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

Brotherhood in Combat by Jeremy P. Maxwell

 

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The presence of death on a constant basis reduces other parts of life to insignificance. That truism is at the heart of Jeremy P. Maxwell’s Brotherhood in Combat: How African Americans Found Equality in Korea and Vietnam (University of Oklahoma Press, 224 pp. $29.95, hardcover; $24.95, Kindle). Historians have previously studied the book’s topic; Maxwell reconfirms that front-line soldiers who shared war-zone dangers transcended racial biases and successfully integrated.

“This project started out,” Maxwell—the first Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Southern Mississippi’s Dale Center for the Study of War and Society—says, “as a dissertation for my PhD at Queen’s University Belfast.” The final product reflects extensive research in many archives across America. Maxwell often proves a point by citing twentieth century historians; his judicious choice of their material livens old text.

Brotherhood in Combat limits its focus to an evaluation of African American experiences in the Army and Marine Corps beginning with Executive Order 9981 in July 1948 through the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. It centers on Maxwell’s premise that racial tensions in combat units did not mirror those in rear units—and throughout America.

In a long Introduction, Maxwell puts segregation in United States military history into perspective from its beginnings, and sets the stage for the entire study. From there, his research details the nation’s political and social climates prior to the Korean War to show why and how President Harry Truman’s Executive Order 9981 integrated the military. Maxwell then cites Korean War battlefield behavior that finalized the bonding between races.

That was during the war. Afterward, in peacetime, African Americans still faced direct and institutional discrimination in the military.

Concentrating on the actions of President Lyndon Johnson in the Vietnam War era, Maxwell finds similarities in Truman’s actions before and during the Korean War. Sharing dangers of combat did the most to break down racial barriers in Vietnam, he says, even while such tensions persisted in America.

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As part of showing that the constant presence of death changes attitudes, Maxwell describes the environments of the Korea and Vietnam wars as background for clarifying the teamwork and heroics performed by front-line African American fighting men.

By the time “U.S. forces pulled out of Vietnam,” Maxwell concludes, “the military was a completely integrated force.”

—Henry Zeybel

Between the Sheets Behind Enemy Lines  by Michael J. McCormack

Michael J. McCormack, the author of Between the Sheets Behind Enemy Lines: A Life Story of a Decorated Vietnam Veteran (CreateSpace, 396 pp., $19.99, paper; $19.99, Kindle), served as a Marine in the Vietnam War.  He “was born into a poor family in the Irish slums of Chicago and still went on to become a self-made worldwide journalist,”  McCormack tells us.

His father and grandfather were both Marines, but growing up McCormack was a screw-up and always in trouble with the law. He thought there was no hope that he could be a Marine. But a Marine recruiter thought differently.

Mack McCormack had to stand in front of a judge to get into the Marines. Luckily for him—or perhaps not so luckily—the judge had been a Marine. “Where you are going, you won’t have time for this nonsense,” he told McCormack. “You’ve got to grow up quickly, son.”

With a main character called Clancy and lots of dialogue, the book reads more like a novel than a memoir. In it, McCormack explores the extremes of his life, often using extreme and frowned-upon language. His references to people of color are mostly phrased in ways that would cause eyebrows to be raised in polite society.  He makes the point throughout the book that he is not a person who came from polite society, nor does he seek to occupy a place there.

Jewish women are invariably referred to as “Jew bitches” and African Americans are usually referred to by the “n” word. Those of us who occupied positions in the rear echelons in the military are referred to as “military fairies,” a phrase I had not previously heard. The New York Times is referred to as the “Jew York Times” and liberal ideas are called “left wing bullshit.”

PTSD is often discussed, usually as it relates to the behavior and failings of the author. He was also plagued with eczema for which he had expected to be forgiven military service. That did not happen and caused him much resentment.

john_world_war_ii_draftJohn Wayne gets discussed way beyond the usual mentions and the phrase “baby killers” is used more often than in any book I’ve read. Agent Orange is discussed, as is Bob Hope and the Vietnamese custom of using their feet to wipe their butts after defecation.

That’s another new one on me.

The book is not well proofread. “Land mines,” for example, appears as “land minds.”  According to McCormack, African Americans can’t swim and flak jackets are “flat” jackets.

It’s a strange world.

The author’s website is clancy21.com

—David Willson

Fallen Angels by Walter Dean Myers

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The late Walter Dean Myers’ acclaimed 1988 Young Adult Vietnam War novel, Fallen Angels (Scholastic, 336 pp., $9.99, paper), is today being featured as assigned reading in high school English, history, and social studies classes across the nation.

While written in the first-person and appearing at first glance to be autobiographical, the story is actually a tribute to Myers’ brother, Thomas Wayne “Sonny” Myers, who died in Vietnam in 1968 and to whom the book is dedicated. It’s told through his eyes.

In the book, names have been changed to protect the innocent. But we easily understand the stories of main character Richie Perry and his comrades who serve in an unidentified unit in Vietnam. Though there are a few mechanical and continuity errors—including weapon caliber and nomenclature—Myers gives us a compact, easy-to-read book.

It’s a story told by a young black man in a predominately black unit in a decidedly racially mixed war. Yet it is a story free of the angst, bitterness, hatred, and racism so often found in other novels dealing with the same theme

Meyers begins as Perry finishes high school and realizes that there is no money in the family for college and that the mean streets hold no future. He believes that the military just might be a way out of town. His adventures through the selection and training processes are chronicled with quite readable dialogue.

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We get almost half way through the book before “fallen angels” are referred to. Myers uses the phrase as a metaphor for the random and senseless loss of life and innocence suffered in the war zone.

Some of Perry’s friends and some new guys are wounded, some go home, some stay and re-up. The story contains a balanced mix of experiences and recollections.

As a high school classroom exercise, the novel provides a suitable exposure to the battlefield and its denizens on both sides—as well as a platform for student discussions, conversations, and learning about family war experiences.

There is the potential for healing and sharing, as well as for enjoying a good story about a bunch of young men caught up in a nasty war.

–Tom Werzyn

Post 8195 edited by Bobby White

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Twenty-three men recall “untold truths” in Post 8195: Black Soldiers Tell Their Vietnam Stories (Beckham, 228 pp. $24.95, hardcover; $17.95, paper) edited by Bobby White. Far beyond their confrontations with the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong, the men still battle post-traumatic stress disorder.

These twenty-three men served in every branch of the service and performed the duties expected of them with lasting pride. A majority of them were infantrymen and remember horrific episodes from the thick of combat. Their gut-level candidness exceeds what is found in most Vietnam War books.

They focus on fears that nearly overpowered them. They emphasize challenges more than heroism, although they acted heroically in times of crisis. They often still show amazement for what they did and saw long ago. Even today, they dwell on how “Vietnam was a big hell spot,” as Ismael Rolle, Jr., put it. “We had no alternative but to fight and survive.”

Mostly draftees, the men express controlled anger regarding racism during their time in Vietnam. They recognized that a racial bias existed, but lived with it. Several became squad leaders.

Eulas Mitchell Jr. says, “I had a squad of fifteen men; all were black.” They performed with “perfection,” which “didn’t sit well with the powers.”

His unit was broken up. Then, Mitchell says, he “was given thirteen southern boys nobody wanted.” He turned them into a “good group” that simply “wanted a proven leader.”

The VFW Post in West Park, Florida, under the guidance of Bobby White, began a program to counsel veterans in multiple ways, especially those with PTSD. Called Stone of Hope, the program is an extension of one offered by the local Vet Center. White, retired from a thirty-two year career with the VA, organized a rehabilitation program that emphasized transcendental meditation, yoga, and chiropractic.534951_lno7y3kp

Post 8195 grew from this program and enhanced the men’s recovery from PTSD. Today, most of the men are in long-term marriages, have families and children, and enjoy retirement benefits earned from civilian careers.

The VFW post plays a major role in the lives of four hundred African Americans, White says,  providing them with both guidance and “the place” for adults to “hang out.”

—Henry Zeybel