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

1968 by Richard Vinen

“The single most important cause of change in the tone of politics in the 1960s was the Vietnam War,” Richard Vinen writes in 1968: Radical Protest and Its Enemies (HarperCollins, 464 pp., $29.95). The war, he writes, “seemed to focus and incarnate all the other conflicts—about race, imperialism, militarism and capitalism.”

The book came out in July, a half-century after the cataclysmic year that saw the Tet Offensive, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, and the election of Richard Nixon.

Vinen examines the twelve months of 1968 primarily in the context of the years just before and after, what he calls “the long ’68,” and he focuses on the West. “My version of ’68,” he writes, “involves affluent countries in which radical protest came up against elected governments.”

A professor at King’s College London and a recipient of Britain’s Wolfson History Prize, the author distills an extraordinary amount of information into about 340 pages of jargon-free text. He takes a thematic, rather than a linear, approach. So while the book can profitably be read straight through, it may be more valuable as a reference work.

Beyond the United States, Vinen concentrates on three countries: France, West German, and Britain. France experienced  intense activity—worker strikes and student demonstrations—in May 1968 in Paris. In West Germany, the “number of the most committed radicals was relatively small,” he writes, and “terrorism took its most extreme form.” In Britain, 1970s radicalization “extended beyond the campus [to] political violence in Northern Ireland.”

Richard Vinen

Vinen examines phenomena that, in addition to the Vietnam War, influenced “the long ’68,” such as economic growth, the increase in the number of college and university students, and the Civil Rights movement. Throughout, he substitutes complexities for clichéd dichotomies—young/old, new/traditional, outsiders/authority—and shares many intriguing details, among them:

  • “The largest live audience that John F. Kennedy ever addressed was not in Washington or Berlin but in Berkeley, California, and Berkeley illustrated the hopes that many placed in America during the early 1960s.”
  • “Many who had been radicalized in the late 1960s or ’70s turned to writing works that were inspired by American crime fiction. Most famously, Stieg Larsson, the Swedish creator of the Millennium series, had been a very young ’68er, campaigning against the Vietnam War when he was 14 and joining a Trotskyist movement six years later.”
  • “Some American women who opposed the war made much of their status as mothers. Not all feminists felt comfortable with this. Betty Friedan said: ‘I don’t think the fact that milk once flowed in my breasts is the reason I am against the war.’ A group of anti-war feminists staged a ceremony to bury ‘traditional motherhood’ at Arlington National Cemetery.”

–Angus Paul

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The 31st Infantry Regiment by The Members of the 31st Infantry Regiment Association

Stories are the way people pass knowledge from one generation to another.

The late Karl H. Lowe, with help from James B. Simms and Grady A. Smith, has passed down a century of military stories in The 31st Infantry Regiment: A History of “America’s Foreign Legion” in Peace and War (McFarland, 519 pp. $45, paper). The three men were career soldiers who served in the 31st Infantry Regiment. They know combat.

As the unit’s Regimental Historian for twenty years, Karl Lowe recorded the 31st from its activation in the Philippines in 1916 through the Vietnam War. In this book James Simms expands on the unit’s action in Vietnam, and Grady Smith reports on activities in Iraq and Afghanistan. An excellent selection of photographs from archives and personal sources supplements their writing.

The Regiment’s first battle took place during a deployment to Siberia in 1919 after Bolsheviks captured five American enlisted men following the Russian Revolution. That far north adventure earned the unit the nickname “The Polar Bear Regiment.” World War I had ended in Europe in 1918, but skirmishes between Russian, European, Asian, and American military forces continued in Siberia until 1920. Lowe’s account of the scale of interaction north of Vladivostok provided a new history lesson for me.

The same holds true for the Regiment’s deployment to Shanghai when that city became an International Settlement in 1932. This time the Americans stood aside with the British while Chinese and Japanese troops battled on the city’s fringes.

The entire book is a history lesson. Lowe writes about old encounters as if they had happened yesterday. Simms and Smith have a similar talent. Their stories tie troops, regardless of rank, to situations so that a reader fully understands what occurred and why. Best of all, the authors provide a feel for the moods of the troops and organizations.

Stationed in Manila from 1932-41, the undermanned and poorly equipped 31st Regiment followed a slow motion pace of activity, culminating in a series of ignored war alerts in November of 1941.

A few weeks later, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.

The remainder of the book focuses on the 31st Regiment in combat: in the Philippines, Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Afghanistan, and Iraq. The authors recreate battle scenes with great authenticity. Extensive chapter notes support their work. Many of the Regiment’s war stories have become high points in U.S. military history and the authors do justice to them.

31st Infantry Regiment troops in Vietnam in 1970

The Vietnam War is reported in two sections: 4th Battalion (1967-71) and 6th Battalion (1967-70). The latter includes operations in Cambodia. Again the reporting is personalized and describes actions and attitudes of individual infantrymen.

The book’s closing pages pay tribute to 31st Infantry Regiment troops killed in action in all wars.

The authors’ combat expertise, their fluid writing style, and the depth of their reporting make The 31st Infantry Regiment a worthwhile reading experience.

The book tells it like it was.

—Henry Zeybel

The Headless Snake by Harry Wagner

While browsing Harry Wagner’s The Headless Snake: Peace Team Forward: A Methodology of Peace, Not War: A View of the Past and a Plan for the Future (CreateSpace, 262 pp. $16.50, paper), I flipped to the epilogue and read: “Following my refusal to assassinate a Vietnamese family for the Phoenix Program, I was unceremoniously asked to leave Vietnam.”

Wow, I thought, this guy has a message.

During 1966-68, Harry Wagner served in Vietnam after USAID recruited him away from his job as mayor of Friendswood, Texas, and gave him a civilian slot with the rank of major general. He worked with the U.S. Embassy, the First Field Force, and Psy Ops before ending up with the Phoenix Program. He pretty much had carte blanche to do anything he wanted to do for twenty-two months.

Accepted by Congress as a military tactic and controlled by the CIA under William Colby, Phoenix, Wagner writes, murdered “68,000 or more Vietnamese [civilian] suspects,” and made the American government “the world’s predominant terrorist.” This action coincided with (and complemented) the counterinsurgency program, which Wagner rates as a failure—then and now.

Phoenix operated under a concept called The Headless Snake. That is, if you cut the head off a snake, it dies. Killing suspected Viet Cong leaders in South Vietnam would take away the enemy’s head and theoretically destroy the body of enemy forces.

Based on his experiences in Vietnam and subsequent research of military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, Wagner concludes that the Pentagon, Congress, and White House “have greatly abused the use of our military power, for whatever objective they had in mind.”

He holds “our Generals” guilty of complying with a New World Order that makes the military’s primary function that of “war in foreign lands and not defense of our Constitution.” There “is no justification,” he writes, “for the current deployment of our military being used as strike forces in countries that are no threat to our security,.”

Wagner’s solution is “the proven strategy” of Persuasion with Relevance, which constitutes the essence of his book. He calls the effort “Peace Team Forward,” and says he employed and refined it in Vietnam.

The strategy is a sophisticated form of self-help that requires specialized planning and personnel deployed in a timely manner, most advantageously before general hostilities develop. Wagner labels the enemy as the Sheath (insurgents) and calls friendly forces the Spear (specialists highly trained in subtle motivation techniques) and the Shield (warriors to protect Spear personnel). In other words, the strategy deploys a Peace Team that ideally builds nations without first tearing them apart.

Wagner supports his theory by citing events from thirty operations he conducted during seventeen months in the field, the largest with a “population of 650” being the most successful. His evidence includes copies of reports and photographs. His success in organizing the Chieu Hoi defection program shows the effectiveness of persuasion with relevance.

Instead of winning hearts and minds of the indigenous people, his plan earns their trust and avoids the expense of lives and property destroyed by combat. His operation has a distinct non-military, Peace Corps appearance.

Basically, Wagner believes that helping other nations is a psychological problem, not a psychiatric endeavor. We cannot change national personalities, he says.

His accounts from the Vietnam War reveal one important fact: Officers were poorly trained and hampered by tradition, especially West Point graduates. Wagner believes the condition still exists and that the military needs a total re-education program of leaders at all levels of command.

William Colby, who directed the Phoenix Program in Vietnam, later became CIA Director

Although Wagner presents detailed and reasonable arguments for his theory, what he seeks appears unobtainable because I doubt that, in today’s America, he could find an adequate number of competent and unselfish people willing to make the long-term commitment required to fulfill his mission.

Wagner’s plan, that is, is too demanding for Americans today. As I see it, making Team Forward successful would require the re-education of our entire military structure and also the re-education of our entire nation.

On the day I began reading The Headless Snake, the White House suggested that U.S.-backed Afghan troops retreat from sparsely populated areas of their nation and allow the Taliban to control vast stretches of their country. Simultaneously, U.S. and Taliban representatives met face-to-face without the presence of Afghan officials, a stipulation of the Taliban. Concessions such as these confirm the weakness of America’s master plan for dealing with insurgents.

Wagner’s strategy might be questionable. His idealism contains hints of isolationism. By advocating the rejection of policies and practices dating back to World War II, he asks us to re-evaluate our entire lives.

How many people are willing to attempt that?

—Henry Zeybel

Through My Daughter’s Eyes by Julia Dye

Julia Dye has written stories since her childhood in Milwaukee, and although she writes about everything, she has an affinity for tales with a military flavor. Her father was a bomber pilot during World War II, and she married a Marine. She received a Gold Medal from the Military Writers Society of America.

Dye’s new book, Through My Daughter’s Eyes (Warriors Publishing, 191 pp., $14.95, paper; $2.99, Kindle), deals with the courage and sacrifice involved when a military family faces repeated deployments, including new towns and new schools that the children must adapt to.

Abbie is a middle school student and is the only child in an Army family. She’s described as “equal parts Flavia de Luce and Harriet the Spy, because she needs to be.”  Her goal, and that of her best friend Megan, is to get through Dessau Middle School “by being just good enough to not get noticed but not so good we’d draw attention.”  This plan works for a while—and then it doesn’t.

The moment when the plan ceases working is the subject of Through My Daughter’s Eyes. Abbie’s father gets deployed again to a combat zone and the stress causes her mother to fall apart, leaving Abbie in charge of things she is not qualified to be in charge of.

When Abbie’s father returns, he has changed in many of the usual ways that wars cause men to change. In other words, not for the better. He is not in the mood to talk about what had happened to him. She has her grandpa to talk to, which helps some, but not enough.

Abbie has to give up on being the one who saves her family. Grandpa’s talk about the Vietnam War is interesting, especially the part about how Americans were angry at the returning soldiers and how they became an easy target.

The novel is well-written in the voice of a child, and held my interest throughout. It is a book for young adults, but has plenty of appeal for adults.

I highly recommend it for both adults and young adults.

—David Willson

51-50: The Book by Ron Irwin

Ron Irwin, a former USMC Corporal, has written a pocketbook-size, mini-memoir in which he addresses himself in the third person. He calls it 51-50: The Book (Lulu, 148 pp. $7.98, paper). The numbers represent police code for “crazy.”

Everyone has a story to tell with a special angle. Irwin finds humor in the craziness he encountered as a misdirected child and then as a United States Marine. In both cases, his stories rank well above the ordinary.

Pessimism enhances their telling. When searching for a post-high school job, for example, Irwin recognizes that he would earn “just about enough for him to be homeless.”

Ron Irwin traces his youth with wonderment heightened by distance and age. He reflects a brashness that serves as a defense mechanism to compensate for the innocence that once controlled him. Yet it also freed him to attempt the extraordinary.

Irwin’s 51-50 episodes began with his mother, a woman lacking even a hint of self-control. She wrecked her marriages with his father and a second husband, a man who stole Irwin’s “modest coin collection” to buy beer. Following 51-50 parental guidance, Irwin failed to capitalize on excellent opportunities as a student.

At the age of eighteen, he enlisted in the Marine Corps and his 51-50 experiences multiplied. He encountered the madhouse tempo of boot camp and the illogical luxuries he savored as an enlisted man in Okinawa and aboard the USS Valley Forge. Then came thirteen months of frantic Vietnam War duties in 1966-67 with a Marine air wing in Chu Lai.

One life-changing fact Irwin learned while FACing (yes, he voluntarily flew Forward Air Control operations with a Korean Marine major in a Bird Dog) was “napalm is totally indiscriminate.” It convinced him to hate warfare.

In Vietnam, tragedy continually overwhelmed humor. “Too many examples of 51-50 behavior that may have started with good intentions ultimately fell straight into hell,” Irwin writes.

Irwin’s 51-50 USMC events culminated with buying a couple of beers for two North Vietnamese soldiers and sharing the favors of— Wait: rather than spoiling an audacious scene, I suggest you read the book for yourself.

Ron Irwin

Written in a freestyle conversational voice, 50-51: The Book held my interest because of its undercurrent of turbulence. Editing purists might be turned off by the book’s lack of punctuation beyond sentence-ending periods and an abundance of typographical errors.

More than likely, few people will read this small book, but its messages about life are as pertinent as those found in scholarly tomes.

Irwin is donating a portion of the book’s proceeds to Vietnam Veterans of America. His website is ronirwin.net

—Henry Zeybel

Reflections on LZ Albany by James T. Lawrence

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James T. Lawrence’s Reflections on LZ Albany: The Agony of Vietnam (Deeds Publishing, 192 pp., $19.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle) is collection of rich personal essays, and is a different type of book on war.

The book captures the essence of the hearts of soldiers in combat, as well as the fears and challenges they faced. It is a book packed with true emotions from a man who was there in the early days of the Vietnam War.

Lawrence pulls the reader in with his opening essay, “The Band of Brothers,” introducing the bonds of brotherly love forged in the fires of combat. Lawrence is a former First Cavalry Division infantryman who bore the weight of leadership in combat. He survived a paralyzing head wound in the vicious fighting at Landing Zone Albany during the bloody November 1965 Battle of the Ia Drang Valley. While he was waiting in a medical tent with other wounded men he heard last rites being given amid the moans of men in severe pain.

Lawrence also brings the reader the joy of knowing war-time friendships—and the lasting sorrow of losing closing friends, something he describes in his rich essays “Conversations with a Tombstone,” “Voice from the Wall,” “The Premonition,” “Bringing in the Hueys,” and “Albany.” In “Just Don’t Ask Me,” Lawrence lays bare the pain of combat and suffering, and the realization of  lines of civility being crossed during war that can never be uncrossed.

Lawrence brings rich feelings to the surface. The reader can almost see him searching for young love in “She’s Out There” and feeling something  very different in “Dear John.” In the “Valley of the Shadow of Death,” he takes you into the triage tent with a chaplain. Lawrence’s prose immerses the reader in the intensity of the suffering in that dark and hot makeshift emergency room.

In “It’s All Over,” he describes what happens after he orders his first real meal in a restaurant after coming home from the war:

“And for the first time, the young ex-officer realized that the people back home, with the exception of family, had no idea what was going on in Southeast Asia and could care even less.  He had been in a battle where over 150 of his colleagues had been killed and over 120 wounded, including himself, but nobody knew and nobody gave a damn.

Evacuating a casualty from LZ X-Ray. Photo by Joe Galloway

“Now in his first day as an American civilian, he felt alone, isolated, unacknowledged, and unappreciated in a city of millions whose freedoms he thought he had fought to protect.  And for the very first time, he asked himself a question. Why?”

Jim Lawrence has captured the soul of soldiers in war in Vietnam. He speaks truth to the emotions of those who fought so hard and paid such a price.

This is a must read for students and scholars And for political and military leaders to help them realize the costs they ask to be paid when they send troops into harm’s way.

–Bud Alley

Grunt by Larry Kuykendall

A two-year draftee, Larry Kuykendall excelled in training and went to Vietnam as an Army staff sergeant where he lead a platoon of other draftees during his 1969-70 tour of duty. Kuykendall’s memoir, Grunt: A Tale of Men and War (BookLocker, 230 pp. $15.95, paper) tells the story of his life with the 3rd Brigade, 22nd Regiment of the 25th Infantry Division operating mainly out of Fire Support Base Washington near Tay Ninh in III Corps.

Kuykendall touches on many topics recorded in other Vietnam War memoirs. For example, he discusses alcohol and drug use among his men, race relations, fear, close calls with death, and death itself. He describes monsoon rains, heat, hydration, and off-duty interactions with Vietnamese civilians beyond the wire.

Interspersed with this common knowledge, however, Kuykendall also teaches the leadership lessons he learned as he led a constantly undermanned platoon of twelve-to-twenty men. Sergeants led all platoons in his Delta Company, as his company commander determined that newly minted lieutenants were incompetent.

Honesty and fairness comprise the core of Kuykendall’s leadership philosophy. Furthermore, he believed that mission ranked secondary to safety. He made sure that his men understood those beliefs. As a result, Kuydendall lost only one man, and he was hit by friendly fire. Still, he writes, “every third man would be wounded in some way,” including himself.

The best lesson Kuykendall learned was to distrust authority. Decisions of officers under whom he served convinced him that authority was motivated by its own agenda for personal success, a conclusion he held fast for decades after the war.

By recreating two major operations involving his company, Kuykendall shows the great distance between the goals of upper-echelon Army officers and grunts. He led his platoon on a deployment up Black Virgin Mountain and in the invasion into Cambodia in 1970. Planners for each operation had minimal understanding of the situations. The results were exercises in futility, he says. In both cases, the NVA chose not to fight because its leaders envisioned an end to the war, which U.S. Army leaders refused to consider.

Nevertheless, Kuykendall projects a broad cultural personality that enlivens his story telling. He separates right from wrong and communicates his beliefs logically.

25th Infantry Division troops checking out a wounded NVA soldier for concealed weapons outside Fire Support Base Washington in 1969 (Photo by Spec 4 K.C. Cullen)

I believe that Larry Kuykendall should have titled his book Coping in a World of Disillusionment. He begins with a twelve-page preface that is an editorial denouncing America’s obsession with maintaining a strong military and employing it to support worldwide wars. Throughout the book, much shorter commentaries offer similar arguments.

Although Grunt repeats information covered in many other Vietnam War veteran memoirs, Kuykendall provides a fresh, front-row view of how a platoon of two-year draftees survived in a war with a questionable purpose.

—Henry Zeybel