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

Recon by Fire by Mark Paloolian

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Mark Paloolian was drafted into the Army and served a year in the Vietnam War. Recon by Fire: Fighting with the 1st BN 5th (Mech) Infantry in Vietnam (Hellgate, p. 150 pp., $12.95, paper; $4.99, Kindle) is the story of Paloolian’s military experience from 1966-68. In it, he chronicles his recruitment, training, and deployment to Vietnam as an infantry armored personnel carrier driver with the  5th Mechanized Infantry Battalion in the 25th Infantry Division. This is Paloolian’s second book. His first, Brutality: The Tragic Story of Stanley Ketchel, the Michigan Assassin is a boxing history published in 2007.

Recon By Fire is a short book with many illustrations, a detailed glossary, and two appendices which contain statistics about the war and military draft conscription numbers from 1917-73. The twelve short chapters deal with the details of driving and operating armored personnel carriers. We learn quickly that you don’t ride inside the machine. That was a good way to die.

Paloolian started writing fifty years after he’d served in Vietnam. The stories and photographs are his, but the experience of being in this war is universally unique and “sadly universal on Planet Earth,” as he writes.

Chapter Two gives an excellent overview of what the author’s training at Fort Knox was like. Soon he is in Vietnam and in the field working bridge security. His first firefight is described eloquently. I kept getting the feeling of déjà vu and then remembered Black Virgin Mountain, a very similar memoir written by Larry Heinemann, who also wrote Close Quarters, the classic novel of life and service in the Vietnam War in a mechanized Army unit.

Recon By Fire is a more workmanlike book than Heinemann’s memoir and novel. Close Quarters is a fine literary novel that takes its place on the short shelf of classic books about service in the Vietnam War.

I highly recommend that a reader read both books and make some comparisons. That would be an instructive exercise for a student of the Vietnam War. Paloolian went back to Vietnam thirty years after he came home from the war. His observations about how the country had changed are intelligent and worth reading. It’s a trip I never made, but I can see where it would be worth the time and the trouble to do so.

 

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Paloolian in Vietnam in 1967 with APC hit by an RPG

Mark Paloolian mentions many of the usual things that former infantrymen can’t seem to resist cataloging in their memoirs: John Wayne, Agent Orange, free fire zones, VC tunnels and booby traps, the “Land of the Big PX,” shit burning, friendly fire, the movie Platoon, and many more.

His ability to type saved his life, Paloolian writes. I have to agree. My entering Basic Training with typing skills also went a long way toward saving my life. My D in high school typing made me a man among men in the U.S. Army of 1966.

–David Willson

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Our Man by George Packer

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“Idealism,” writes George Packer, “without egotism is feckless; egotism without idealism is destructive.” This was the central tension of Ambassador Richard Holbrooke’s life and death, a struggle to balance a blinding ambition with American virtue.

Packer is a writer at The New Yorker and The Atlantic whose best-selling book, The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, won a National Book Award in 2013. Producing his latest book, Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century (Knopf, 609 pp., $30), was not a dispassionate undertaking for him. He starts Our Man with: “Holbrooke? Yes I knew him. I can’t get his voice out of my head.”

This initial conversational prose continues throughout the book, primarily in the first person by Packer, but occasionally by a third-person narrator. At times, Packer cedes narrative control to Holbrooke, using the former diplomat’s diary to fill an entire chapter.

George Packer’s simpatico relationship with Richard Holbrooke is underscored by their mutual support for the war in Iraq. That influenced Holbrooke’s third wife and widow to allow Packer unfettered access to her husband’s previously private papers and diaries. Packer also conducted more than 250 interviews for the book.

The brilliance of the end product is in revealing the essence of Holbrooke. He is not necessarily a likable figure, and Packer is unafraid to portray the more profane aspects of his personality. Yet Holbrooke’s ambition propelled him into achieving great things for his country, most notably negotiating a peaceful end to the conflict in Bosnia.

Richard Holbrooke arrived in South Vietnam in the spring of 1963 as a Foreign Service Officer in the JFK mold. He stayed for three years before leaving for Washington to work for pacification czar Robert (“Blowtorch Bob”) Komer. He would stay in Washington long enough to write a volume of The Pentagon Papers and participate in the Paris Peace Talks in 1968.

Under President Carter, Holbrooke became the youngest Assistant Secretary of State. He met his match in National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, though, who bested Holbrooke bureaucratically and consistently proscribed more-effective policies. Exiled during Reagan-Bush years, Holbrooke would fail in his life-long goal of becoming Secretary of State. He served in the Clinton and Obama presidencies in various roles, including as special envoy to the Balkans, and as special representative to Afghanistan.

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Holbrooke in South Vietnam in the early sixties

As it was during his time in Vietnam, Holbrooke’s ambition was sweeping and shameless, a characteristic Packer finds humanizing—but one that others may find revolting. Packer seemingly spares no salacious detail in the book. “He didn’t want to miss a minute of life,” Packer writes. He carried on many affairs (one famously with Diane Sawyer), played video games, watching an endless stream of movies, and wooed his best friend’s wife.

The journalist and biographer Walter Isaacson contends that if one was to read only one book about America’s foreign policy in the past fifty years, Our Man should be the book. This may be too sanguine, but it is not without merit.

Holbrooke’s perspective on foreign policy was forged by the Vietnam War, with its paradoxical mélange of exploited patriotism and sincere idealism, of earnestness and hubris, which has established the rhetorical framework for the use of American force since. His support for the war in Iraq showed that Holbrooke did not learn this lesson, allowing his egotism to destroy his idealism. When he tried to apply these lessons to his time as Special Representative to Afghanistan, he lacked the temperament to work with President Obama.

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Holbrooke at the table at the Paris Peace Talks

Our Man is a biographical masterpiece, but Packer’s history lacks a serious analytical framework. The second half of the title, “The End of the American Century,” seems to have been absorbed from others as a commentary about the current administration. In the scope of this magisterial effort, this seems like trifling criticism.

Our Man is captivating, infuriating, and engrossing. Much like Holbrooke himself.

–Daniel R. Hart

From 4-F to U.S. Navy Surgeon General by Harold M. Koenig

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In the spirit of Horatio Alger, the title of Harold M. Koenig’s book tells the whole story: From 4-F to U.S. Navy Surgeon General: A Physician’s Memoir (McFarland, 215 pp. $35, paper; $9.99, Kindle).

Koenig won an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy in 1958, but attended classes for only a year because he lost hearing in one ear. Categorized as 4-F—medically unfit for military duty—he worked his way into Baylor University Medical School in 1962.

He was set to graduate in 1966 when the Vietnam War sped up. The Navy needed doctors and—ignoring his 4-F status—enticed him to enlist by offering an Ensign’s commission and paying his college loans. In exchange, Koenig agreed to serve three years following his internship.

He and Deena Prescott married in 1965. They had three sons who all became Navy officers. Deena accompanied her husband on his first assignment in Japan, from 1967-69. “I was happy I would not be going to Vietnam,” Koenig says. Thereafter, he mentions the Vietnam War only fleetingly.

His memoir chronologically works through a thirty-two year career in the Navy. It held my interest because Koenig held many jobs in many locations and provides details and perspectives about all of them. His competence in solving problems earned him increasingly difficult trouble-shooting assignments that built a reputation as an effective leader. He feared no confrontation and made patients’ welfare his primary concern.

Koenig says the hardest job he had was when as “junior to about two-dozen captains,” he commanded the re-accreditation of the Navy hospital in San Diego. His chapter on those two years of duty teaches lessons about how to cope with one nightmarish problem after another. Success in that job cinched his promotion to admiral.

Koenig repeatedly worked for the same bosses and gave them his total loyalty. He also never forgot those who worked for him.

09-9004-2On his way to the top, he continued to solve difficult problems. They included:

  • finding medical manpower for the first Iraqi War
  • improving TRICARE and Medicare for troops and their dependents
  • working with—and against—members of Congress on Base Realignment and Closure
  • remedying a shortage of doctors
  • attending meetings that frequently improved policies, especially inter-service sessions.

Koenig closes his memoir by recalling his social life and travel during his Navy years. His perks included lunching at the White House with President Clinton, marching among the midshipmen at Army-Navy football games, and flying with the Blue Angels. Fact-finding travel took him to virtually every military hospital in the United States and to dozens of places around the world.

The message from Koenig’s memoir: Hard work and friendships pay off.

—Henry Zeybel

 

Edison 64 by Richard Sand

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Sixty-four students from Thomas Alva Edison High School in North Philadelphia died in the Vietnam War—the largest number from any high school in the nation. Richard Sand—historian, novelist, attorney, and college professor—commemorates these men in Edison 64: A Tragedy in Vietnam and at Home (Righter’s Mill Press, 248 pp. $22.95, paper).

Each man’s photograph fills a page in the book. Nearly seventy percent of them had volunteered for duty. They lost their lives between 1965 and 1971. Forty-seven died before they were eligible to vote.

Based on interviews with the men’s families, Sand has put together seven short biographies. He also interviewed twenty Edison graduates who survived the war. Most of the survivors have suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder or from cancer due to exposure to Agent Orange and other toxic defoliants.

All of the young men thought and behaved similarly. President Kennedy’s speeches influenced many of them to serve their country. Their parents were loving and concerned for their futures. In general, the young men came from large families who lived in row houses in North Philly. They worked part-time jobs to help their parents financially; avoided contact with the neighborhood gangs; and took part in sports, including fencing, at Edison.

In the book Sand also recognizes other people who made sacrifices in the war. He cites women military veterans who served in Vietnam and lauds the eight who lost their lives there. He also appreciates the “inestimable value” of Red Cross Donut Dollies.

He analyzes the plight of war veterans in dealing with PTSD and the “incomprehensible delays” they faced when trying to get help from the VA in the sixties and seventies.

Sand’s study of North Philly reveals a scenario familiar to men fresh from high school facing the challenge of finding a career in the sixties. He portrays years of high unemployment and low salaries among civilian workers, as opposed to a guaranteed paycheck from the military, coupled with fulfilling a sense of dedication to the nation. For many young men, the decision to serve was not a difficult one.

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Overall, Edison 64 records the lives of lower-middle-class Americans as much as it recalls their involvement in the war. Mostly, their post-war successes have exceeded those of their parents, which was the social expectation of the time.

An Edison dropout who received three Bronze Stars succinctly summed up his life: “I’m married and have four children. By far, they are the awards I’m most proud of.”

The book’s website edison64.org

—Henry Zeybel

 

Tan Tru by Larry Brooks

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Larry Brooks was a big guy, about six feet, two inches tall, so it was no surprise that when he got his unit in the Army’s 9th Infantry Division in Vietnam in February 1968 he was chose to carry the big machine gun. Brooks could carry it like a lunch bucket, by the handle.

Although Larry Brooks was a high school dropout, his memoir, Tan Tru (238 pp., $9.99, paper; $5.99, Kindle), does not read like it. It is a well-organized, well-written book, with short chapters with pithy titles such as “Basic Training at Fort Ord,” “Tigerland,” “Orders for Vietnam,” “The Ninth Division,” “Busted,” and “Home Again.” Each title covers the subject of its chapter and no chapter goes on too long.

I haven’t actually read a million books about what life was like for a man drafted into a 9th Division infantry unit, but it seems to me that I have. But this book held my attention and was fun to read—despite my familiarity with the material.

When a newly assigned lieutenant shouts, “Let’s go in there like infantrymen!” Brooks says that he’s not in an Audie Murphy movie, and what the hell was Lt. Campbell trying to do to us? The next thing the reader knows Campbell is down and an urgent dust-off needed. Campbell loses a leg due to this wound and is done with his tour of duty.

This familiar material is handled in a fresh way. The language is not fresh and new, but certainly it is fair for the author to use terms such as “major cluster fuck.” Some of the cluster fucks Brooks experienced in the war came about as the result of Robert S. McNamara’s Project 100,000. That program set up lower physical and mental standards for the military that allowed individuals who would have been rejected to be drafted.

Bob Hope is not mentioned until late in the book as Christmas 1968 approaches. The issue of Vietnam veterans being castigated as “baby killers” does not come up until the book is almost over, but the mention fits the narrative timetable.

Being demonized as baby killers upset the author as he was trying to readjust to life back home after the war. My reaction is that life is hard and then you die. That’s my philosophizing from my current position as a Vietnam War veteran dying from Agent Orange-caused cancer.

Being a war criminal loser is the least of my worries.  But I admit that I do brood about it late at night.

—David Willson

Somebody’s Catching Hell by Peter Smith

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Peter Smith served as a U.S. Marine Corps aerial photo interpreter in DaNang in the Vietnam War, including during the 1968 Tet Offensive. His novel, Somebody’s Catching Hell (Prospect Publishing, 343 pp. $16, paper; $9.99, Kindle), is based on his experiences in the war. We learn, among other things that the Marines doing his job placed themselves seriously at risk taking their pictures.

The book contains a useful glossary, as well as an informative epilogue. The epilogue informs the reader about what happened to some of the novel’s characters.  “The Marines who fought at the ARVN Compound and Da Nang River Bridge during the 1968 Tet Offensive had varied civilian lives after mustering out of the Marine Corps,” Smith writes. “Some were successful and some were not.”

The novel examines the Vietnam War from the point of view of those who should not have been involved directly in engaging the enemy, but who sometimes did not manage to avoid combat in close-quarters. Often in hair-raising circumstances.

Duke Dukesheirer and his buddies have dreams of stealing flight attendants’ silk panties, and those fantasies keep them going. The book mostly concentrates on Duke and his buddies and their relationships with each other and the locals, which makes for a nice contrast. Duke stares down a stereoscope looking for potential North Vietnamese rocket sites “until his eyeballs begin to look like a contour map of Mount Suribachi.”

The writing is descriptive and sharp. Details about the warp and woof of Marine wartime headquarters came alive on the page for this reader.

Anyone who wishes to learn more about this ostensible non-combat arm of the Marine Corps during the Vietnam War should give Somebody’s Catching Hell a close reading.

I enjoyed the book, and highly recommend it.

–David Willson

Broken Arrow by Jim Winchester

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Explaining the loss of a nuclear bomb is only a small part of the wealth of historical information Jim Winchester provides in Broken Arrow: How the U.S. Navy Lost a Nuclear Bomb (Casemate, 272 pp. $32.95, hardcover; $19.99, Kindle).

The Navy lost a one-megaton weapon during a 1965 loading drill. Deck crewmen of the U.S.S. Ticonderoga (“Tico” in Navy slang) accidentally pushed an A-4 Skyhawk, which carried the bomb, into the South China Sea. Trapped in the cockpit, the pilot, twenty-four-year-old Lt JG Douglas Morey Webster, sank with the plane and the weapon. The Navy covered up the accident for nearly a quarter of a century.

Jim Winchester presents step-by-step accounts of the incident, its aftermath, and related events. An authority on Navy operations, Winchester has written or edited more than twenty books on military topics. His best-know work is a history of the A-4 Skyhawk. He also has gone to sea with ships from several of the world’s navies.

As background for understanding the significance of the lost bomb, Winchester provides the following:

  • A history of the Tico
  • The short life of Douglas Morey Webster
  • Difficulties inherent in aircraft carrier operations
  • The Single Integrated Operations Plan (SIOP)—a targeting matrix for nuclear weapons
  • The investigation and cover-up of the loss of the bomb
  • Tico fighter-bomber action over North Vietnam

Each category contains eye-opening information. For example, the Tico, commissioned in May 1944, barely survived hits by Japanese kamikaze fighters in World War II. Thereafter, the rebuilt ship seemed accident-prone with problems such as a “stopcock incident” that caused the ship to start sinking as far as the hanger deck. Winchester vividly shows that working and living aboard a carrier exposes crew members and fliers to a continuous stream of accidents and death during both war and peace.

11111111111111111111111111A redacted accident report written in 1965 did not mention a nuclear weapon involved, but it did place the greatest blame for the accident on Webster, primarily citing him for inattention.

Winchester’s discussion of the SIOP serves as an extended footnote to explain why an aircraft carrier supporting the Vietnam War needed nuclear weapons. I worked under the Strategic Air Command Emergency War Order and the SIOP from 1957-63 as a B-47 and B-52 radar-navigator and I can vouch for Winchester’s insight into a virtually forgotten strategy. At that time, the Air Force controlled 92 percent of the Free World’s striking power; inter-service rivalries and jealousy overwhelmed the have-nots.

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DoD  “Narrative Summaries of Accidents Involving U.S. Nuclear Weapons, 1950-1980”

A cover-up ensued because the United States—or perhaps the Navy—acted in its own interest and violated a nuclear-free-area treaty with Japan. In 1989, two American researchers uncovered everything about the Tico incident. There were protests in Japan for several weeks, but they came far too late.

“In December 1989, Japan closed the book on the submerged bomb,” Winchester says.

Jim Winchester summarizes the dilemma of nuclear weapon disasters across the years—at least to the degree that the services have made them public. Overall, he illuminates virtually every lesson available about the incident.

—Henry Zeybel