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

Whispers in the Tall Grass by Nick Brokhaus

Nick Brokhausen’s Whispers in the Tall Grass (Casemate, 216 pp. $32.95, hardcover; $19.95, Kindle) finishes the story he began with his 2005 war memoir We Few. In the new book, Nick, Mac, and Cookie continue to lead a team of Montagnard soldiers in recklessly waging war against the North Vietnamese Army.

They operate primarily in Laos as part of the Military Assistance Command Vietnam Studies and Observations Group (MACV-SOG). They gather intelligence, destroy communication networks, and expose concentrated enemy forces to attacks by Army and Air Force firepower. A prisoner snatch is their ultimate success.

Brokhausen’s stories are highly detailed; their action is frantic; and three-day stretches of fear often prevail in enemy-controlled areas distant from normal combat. Usually the goal is vague. His team’s job, he writes, entailed “dancing in the dragon’s jaw.”

In reviewing We Few, I noted that Brokhausen mixes irreverence, perversity, and sarcasm with touches of gonzo journalism. He tempers that style in Whispers, which makes the book an enjoyable read. His command of language shows originality, particularly when he describes military feats and individual emotions. As in one of his best lines: “Arc Light will come in and turn the area into a new time zone.”

Off duty, Nick, Mac, and Cookie are certifiable enemies of civility. They challenge pettiness among officers, aggression by MPs, and a misguided tactical experiment of using HALO parachuting for SOG combat insertions. You have to admire Brokhausen and company’s fortitude as they ignored convention and accomplished formidable tasks on and off the battlefield.

Throughout the book, Brokhausen expresses strong feelings about comradeship between warriors, especially his relationships with the Yard fighters.

After being refused an in-country extension, he expresses closing sentiments about warfare with insights that brought back forgotten memories about how it felt at the end of my combat life.

Nick Brokhausen  definitely has his stuff together.

—Henry Zeybel

The Hawk and the Dove by Tom Baker

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With his big novel, The Hawk and the Dove (Page Publishing, 493 pp. $21.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle), Vietnam War veteran Tom Baker draws a thread through more than a thousand years, tying together examples of military courage by men and women who find themselves engaged in conflicts of different kinds in different places around the world.

The book opens in the middle of a Viking raid, then moves to a time when British troops are trying to hold back Napoleon’s advancing forces. In its second half, the book takes us into the American Civil War, World War II, and then the American war in Vietnam and the 1990s civil war in Rwanda.

What ties the stories together are appearances in each one of a hawk as well as dove, which almost seems to be the hawk’s mate. Sometimes the hawk attacks people, sometimes it protects others. Some people direct it to attack and the hawk responds. Sometimes it influences battlefield decisions. Which leads to the question: Is it a reincarnated warrior?

When some Vikings are asked why they pillage and rampage, the response is because it’s what they’ve always done. Baker also writes that “every little boy wants to be a warrior.”

When the second chapter moved to the Napoleonic Wars I was happy to see that Baker wrote it without making it read like just the same people from the first chapter were saying the same things they did centuries earlier. Chapter Two—which contains one surprise after another—transports the reader to a different place and time, beautifully described, though the warriors still struggle with big and small questions about war and peace.

In Chapter Three we encounter a Confederate troops fighting against the Union Army during the American Civil War. While the big reasons for this war are up for debate, most of the southern troops say they are fighting because their land had been invaded by Lincoln’s army. Here we encounter ambushes, amputations, field hospitals, and prisoners of war. A character dreams of Vikings, tying us to the book’s first page. The pairing of the hawk and dove seems more than ever to be expressing a future possibility of human beings eventually learning to coexist peacefully.

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The final two chapters deal with episodes during World War II and in the Vietnam War (briefly). Things finish up in the east-central African nation of Rwanda in 1994. Throughout the book it’s made clear than women can be guided by warrior spirits just as men can. Toward the end, things become mystical, but Baker makes it work.

A summarizing quote from the book could be: “The quest for peace is an ever-renewed task, calling forth brave men and women in every generation.”

Baker’s novel is an enjoyable, thoughtful, reading experience.

–Bill McCloud

The Life of an Airborne Ranger Book Three: Everyone Comes Home by Michael Kitz-Miller

 

Michael Kitz-Miller enlisted in the U.S. Army and served for three years, leaving the military as a 101st Airborne Division Sergeant E-5. The Life of an Airborne Ranger, Book Three: Everyone Comes Home (Xlibris, 476 pp. $34.99, hardcover; $23.93, paper; $3.99, Kindle) is the third novel in his series of Airborne ranger books. It is filled with action, along with endless details about the nature of being a career soldier in the Army taking part in conflicts in Grenada, Panama, Somalia, Iran Hostage, Kuwait, and Iraq.

I had never read anything about our war in Grenada, so that section of the book especially interested me. Kitz-Miller, who died in July, portrays that war as a fucked-up mess from the get-go. As an example of how unready we were to fight that war, he points out that no official maps were available. The novel’s hero, Jack Donovan, has to obtain and use tourist maps to try to find the college campuses he is supposed to be protecting and evacuating.

The 44th Airborne Division and the 45th Infantry Division are fictional units invented by the author to protect the guilty. Kitz-Miller’s heavy reliance on the teachings and writings of Ayn Rand are interesting, but are not the bible of Objectivism, her philosophic system. Rand, who once visited West Point and delivered a lecture there is mentioned often in the novel, but she’s not the only one. Audie Murphy gets a major shout-out when Donovan is described as the most decorated soldier of the modern era.  Murphy is put in the shade by Donovan who seems to get five and six of most major medals.

This massive novel follows Jack Donovan’s career up to his promotion to four-star general. The details are engrossing and well-described and held my interest. The narrative is spiced up by the adventures of Donovan’s Welsh terrier and the academic progress of Donovan’s college professor wife.

I recommend this novel to readers who are interested in Army careers and what it takes to rise to the top in the modern military. I am glad I decided that a military career was not for me. Spec.5 was as high as I went. That happens to be where Jack’s career starts in this book. Right where mine ended.

—David Willson

 

Quang Tri Cadence by Jon Oplinger

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A Golden Oldie. That’s my category for Quang Tri Cadence: Memoir of a Rifle Platoon Leader in the Mountains of Vietnam (McFarland, 220 pp. $19.99, paper) by Jon Oplinger. The book is a reprint of the original 1993 edition.

Oplinger served in D Company with the 2nd/5th of the Army’s First Cavalry Division in 1968. His writing is lively, to the point, and humorous as he shows the drama and trauma of combat. His reflections on the behavior of young soldiers and old commanders fascinated me. More so, the practicality of Oplinger’s actions delighted me. At the platoon level he understood that everything he and his men possessed beyond their bodies was expendable—an attitude that went unappreciated by his superiors.

He shows how uncertainty prevailed during his platoon’s day-after-day, usually unproductive ambushes and search-and-destroy missions. Yes, he includes de rigueur topics such as subsisting on C-rations, humping heavy loads, and navigating through jungles while lost, but his explanations rest on an undertone of amazement more than anger.

Oplinger enlisted in the Army after flunking out of college. He earned a commission through OCS, went to Vietnam, and suffered wounds that hospitalized him for seven months. He returned to civilian life as a student at Kent State University just in time for the May 1970 riots.

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Oplinger

People who do not read the white spaces might classify Quang Tri Cadence strictly as a downer. But WTF—for most people, the entire Vietnam War was a downer.

Downer or not, Oplinger made me both laugh and shed a tear more than once over the trials of the infantrymen caught up in the thick of things.

Jon Oplinger is a professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Maine at Farmington.

—Henry Zeybel

The Night Fire by Michael Connelly

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Reading the new Michael Connelly Harry Bosch/Renee Ballard detective procedural, The Night Fire (Little Brown, 416 pp., $29), you’d have to be a good detective to know that Bosch is a Vietnam War veteran. This is Connelly’s 32nd detective procedural, the 22nd featuring Harry Bosch. I’ve been a big fan since I read the first one, the brilliant Black Echo, in 1992, and have devoured (and reviewed) every one of them. Before this, each Bosch book included details of Harry’s service in the war (he was a tunnel rat) and its impact on his mercurial law-enforcement career.

In some of the books Connelly offered but a few sentences here and there about Harry and the Vietnam War. In others, including The Black Echo, there was much more. This time the word “Vietnam” is not mentioned. Late in the book, Harry tells Ballard that he served in the Army—but that’s it.

Which is fine, although a tad disappointing because in my view Harry Bosch (along with James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux) is by far the best-drawn fictional Nam vet detective out there. And it’s always a good thing to encounter admirable Vietnam War veterans in fiction. Harry is street-smart, dedicated, courageous, and stubborn. He’s also brusque and often cranky and doesn’t easily suffer fools, frauds, or criminals. He regularly gets into deep trouble at the office and often runs into life-threatening situations on cases.

In The Night Fire, Bosh and Ballard—both of whom are dedicated, driven, high-maintenance detectives (he’s retired from LAPD and working part time; she’s active duty) —work on two different cases alone and together. As usual, Connelly tells a tale with red herrings galore and more than a few plot twists—sometimes a bit too many. But Connelly’s a master at spinning an exciting yarn that gets more exciting as it goes along and he does exactly that in this book.

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As always, Connelly creates fully flushed-out characters, especially Bosch and Ballard. And, in the end—well, no spoilers here. I will say that Connelly offers some veiled references to what might come next in Bosch’s life, mostly dealing with age-related physical problems.

My advice: Read this excellent detective novel and follow the clues to find out for yourself whodunit, how the detectives figured it out, and what might become of Harry Bosch.

–Marc Leepson

The Aviators by Rex Gooch

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Rex Gooch writes about what young men do when they are carefree and voluntarily go to war. In their world, life becomes simply us-against-them and survival equates with victory.

Gooch, a life member of Vietnam Veterans of America, tells all about that in The Aviators: Stories of U.S. Army Helicopter Combat in the Vietnam War, 1971-72 (Lighthorse Publishing, 316 pp. $15.95, paper; $8.99, Kindle). The book consists of stories Gooch has collected from fellow helicopter crewmen in the Lighthorse Air Cavalry, the 17th Aviation Group, 18th Aviation Company who served during the Vietnam War in IV Corps at Vinh Long and Can Tho.

Kevin Kelly, “the best Cobra pilot in the troop,” as Gooch puts it, perfectly summed up their attitude. In control of a weapons system with overwhelming firepower, Kelly said, “I felt invincible.” But after being shot down twice, a shaken Kelly felt his “invincibility had been replaced by a more experienced outlook.”

These young men—mostly in their late teens and early twenties—endured a baptism of fire that revealed their mortality, Gooch says. Simultaneously, it bonded them for life.

The Aviators has two themes. First, the book records a short period of combat by an organization with a long history. Second, it describes Gooch’s progression from new copilot to aircraft commander. After a year of flight training, ROTC-graduate Gooch—nearly fearless and eager to fly in combat—went directly to the war zone.

Gooch tells stories with a style that puts the reader in the boots of pilots, crew chiefs, and gunners. Detail is his forte, but it can grow tiresome when Gooch repeatedly walks men through mundane activities such as getting out of bed, eating breakfast, and performing pre-flight chores.

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Rex Gooch

In describing the flight phase of missions, however, Gooch provides details that turn war stories into vivid teaching lessons. He slows the chaos of combat to an understandable speed and examines events from multiple angles. His account of the shoot-down of Chris Rash exemplifies how Gooch weaves interviews with fellow flyers into in-depth analyses. His stories about coordination within crews and between aircraft provide classic examples of teamwork.

Gooch explains topics such as Vietnamization, the Easter Offensive, and Nixon’s incursion into Cambodia with indented paragraphs jammed into the middle of the text. Old timers might see this as distracting because it slows the flow of a story, but young readers should appreciate the information and will learn from views into the past.

Chapters conclude with short biographies of men cited in the stories. Many pilots pursued post-war flying careers in and out of military service. As for Rex Gooch, he left the Army in 1974 and attained executive rank in Industrial Engineering and Human Resources corporations until retiring in 2001.

The Aviators is Gooch’s second contribution to Army helicopter history. His first book—Ace: The Story of Lt. Col. Ace Cozzalio—was a 2016 Independent Publisher Book Awards Bronze Medal recipient.

Rex Gooch’s website is www.fifthcavalry.com

—Henry Zeybel

In That Time by Daniel H. Weiss

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Daniel H. Weiss’s In That Time: Michael O’Donnell and the Tragic Era of Vietnam (PublicAffairs, 192 pp., $26) is a stunning book. It contains only 176 pages of text, but is well written and presented.

Weiss, the president and CEO of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, is an accomplished researcher and writer. He has produced a nicely constructed offering that threads a historical narrative of the Vietnam War into the story of Army Capt. Michael D. O’Donnell, a helicopter pilot whose chopper was shot down by enemy fire in Cambodia while extracting a secret reconnaissance team on March 24, 1970. The crew and passengers went down in flames in dense jungle surrounded by the NVA.

Weiss follows O’Donnell and his family from birth to his loss. Then he shows how his parents, sister, and girlfriend dealt with the fact that he was officially missing in action. O’Donnell’s remains were not identified until 1995. He was buried in 2001 at Arlington National Cemetery in a common grave with the remains of the five men he tried to rescue and his 170th Attack Helicopter Co. co-pilot John Hosken,

His story is told in conjunction with a very compact presentation of the history of the  Vietnam War. Though not a member of the Vietnam War generation, Weiss, a former college president and author, is a proven researcher. His Vietnam War history is dispassionate and un-cynical—even clinical.

His telling of Mike O’Donnell’s short life story is special, mainly because of the fact that he was a poet. During O’Donnell’s teen-age years and his short foray at college, music and poetry were driving forces for him. He enlisted in the Army with the draft breathing down his neck. He made it through OCS and helicopter flight school and in Vietnam served a UH-1 Huey helicopter pilot with 170th ASC at Pleiku and Dak To.

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During his time in country O’Donnell wrote a good number of poems (and some song lyrics) that he wanted to assemble under the title “Letters from Pleiku.” One of his poems came to be known after his death by its first line, “if you are able.” It has been widely published, including on the home page of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial website run by the 4th Battalion/9th Infantry Association, and on the Fallen Warriors page on the Blue Star Mothers’ website.

I enjoyed this book. I recommend that it become a staple in high school curricula as a resource during the study of the Vietnam War.

–Tom Werzyn