no widespread consensus on avoiding nuclear war, but rather a nuclear arms race; President Kennedy did not send the first military advisers to Vietnam, President Truman did in 1950; and though Kennedy was shocked at the assassination of South Vietnam President Ngo Dinh Diem, there is no record of him weeping after he learned about it.
Zarefsky hypothesizes that when Johnson became president he believed the American people would simply support his actions in Vietnam. But that is belied by LBJ’s obfuscations and his refusal to place the country on the war footing. Johnson proved that a skeptical warrior can be a committed warrior.
The analysis of the speech is where Zarefsky is on surer ground, expertly tracing the development of it through eleven drafts. Johnson ultimately decided upon a “peace” speech over a more belligerent “war” speech. The analysis goes into granular detail on the disagreements among his advisers and the conflict within Johnson himself, providing a thorough analysis on how the sausage was made.
Due to declining health, LBJ was considering withdrawing from the race as early as the fall of 1967. But Zarefsky may be too deferential to Johnson in discounting the importance of the strong showing of Eugene McCarthy in the March 12, 1968, New Hampshire Democratic party presidential primary and the entrance of Robert F. Kennedy into the race soon thereafter.
Johnson believed that withdrawing from the race would provide gravitas to his Vietnam War policy, and he did enjoy a brief boost in the pools and in the media. But Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated just four days after his speech and the country erupted in a violent spasm.
Johnson’s speech proved to be a temporary salve for his fractured psyche. The total tonnage of bombs dropped in Vietnam in April and May of 1968 was greater than that in February and March. By December, the military had dropped more bombs in the eight months since his speech than the prior three years combined.
A broken Johnson then all but handed the presidency over to Richard Nixon.