Truth Is in the House by Michael J. Coffino

Michael Coffino’s new book, Truth Is in the House: A Novel Inspired by Actual Events (Koehler Books, 364 pp. $29.95, hardcover; $19.95, paper; $7.49, Kindle), considers the important effects that geography and environment have on the development of an individual’s personality. In this case, he focuses on the Highbridge neighborhood of the Bronx in New York City in the 1960s and the jungles of Vietnam during the war. Coffino grew up in the Bronx, and served in the U.S. Army in 1968-70.

The two main characters are Jimmy O’Farrell and Jaylen Jackson. O’Farrell is an only child. His  parents emigrated to the U.S. in 1957 from Ireland and they live in New York City. Jackson is an African American living with his brother and parents in segregated Dublin, Mississippi, where his family, Coffino writes, has to “navigate the mine-laden fields of Jim Crow terrain.”

In separate violent physical incidents O’Farrell is the victim of a gang-related attack and Jackson’s brother suffers an injury in a racially motivated assault. After a few other racial incidents, Jackson’s father goes missing and his mother takes her two sons out of the South and into New York City.

By 1965, as the Vietnam War escalates, Jimmy and Jaylen are finding success playing basketball at separate schools. The two meet on a playground basketball court, but then go their separate ways.

O’Farrell drops out of college and is quickly drafted. When he reports for induction, he ends up being inducted as a draftee into the Marine Corps. At about that same time Jackson enlists in the Marine, and their time at Parris Island overlaps. They both end up in South Vietnam in the fall of 1967.

Michael Coffino

At first, it was jarring to read about Jimmy and Jalen being in high school, then on almost the next page, in basic training, and then fighting in Vietnam. But, I really liked about how Coffino handled those transitions, as that’s pretty much how fast things seemed to move at the time.

Another thing I really liked was how Coffino made the military experiences of the two young men only about ten percent of the book. The rest sketches their lives before the war and the afterward.

What they experienced and learned in the military and in the Vietnam War stays with Jimmy and Jalen the rest of their lives, and giving plenty of space to their post-war lives works well in the depiction of the over-all lives of these men.

One of the book’s themes is learning to develop a strong moral code. As a result we see characters in Vietnam reading Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and John F. Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage.

Truth Is in the House is a great look at two young men growing into, and then out of, their military experiences and at the effects they have on their neighborhoods—and their neighborhoods continue to have on them.

The author’s website is https://michaelcoffino.com

—Bill McCloud

77 Letters by Susan P. Hunter

Susan Hunter’s 77 Letters: Operation Moral Booster: Vietnam (Dakota Publishing, 286 pp. $14.99, paper; $9.99, Kindle) stems from a mission the author’s mother, Joan Hunter, embarked on during the Vietnam War: to write letters to as many troops in Vietnam as she could. She began simply, by writing to a few commanding officers in the First Cavalry Division, enclosing letters that she asked to be distributed to men who weren’t getting any. Her letters, composed on a 1964 IBM electric typewriter, were filled with positive news about her home life with an adoring husband and three toddlers. They brought lots of replies.

As Susan Hunter writes, her mother enlisted Scout troops, students at her children’s school, and teenagers taught by her husband at a Boston high school to participate in her letter-writing campaign based at her home in Scituate, Mass.

A reply from career Army Sgt. Robert Johnson caught Joan Hunter’s eye. Soon, they were corresponding regularly, the beginning of a connection that would continue for many years. Their “conversations” dealt with child-rearing, combat injuries—Bob Johnson received four Purple Hearts during his four tours of duty—interracial marriage, poetry, the visual arts, and good-natured maternal counseling. Johnson visited the Hunters during one of his stateside leaves.

The book came about after Susan Hunter found a box in the corner of the attic filled with the 77 letters that her mother and Bob Johnson wrote, along with photos, drawings, and newspaper clippings. When she began reading the letters to her mother, who was suffering from dementia, they proved to be therapeutic.

The letters trace Joan Hunter and Bob Johnson’s relationship through ups and downs in the lives of both. After they finished sharing the letters, Susan Hunter began an Internet search for Johnson. She made contact with his daughter, which opened a new chapter in the story.

77 Letters is a nice read from a first-time author.

The author’s website is susanhunterbooks.com

Tom Werzyn

If You Walk Long Enough by Nancy Hartney

Nancy Hartney’s new novel, If You Walk Long Enough (Wild Rose Press, 282 pp. $16.99, paper; $4.99, Kindle), centers on returning war veterans and the loved ones they are returning to.

Main character Reid Holcombe is on his way home to Beaufort, South Carolina, after a couple of tours in the Vietnam War and the completion of his military service. He takes his time getting home. He winds up hanging out in airports because he’s in no hurry to return to his estranged wife and the family tobacco farm that his sister runs. Mainly, he’s just not sure what he wants to do.

When Reid finally calls his wife, she says, “Come home. I need to make sure you’re not a ghost.” She also says she’s concerned because she can no longer picture him or “smell his essence.”

But instead of returning to the house he shares with his wife, Reid decides to move into a nearby family farm and go to work helping his sister get the tobacco in. Still, he’s not happy about getting back to the fields; he’d joined the Army because he saw it as his ticket off the farm. His sister tells him she knows he didn’t write home because of all the stuff he was dealing with, but then tells him: “Hard stuff happened here, too.”

Hartney writes that even though Reid was far away from the war, he “ate fast, gobbling before the next mortar round hit.” He learns that Big Tobacco companies are trying to squeeze out small farms. At the same time, his neighbors—a Black family whose son also served during the war—are facing increasingly serious racial harassment. Reid begins thinking of South Carolina and Vietnam as “two places, different and the same.”

He continues to stay away from his wife, considering himself to be divorced in all but the strictly legal sense. For her part, Hartney writes, his wife sometimes “wished him dead in Vietnam—only to wither from guilt at the thought.” She also flirted with having a relationship while he was gone, while he has his own wartime secret.

Nancy Hartney

Feeling a sense of crushing guilt from what he did in Vietnam and the secret he still carries from it—while at the same time wrestling with new relationships with family and neighbors—Reid finds himself fighting Big Tobacco and the sickening racism he had not faced before going to Vietnam.

The book is divided into 62 short chapters with most of the story taking place in 1970. Hartney’s novel expresses beautifully the reality of veterans returning home from Vietnam to a world that had not stood still while they were gone. 

(Full disclosure: I am thanked on the Acknowledgments section of this book based on a few conversations I had with the author and my early reading of the manuscript.)

Hartney’s website is https://nancyhartney.com/

–Bill McCloud

Set the Night on Fire by Mike Davis and Jon Wiener

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Set the Night on Fire: L.A. in the Sixties (Verso, 800 pp. $34.95) is a history of the social and political struggles of the 1960s unlike most others. For one thing, Jane Fonda is mentioned only six times in 640 pages of text. What authors Mike Davis and Jon Wiener do, instead, is probe and dissect diverse communities in Los Angeles deeply below the surface of the usual panorama.

A special ideological perspective or historical interest is needed to read it. Even its vocabulary is different. Davis, an author and MacArthur Fellowship recipient, and Wiener, a history professor and longtime contributing editor to The Nation magazine, for example, write about “uprisings” against “grinding forces of oppression.”

Black revolts against racism and inequity are at the book’s core, but the authors also cover “reciprocal influences and interactions.”  Formal and informal alliances include the Vietnam War antiwar movement. There are competing or conflicting cultural outlooks, strategies, tactics, and agendas.

In 1965, Los Angeles’ police chief compared a Black uprising in Watts, one of the poorest sections of the city with 8,000 people and 20 percent unemployment, to the fighting in Vietnam. Thirty-four people died. More than 1,000 suffered major injuries. A National Guard report claimed that the Viet Cong were involved. (In fact, the “bungled” police arrest of a drunk driver on a hot summer’s night sparked the violence.)

In June 1967, President Lyndon Johnson arrived in L.A. for a $1,000-a-plate Democratic Party fundraising dinner at the Century City Plaza Hotel. A thousand police officers faced off outside against 10,000 protesters. Ensuing violence caused the Secret Service to prepare—if necessary–to evacuate the president by helicopter from the roof of the hotel. The organizers had a legal march permit, but some sat down and halted it in a show of civil disobedience.

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Antiwar protesters in front of the Century City Plaza Hotel

Century City was a turning point. White middle class participation in the protest convinced Johnson he was unlikely to win the 1968 presidential election. In March he announced he would not run after Sen. Eugene McCarthy’s strong showing in the Democratic primary in New Hampshire was followed by Sen. Robert Kennedy’s entry into the race.

McCarthy and Kennedy had similar plans to end the war, premised on negotiations, but the Left wanted an immediate American military withdrawal. By 1967, its leaders already had launched a third-party strategy, organizing the Peace and Freedom Party.

Their desired presidential candidate was Martin Luther King, Jr., who declined the honor. The Black Panthers and White radicals then went after comedian and Civil Rights activist Dick Gregory. Black nationalists wanted Eldridge Cleaver, a former convict and author who called for “a second front” on the West Coast to support the Viet Cong.

Cleaver was two years short of the U.S. Constitution’s minimum age requirement to run for president, but in August 1967, the PFP state convention in L.A. voted 161-54 to endorse him. On Labor Day the national convention nominated him.

In April 1968 Cleaver was involved in a shoot out with Oakland police, and charged with attempted murder. Protests by leading liberal writers and intellectuals led to his release on bail. Cleaver then “lost interest.” On Election Day, he endorsed a pig whom protesters at the Democratic National Cconvention in August had nominated as their candidate. Three weeks later he fled to Algeria.

Bitterly critical of Eldridge and the PFP division, Set the Night on Fire nonetheless heralds the registration drive to get the party on the ballot in California as “a triumph of historic proportions.” The PFP become the first left-wing party to win official recognition in 20 years.  The authors credit it as “the first evidence anywhere in the country of LBJ’s vulnerability to an electoral challenge.”

The book has eight sections and 36 chapters. Overlapping events make the chronology difficult to follow. Mexican Americans and Chicano Moratorium demonstrations are covered in the seventh section. Asian Americans and “other liberations” in the last. One of the most interesting chapters deals with draft resistance and the sanctuary movement.

Occasionally, police, prosecutors, or judges sympathized with draft resisters and deserters. One soldier from Fort Ord asked his girlfriend to marry him while taking refuge in a Quaker meeting house. Their wedding took place during a recess in his later court-martial for desertion. The Army prosecutor spoke at the ceremony. He wished the bride and groom happiness, and said he had “nothing personal” against him. The deserter received a dishonorable discharge, but no prison time.

Set the Night on Fire is a valuable doorstop reference book, but will never reach a popular audience. Which is perhaps unfortunate. Insights and lessons are buried in its many pages. Some would be useful to recall as resurgent waves of Black and White protest today seek to overcome fault lines in the American Dream.

–Bob Carolla

Colin Powell by Jeffrey J. Matthews

In 2014, Americans were asked to name the most admired person in the country. Colin Powell, then ten years removed from public life, made the top of the list. Powell is both an anachronism to the civilian military leadership of Dwight Eisenhower and George Marshall and a sui generis military officer, having served as the first African American National Security Adviser, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Secretary of State.

Jeffrey Matthews’ Colin Powell: Imperfect Patriot (University of Notre Dame Press, 416 pp., $35) is a thorough biography of Powell under the guise of leadership studies. Matthews, a professor of U.S. history and leadership at the University of Puget Sound, wrote about his subject in a previous book, The Art of Command: Military Leadership from George Washington to Colin Powell.

To Matthews, Powell was the “consummate follower” and an “exemplary subordinate,” traits that led to his rise from an aimless immigrant who barely graduated college to the pinnacle of American military and political power. Relying on government documents and first-hand accounts, including a four-hour interview with Powell, Matthews presents a chronological appraisal of Powell’s life that is comprehensively researched and readable.

Matthews praises many of Powell’s positive attributes, especially his undeniable charisma, executive skills, and personal courage. But this is no hagiography. “Too often,” Matthews writes, “successful and patriotic military officers such as Powell have prioritized career ambition, excessive obedience, and blind loyalty over independent critical reasoning and ethical principles.”

The scandals that Powell was directly or indirectly involved with—the cover-up of the My Lai massacre, the Iran-Contra affair, and his United Nations speech that led to the invasion of Iraq—form the crux of Matthews’ assessment of Powell. Matthews uses a degree of presentism, explaining events not as they occurred, but based on information now available, in recounting these episodes in Powell’s life.

This leads him to some harsh and hyperbolic accusations. Matthew accuses Powell, for example, of “clear obstruction of justice” and a “dereliction of duty” in the Iran-Contra affair. But the independent counsel who investigated found Powell’s testimony as merely inconsistent and not worthy of prosecution. As in other parts of the book, Matthews does not offer his thoughts on how Powell should have acted.

Though clearly written and easily accessible, the leadership nomenclature with which the book is written sometimes leads to tenuous connections. As a ROTC cadet, Matthews posits that Powell was recognized as an agreeable follower, which made him a mentor to other cadets. But people can recognize the difference between sycophancy and cordiality; his fellow cadets did not look to him as a leader because he was the consummate follower.

Powell arrived in Vietnam as an adviser in late 1962. He left in July 1963 with a Bronze Star and Purple Heart. He returned for a second tour in 1968, earning valorous distinction in rescuing others after his helicopter crashed. Powell’s connection to the My Lai massacre is tenuous, as he was not assigned to the Americal Division until three months after the atrocity. Matthews provides no new evidence that Powell had contemporaneous direct (or even indirect) knowledge of the massacre. Powell displayed bravery and leadership during his two tours in the Vietnam War, although he has acknowledged his failings about being unreflective about the role of America in the controversial conflict.

Colin Powell during his first Vietnam War tour in 1963

Matthews’ assessment of Powell’s Vietnam War service is more exacting: “The Vietnam experience revealed the limits of Powell’s professional development,” Matthews writes, “his unquestioning acceptance of orders, his unswerving allegiance to higher-ranking officers, his utilitarian ethics, and his overriding ambition to advance in rank.”

Douglas MacArthur believed that President Truman’s orders on the Korean War were dangerously wrong. Dwight Eisenhower openly criticized President Roosevelt’s decision to focus on North Africa and postpone an invasion of Europe. One led, one followed. The distinction may be fine, but Matthews’ book does not examine the difference between independent followership and feckless enabling—or the distinction between decisive leadership and rogue initiative.

His subtitle, “Imperfect Patriot” seems especially trite, as America could use Powell’s imperfection right now.

—Daniel R. Hart

A Wolf by the Ears by Wayne Karlin

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I’ve lost count of the number of Vietnam War-themed novels I’ve read. On the other hand, I don’t believe I’d ever read a War of 1812 novel until now, having just finished A Wolf by the Ears (University of Massachusetts Press, 320 pp. $22.95, paper and Kindle), a compelling, well-crafted tale by Wayne Karlin.

In this exceptional book—a 2019 winner of the Juniper Prize for Fiction—Karlin deftly weaves the fictional story of escaped enslaved people from Southern Maryland into a key part of the 1812-15 war: British Adm. George Cockburn’s raids along the Chesapeake Bay. That series of events culminated with the August 1814 Battle of Bladensburg, the burning of Washington, D.C., and the tide-turning Battle of Baltimore in September.

This book is filled with memorable characters—real and imagined. The star of the show is the unlikely named Towerhill, a smart, driven young man who devises a plan to deliver a group of fellow enslaved African Americans into the arms of the British. After a dangerous, eventful escape, Towerhill becomes a sergeant in the Royal Marines.

He leads his men (and several women) in action as part of Royal Navy and Marine forces that wreaked havoc on slave-holding Southern Maryland plantations, then defeated a ragtag group of militia at Bladensburg just outside Washington. Then came the British move into Washington, replete with the infamous burning and looting of the White House, the Congressional Library and other government buildings, and then the events in Baltimore Harbor.

Karlin does an exceptional job recreating the action at Bladensburg, Washington, and Baltimore from the British point of view. That includes an evocative, well-rendered look at the fighting on land at North Point outside Baltimore during which the flamboyant British general Robert Ross was shot off his horse and killed, as well as the massive bombardment of Fort McHenry of Francis Scott Key and “Star-Spangled Banner” fame. And the fateful decision by the British commander, Adm. Thomas Cochrane, to order a withdrawal from Baltimore Harbor in the early hours of September 14.

Karlin—who served as a Marine Corps helicopter door gunner in the Vietnam War—has written seven novels, nearly all of them dealing in some way with that war. That includes Lost Armies, one of the best literary treatments of the Vietnam War’s psychological aftermath.

A Wolf by the Ears has nothing to do with that conflict. But in this book Karlin shows that he also can evocatively and effectively write about a long-ago war and the institution of slavery. He draws a brilliant and forceful portrait of plantation life in Southern Maryland in the early 19th century. It’s not a pretty picture. There is violence and psychological abuse aplenty, which Karlin describes in detail throughout the book. That’s also true with the battle scenes. That is to his credit as no one benefits from sanitized fictional portrayals of war or slavery.

The book’s title—from an 1820 quote by Thomas Jefferson on slavery—is a theme throughout. “We can neither hold him, nor let him safely go,” Jefferson wrote about enslaved African Americans. Karlin shows the truth of those words as he presents the life-altering, wrenching decisions that enslaved people in Southern Maryland went through before choosing to join the British. And what they metaphorically became once they began actively fighting their former masters—and other Americans.

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Wayne Karlin

Here’s Karlin’s typically lyrical prose evoking Towerhill’s thoughts as he is about to order his men into battle, former slaves sharply dressed in redcoat British uniforms and armed with Baker rifles with “two foot long bayonets.”

The company, he writes, “looks as sharp and dangerous as those bayonets. Something swells in him. A short time ago, these fighters had been stooped, shuffling wraiths, shadows of men, their rebellious, free natures expressed only in furtive mutters, the subtle camouflage of song and the equally subtle ways in which they would sabotage their labor, a sharp clandestine mockery of their masters. Now they are wolves. His people.”

–Marc Leepson

VVA Veteran Arts Editor Marc Leepson’s profile of Wayne Karlin appeared in the July/August 2005 print issue—just before Karlin received the VVA Excellence in the Arts Award at that summer’s Vietnam Veterans of America National Convention.

Sticking It to the Man Edited by Iain McIntyre and Andrew Nette 

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Sticking it to the Man: Revolution and Counterculture in Pulp and Popular Fiction, 1950 to 1980 (PM Press, 336 pp., $29.95, paper) is a large-format, coffee-table book richly illustrated with color photos of book covers. Those images give more than a fair idea of what the mass market paperbacks of the time were like. The book’s editors Iain McIntyre and Andrew Nette, both of whom are Australian authors, sprinkle references to the Vietnam War are throughout this book.

The chapter Nette wrote, “Blowback,” is the mother lode. The subtitle is, “Late 1960s and ‘70’s Pulp and Popular Fiction about the Vietnam War,” and its ten pages are rich in illustrations and information about the mass market paperbacks dealing the war. The chapter also includes bibliographic information on Vietnam War novels that academic bibliographies managed to miss. The Vietnam War novels of Australia were a special revelation to me. I’m going to have to hunt them down and read them.

The sections of the book dealing with John Shaft, the African-American detective created by Ernest R. Tidyman and made famous in the 1971 movie directed by Gordon Parks, are especially good—and detailed.  I had no idea so many books were devoted to Shaft, who became a larger-than-life filmic Blacksploitation figure—let alone the number of Shaft films and television shows. I learned that John Shaft had been wounded in the Vietnam War, a state of affairs that was a common feature of 1970s fictional detectives.

Novels by women are well-covered in the book. Most are authors I had never encountered, even though I’ve been claiming to be an expert on novels of this era for many years.  Reading this book has made me a much more well-qualified bibliographer than I was before. I’ll have to obtain The Love Bombers by Gloria D. Miklowitz. Running away to join a cult is the subject of this Young Adult book—something I was worried about happening to my children.

51by81wnirl._sy346_Chester Himes created the Harlem Detective series with characters “Coffin Ed” Johnson and “Grave Digger” Jones, two of the toughest cops to ever wear badges. These books, including Cotton Comes to Harlem (1965), were also made into Blaxploitation movies. Many pages of this book are devoted to Himes, with illustrations of lurid and colorful book jackets.

Fictional vigilantes of the seventies, lesbian detectives, Yippies, and gay detectives also are referenced in this seriously all-inclusive book. In fact, I can’t think of any prominent movements of that era the editors left out.

I was relieved to find Iceberg Slim’s pimp novels were thoroughly covered. Iceberg Slim (1918-1992) was one of my favorites for light reading in the seventies

This book is a perfect gift for a bibliographer (or anyone else) who thinks he’s seen and read it all. I highly recommend it.

–David Willson

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