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Arts Editor and Senior Writer, The VVA Veteran at Vietnam Veterans of America

Why Vietnam Matters by Rufus Phillips

“This is an inside history of what really happened in Vietnam and why it matters.”

That’s the first line of one of the most important books on the early history of the Vietnam War, Why Vietnam Matters: An Eyewitness Account of Lessons Not Learned by Rufus Phillips. This 2008 memoir—now out in paperback for the first time (Naval Institute, 448 pp., $24.95—is an insider’s account of the fateful 1950s and early 1960s decisions that set in motion the U.S. war in Vietnam.

Phillips, who turned 88 last month, was sent to South Vietnam in 1954 as a member of the first CIA team there, led by the legendary intelligence agent Edward Lansdale who operated under the cover of being a U.S. Air Force colonel. Phillips spent most of the next decade doing undercover and pacification work in Vietnam. He played an important behind-the-scenes advisory role in the high-level power struggle that developed over how the United States would help South Vietnam defeat the communist Viet Cong and North Vietnamese.

Rufus Phillips (who is a featured commentator in the new Ken Burns PBS Vietnam War documentary) was a strong proponent of what came to be known as the “hearts and minds” approach: helping build a stable democratic government in the south, one that the people of South Vietnam would put their lives on the line to preserve. At the same time, he (like his mentor, Lansdale) spoke out strongly and consistently against sending in American combat troops. That includes speaking face-to-face with President John F. Kennedy in the White House on September 10, 1963–a memorable meeting that Phillips describes in detail in the book.

As we wrote in our 2008 review, this is a revealing inside-baseball memoir, in which Phillips provides a fascinating look at how the Kennedy and Johnson administrations never gave the pacification approach more than lip service.

Phillips in Vietnam in 1954

Phillips offers intimate, revealing portraits of the Lansdale, the colorful CIA operative Lucien Conein, South Vietnamese Premier Ngo Dinh Diem, Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, President JKennedy, Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, and a slew of other Kennedy and Johnson higher-ups.

Phillips clearly shows that those best and brightest, especially McNamara, exhibited “poor judgment, bureaucratic prejudice, and personal hubris” as they steered Vietnam War policy in a disastrous course. Phillips adds a short chapter on lessons learned from the Vietnam War calamity.

As I wrote in 2008, this book should be mandatory reading in Washington, D.C. It still should.

The author’s website is whyvietnammatters.com

—Marc Leepson

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MiG-21 Aces of the Vietnam War by Istvan Toperczer

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Dr. Istvan Toperczer’s writing focuses on fighter pilots and their aircraft, with an emphasis on the Vietnam War. In his latest book, MiG-21 Aces of the Vietnam War (Osprey, 135 pp.; $23, paper), he writes that thirteen MiG-21 Fishbed pilots from the Vietnam People’s Air Force became aces during that war, with a combined total of eighty-six kills.

The Appendix lists Fishbed pilots with four or more victories as verified by VPAF official records. United States records, however, label many of these claims as “not confirmed” or “loss attributed to antiaircraft artillery or SAM.” The downing of AQM-34 Firebee drones also accounts for part of the VPAF total.

My brother-in-law calls Toperczer a “communist propagandist,” and refuses to read his work. Regardless of discrepancies in the numbers—and my brother-in-law’s opinion—in his new book Toperczer provides insightful and interesting stories about VPAF training, tactics, and encounters with American Air Force and Navy aircraft.

Toperczer is a Hungarian Air Force flight surgeon. For the past twenty years, he has interviewed VPAF pilots and researched VPAF archives. According to his publisher, Toperczer is “one of the few individuals from outside Vietnam to be given open access to the files of the Vietnamese People’s Air Force.”

His chapter on training somewhat duplicates information he presented in his MiG-17/19 Aces of the Vietnam War. The Soviet Union provided the most useful support in this area.

The interwoven tactics and combat story lines in the book describe and analyze air battles, frequently on a day-to-day basis. They explain the evolution of Fishbed interception practices against American fighter-bombers, which were sometimes based on recommendations from Soviet advisors. The stories explain both successes and failures of VPAF planners in 1966-67. The second half of the book covers VPAF operations from 1968 to Linebacker II.

Toperczer pays homage to USAF Operation Bolo led by Col. Robin Olds and the results that grounded the MiG-21 921st Fighter Regiment for several months “in an attempt to make good its losses.” According to Toperczer, for the remainder of 1967, the VPAF and Americans fought on even terms with both sides altering tactics but failing to gain a decisive advantage.

The best parts of the book occur when Toperczer explains the VPAF pilots’ actions and reactions to unusual situations. For example, the account of the encounters with the U.S. Navy’s RIM-8 Talos ship-to-air missiles was eye-opening. I had been completely unaware of the long-range capability and success of the Talos against MiG-21s.

Likewise, I had not realized how, as early as 1969, VPAF designed and practiced tactics to use against B-52s if they overflew the North. The VPAF also attempted but failed to attack B-52s over Laos.

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As far as I am concerned, Toperczer provides a great deal of information not found elsewhere.

Regardless of what my brother-in-law believes, overall MiG-21 Aces of the Vietnam War pays justifiable tribute to the Vietnamese pilots who flew against the United States.

—Henry Zeybel

Ali’s Bees By Bruce Olav Solheim

Bruce Solheim is a distinguished professor of history at Citrus College in Glendora, California.  He served six years in the U.S. Army as a jail guard and as a helicopter pilot. He founded the Veterans Program at Citrus College, and teaches Vietnam War-related history classes.

The three kids in Solheim’s children’s book, Ali’s Bees (CreateSpace, 142 pp., $9.89, paper; $2.99, Kindle)—Ali, Lupe and Jenks— learn how to cooperate on a science project. Ali wishes he could feel at home in Los Angeles with his beekeeper grandfather with whom he went to live after his parents were killed in a terrorist attack in Iraq.

Ali has PTSD related to that terrorist attack he survived, but his family did not, except for his grandfather. His grandfather has Ali work with bees as therapy for his PTSD. Ali works with Lupe, a classroom friend, and with Jenks, a bully. Jenks has problems of his own as his father is confined to a wheelchair because of wartime injuries. The horrors of war live on every page of this book.

Some of the five illustrations by Gabby Untermayerova of Jenks’ father in his wheelchair brought tears to my eyes. Full disclosure: Often these days I am in a wheelchair, too.

This book can entertain and benefit all ages of readers. It can also teach how to try to overcome the ill-effects of war, effects that are with us always and everywhere.

The book is positive and healing, but it is also realistic. It never becomes maudlin or descends into didacticism. It is beautifully written and on some pages borders on poetry.

Bruce Solheim

I loved the book and would use it in class if I were still teaching about the horrors of war.

Thanks to Bruce Solheim and Gabby Untermayerova for conspiring to produce this fine book dealing with the impact of war on the human heart.

—David Willson

 

A Loving, Faithful Animal by Josephine Rowe

Josephine Rowe was born in 1984 in Rockhampton, Australia, and lives in Tasmania. I wouldn’t be surprised if her father served during the Vietnam War. Certainly the way she characterizes the people in her novel, A Loving, Faithful Animal (Catapult, 176 pp., $16.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle), indicates she knows about Vietnam War veterans. Or she is a damned good researcher. Either way, her characters ring true.

I was relieved to read that the characters in the book are fictitious as I would hate to blunder into any of them in real life. Or in my dreams, for that matter.  Especially Uncle Les “who seems to move through their lives like a ghost, earning trust and suspicion.”

The backbone of A Loving, Faithful Animal (the only book I’ve read that presents the Australian ruins of the Vietnam War) is the fact that Ru’s father, an Australian conscript during the Vietnam War, has turned up missing, this time with an air of finality. This makes Ru think “he’s gone for good.” Or for evil.

One blurb writer says the book’s “astonishing poetic prose left me aching and inspired.”  I got half of that—unfortunately, the aching part.

I don’t know if the greeting, “Have a few bottles of Tiger Piss and get defoliated,” was invented for this book, or if it is a common one in Australia’s legacy of their involvement in the Vietnam War. I hope it is just particular to this novel.

A character cuts off both trigger fingers to avoid being drafted. That seems extreme to me. But the book reminds me that a prevalent attitude during the war was that if you were drafted you would be sent to Vietnam and if you were sent there, you would die there. I never understood that, but I did encounter it.

John Wayne does get a mention, so do Audrey Hepburn, Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, LBJ, and Ho Chi Minh. One of the comments a character makes about being the offspring of a Vietnam veteran is that she’s spent her life “trying to lead [her] father out of the jungle.”

The question gets asked, “Why are we in Vietnam?”  The answer is that Ho Chi Minh kicked over LBJ’s trike. I’d say that’s as good a reason as any.

Josephine Rowe

Early in the novel we are told that all chemical agents used in Vietnam “have been fully exonerated from causing veterans’ subsequent ill health, with the partial exception of the antimalarial drug Dapsone, whose status has not been resolved.”

That makes me feel better about the Multiple Myeloma that is killing me by degrees. The question about how many Vietnam vets it takes to screw in a light bulb gets asked. No answer is given.

If you feel the need to read a book about the impact of the Vietnam War on the people of Australia, start with this one.

You could do worse. I did.

—David Willson

High Hand by Curtis J. James

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Curtis J. James is the pseudonym for three accomplished Washington, D.C.-area writers:  Curtis Harris, a cancer scientist; James Rosen, a political journalist; and James Ellenberger, a former AFL-CIO official. I’ve heard of two people writing a book, but three seems like maybe one too many.  I’d love to know how they coordinated their duties.

Ellenberger, a life member of Vietnam Veterans of America, served in Vietnam in 1968-69 with the 29th Civil Affairs Company in Da Nang, and has visited Vietnam three times since the war. His service in the war is enough to keep the committee that wrote the book honest, I’m sure.

High Hand (Copper Peak Press, $13.95, paper; $6.99, Kindle) is a political thriller with one of those fast-paced plots that can make your head dizzy if you are not careful. It’s a spy novel that the publisher compares to the work of Ian Fleming and John le Carre, both of whom I love, but neither is much like the other. Another blurb writer digs up Ken Follett and Tom Clancy as authors to compare to.

The plot centers around Frank Adams, who must figure out why his old poker buddies are being targeted for assassination. He’s so desperate for a solution to the puzzle that he enlists his ex-wife, Lisa Hawkes, for help.

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The authors

She is “a brilliant Russian linguist and a CIA covert agent.” Isn’t every ex-wife like that? I have got an ex-wife who was a children’s librarian.  That’s a very different skill set. Or maybe not.

I enjoyed this book, and it really is fast-paced, but not too fast paced. I didn’t fall asleep while reading it, but I did sleep well when I turned in. That’s a good thing.

Buy it and read it if you want to find out why the poker buddies are being killed. And if you wish to discover if three guys can sit down and write a book together that is worth reading.

My opinion: It’s worth your money.

The authors’ website is www.curtisjjames.com

—David Willson

Afternoon Light by Ralph Beer

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Ralph Beer served for three years in the U. S. Army during the Vietnam War.  He spent much of that time at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. He then was sent for a year to the “super-secret complex” at Nakhon Phanom Air Base in Thailand, Beer writes in Afternoon Light: A Memoir (Casey Peak Press, 340 pp., $14.95, paper; $3.99, Kindle). He goes on to tell the reader that the Vietnam War “was the event of my generation, whether we think much about it now or not.”  He’s right.

Every chapter of this fine memoir is saturated with the Vietnam War. “The suffering it caused the Vietnamese and the American people,” Beer writes, “was biblical in scope and hellish in its lasting pain.” This book deals with the impact of the Vietnam War on Ralph Beer and his love, Sheila, and also with how difficult is to sustain love during times of trouble. And all times are times of trouble. Don’t doubt that for one moment.

Beer includes a long quote from Larry Heinemann’s classic war novel Close Quarters.  He also gives a major nod to James Crumley, who has written as seriously about the Vietnam War as both Heinemann and Beer have. I hope that a book will be forthcoming from Beer about his time in the Army, preferably set in Thailand.  It seems unlikely, as Beer makes the point in this book about how old and infirm he is.

Before his military service Ralph Beer ran off to British Columbia with Sheila—and with scarcely any preparation for the adventure. Things didn’t go smoothly. They filed a Canadian government mining claim and worked very hard to make a go of that project.

Beer failed to confront the realities of citizenship in Canada, though. That led to a disastrous interview with a Canadian immigration official who accused him of every crime short of mopery.

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Ralph Beer

The couple returned to the USA and Beer made things right with his draft board. That led to his service in the Army. Does the relationship survive? Spoiler alert: it does.

Ralph Beer spent much of his life working “for almost nothing” on his grandfather’s Montana ranch. He’s written four books dealing with that experience. They have not made him rich or famous. Far from it.

Beer’s final word on the Vietnam War: It “can only be seen as a tragic and senseless waste for us all,” he says.

He took the words right out of my mouth.

—David Willson

Brutal Battles of Vietnam edited by Richard K. Kolb

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Richard K. Kolb, the recently retired long-time publisher and editor-in-chief of VFW magazine, has spent more than a decade preparing the newly published Brutal Battles of Vietnam: America’s Deadliest Days, 1965-1972 (VWF, 480 pp., $29.95). This worthy book is the fruit of Kolb’s research, writing, and editing of a long-running series in his magazine called “Vietnam’s Deadliest Battles.”

Brutal Battles is a reader-friendly, heavily illustrated coffee-table-sized tome that, as Kolb puts it, stands as “the first and only” book that presents “a comprehensive U.S. battle history of Vietnam in a single volume.” Kolb and his team of writers (including the noted Vietnam War specialists Al Hemingway and Keith Nolan) do not deal with politics at home, geopolitics, the antiwar movement, life in the rear, diplomacy, strategy, accounts of the ARVN (or NVA or VC)—or any kind of in-depth analysis of tactics. In other words, as Kolb puts it, the book “is not Vietnam 101.”

Instead, Brutal Battles is a compelling, well-written compilation of on-the-mark reports on dozens of Vietnam War engagements that ended in significant casualties. In other words, that is, the deadliest, most brutal, of the war’s all-out battles and other engagements.

Each one gets a relatively short but meaty chapter told from the point of view of the Americans who did the fighting. We get the voices of everyday troops who fought in the battles, along with cogent descriptions of what took place, as well as tributes to those who perished and those who performed courageously under fire.

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Rich Kolb, who served in Vietnam with the Army’s 4th Infantry and 101st Airborne Divisions in 1970-71, shaped the magazine series and the book to include actions involving every American infantry division, independent infantry brigade, and separate regiment that took part in the war. They are presented chronologically through 1972.

What follows is a section on Navy and Air Force engagements. Then comes a tribute to the war’s most highly decorated troops and statistical info, including a 1959-72 combat chronology.

For purchasing info, go to the VFW store.

—Marc Leepson