Welcome to “Books in Review II,” the online-only column that complements “Books in Review,” which runs in The VVA Veteran, the bimonthly print magazine published by Vietnam Veterans of America.
That column and this site contain book reviews by writers who specialize in the Vietnam War and Vietnam War veterans. Our regular Books in Review II reviewers are John Cirafici, Dan Hart, Bill McCloud, Bob Wartman, Tom Werzyn, and Henry Zeybel. The late David Willson wrote hundreds of reviews for Books in Review II from its inception in 2011 through the spring of 2021.
Our goal is to review every newly published book of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry that deals with the Vietnam War and Vietnam War veterans. Publishers and self-published authors may mail review copies to:
Vietnam What? 2 (223 pp. $10.99, paper) by Gianni Ruffo is a fictionalized account of a Catholic priest’s adventures in the Vietnam War during multiple tours of duty in the late 1960s. Ruffo lives in Italy, and has had a long-time interest in the military history of the Vietnam War. This book is a sequel to Vietnam What? and begins where the first one ended, but with a new protagonist.
The story opens at Khe Sanh in early 1968. A Catholic Army chaplain is temporarily at the besieged combat base because his job has him traveling throughout South Vietnam delivering religious aids to chaplains of all denominations. The priest tells a soldier that his name is Bud. The man says, “As in beer? From now on, you’ll be Father Beer for me.” The priest readily accepts the nickname.
As the priest experiences attacks on the base he begins to question why the U.S. is waging the war. As he flies out of embattled Khe Sanh, he prays for the men remaining there.
The priest continues to see action. A helicopter he is in takes enemy rounds as it is coming in for a landing. Another time he’s a passenger in a cargo plane that crashes. He also has a Jeep blown out from under him, and is taken prisoner by the Viet Cong for a few days before being rescued. But it’s not just the priest’s adventures we follow. Several chapters contain action stories he is told by hospitalized troops he visits.
The priest takes a short leave to Vatican City, then is sent to Quang Tri, and then to Cam Ranh Bay. Then he secretly joins a Red Cross committee visiting three prison camps around Hanoi. This priest certainly gets around.
This book is not written in typical paragraphs, but presented in quite long ones, many covering a few pages. It seems almost to have been written in a stream-of-consciousness manner.
In Vietnam What, Bud the priest is a fearless man who never hesitates putting himself in danger to help a fellow human being. It’s a shame this is a work of fiction.
“Happy families,” Tolstoy wrote in Anna Karenina, “are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
I couldn’t help think of that famed aphorism while devouring Craig McNamara’s stunning, deeply personal new book, Because Our Fathers Lied: A Memoir of Truth and Family, from Vietnam to Today (Little Brown, 288 pp. $29, hardcover; $14.99, Kindle).
It’s no exaggeration to say that millions of words have been written by and about Craig McNamara’s father, the late former Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara, in scores of books and in hundreds of magazines, newspapers, and other publications—including The Pentagon Papers. But amid that avalanche of written material relatively little has been revealed about McNamara’s personal life. As for his son Craig, he has been little more than a footnote to a footnote in that avalanche of material, if he’s mentioned at all.
With this revealing autobiography, Craig McNamara reveals a great deal of hitherto unreported details about his controversial father’s family life and how McNamara senior’s hubris, lies, and obfuscations about the Vietnam War led to his estrangement from his father.
We learn in often painful detail about Craig McNamara’s decidedly unhappy experience growing up in the McNamara household and how that has molded him since he dropped out of college and escaped his nuclear family’s stifling cocoon.
On the surface, Craig McNamara had an ideal childhood. His father made a fortune as he rose up the corporate ladder to become the first non-member of the Ford family to head the Ford Motor Company in 1960. He grew up in a family (with his mother Margaret and his two older sisters, Kathleen and Margaret) of affluence. Think country club memberships, family skiing vacations, mansion-like houses, top–drawer private schools.
But underneath the success was a family dominated by the hard-charging, emotionally distant father. An Eagle Scout who had graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Berkeley in 1937, Robert S. picked up an MBA from Harvard Business School two years later. In 1943 he joined the U.S. Army Air Corps and served as a logistics whiz during World War II, analyzing and developing bombing raids and implementing sophisticated, statistical-based troop and supply movement systems. He left the military in 1946 as a Lieutenant Colonel, then went to work for Ford with a group of other “Whiz Kid” WWII veterans.
As a child, Craig, who was born in 1950, was devoted to his old man, even though McNamara senior was often absent and not exactly a model father when he was at home. By his early teens the boy suffered psychologically and physically. “After I failed most of my exams in the tenth grade,” he writes, the head of his boarding school “suggested to my parents that I be sent to Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston for psychotherapy every Wednesday afternoon.” The man “had a theory that I suffered from test-taking anxiety, and they thought a shrink could cure it. Years later I would be diagnosed with dyslexia.”
Craig McNamara came of age during the sixties when his father was basically running the increasingly costly and unpopular war in Vietnam. In high school he turned against the war with a vengeance. He hung an upside-down American flag in his bedroom and actively and took part in antiwar activities.
His father’s “refusal to speak publicly and to pressure his successors to get out of Vietnam was a primary reason that I started to protest the war,” Craig McNamara writes. “If he wouldn’t tell the truth, I would do it for him.”
One day the son asked his father, “Tell me the truth, Dad—why are we there?” Looking back, Craig McNamara writes, “the thing I remember most from our conversation is talking about football.” As with “so much about my father’s life,” Craig McNamara learned about his father’s role in the Vietnam War “by reading other people’s words—the words of journalists, historians, and essayists.”
Over the years, he writes, “I had thought about Dad every day with a mixture of love and rage. Whenever we spoke and I asked him about Vietnam, he deflected. There was never a big confrontation between us. I remember my life at that time as being defined by an absence of truth and honesty in our relationship.”
As every male member of his generation did, Craig McNamara came face to face with the military draft. When called up for his physical, he was classified 1-A, even though he reported that he had stomach ulcers. Later, his doctor wrote his draft board confirming the diagnosis and he was medically disqualified.
“Not going to Vietnam as a soldier still causes me overwhelming guilt,” he says. “It’s like a gap in my soul. On some level, I believed that serving would pay a debt for my father’s involvement in the war.”
The pressure of academics, his mother’s serious illnesses (she died in 1981, 27 years before her husband’s death at 91) and his father’s starring role in prosecuting the Vietnam War came to a head in college. Craig McNamara dropped out of Stanford in 1971, and went into self-imposed exile in South America.
“I’ve lived my life through the lens of the Vietnam War,” he says, and tells his life story from the unique viewpoint of the son of the war’s architect. He reveals a man who was, at once a “caretaker, loving dad, hiking buddy,” and an “obfuscator, neglectful parent, warmonger.” As a result, living with his father turned into “a mixture of love and rage.”
In Because Our Fathers Lied, (the words are from a poem by Rudyard Kipling about who is responsible for deaths in warfare) Craig McNamara has revealed an unmatched depth of understanding of his father in a clearly written and deeply introspective book that measurably adds to our understanding of the person most responsible for prosecuting the nation’s most controversial overseas war.
p.s.: Memo to David Kissinger, Henry’s only son (born in 1962): Your turn.
Rich in photographs and information, David Doyle’s U.S. Vehicles and Heavy Weapons of the Vietnam War (Pen & Sword, 238 pp. $36.95, hardcover; $16.99, Kindle) covers virtually every American vehicle and towed weapon used in the Vietnam War—from the little half-ton M-274 Mule to the M-48 Medium Tank.
For those who served in the Vietnam War era, looking at the photographs in this book is a nostalgic journey. Reading Doyle’s description of the instability of the M-151 MUTT (AKA, Jeep) brought back scary moments when I served in Vietnam and the Jeep I was reading in nearly flipped over. For post-Vietnam War veterans, the book just may be an eye opener to see how much military equipment such as the Humvee and M-1 Main Battle Tanks have changed.
Beyond the approximately two hundred photos of vehicles and weapons—from ambulances to cargo, firefighting trucks to self-propelled artillery, and much more—the book includes extensive charts and tables on each piece in which Doyle lists details on electrical systems, turning radii, dimensions, and more. There is probably not a single question about the equipment that this book does not answer.
Here and there interesting facts appear that may surprise many readers. I, for instance, had either forgotten or never knew that some military vehicles built by Continental Motors contained multi-fuel engines that could run on gasoline, diesel, or jet fuel.
This informative and interesting book is a great reference for anything that moved on wheels or tracks during the Vietnam War, including amphibious vehicles. For what might have been a dry subject, David Doyle, an accomplished military vehicle expert, has much to tell the reader about the Vietnam War—from the driver’s seat.
Once We Flew Volume I: The Memoir of a U.S. Army Helicopter Pilot in Vietnam and a Life with PTSD, (Lulu.com, 674 pp. $49.95, hardcover; $39.95, paper; $10, Kindle), Joseph Sepesy’s memoir, is his sixth book. His first five were a series called Word Dances, that dealt with ballroom dancing. His next book will be titled Once We Flew Volume II: Aftermath.
Once We Flew is a different kind of memoir. The book’s main body is broken into six main parts. Combined, they contain 160 very short, chronologically ordered, sections. Each section tells a complete story. Many are riveting, bone-chilling tales of Vietnam War combat flying.
This is a long book—and I wish it were longer. While I had to put it down from time to time, I did so only reluctantly. It is a fascinating read.
From an early age, Joe Sepesy, a member of Vietnam Veterans of America, wanted to fly helicopters. The U.S. Army presented him the opportunity to fulfill that desire. He was not a natural, though, and had to work long and hard to conquer the basics of flying. After a while, he learned to fly and became a master at combat flying.
During his first year in the Vietnam War with the First Cav’s 227th Assault Helicopter Battalion and the 1st Aviation Brigade and during two subsequent, voluntary six-month tours of duty, Sepesy accumulated a staggering total of 2,200 combat flight hours. While he displayed great amounts of skill and selfless courage, Sepesy never considered himself a combat hero—simply a man doing his job.
Being a very visible, high-value target and being shot at nearly every day, Sepesy did not dwell on death while in Vietnam, but was well aware of its nearness. Always keeping in mind, that, as he puts it, “complacency kills,” he became very methodical in addressing the dangers of flying in the warzone.
A man with Sepesy’s experiences is a prime candidate for developing post-traumatic disorder, and he writes a lot about it in this book. I found that to be a distraction. If PTSD is what you want to read about, I recommend Once We Flew Volume II: Aftermath.
I experienced a lot of suspenseful moments while reading Volume I. I liked Joe Sepesy’s honesty, his grit, and his writing style. After completing the book, I doubled back and reread much of the front matter.
I highly recommend Once We Flew: Volume I, which tells the life and times of a heroic American combat aviator.
“The world is our campus,” proclaimed John Hannah, the president of Michigan State University from 1941-69. During that time, Hannah transformed a sleepy, agricultural college into a world-class research university. The charismatic Hannah also was at the forefront of an important mid-20th century trend in American higher education: fusing academic research with public affairs through organized research units. A young Far East scholar, Wesley Fishel, was one of his stars.
A significant part of Joseph Morgan’s biography, Wesley Fishel and Vietnam: A Great and Tragic American Experiment (Lexington Books/Rowman and Littlefield, 252 pp., $100, hardcover; $45, Kindle), is an examination of America’s descent into the war in Vietnam. The book is well researched and accessible. An assistant professor of history at Iona College, Morgan’s previous book, The Vietnam Lobby: The American Friends of Vietnam, 1955-1975, examined that advocacy group—of which Fishel was an integral member—set up just after the end of the French Indochina War to help the newly formed government of South Vietnam become free and democratic.
If there was a casting call for the role of an academic who would play a prominent role in that endeavor as a close adviser to South Vietnam’s first president Ngo Dinh Diem, it likely would not have been Wesley Fishel. After graduating from Northwestern, the Cleveland native served as a Japanese-speaking Army intelligence officer during World War II. Following the war, Fishel earned a doctorate in political science from the University of Chicago, studying under the famed Hans Morgenthau. A chance 1950 meeting with Diem changed Fishel’s life.
While ostensibly an unlikely pairing, the two shared much in common—each lost a brother to war; were diminutive in size but large in brainpower; believed in using intellectual ideas to transform society; and were virulently anti-communist. In 1954 Fishel decided he would not merely be a pundit on foreign affairs, but would shape them. The next year, the U.S. government awarded MSU a $2-million contract to advise the nascent South Vietnamese government. Morgan posits that Fishel’s relationship with Diem was the deciding factor in Michigan State winning the contract.
Fishel relished his access to power and his role as a maker of public policy, to the extent that some were put off by his egotism. His closeness to Diem led to charges that the relationship clouded his judgment. Fishel also proved to be a poor administrator, leading to conflicts in the MSU advisory group, as well as with the U.S. government agencies. But Diem’s obstinacy worked in Fishel’s favor, as he remained one of the few Americans with whom the autocratic head of state would confide.
Despite their relationship, most of Fishel’s advice to Diem was ignored, and, as Diem concentrated power, he became even less willing to listen. When Fishel’s colleagues published a series of articles in 1961 denouncing Diem’s rule, the MSU contract was terminated. A disillusioned Fishel broke with Diem in 1962, and the next year was working with the State Department on possible Diem replacements.
After Diem was assassinated in 1963, Fishel continued to vigorously defend American intervention in Vietnam, becoming a lightning rod for protestors. In the late 1960s, Fishel went to Southern Illinois University to help create the Center for Vietnamese Studies, a project that ultimately failed for several reasons, one of which was that the controversial Fishel headed it. He died suddenly in 1977.
Morgan astutely observes that Wesley Fishel’s career mirrored America’s war in Vietnam: Both were filled at first with hopeful optimism, only to be waylaid by frustration and ultimately disaster.
Morgan’s assessment of Fishel in his conclusion—that he was largely inconsequential in forming policy, contributed little to scholarship, and abetted Diem in creating a dictatorship—is both harsh and not borne out by his own impressive research.
Nonetheless, this book is a thoughtful reflection on the role the U.S. academy played in the Cold War and of one’s man role at the outset of what would become a “tragic American experiment.”
In Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea (336 pp. Kaylie Jones Books/Akashic, $42.95, hardcover; $18.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle), U.S. Navy veteran André Lewis Carter takes a fictional look at the early 1970s, a time of heightened racial tension in the Navy. This excellent first novel, while chronicling the racism faced by main character Cesar Alvarez, in the end is love letter to the U.S. Navy.
Alvarez, a teenaged, street tough of Afro-Cuban descent, enlists in the Navy to run away from his past, including a murderous gangster who is hot on his heels. As he goes through the recruiting process Cesar’s not sure what he thinks of his recruiter in “full Cracker Jack uniform,” who reminds him of an ice cream salesman.
Cesar is sent to the Great Lakes boot camp where manners “were an early casualty as the men drew closer. It was kind of like being in grade school.” He finds himself attending classes “where attentive students dodged the textbooks” thrown at nodding-off recruits. There is also the usual verbal abuse and multiple workouts “akin to personal assault.” Some recruits drop out because of injuries, while some just seem to disappear.
Meanwhile, the gangster, Mr. Mike, also joins the Navy to avoid serious legal issues, a seemingly ominous event.
After boot camp, Cesar is assigned to Signalman School in San Diego. One of the first things he’s told, from a Black seaman, is: “It’s just so sad to see another brother walk into this shit. Ain’t nothin’ good gon’ come from you putting on that uniform. I’m telling you, man, you can’t be Black and Navy too.”
In Signalman School the trainees are told that their future captains “would make decisions based on information passed from their signalmen, so it better be right the first time.” On base he learns of a “white boy club,” and notes how racial bias “seemed blatant.” He’s soon facing overt racism during a time when the Navy was “cracking down on drug use, across the board.”
Cesar learns he’s going to be assigned to the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Kitty Hawk, supporting U.S. troops in Vietnam. It’s sometimes known as the “Shitty Kitty” because the ship is always “having some kind of malfunction.” What Cesar doesn’t know is that he’s heading straight into an encounter with Mr. Mike, which will unfold during the worst shipboard racial riot in U.S. naval history.
The dialogue in this first novel is so natural that it speeds the story along. The main character, not a sympathetic one at first, grows on the reader. And we get a quite satisfying ending.
Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea is not a war story; it’s a war-time story. And a great one.
Echo Among Warriors: Close Combat in the Jungle of Vietnam (Casemate, 288 pp. $22.95, paper) by Richard Camp is an intense, you-are-there, fictionalized consideration of close-quarters fighting during the American war in Vietnam. The final ten chapters are as realistically and breathlessly action-packed as you will read anywhere.
Col. Camp served for 26 years in the U.S. Marine Corps, including a 1967-68 Vietnam War tour of duty as a company commander with the 3rd Battalion, 26th Marines. He has written 15 military history books, including a recent biography of USMC Gen. Raymond Davis.
All of the action in Echo Among Warriors takes place during two days in the fall of 1967 in dense jungle near Khe Sanh, an area in which Col. Camp saw action. The story is told in alternating chapters through the eyes of American and North Vietnamese participants.
It begins with Marines searching through the jungle for a reported NVA troop buildup in the area. At times, the men follow sandal prints as they move “deep in Indian Country.” They come across a heavily used trail at the same time they receive intelligence from Montagnard tribesmen that large numbers of North Vietnamese troops are heading their way.
A short time later contact is made. Heavy fighting ensues. From this point, the story alternates chapters, taking us into the minds of the troops on both sides. Sometimes an action will be taken by the NVA in a chapter, and we read the result from the American side in the next one.
There’s a lot going on here. We read of men being captured by both sides, booby-trapped bodies, hand-to-hand fighting, fighting through pain, and the “stink of death.” When large helicopters land, they stir up elephant dung. Men fail to use proper radio procedure while under stress. Incoming artillery rounds land a little too close. There are fears of accidentally engaging other Americans at night, resulting in “intramural firefights.”
Since this book only covers two days it includes quite a bit of welcome detail and minute-by-minute dialogue. A glossary explains the mil-speak so that the dialogue is both realistic and those unfamiliar with the terms can look them up while the rest of us rip along with the story.
The novel is dedicated to the late military historian Eric Hammel. I’m sure he would be pleased to be associated with this heroic story.
Vietnam Voices: Stories of Tennesseans Who Served in Vietnam, 1965-1975 (359 pp., $24.99, paper; $9.99, Kindle) is the third oral history volume produced by the Friends of the Blount County Library in East Tennessee. Volume 3 almost begs the reader to pick up the first two volumes to continue the story. This small book is a quick but fulfilling read.
Editors-Stovall, Minser, and Caudill have tried to contact as many local Vietnam War veterans as they can, then offer them the opportunity to become part of the project through interviews conducted using a same-questions format. That process makes for continuity for the reader and the participants.
Each of the volumes contains 12-15 interviews with veterans from all of the military branches and ranks, enlisted and officers alike, that are condensed into thumbnail versions of longer, in-person interviews. Each chapter contains verbatim answers to mostly identical questions with a bit of editing that provides a readable flow.
The book also includes reprints of drawings by soldiers who took part in the U.S. Army’s Combat Artists Program during the Vietnam War. Between 1966 and 1970 nine teams of artists moved throughout the four war zones recording what and who they saw.
Vietnam Voices is a short but personable book—an opportunity for each participant to contribute to the Vietnam War historical record of individual experiences, efforts, and accomplishments. A county library undertaking such a project speaks well of its support of hometown war veterans. It’s well worth the read.
Robert Espenscheid, Jr. most definitely owns a creative mind. Fortunately for readers, he shares his thoughts. His fourth novel, The Sentinel Papers (273 pp. $12, paper), bores in on American life in the early 1980s in the aftermath of the Vietnam War.
Espenscheid tells his story in a journal format. The cast of characters features three unmarried Vietnam War veterans who call themselves “The Deck”; two daughters of one of the veterans; members of the Sedgewick family; and the Harley-Davidson Motor Company.
The story revolves around the interactions of the veterans and the Sedgewicks, particularly the relationship between Oliver Dragon and Jodi Sedgewick. Yes, the book is a love story, and at every opportunity sex grabs center stage and does so in humorous ways. The drama is filled with complexity and contradictory behavior that carries beyond ordinary life. Nevertheless, the characters are truly believable.
This dialogue-heavy, fast-paced novel, which is set in Milwaukee, illuminates the difficulties of living with the consequences of war and highlights people’s dependence on lasting friendships and family life. Espenscheid tells stories that contain messages of right-or-wrong and good-or-bad, but he does not preach. At one point, he summarizes Oliver’s feelings by having him say, “Life had caught all of us by surprise.”
Espenscheid can turn a phrase. He describes one man, for example, as a “guy with a smile that lit up whenever he swung a kick stand down.” A man with “baggage crammed with heartache” is so psychologically lost that he says, “Not even Santa Clause knew my address.”
Espenscheid served as an artillery officer in the Vietnam War in 1969-70. He fictionalizes several of his war experiences in flashbacks in the novel. What the novel tells of the war is unique, presenting situations that I have encountered nowhere else.
After The Deck and the Sedgewick sisters pair off, the book concentrates on their efforts to build a unified family and to rejuvenate financially strapped Harley-Davidson. In doing so, Espenscheid provides outlandish lessons about group interactions, working class management, and love.
The Sentinel Papers ends with a bang that feel like peoples’ reactions to VJ-Day, Christmas, and the Fourth of July rolled into one. The Deck and wives, relatives, and Harley-Davidson triumph.
Espenscheid lets it all hang out and the results are stupendous. I’m still grinning.
Some Vietnam War veterans believe that you could count civilian war correspondents who supported the American war effort in Vietnam on one hand. Whether true or not, that group included AP photographer Eddie Adams and Peter Braestrup, the Washington Post’s Saigon bureau chief. And the novelist John Steinbeck wrote a series of positive dispatches on the war for Newsday in 1967 at the behest of President Lyndon Johnson.
Another prominent Vietnam War supporter was the famed World War II combat correspondent Richard Tregaskis, the subject of Ray E. Boomhower’s new biography, Richard Tregaskis: Reporting Under Fire from Guadalcanal to Vietnam (University of New Mexico Press/High Road Books, 356 pp; $34.95, hardcover; $19.22, Kindle).
Tregaskis, a fierce anti-communist, wanted “a firsthand, eyewitness look,” he said, “at the strange, off-beat, new-style war in which we find ourselves engaged in the miserable little jungle country called Vietnam, which our nation’s leaders have decided is pivotal and critical in our Asian struggle with Communism.”
Though he had been in Vietnam before—on assignment for True magazine in 1948, during which he covered the battles between the French and Viet Minh forces, and in 1957, during the Diem regime–Tregaskis got a third chance in 1962. His aim was to do research for a book to be titled Vietnam Diary, following in the tradition of his best-selling World War II book, Guadalcanal Diary.
While Tregaskis’ endeavors in Vietnam take up a small portion of his book, Boomhower does a very good job comparing the differences between war coverage during the Vietnam War and in World War II. The most famous WWII war correspondents were, most famously, Scripps Howard News correspondent Ernie Pyle, Stars and Stripes reporter Andy Rooney, and radio correspondent Edward R. Murrow. None of those journalists would have dared to criticize the American efforts during World War II.
Vietnam War reportage was very different. And Tregaskis didn’t like it, once telling New York Times correspondent David Halberstam, “If I were doing what you are doing, I’d be ashamed of myself.”
For his part, Halberstam “believed it was his job and the responsibility of other journalists in Vietnam to report on the news, positive or negative,” Boomhower notes. “We were finding out stuff we didn’t want to find out. We wanted the Americans to win,” Halberstam said.
The civilian press corps soon understood, though, that MACV wanted only good news from the press and, “any other interpretation was defeatist and irresponsible.”
Tregaskis’ spent much of his time in Vietnam in 1962 close to the action, as he did during World War II, flying on sixty assault missions on a variety of helicopters. Falling back on his memories of covering WW II, of Vietnam he wrote, “There was no one big D-Day; every day is D-Day and the front is everywhere.” No doubt the civilian press corps with which he was at odds and he could all agree on that.
Richard Tregaskis: Reporting Under Fire from Guadalcanal to Vietnam would make an excellent addition to the libraries of students of World War II and the Vietnam War.