Looking for the Good War by Elizabeth Samet

Is all sentimentality crass? Can nostalgia distort our collective memory into jingoism? Have Americans so celebrated victory in World War II to have willfully misremembered the past, setting a path for seventy-five years of misbegotten military adventurism? To Elizabeth Samet, an English professor at West Point, the answer to these questions is a resounding yes.

In her iconoclastic new book, Looking for the Good War: American Amnesia and the Violent Pursuit of Happiness (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 368 pp., $28, hardcover; $20, paper; $14.95, Kindle) Samet undertakes an examination of American cultural identity and history, which evolved from confusion and cynicism in the immediate postwar years to American triumphalism and exceptionalism in the subsequent decades.

That sea change, Samet argues, was based on a false sentimentality, a nostalgia promoted by three familiar names: the historian Steven Ambrose, TV anchor Tom Brokaw, and filmmaker Steven Spielberg.

Because Samet believes America’s entry into the Second World War was necessary and just, it’s instructive to undertake an etymological examination of the word “good,” as in “the good war.” In that instance, “good” is the depiction of the heroism abounding in Ambrose’s famed 1992 book, Band of Brothers and Spielberg’s acclaimed 1998 film, “Saving Private Ryan,” and the hagiography to Brokaw’s assessment of the World War II generation as America’s “greatest.”

As George Orwell did before her, Samet deconstructs the tropes that have pervaded this mythology:

  • that the United States went to war in 1941 to free the world of tyranny
  • that all Americans were united and made sacrifices to advance that effort
  • that the Americas fought only reluctantly and always decently
  • that it was America that ultimately saved the world.

Samet investigates American culture in that context primarily through examining works of film and fiction, as well as through memoirs, correspondence, and government-issued travel guides.

The American War in Vietnam, she rightly notes, is widely seen as a dent in the armor of the country’s invincibility, one repaired by the rhetoric of Ronald Reagan and the actions of George H.W. Bush during the first Gulf War. Regrettably, the tragic Robert McNamara—an easy target—receives as much attention from Samet as the works of the Neil Sheehan, Tim O’Brien, Philip Caputo, and Tobias Wolff.

In her final chapter, Samet makes a provocative, but ultimately tenuous, argument in which she likens the Civil War’s Lost Cause Theory to the so-called Greatest Generation. The Civil War, Samet believes, has been turned into a “theme park,” with the Lost Cause myth serving as Teflon—despite the removal of a “few statues”—to all attempts to foster a better understanding of the war. That “few” statues, though, is now approaching one hundred, and Samet’s perspective on this reckoning calls into question her perspective on the current culture.

A book of estimable erudition, Samet’s writing is proficient and accessible, though the sheer number of movie and novel summaries tends to distract. The book righteously calls for a more complete and nuanced understanding of World War II, but suffers from its own form of absolutism that diminishes its thesis.

Though Samet’s book is skillfully argued, her thesis is not wholly original. Nostalgia has long been the ideal strawman for progressive intellectuals—the historian Richard Hofstadter in the 1940s and 1950s being the exemplar—and pundits have criticized Ambrose, Brokaw, Spielberg, and their ilk for more than thirty years.

Military adviser Dale Dye with Tom Hanks shooting “Saving Private Ryan”

“We search for a redemptive ending for every tragedy,” Samet writes. But notwithstanding the Rambo movies, the cultural response to the Vietnam War and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has generally lacked redemption, as well as sentimentality.

There is a fine line between understanding history and celebrating patriotism, between appreciating and honoring those who sacrificed and served and idolizing and mythologizing them to the point that they are dehumanized abstractions. Samet’s strength is showing the pervasive power of World War II on American identity and leadership. But is all sentimentality bad? Of course not.

Nonetheless, Samet’s Looking for the Good War is a valuable and provocative take on the dangers of nostalgia and the need for vigilance.

–Daniel R. Hart

Korean Odyssey by Dale Dye

If you don’t recognize the name Dale Dye, whose latest book is Korean Odyssey: A Novel of a Marine Rifle Company in the Forgotten War (Warriors Publishing Group, 353 pp. $26.95, hardcover; $9.49, Kindle), you’ll almost certainly recognize his face. Dye served twenty years in the U.S. Marine Corps, rising from the enlisted ranks to retire as a Captain. That included three tours of duty in the Vietnam War, during which he took part in 31 major combat operations. Today he runs Warriors, Inc., the leading military training and advisory service to the entertainment industry.

Dye has acted in or worked in some way more than 40 movies, including Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, Casualties of War, as well as the acclaimed the HBO miniseries, Band of Brothers and The Pacific. He has a degree in English Literature and has written twenty books, including the novelization of Oliver Stone’s Platoon.

His new novel starts in the summer of 1950 with Marine Capt. Sam Gerdine trying to build a rifle company around him at Camp Pendleton. Gerdine is a career Marine and Silver Star recipient of WWII action in the Pacific. With the outbreak of war in Korea, the cry goes out at Pendleton: “From now on it’s double-time all the time in this camp.” With most of the rifle companies being short-handed it is not uncommon for NCOs to search for available men and add them to their companies. The result is a command “manning up with raw recruits, malcontents, shanghaied clerks, and a few brig-rats,” Dye writes.

The war news meanwhile, is “dismal. Doggies were getting their asses handed to them. The gooks were raising hell.” Training becomes more intense.

With training complete, the Marines land in South Korea, and soon find themselves in the thick of the action—an “ugly reality check,” as Dye notes.

Dale Dye in Platoon

Then comes No Name Ridge and hand-to-hand fighting. Before long, it’s winter, and the Korean cold envelops the battle space. The firefights and hand-to-hand fighting continue, but this time in blinding snow. Then comes the Chinese offensive.

Dale Dye writes with an authenticity that cannot be denied. His writing expresses a warrior spirit that is a constant no matter what war he’s dealing with.

I could almost hear his voice when reading sentences like: “How about you people stand back and let a real rifle company show you how to take a hill.”

This is an important addition to the literature of ground-level-view fighting in America’s “forgotten war” in Korea.

–Bill McCloud

The Vietnam War 1956-75 by Andrew Wiest

Andrew Wiest’s The Vietnam War, 1956-1975 (Osprey, 144 pp. $20, paper; $9.99, Kindle) is a great book. I recommend it to anyone seeking an overview of the Vietnam War and the era during which it took place. This concise very readable book was first published in 2002 and has been updated by the author. Reading it reminds the reader that the era was a trying time domestically in the United States as the struggle for social change reached a critical moment.  

Vietnam War veterans will be pleased to find that this book is an honest and accurate account of their war. However, we Vietnam veterans are a clear minority in today’s America, and the war is half a century behind us. Consequently, the desired readership should be the generations who have come after us and have no memories of the war.  

For them in particular I believe that Andrew Wiest—a history professor and the founding director of the Dale Center for the Study of War & Society at the University of Southern Mississippi—captures all the important factors of a complicated conflict and its impact throughout the world. Beyond the often brutal battles and the high number of casualties, the reader learns how costly, in the long term, the war was for Vietnam’s environment, its economy, and its people. The same factors also have had a crippling impact on Cambodia and Laos.   

Wiest is the author of two Vietnam War books, Vietnam’s Forgotten Army and The Boys of ’67. The Vietnam War includes a section on how returning American veterans suffered in many ways in a society indifferent—if not hostile—to their service, which further exacerbated problems once known as the Vietnam Syndrome. Interestingly, as the book mentions, this was also true for Australian Vietnam War veterans when they returned to their country where the war was very unpopular. 

Wiest explains why many Americans came to distrust their government as a consequence of the war when it became clear that from the beginning the American public had been misled and lied to. Additionally, Wiest shows how the conflict had a deeply negative impact on the U.S. military in the years after the war, particularly the U.S. Army. As many of us serving in the aftermath of the war experienced, the Army in the mid 1970s was broken and in need of significant repair.  

All of this and more is covered in this outstanding book; it is well worth reading and sharing with younger generations.

–John Cirafici

Close Up on War by Mary Cronk Farrell 

The first time I interviewed the renowned French photojournalist Catherine Leroy for Stars and Stripes in 1997 she said, “When I photographed war, it went from dying soldiers to dead civilians. In the wars of one little world against another, one sees the senseless violence. It should be about being alive.”

Leroy’s stirring images, many of which appeared in Life and Look magazines, are alive in Mary Cronk Farrell’s new biography, Close-up on War: The Story of Pioneering Photojournalist Catherine Leroy in Vietnam (Amulet Books/Abrams, 320 pp. $22.99, hardcover; $9.99, Kindle).

In this biography for young adults Farrell tells the story of how Leroy had little to no photographic experience—little more than snapping photos of her cats in her Paris apartment—when she arrived in Saigon in 1966 with a one-way ticket, $100, and a Leica camera. Her dream was to capture images like the ones she saw back home in Paris Match magazine.  

Her first stop was the Associated Press. “When Catherine walked into the AP office, the men all stopped work and turned to look at her,” Farrell writes. “She pulled herself up to her full height, not quite five feet, took a breath, and asked for Horst Faas.”

Faas, the famed AP war photojournalist, later said that Leroy was “a timid, skinny, very fragile-looking young girl who certainly didn’t look like a press photographer as we were used to arriving for assignment in Vietnam. She looked very young, had a nice pigtail on the back of her head. She came in, introduced herself as a photographer from Paris, and I looked her over like everybody else had in the office, and said, ‘My god, here comes another one.’”

Faas asked the young Frenchwoman if she had experience. Leroy lied and said she did. He then reached into his bottom drawer, she remembered later, and plonked three rolls of black-and-white film in front of her. “If you can get anything I can use,” he said, “I’ll pay you fifteen dollars a picture.”

Catherine Leroy had definitely infiltrated a man’s world in Saigon, and many male journalists resented her presence. Not the soldiers and Marines she photographed, however.

“When I got to Vietnam, I spoke three words of English. I slept in the same shitholes as the GIs,” Leroy told me in 1997. And, as Farrell recounts, she also managed to talk her way into parachuting into combat during Operation Junction City, in early 1967 with the 173rd Airborne Brigade.

Catherine Leroy getting ready to jump during Operation Junction City

One of the highlights of Farrell’s book is the fact that it also tells the story of the Vietnam War through Cathy Leroy’s story. An additional endearing highlight of the book is the fact that it is graced with English translations of many letters Leroy wrote home to her mother.

One example, from before the jump with the 173rd and before she was briefly captured in Hue by North Vietnamese Army troops when she was covering the 1968 Tet Offensive:

Chère Maman, Talking about Saigon now. A very pleasant town that you would like. People are insouciant and smiling. Many Americans in civil dress. All this doesn’t give the impression of being in a country at war. You can write to me at the Continental [hotel], I go there every day to pick up my post. Love, Cath’.”

Of course, Vietnam was a country deep at war—a war that Catherine Leroy (who died in 2006) brilliantly captured. Those images and her story are also captured superbly in Close-up on War.

The author’s website is marycronkfarrell.net

–Marc Phillip Yablonka

The reviewer is a military journalist whose latest book is Vietnam Bao Chi: Warriors of Word and Film:

On Full Automatic by William V. Taylor Jr.

Theirs not to reason why,

Theirs but to do and die.

Those lines from Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade” were very evident during William V. Taylor’s early days serving with Charlie Company of the 1st Battalion in the 3rd Marine Regiment in Vietnam in 1967-68. But as time wore on, casualties and rotations took experienced leaders off the battlefield. They were replaced with inexperienced leaders who were more concerned with their own survival and careers than with the survival and success of their men.

In his amazing new memoir, On Full Automatic: Surviving 13 months in Vietnam (Deep Water Press, 352 pp. $34.95, hardcover; $19.95, paper; $6.99, Kindle) Taylor recounts his nightmarish Vietnam War experience. The book opens on April 26, 1967, with 18-year-old Bill Taylor on board the USS Duluth, an amphibious transport ship. He and his fellow C/1/3 Marines were about to be helicoptered to a field 20 miles south of Da Nang. That’s when Taylor’s tug-of-war began, as the Marines took a location, only to give it back and return later to take it again.

Taylor tells of many enemy engagements, some large and some small, some won and some lost. In nearly all of them, there were two common denominators: incompetent leaders and casualties. He describes his tour of duty in a way that put me right there with him. Throughout the book I experienced fear, anger, and sadness—and very little jubilation.

Taylor’s humility and matter-of-fact honesty overwhelmed me. As did his unwavering bravery and aggression on the battlefield. He includes some raw language used at that time and place. Some readers might find that offensive, but I found it essential in bringing me into the action.

I highly recommend On Full Automatic.

–Bob Wartman

Taylor’s website, which includes a photos of C/1/3 Marines in Vietnam, is williamvtaylor.com

Flying With the Spooks by Herbert Shippey

In Flying with the Spooks: Memoir of a Navy Linguist in the Vietnam War (McFarland, 242 pp. $29.95, paper; $13.49, Kindle) Herbert Shippey tells the story of his Vietnam War tour of duty, including how “all that good intel” about enemy air activity was collected and put to use. This is an intriguing tale for those of us who had not thought about how the U.S. military gathered that kind of intelligence in the Vietnam War.

Shippey tells a rambling story that includes his background, his Navy enlistment after he was about to be drafted into the U.S. Army after completing graduate school in June 1969, and his recruit and Vietnamese language. The heart of this memoir is Shippey’s recounting of the work he did while assigned to the U.S. Navy Fleet Support Detachment at Da Nang Air Base in South Vietnam.

Shippey flew SIGINT (Signal Intelligence, or Intercept) reconnaissance in several aircraft designed for just such missions: the EC-121 Warning Star, the repurposed, prop-driven Constellation; the P-3 Orion; and the two-engine jet A-3 Sky Warrior. He was the guy who had the head phones on, listening intently (and recording on reel-to-reel tapes) to everything he could gather from the airwaves. Hot intel was relayed directly to pilots for immediate action.

Shippey flew almost daily on patterns that took him over the Gulf of Tonkin and back west over Laos, Thailand, along the North Vietnamese border in unarmed aircraft. His flights were sometimes accompanied by F-4 Phantoms for security, but they were often re-routed when other missions gained priority.

Shippey describes the beauty of the Vietnamese countryside, the South China Sea, and the war-torn areas on the ground, as well as American installations and their surrounding towns and villages.

He intersperses travelogue-like observations of the places he visited, things he saw, books he read, music he enjoyed, and conversations he had with fellow self-professed nerds. The book has an index, but a better addition might have been a Glossary of basic Intel terms, including the definition of the word “spook” in intelligence circles.

All in all, Flying with the Spooks was an interesting read,

–Tom Werzyn

Chico’s Promise by Mike Monahan

This book will keep librarians guessing. Is it fiction or nonfiction? Is it fable, biography, or autobiography? Ultimately, it’s a war story about a warrior who served with valor in the Vietnam War but was ultimately disrespected. In this case, the warrior is a dog.

The dog—Chico—is also the book’s narrator. I know—I was prepared to dismiss a book narrated by a dog, too. But in VVA member Mike Monahan’s capable hands, Chico’s Promise: A Superhero, Lives Saved and a Promise Made! (ThinkMonahan, 150 pp. $25) works. Chico thoroughly describes the U.S. military dog program during the Vietnam War: how dogs were recruited and trained, what they were trained for, what their daily lives were like in country, and the actions they took to save American lives.

Chico, a dog once discarded as too rough and aggressive, and Monahan slowly learned to trust each other when they began working together in Tay Ninh in 1969. By overcoming mutual misgivings, man and dog endured the training and learned the hard lessons that enabled them to become a team that used Chico’s superior canine hearing, sight, and sense of smell to avoid catastrophes and save lives.

Monahan is at his best describing the bond that develops between a dog and its handler. Chico and Monahan forged a hard-earned one in the midst of war. It was that bond—and Monohan’s intense grief at having had to leave his dog in Vietnam—that compelled him to write this book. While it’s factual and often funny, there’s a constant brooding sadness and even a wish for atonement in the background.

Chico puts it bluntly: “Here I am in Vietnam, a decorated war hero, waiting to be put down. The Army calls it euthanized because they don’t want to own the dirty deed, but I know they are about to kill me, and I’m really scared and disappointed.”

In the final minutes of his life, while he lies strapped to a steel table waiting for that lethal injection, Chico tells the story of his memorable life, including the bond that developed after a rocky start with his handler.

Mike Monahan doesn’t disguise his grief or his regret, but that’s how things were done during the Vietnam War. And now Monahan has taken on a project—Chico’s Promise—by forming a nonprofit whose mission is to support no-kill shelters by paying the adoption fees to save 50,000 dogs in Chico’s memory. 

It’s his way of honoring Chico, Monahan’s “partner walking point.”

Monahan’s website is thinkmonahan.com

–Michael Keating

We Saved SOG Souls by Roger Lockshier

Roger Lockshier’s We Saved SOG Souls: 101st Airborne Missions in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos During the Vietnam War (300 pp. $21.99, paper; $5.99 Kindle), is Lockshier’s first book—and I hope not his last.

Lockshier enlisted in the U.S. Army in April 1966. After completing Jump School in December, he was assigned to the 101st Airborne Division’s 101st Aviation Battalion at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. A year later, the entire 101st Division was deployed to Vietnam.

Lockshier was a crew chief and door gunner with the 101st’s Black Angel Huey helicopter gunship fire team. Their mission in Vietnam was to support the combat operations of the 101st Airborne, the 5th Special Forces, MACVSOG, and other units. The covert nature of SOG (Studies and Observations Group) meant that only select people could support its operations. That task went to dedicated fixed-wing and helicopter units of the Air Force, Navy, Marines, and Army. In addition, some brave South Vietnamese pilots and crews joined the team.

The bulk of We Saved SOG Souls recounts missions flown by Lockshier and his crewmates in support of the Green Berets supporting secret SOG operations in South and North Vietnam, as well as in Laos and Cambodia. Many of the stories in this book are almost unbelievable, but Lockshier presents them in a way that made me a believer.

Throughout the book he paints vivid pictures of up-close actions—many of them very dangerous ones in enemy-controlled territory. The missions’ objectives included taking enemy prisoners, rescuing downed pilots, conducting rescue operations to retrieve U.S. POWs, and undertaking short- and long-range reconnaissance patrols.

SOG aviators were unsung heroes, mainly because their missions remained top secret for more than twenty years. Time and again, their courage under fire and aviation skills saved the lives of SOG recon teams and larger SOG units. Lockshier returned to the States in December of 1968 with a chestful of medals, and mustered out of the Army a short time later.

I highly recommend We Saved SOG Souls.

–Bob Wartman