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

The Travelers by Regina Porter

Regina Porter, a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, did her Vietnam War homework for her new novel, The Travelers (Hogarth, 320 pp. $27, hardcover; $13.99, Kindle). Among other things, she interviewed a university historian who teaches a Vietnam War in Film class; read John Darrell Sherwood’s Black Sailor, White Navy: Racial Unrest in the Fleet During the Vietnam Era; and researched the Vietnam Women’s Memorial to learn about the contributions of American female troops during the Vietnam War.

The novel begins with a two-page list of characters, which is kind of a key to the meaning of the book. Porter also offers a brief statement of time, which helps the reader some. “This novel,” she notes, “travels from the mid-fifties to the first year of President Obama’s first term.” The list of settings includes Long Island, New York, and the former South Vietnam. Even with this attempt to help the reader, though, the book sometimes comes across as a hodgepodge of events, characters, and places.

Mostly I enjoyed the book, but only by turning it into a game by keeping track of  all the references to the Vietnam War. They mounted up rapidly and made it possible for me to view The Travelers as a Vietnam War novel. The story deals with Agent Orange, the Tet Offensive, the Gulf of Tonkin, Nixon’s war, the South China Sea, and Vietnam veterans more thoroughly than many literary Vietnam War novels do.

Porter places many of her characters in Vietnam where they do the things that young men were said to do during the war. Sex and drugs are given a lot of space, and the troops suffer psychologically by their involvement with those things. My painstaking mining of the text for Vietnam War references was rewarding, but likely would not be the way most readers will deal with the book.

The Travelers contains a fair number of photographic images, many related to the Vietnam War, including one of two sailors pressing pants on the USS Intrepid. The chapter entitled “I Know Where the Poison Lives” has a nice photo of the USS Oklahoma City and a powerful introduction to Agent Orange, including the line: “That shit ate up our daddy’s intestines.”  Porter goes on to discuss how Agent Orange affected Blue Water Navy veterans who served on aircraft carriers off the coast of South Vietnam during the war.

The role of African Americans in the Vietnam War is presented in the lives of the black characters, especially Eddie Christie, who serves on an aircraft carrier. During the war he is introduced to the play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead and it becomes an anchor to his life in a sea of racial unrest.

One reviewer calls the book unlike anything she’s ever read. That’s true for me as well.

–David Willson

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Call Sign Chaos by Jim Mattis and Bing West

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Commissioned in the Marine Corps in 1972, Jim Mattis missed serving in the Vietnam War. But as he points out in Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead (Random House, 300 pp; $28, hardcover; $14.99, Kindle; $45, Audio CD), the Vietnam War generation of Marines “raised” him. In his book, written in collaboration with Bing West, Mattis shares what he learned during a forty-year Marine Corps career.

A four-star general who led troops into battle in Iraq and Afghanistan, Mattis recently served two years as the Secretary of Defense. In his prologue, Mattis describes himself as “old fashioned” and unwilling to “take up the hot political rhetoric of our day.” That’s why he doesn’t discuss his personal relationship with President Trump in the book.

Bing West served as a Marine grunt in the Vietnam War in 1966-68 and as an assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan Administration. A journalist, who covered the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he was present for many operations Mattis led. West has written ten books on military topics.

From the rank of lieutenant colonel through lieutenant general, Jim Mattis led Marines the first Persian Gulf War in 1991, In Afghanistan in 2001-02, and Iraqi in 2003-04. He commander all U.S. forces in the Middle East (CENTCOM) from 2010-13. In describing the war zones, he often alludes to events from the Vietnam War. His thorough reading of military history allows him also to compare his decisions to those of leaders throughout history.

Call Sign Chaos is loaded with stories that reflect the application of positive leadership principles, more often than not under stress. Mattis illustrates the dichotomy between political and military thinking (and sometimes even within the ranks), particularly during the first battle for Fallujah, a stalemate. This separation of thinking prevailed even in his dealings with United States ambassadors in the Middle East when Mattis commanded CENTCOM during his final two years on active duty

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Gen. Mattis and Big West

Nevertheless, Mattis presents leadership lessons applicable to occupations beyond the military. I particularly appreciated his arguments for designing a “lean staff” and delegating as much authority as possible. Regardless of the situation, Mattis remained fearlessly outspoken and true to himself.

Sixteen pages of photographs of people and events and four maps of operational areas support the Call Sign Chaos story line. Bing West shot a majority of the images in remarkably clear color.

—Henry Zeybel

 

Operation Starlite by Otto Lehrack

In Operation Starlite: The Beginnings of the Blood Debt in Vietnam, August 1965 (Casemate, 233 pp. $19.95, paper), first published in hardcover in 2004, former Marine Otto Lehrack offers a tightly developed and very well researched and engaging telling of the story of the first major combat action of the Vietnam War.

In late August 1965, three battalions of U.S. Marines engaged with the 1st Viet Cong Regiment outside the newly created Marine base camp of Chu Lai in I Corps. This action included the first amphibious Marine landing since 1950 during the Korea War, and began the heavy use of helicopters, both offensive and defensive, in the coming escalation of the Vietnam War.

While this was the first important and successful battle of the war, it is often overlooked. About three months later the First Cav moved into the Ia Drang Valley and ran into a massive North Vietnamese Army force. The ensuing battle has been immortalized in Hal Moore and Joe Galloway’s We Were Soldiers Once and Young, and the movie based on it, as well as other books and magazine articles.

Lehrack’s extensive interviews with survivors from both sides of the battle provide him the context to fully flesh out the timeline and background of the engagement. His visits to the battlefields and camps after the war further expanded his ability to describe what took place. As he tells the story of the battle, Lehrack—who served two Vietnam War tours of duty—successfully integrates information about units, locations, battlefield developments, and the personal stories of the Marines involved, as well as the experiences of former Viet Cong .

During his conversations with the one-time VC fighters Lehrack learned about the lessons they learned from facing the American Marines’ method of engaging, attacking, fighting, and retrieving the wounded and fallen—as well as the employment of supporting arms and force multiplier weapons and tactics.

Otto Lehrack

In the introduction and epilogue, Lehrack speaks of the long history of aggression against the Vietnamese people. He notes the oft-disregarded idea that the Vietnamese simply sought their own sovereignty and relief from outside oppressors, including by the Americans

“It is one of the great tragedies of America, and of Vietnam War, that American policymakers were not more familiar with Vietnam’s history of dealing with foreign invaders,” Lehrack writes.

“America’s enemy, at least after 1965, consistently and successfully portrayed the war as the result of American Colonialism, and painted the South Vietnamese as American puppets.”

This is a good book, with a good battle history. Highly recommended.

–Tom Werzyn

Editor’s note: We briefly reviewed the book after it come out in hardcover in the March/April 2005 print edition of The VVA Veteran.

Wanderer by F.T. Burke

Wanderer: The Ultimate Hippy Trail Journey (Purple Whale, 464 pp. $19.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle) is a novel “inspired by true adventures,” as F.T. Burke puts it. Basically, Steve Reifman lived the story while Burke used his writing skills to put it down on paper.

The words “Vietnam War” are on the back cover. On page twelve we read, “Screw going to Vietnam!” Those are about the only mentions of the war, though, in a novel that begins in the Vietnam War summer of 1969 and frequently includes references to music and books of the era.

The title character is Steve, also known as “The Wanderer” because of the sense of wanderlust he frequently expresses. Before long, he’ll also be known as “Woodstock” because he was there.

He decides to hit the road and go backpacking through Europe and parts of Asia over what is known as the “overland hippie trail.” His father is deceased and I’m never quite sure how much The Wanderer is searching for his father’s spirit or trying to prove himself to him in some way, though that’s never suggested.

And, so he goes off to Luxembourg, Belgium, and Amsterdam. He stays in student hostels, “soaking up culture,” and interacting with natives and fellow travelers. Then to England, France, and Spain, where he dabbles in drugs , has run-ins with local law enforcement, and is shunned by most females. I couldn’t help but think Steve didn’t need to go to another continent to strike out, take drugs, and get rousted by the cops.

Things get a little more exciting after Steve lands in Morocco and then comes under rocket fire on the border between Jordan and Israel. I noted that as he moves closer to the East his thinking becomes more mystical. He can sometimes feel spiritual vibrations of places he’s in. Once he’s mistaken for a “saint.”

Syria, Turkey, Iran. Afghanistan, Pakistan, India. Eventually, Steve finds himself in the presence of the Dalai Lama. After a year on the road he returns home and rather matter-of-factly walks up to his house.

The story moves quickly and keeps you hooked, but you have to get through some rather-stilted dialogue. As in Steve telling his mom, “I am a hippy.” I don’t believed we hippies necessarily referred to ourselves as that. And: “Sure gives you a classic original hippy-look in our 1969 summer of love and peace.”

Burke and Reifman

Instead of saying, “Hey, man, let’s start getting into some conversation about the music scene,” it would have seemed more natural if Burke had gone straight into the conversation without introducing it.

I enjoyed reading this book, and the story it tells. However, there’s no need to put it on the you Vietnam War shelf of books because the war has no direct impact on this story.

It’s just something happening somewhere else and barely mentioned.

Burke’s website is authorftburke.com/category/wanderer/

–Bill McCloud

Fly Until You Die by Chia Youyee Vang

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History professor and author Chia Youyee Vang has written another chapter about the United States Secret War in Laos with Fly Until You Die: An Oral History of Hmong Pilots in the Vietnam War (Oxford University Press, 218 pp. $74, hardcover; $74, Kindle).

Professor Vang, who teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, takes a highly emotional look at why and how the United States trained Hmong soldiers to fly close air support in reconfigured T-28s commanded by Gen. Vang Pao in Military Region 2 of Laos. Code-named “Water Pump,” the program lasted from 1964-75 and trained thirty-eight men, some of whom flew thousands of combat missions. Eighteen were killed in action. The book accounts for all of them.

Born in Laos, Vang left the country at the age of eight in 1979. Her family eventually settled in the Minnesota as political refugees. In 2013-14, she conducted face-to-face interviews with former Hmong pilots, relatives of those killed in action or deceased, and a few American military personnel who worked with the Hmong during the Vietnam War. Forty-three people contributed reminiscences to her book.

Professor Vang excels at story telling by incorporating interviews verbatim into her narrative of the time. Her technique amplifies the emotional impact of the speakers. She recognizes failures as well as successes of the Hmong pilots.

She explains how Gen. Vang Pao and American instructors selected and qualified Hmong as pilots from a group of people who lacked formal education and had no tech skills. A few of the men had never driven an automobile, Vang says. Worst of all, their T-28s had been rejected by the Vietnamese and, due to modifications, no two airplanes were alike. Sometimes bombs failed to release and rockets did not fire.

What’s more, the primary runway at Long Tieng (Long Chieng) was too short and one end was blocked by towers, which eliminated any margin for flying errors. Accidents happened frequently. Nevertheless, the performance of the Hmong in combat was selfless. No limit existed for how many missions they flew or the number of risks they took. An American interviewee claimed that one pilot flew more than 4,000 missions.

Vang Pao paid Hmong pilots salaries (plus frequent bonuses) far higher than those that went to his regular soldiers. When a pilot was killed, however, the General usually ignored the needs of the man’s families, causing them extreme economic hardships. Similarly, at the end of the war, Vang Pao provided little, if any, assistance to the Hmong. As a result, Professor Vang writes that Hmong who once flew for and admired the General lost all respect for him.

The book follows the Hmong who left Laos after the United States departed Vietnam in 1975 and the subsequent communist takeover of both nations. Most fled to Thailand and enjoyed “a brief moment of relief” as people transitioning from fear for their lives to “the harshness of displacement,” she says. She portrays Thai refugee camps as worlds of utter abandonment; for the Hmong, life as they knew it appeared lost forever.

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Chia Youyee Vang

Eventually, the United States government gave 140,000 Hmong a second life by bringing them here. Based on their own testimony, those who moved to the U.S. have found happiness.

Professor Vang closes Fly Until You Die by reassessing the war and its legacy. She has previously examined the Hmong diaspora in Hmong America: Reconstructing Community in Diaspora (2010); Hmong in Minnesota (2008); and Claiming Place: On the Agency of Hmong Women (2016).

Her excellent appendices, notes, and bibliography, as well as ten pages of photographs, significantly strengthen the research. Above all, the revelations of the people she interviewed make this book a valuable history lesson about the intricacies of the Vietnam War.

—Henry Zeybel

Shooting Vietnam Dan Brookes & Bob Hillerby

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Network television captured the lightning and thunder of the Vietnam War and gave a new dimension to war reporting. Same-day combat action appeared on evening news programs as correspondents presented graphic footage of death and destruction in color. In comparison, Americans at home saw World War II and the Korean War mainly through black-and-white still photographs, primarily in the widely read weekly Life magazine.

Shooting Vietnam: The War by Its Military Photographers (Pen & Sword, 251 pp.; $32.95, hardcover; $15.99, Kindle) by Dan Brookes and Bob Hillerby recreates the 1966-67 world of black-and-white news photography, along with accounts of the lives of military combat photographers in the Vietnam War. Both authors served with the 69th Signal Battalion.

Bob Hillery fills the first half of the book by explaining how some in-country photographers were really infantrymen with cameras. He took part in more than a hundred air assault missions with the 1st Cavalry Division and says, “I’d come to think of the danger, fear and adrenaline rush as being normal and couldn’t understand why some of the shooters tried to avoid going to the field.”

Attached to the 1st Cav’s B Troop, 1/9th, he describes working side-by-side with American soldiers at their best. The unit’s nickname was “The Headhunters,” and it was considered “the Cav of the Cav,” he says.

Dan Brookes then describes the jobs of behind-the-line photographers stationed at Tan Son Nhut and Cam Ranh Bay. Certain to be drafted, he enlisted to get a Lab Technician assignment, which he calls “a million dollar experience (that I wouldn’t give a nickel to do over).”

Brookes and his fellow “lab rats” developed and printed film and produced slides for highly classified briefings. Working regularly scheduled eight-hour shifts, they had free time to explore Saigon and its environs and photograph people and places. Occasionally, they manned the base perimeter when the VC attacked nearby—but they did not experience combat.

Separated by three years, the older Hillerby faced the war like a half-mad avenger. Brookes, on the other hand, wandered through the war zone partaking in coming-of-age experiences. Their slight age difference clearly reflects the distinctive moods of the time.

The book wraps up with two thought-provoking articles. Brookes revisits the My Lai massacre to discuss the responsibilities of photographers who encounter and record these kinds of dire events. Tony Swindell confirms Bob Hillerby’s account of the grunt-like existence of combat photographers, a situation that was not fully evident to Swindell until he found himself continually under fire in the hellhole of LZ Bravo near Duc Pho during 1968-69.

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Army photogs CPT Roger B. Hawkins, SFC Harry Breedlove, & Spec5 Ken Powell

Swindell offers a passage that, to me, clearly summarizes a grunt’s existence: “I used to lay on top of our bunker and look into space, wondering if aliens were watching us. If so, they probably figured we were packs of violent apes and turned their attention elsewhere.”

His spellbinding stories and photographs are the best part of the book. They raised question after question in my mind. His analyses of the Pacification and Phoenix programs thoroughly exemplify the misdirection and futility of the war.

Shooting Vietnam‘s importance lies in its examination and explanations of duties about which I had limited knowledge. I suspect many readers will feel the same.

The book is enlightening.

—Henry Zeybel

 

 The Off-Islander by Peter Colt

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Peter Colt spent twenty-four years in the Army Reserves. During that time he served in Kosovo in 2000 and in Iraq in 2003 and 2008. Colt, who was born in 1973, got to know many Vietnam War veterans and Green Berets while serving in the Reserves. He grew up on Nantucket—the island referred to in the title of his new book, The Off-Islander (Kensington, 240 pp. $26, hardcover; $12.99, Kindle).

Colt’s first novel is more about the death of the lifelong friendship of Andy Roark, a P.I., and Danny Sullivan, a lawyer, than it is about anything else, which includes trying to find a missing person, the long-gone father of a client. Andy and Danny are refugees from Boston’s Southie, where they were raised. Danny is annoyed with Andy because he has not found a stable job, or a wife, kids, house, mortgage, or dog.

Andy’s Karmann Ghia needs a new clutch and he needs a job to get the money to fix it. So he takes the job and flies to San Francisco to meet with the client and hear what she has to say. The last time Andy was in San Francisco he had just come home from the Vietnam War and got stared at for his short hair and called a “baby killer” in a bar.

In the Army Andy did Recon work and came away from that experience with disdain for supply clerks, jerks, and bottle washers who seemed to later claim they’d served in the Special Forces. He was a Green Beret, just like the man in the song. He went out and found the enemy and killed him or helped him get killed by artillery or bombs. He and his fellow Green Berets trained small, hard, nut-brown Montagnards to kill, too.

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Peter Colt

Andy notes that he worked in a dangerous part of a dangerous, stupid part of the war where the enemy threw their best men at him and his fellow Green Berets, and put bounties on their heads. When Andy came home, he had a lot of trouble trying to be a normal person, going to college, and fitting in. It was chaos; whereas in the war, things made sense to him.

His search for the missing man, Charles Hammond, is confused and difficult and seems destined to fail, but Andy persists despite attempts on his life and a distinct lack of support from Danny Sullivan.

By the end of the book, Danny and Andy are no longer friends and the reader has been taken for a long, exciting ride in pursuit of the missing man.

We are told that this is not the last of the Andy Roark novels. I look forward to the next one.

The author’s website is peter-colt.com

–David Willson