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

Dear Allyanna by Michael Lee Lanning

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After receiving a diagnosis of terminal kidney cancer, Michael Lee Lanning decided he still had a mind full of knowledge that he wanted to share. At the time, he had written twenty-five non-fiction books on the Vietnam War, other aspects of military history, sports, and health. Many were big sellers.

As a result of his response to the diagnosis, Lee Lanning has written Dear Allyanna: An Old Soldier’s Last Letter to His Granddaughter (Hardy Publishing, 238 pp., $18.95, paper).

The book relates ideas and experiences he had yet to share with his offspring. Granddaughter Allyanna became the vehicle for transmitting information that alphabetically ranges from “Abortion” to “Zen.”

The length of each discussion stretches from one sentence to fourteen pages. Lanning has fun with lists such as “Things That I Like” followed by “Things That Irritate Me,” and “Things I Am Pretty Sure Of,” followed by “Things I Still Have Questions About.”

Growing up on an isolated West Texas ranch and serving in the U.S. Army provide background for much of his advice. During 1969-70, he led a 199th Light Infantry Brigade platoon and then a company in the Vietnam War, eventually retiring as a lieutenant colonel in 1988. He blends first-hand accounts of the fury of firefights and of 2008 Hurricane Ike with topics such as “Books I Didn’t Write,” “Psychotherapy,” and “Race Relations.”

He favors liberal-leaning values and dismisses undeserved recognition of authority such as a bow or curtsy to royalty based only on birthright. At the same time, he scatters tidbits of conservative guidance. At heart, Lee Lanning is a self-made realist who evaluates his seventy-year-plus journey through life to cull the pros and cons for lessons that simplify entry into adulthood.

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Col. Lanning

His target audience is teenagers. Occasionally his advice makes me recall Amy Vanderbilt’s New Complete Book of Etiquette, which is a good thing because Dear Allyanna sets a standard of behavior higher than normally expected of young adults.

It does so, however, without mentioning finger bowls or silver place settings. Lanning’s book might provide the exact guidance that our grand-kids need.

Practicing a regimen of “meds and treatments that nearly killed [him] before the disease could do so,” and fortified by a diet that defies imagination, he beat cancer and is alive today.

Dear Allyanna nicely wraps up Lee Lanning’s two Vietnam War memoirs: The Only War We Had: A Platoon Leader’s Journal of Vietnam, and Vietnam, 1969-1970: A Company Commander’s Journal.

Lanning’s website is michaelleelanning.com

—Henry Zeybel

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Vietnam Bao Chi by Marc Phillip Yablonka

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Most Vietnam War histories on the broadcast media focus on, and critique, civilian coverage of the war. TV television coverage brought the war into America’s living rooms and many believe turned public opinion against the war. President Johnson hated most coverage, at one point saying that it was as if CBS and NBC  were “controlled by the Viet Cong.”

Journalist and author Marc Phillip Yablonka’s Vietnam Bao Chi: Warriors of Word and Film (Casemate, 320 pp., $32.95, hardcover; $11.99, Kindle) provides a different point of view. Yablonka tells the stories of more than thirty Army, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard, and Marine military correspondents, photographers, and TV and documentary cameramen and directors who covered the war for Stars & Stripes and various military media.

Marines, as Yablonka shows, were warriors first and reporters or photographers second. In one case, Yablonka writes of a Marine cameraman, as the next most senior in rank, picking up his M-14 and calling in an airstrike after his lieutenant and sergeant were severely wounded. In another, a Marine journalist captured six Viet Cong.

Loosely translated,“Bao Chi” is Vietnamese for journalist. But the men Yablonka writes about covered the war more viscerally, with emotional perspective cast in terms like bravery, courage, honor, and loyalty. The Marine cameraman who took command declares, for example:

“I was with the finest company of those Marines and Navy corpsman and thank them for giving me the rare privilege to bear witness to their efforts and sacrifices. I wish all the images in my mind could be reproduced because they are far more exceptional than the images I captured on film.”

Each chapter deals with a different person’s experiences in the war. To some degree the chapters are repetitious. At the same time, a reader can pick and choose among chapters, drawn in by titles such as “Rockin’ and Rollin’ with the Montagnards” and “From Hot Rod Comics and Hemingway…to Vietnam.”

Military abbreviations and jargon pepper the text; the glossary is seven-pages long. Some veterans may find the terms nostalgic; civilian readers may find themselves regularly referring to that glossary.

Some chapters recount the war’s “surreal” moments.” In one case, ten Marines on a roof watch flashes in the distance as rockets fall on Da Nang’s airbase, excited by “the fireworks show.” They sit in beach chairs and drink beer. Then someone yells out: “Get naked.” So they did.

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Marc Yablonka

Another time, after a firefight, a lieutenant had his unit call out their last names to determine if anyone had been killed. One guy didn’t answer. After a frantic search, he was found behind a boulder—calmly eating C-ration fruit cocktail.

Vietnam Bao Chi isn’t for everyone because of its repetition and level of detail. But that was the mission of military correspondents: to provide context and details that arguably escaped recognition by civilian reporters.

The book’s perspective may be unique among the number of books written about the Vietnam War.

—Bob Carolla

The Dancing Leaves Fort Hamilton Brooklyn By Pierre Gerard

Yakova Lynn, the widow of Pierre Gerard, has followed the wishes of her husband, a U.S. Army Vietnam War veteran, in dedicating the posthumously published  The Dancing Leaves: Fort Hamilton Brooklyn (Merriam Press, 416 pp., $22.95, paper) to disabled American veterans.

Pierre Gerard (a pseudonym) had a distinguished military history. He was raised an Air Force brat by his Strategic Air Command pilot father. His French mother, a native of Le Havre, was a war bride.  His uncle was a highly decorated Korean War veteran. We reviewed his first novel, Le Havre: A Riveting Expose for Our World Today, on these pages in 2015.

Gerard served in the U.S. Army Security Police at Soc Trang during his 1967-68 Vietnam War tour of duty. Afterward, his professional career, his wife tells us, was spent as a “dedicated librarian.”  The Dancing Leaves deals with Vietnam War veterans at the Brooklyn VA Hospital, along with espionage, the Mafia, undercover agents, and crime bosses. This is a complex story—and one that at times confused this reader.

The very first page of this long novel refers to “rear echelon crap” and to a lifer as being a “regular John fuckin’ Wayne.”  So from the start, the author flies the colors of the sort of novel it is likely to be.

Of course, the biggest clue about the nature of this novel is the title.  Dancing Leaves is not a title that made this potential reader eager to read a Vietnam War novel, or to even suspect that this was one. Luckily, the book is much better than the title. At least a thousand times better.

I highly recommend The Dancing Leaves to those who are jones-ing to read another Vietnam War novel—-one that walks down some paths than are usually not trod.

The book also contains some worthy poetry and a lot of images, which sets it apart from the vast majority of Vietnam War novels. Some of the photographs made me shudder, as they show Vietnamese prisoners blindfolded in those red and white napkin-like affairs that indicate these poor fellows are likely to be shot.

—David Willson

Ho Chi Minh’s Blueprint for a Revolution by Virginia Morris

The enigma of Ho Chi Minh continues to both fascinate and mystify. In Ho Chi Minh’s Blueprint for Revolution: In the Words of Vietnamese Strategists and Operatives (McFarland, 395 pp., $45, paper; $24.99, Kindle) the British security and defense analyst Virginia Morris uses first-hand accounts of Vietnamese officials to try to understand how Ho could defeat two vastly superior armies and unify a country. Morris says her work is “distinctive” because it is “told from the point of view of communist leader Ho Chi Minh.”

She argues that what made Ho’s “blueprint” unique was not the insurgent strategies and tactics that have been used for centuries, but how he “combined [them] and then used the population that made his unified system new.” Through an exhaustive use of interviews, Morris thoughtfully examines Ho’s use of female couriers, his implementation of both regular and irregular armies; and his deft approach to communications and logistics, mass propaganda campaigns, and domestic and international diplomacy. Ho’s nationalist vision of an independent and unified Vietnam, Morris shows, never wavered.

Almost all serious works on Ho Chi Minh center on one question: Was he, as the historian Sophie Quinn-Judge described him, the “Nationalist Saint” of Vietnam, or was he the “Machiavellian Apparatchik” of the Chinese and Soviets?

Morris’ work places Ho squarely in the first camp. Her enthusiasm for the subjects in her book is palpable, but this sympathetic portrayal impugns an objective treatment of the material as Morris either belittles or ignores the violence and terror of the communist system. There is no mention of the more than one million Vietnamese who fled North Vietnam in 1954, the thought reform campaigns of the 1950s and 1960s that persecuted so-called “class enemies,” and the North Vietnamese tactic of placing civilians in harm’s way to use casualties for propaganda purposes.

In sections on the communist infiltration into the South Vietnamese government and other organizations, when direct propaganda or blackmail proves ineffective, Morris casually mentions that targets were “eventually killed.” The land reforms that led to the deaths of thousands were Ho’s “concession” to the Chinese and the Soviets, she writes, for their financial and military support. These tactics, though abhorrent, were effective, but are not part of the “blueprint.”

The implication of the title is that Ho Chi Minh’s blueprint is transferrable, but Morris does not make this case. Though it is implicit in her work, she misses the key element of all successful revolutions: the cult of personality in leaders as disparate as Mao, Nehru, Lenin, Castro, and Tito.

The book would have been strengthened with an examination into the myth making of “Uncle Ho.” One question not answered: When he was internally criticized in the early 1960s and ultimately forced out of the leadership by Le Duan, why was Ho willing to become a ceremonial figurehead?

Morris asserts that few people understand the strategies behind Ho’s blueprint, but this does not stand up to scrutiny. In her epilogue, she lists the banal, self-help tactics that Ho employed:

“Have a clear objective and robust strategy on how to achieve it. Create a strong brand. Use the people and utilize their traits, strengths and weaknesses… Be diplomatic. Form alliances.” In trying to prove that the blueprint was unique, Morris may be missing that it was Ho Chi Minh who was inimitable.

Virginia Morris

The book’s strength is its use of primary-source interviews. Here, Morris’ efforts are exemplary. Although the sources are generally put in context, more analysis and narrative would have elevated the prose. Quotes from the sources generally run over a page, which weakens the narrative integrity.

The use of maps and diagrams is mostly effective, but some are presented in a level of detail that renders them challenging to follow.

Despite these shortcomings, Ho Chi Minh’s Blueprint for Revolution is a welcome and important work on the conundrum of Ho Chi Minh.

–Daniel R. Hart

 

Don’t Thank Me for My Service by S. Brian Willson

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Don’t Thank Me for My Service: My Viet Nam Awakening to the Long History of US Lies (Clarity Press, 412 pp. $29.95 paperback; $15.99, Kindle) is a difficult book to classify. The subtitle indicates that it is a memoir. But it turns out that this is more like a textbook—and one that perhaps should be required reading for a college or graduate school course on the Vietnam War.

Brian Willson commanded an Air Force combat security unit at Phan Rang Air Base in Vietnam. After coming home from the war, Willson went to law school and ended up as a peace advocate, taking on the criminal justice system and the foreign policies of the U.S. In a terrible accident during a protest, Willson lost both legs while attempting to block a train carrying weapons to Central America in 1987. The accident—which Willson writes about in his 2011 book, Blood on the Tracks—did not deter him. His new book is clearly the work of a man who is passionate about justice, and who puts in the hard work of research.

Willson, however, has crammed too much material into this book. There really are two books in one. The opening pages and the last chapter contain his personal stories, with an especially interesting recounting of his first day in country. The first eight chapters are a history book, a Howard Zinn-like perspective with lots and lots of footnotes.

This history covers a wide range of topics, from a review of the theft of the land of America’s indigenous inhabitants to Cold War hysteria, and just about everything in-between. There is a history of the fighting in Vietnam, a history of the social justice fights in America, and much more. It is exhausting.

One wishes that Willson could have broken this up into two—or even three—different books. And that he was a better writer.

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Willson

But don’t let that scare you away from this book. Don’t Thank Me for My Service is a historical resource with an important perspective.  Brian Willson comes down hard on American imperialism. His facts and his arguments need to be heard and need to be known.

My recommendation: Put this on your bookshelf, and look at it from time to time.

Brian Willson’s website is brianwillson.com

—Bill Fogarty

Sea Hunt by Dale Dye

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Dale Dye, the Marine Vietnam War veteran who made a name for him as Hollywood’s pre-eminent military technical adviser, is also an actor, director, and novelist. His fictional output includes seven well-received Shake Davis novels, and now—for the first time—a Young Adult novel, Seat Hunt: A Novel in the World of Shake Davis (Warriors Publishing Group, 184 pp., $14.95, paper; $5.99, Kindle).

Dye has not left his excellent storytelling behind in his adult novels. Sea Hunt is another well-written, engrossing page turner. Just because it is labelled a YA book, does not mean that this ancient adult did not find much to enjoy in it.

The main character, Shake’s daughter U.S. Navy Lt. Junior Grade Tracey Davis, “is well-occupied leading active duty sailors at the base Ocean Systems Office, but she’s hardly safe,” Dye writes. One day an old friend from her days working in Belize shows up looking for a girl they saved from sex traffickers in Central America.

The story begins at the New England Aquarium in Boston, with Tracey studying octopuses so she can better understand color patterning.  We meet Tracey in a weird. wavy image reflected in the tank glass.

“Shaggy and disheveled,” she says. “I look like Aquaman with boobs.”

Before this small novel is wrapped up, Tracey encounters a shark that rivals any we’ve seen portrayed by Hollywood and engages in gun battles with serious bad guys.

Dye writes this novel in accessible prose with a minimum of difficult Navy terminology. As a character, Tracey Davis is easy to identify with. And easy to root for. I found myself doing both.

Well done, Capt. Dye.  You have produced another winner.

–David Willson

50 Years After Vietnam by Bill Lord

After five decades of trying to forget about the Vietnam War, Bill Lord looks back on his 1967-68 tour of duty in 50 Years After Vietnam: Lessons and Letters from the War I Hated Fighting (222 pp., $13.95, paper; $7.95, Kindle).

Lord enlisted in the Army when he twenty years old. He arrived in Vietnam in September 1967 and served as a rifleman with the 9th Infantry Division. Lord makes good use of many letters he sent home from Vietnam to his mother to help tell his story.

The letters are initially very positive and upbeat, but later in his tour he began to be critical of the war. After Lord came home and got out of the Army, he enrolled at the University of Washington and became an outspoken member of the antiwar movement.

Bill Lord’s Vietnam War story doesn’t dwell on blood and guts, but instead shows what it is like being a young soldier in a war zone. Among many other things, he discusses what he carried in his pack, inflated enemy body counts, and the dangers of “paddy foot.” I loved his description of the hated C-rat, Ham and Lima beans:

“You opened the can and stared at a vomit glaze of green slimy nuggets encased in a congealed white lardy fat substance.”

One chapter deals with the death of a friend in a friendly-fire accident and the moving experience of visiting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., and seeing his friend’s name on The Wall.

Bill Lord went on to a long, distinguished broadcasting career, including serving as an NBC News correspondent and as news director and general manager of WJLA-TV, the ABC News affiliate in Washington, D.C. His many broadcasting honors include the Peabody Award, the duPont-Columbia Award,  and multiple Emmy Awards.

Lord is an excellent writer, and highly recommend his book.

Mark S. Miller