A Shadow on our Hearts by Adam Gilbert

Writer and historian Adam Gilbert’s purpose in A Shadow on Our Hearts: Soldier-Poetry, Morality and the American War in Vietnam (University of Massachusetts Press, 304 pp., $90, hardcover; $32.95, paper) is to deepen our knowledge and understanding of the Vietnam War through an examination of the poetry produced by those who fought in the conflict. Looking at the poetry “through the lens of moral philosophy,” Gilbert notes how historians of the war have all but neglected it.

He quotes from almost 400 poems by more than sixty “soldier-poets.” I know many of the poets and have met many of the others. I should note that I am predisposed to love this book as my name is in the index, and the author writes positive things about poets and poetry I have a high opinion of.

With a book of this sort, I always first go to the index and look for my name. And there I was. Next, I look for the name of my closest friend, a poet of the finest sort, but one often overlooked because he is a novelist and poet-novelists often are unfairly given short shrift.

Gilbert makes the point that he deliberately has not included certain sorts of poets, and I am one of them. I was not a “soldier” according to his standards, even though I was drafted into the U.S. Army and served in the Vietnam War. But I was a REMF. In his eyes, I was far removed from the role of soldier. It hurts my feelings, but I won’t let that cause me to say bad things about this fine book.

Few “real soldiers” have suffered more pain that I have during the last ten years while I’ve been dying from Multiple Myeloma, but I was not in combat in Vietnam. Agent Orange, which caused my bone cancer, was there in Vietnam during the war for all of us.

I found it pure joy to read what Gilbert has to say about DS Lliteras, W.D. Ehrhart, R.L. Barth, Horace Coleman, David Connolly, Yusef Komunyakaa, Leroy Quintana, Dale Ritterbusch, Bruce Weigl, and many other poets I have met, spent time with, eaten dinner with, given readings with, and so on. I loved this book and think others will too, while learning a lot about the Vietnam War and about what its veterans think about it while we are seriously reflecting and pondering upon it.

Vietnam War veteran Bill McCloud recently reading his poetry to a veterans group at an Oklahoma Corrections Center

I apologize for making this review so personal, but I fear that if I don’t, potential readers will turn away from the book, thinking it too scholarly and serious to be fun to read. Yes, much of this book was far from fun to read—and wasn’t intended to be fun—but the book still is engrossing and even enthralling in parts.

I highly recommend A Shadow on Our Hearts to all who have a serious interest in learning more about the Vietnam War and about the people who went off to that war, not knowing what to expect, but dealing with it when they got there the best they could.

—David Willson

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From Enemies to Partners by Le Ke Son and Charles R. Bailey

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A look back at the chemical abuse that the United States perpetrated against the population and topography of Vietnam during the American war dictates a look forward about the enduring effects of that action. Defoliation of the countryside by the use of Agent Orange/dioxin and other toxins took place between 1961 and 1970; its effects are still apparent fifty years and several generations later.

Making amends for the use of Agent Orange has been difficult. Le Ke Son and Charles R. Bailey promote this effort in From Enemies to Partners: Vietnam, the U.S. and Agent Orange (G. Anton, 242 pp. $29.99, hardcover; $19.99, paper; $9.99, Kindle). Son and Bailey have collaborated on this problem since 2006. Son holds a PhD in toxicology; Bailey has a PhD in agricultural economics. Both men have worked with agencies such as the Red Cross and Ford Foundation on correcting the damages inflicted by Agent Orange.

From 1975-2006, Agent Orange was “an extremely sensitive and controversial subject,” the authors write. “Official views were polarized, information was scant, disagreement was rife and suspicions on both sides ran high.” They counter this situation by assembling enough data to make Agent Orange a discuss-able topic. The book highlights the contributions of people and organizations that have helped to compensate for Agent Orange’s misuse.

The thoroughness with which Son and Bailey examine the Agent Orange/dioxin situation  is spellbinding. They have assembled a wealth of data that arguably amounts to more information on the topic than may be found in any other single publication.

They open their argument with a province-by-province review, complete with charts and studies, that shows—among other things—that dioxin still exists in Vietnam. They then examine dioxin’s impact on people and the ecology. There also are charts, tables, and studies to promote awareness among Americans and Vietnamese about the problem and the needs of victims. The book ends with a summation of bilateral efforts to date and proposals for the future.

The magnitude of future problems relates to locales, expenses, and people. American bases at Da Nang, Bien Hoa, and Phu Cat were Agent Orange’s most toxic areas. Da Nang has been cleansed of poison. The cost of remediating Bien Hoa is estimated at $375-$500 million and will take a decade, the authors say. Meanwhile, several hundred thousand young Vietnamese with birth defects linked to AO exposure passed on through their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents await help, according to the authors.

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Son and Bailey argue for continued collaboration between the United States and Vietnam and urge greater funding by Americans to finish tasks such as sanitizing the Bien Hoa Air Base.

A raft of color photographs pays tribute to people who have supported the cause. An appendix cites the Ford Foundation and seventy-eight of its grant recipients. Another appendix—”Fifty-Five Years of Agent Orange: Timeline of Key Statements, Decisions and Events 1961-2016″—provides an excellent twenty-four-page summation of the book’s theme.

—Henry Zeybel

2D Surgical Hospital by Lorna Griess

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Lorna Griess served as a military nurse for thirty years, two in the Navy and the remainder in the Army. She retired as a colonel in 1990.

Her memoir—2D Surgical Hospital: An Khe to Chu Lai South Vietnam (Xlibris, 108 pp. $22.99, hardcover; $15.99, paper; $3.99, Kindle)—covers 1966-67 when she was twenty-eight years old and primarily tended to wounded soldiers in recovery rooms and intensive care units, working twelve hours a day, six days a week.

“In RR/ICU, every patient was acute, needing instant and constant care,” Greiss writes.

Greiss’s recollection of the time focuses on her duties and surroundings. She does not describe in detail the individual Americans the treated. She talks of a “push,” or mass casualty, and other medical events in general terms. For example:

“Gunshot wounds were always surprises. They took eclectic paths through the body, sometimes diverted by bones and sometimes clean. Medical people had to turn the patient over to find the full damage. Some of the slower rounds made little entry holes but large exit wounds. Chest and abdominal wounds from gunshot or blast injuries sometimes took hours to find and fix all the damage.”

Greiss does describe the impact that her duties had on her psyche. “If I dwell on it now, some of the sights, sounds, and smells are still very real,” she writes. “They were perceived at the height of emotion and are etched forever in my mind. Tears are filling my eyes and cascading down my cheeks as I write this. That was forty-eight years ago, and it is as fresh as yesterday in my mind.”

The book contains thirty-two full-page photographs Griess took. Mainly they show buildings from the locales where she lived, worked, and traveled.

Based on Griess’ closing comments, I believe she wrote 2D Surgical Hospital to help relieve her own war-related emotional problems. She proudly served her nation and paid a price. She has lung cancer attributed to exposure to Agent Orange and mentions PTSD as follows:

Lorna Greiss

Lorna Griess

“Those of us who made the Army a career had peer support and did much better than those who got out and went back home looking for the same world they left. Many are still seeking treatment today.”

Griess continues to work on behalf of veterans from the Vietnam War as well as returnees from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The author’s website is 2dsurgicalhospital.com

—Henry Zeybel

Inheriting the War edited by Laren McClung

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Laren McClung is a poet and the author of a book of poetry,  Between Here and Monkey Mountain  (2012) Her father served a 1968-69 tour of duty in the Vietnam War with the 173rd Airborne.

In Inheriting the Wind: Poetry and Prose by Descendants of Vietnam Veterans and Refugees (Norton, 400 pp., $19.95, paper) McClung has included the work of a fair and balanced assortment of forty-four veterans’ descendants. The list of familiar and non-familiar Vietnam War veteran writers and poets’ surnames includes Lily Katherine Bowen, Linh Dinh, Heinz Insu Fenkle, Adam Karlin, Elmo Keep, Ada Limon, Bich Minh Nguyen, Andrew X. Pham, Monica Sok, and Hanh Nguyen Willband.

The book—with a Foreward by the acclaimed poet (and Vietnam War veteran) Yusef Komunyakaa—is arranged alphabetically by author’s last name. McClung gives a brief bio at the beginning of each section, providing just the right amount of information iabout the authors and translators. McClung does a commendable job digging up new and different writers representing all the groups that made the Vietnam War possible by their participation and those who now have a life of suffering due to that war.

We’re told early in the introduction that the United States sprayed 5.5 million acres of land in Vietnam with Agent Orange. This toxin sickened both Western troops and Vietnamese, and is a theme throughout the book in poems and stories.

Hoa Nguyen, for example, writing after Emily Dickenson in “Agent Orange Poem”:

 

What justice foreigns for a sovereign

We doom in nation rooms

Recommend & lend resembling fragrant

Chinaberry spring

Here we have high flowers  a lilac in the nose

“The Zeroes—taught us—Phosphorus”

and so stripped the leaves to none

Thanks to Hoa Nguyen for this fine poem. The quality of work in this book is always high and always thought provoking, as this poem was to me.

This isn’t a book to read a bedtime.  At least it wasn’t for me. I found it seriously disturbing on almost every page.

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Laren McClung

My favorite prose piece is “The Gangsta We Are All Looking For” by Le Thi Diem Thuy. My favorite sentence in the essay is: “When we moved in, we had to sign a form promising not to put fish bones in the garbage disposal.”

I laughed, out loud, when I read that sentence.

The author’s family had moved into old Navy housing in Linda Vista, California. I thought about the tales the garbage disposal could tell if it could talk. I guess it’s just as well it can’t.

A huge amount of work went into the success of this book, and I thank Laren McClung for it.

—David Willson

 

The Lice: Poems By W.S. Merwin

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W. S. Merwin is well known for his Vietnam War poems. He was was born in 1927 and has been awarded pretty much every possible prize given to a poet, including a Pulitzer prize, a National Book Award, and the Bobbitt Prize from the Library of Congress. He also served two terms as U.S. Poet Laureate.

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Merwin’s The Lice, the poet’s 1967 response to “the atrocities of the Vietnam War and the national unrest of the Civil Rights Movement.”  Or so a blurb on the back cover of the latest edition of the book (Copper Canyon, 96 pp., $15, paper) tells us.

The book’s most important poem, “When the War is Over,” is printed on the back cover, following the blurb, so that the dullest reader will not miss it.

When the war is over

We will be proud of course the air will be

Good for breathing at last

The water will have been improved the salmon

And the silence of heaven will migrate more perfectly

The dead will think the living are worth it we will know

Who we are

And we will all enlist again

Not all of us. I was asked to re-enlist. My response was unequivocal. Not me, Sarge.

W.S. Merwin, at 90, is alive and living on Maui in a nature conservancy of rare palm trees that he planted. The cover of this beautiful book is a Larry Burrows Vietnam War photo showing smoke rising from a cluster of thatched Vietnamese hooches, following bombing and resulting fire from napalm in Viet Cong territory (a so-called free fire zone).

31iv0jleqbl-_ux250_“The Asians Dying” and “For the Anniversary of My Death” both seriously hit home.  “The Asians Dying,” for reasons I don’t feel like explaining, and “For the Anniversary of My Death” because my doctors told me that 2017 I’d have been dead for at least five years due to the effects bone cancer caused by being exposed to Agent Orange. I don’t plan to live as long as W. S. Merwin, but one never knows.

As Merwin warns us in his poem “For a Coming Extinction,” “One must always pretend something among the dying.”  We can’t deny the obvious; we are all both the dying and among the dying.

This is the most beautiful book of Vietnam War poetry published in 1967—and again in 2017.  Buy it and read it.

—David Willson

Making History by Bruce Olav Solheim

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Bruce Olav Solheim is a distinguished professor of history at Citrus College in Glendora, California. As the blurb on the back cover of the second edition of Solheim’s Making History: A Personal Approach to Modern American History (Cognella Academic Publishing, $68.95, paper) notes, this history book is “The Education of Henry Adams meets On the Road.”

In other words, the book is a personal approach to U.S. History. What does that look like? In Chapter One, title “Reconstruction,” the first sentence is: “After basic training at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, my brother Alf was sent to radio school at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Mississippi.”

No other American history book would tell us that the author’s brother is named Alf, let alone that he did basic training in Texas. How can this be justified in a chapter about Reconstruction?  Solheim does that quite neatly.

He goes on to say that his brother Alf entered a barbershop in Biloxi with a black airman from Detroit, a friend of his. The friend was asked to leave the barbershop, and Alf got his lesson in the results of Reconstruction in the South: Jim Crow. In Chapter Two, “Rapid Industrialization,” we get the same format—and the same smooth introduction to a difficult concept made clear by the use of a personal anecdote.

In twelve cogent, well-organized chapters, Solheim provides history students introductions to U.S. Imperialism, the Progressive Era, World War I, the Twenties and the Great Depression, World War II, the Cold War, the Civil Rights Era, the War in Vietnam, the Conservative Revolution, and the “American Empire in Decline.”

It had been a long time since I studied American history in an organized manner, so I was quite gratified to get this refresher course. I needed it.

Each chapter begins with a one-page comic strip by Gary Dumm, giving pictorial voice to the words that follow. A modest disclaimer: On page 298, at the beginning of the Vietnam War chapter, I am introduced as a comic strip character, sitting at a typewriter in Vietnam, typing a memo for the colonel for whom I worked for a year.

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Bruce Solheim

Bruce’s brother Alf is also in this strip. The text notes that Alf Solheim is a disabled veteran after his two tours in Vietnam, that he suffers from PTSD and from Agent Orange-related leukemia.  Rarely is the butcher’s bill of war made so personal in an American History book.

This fine book is a revolutionary piece of work. It knocks over the apple cart of all clichéd, hidebound history books that don’t even try to reach an audience that desperately needs to know more about the history of their complex country. I thank Bruce Solheim for daring to risk breaking out of the bonds of traditional learning and teaching.

If I were still in the classroom, I would use this book as a textbook every quarter and be proud to do so.

—David Willson

A Loving, Faithful Animal by Josephine Rowe

Josephine Rowe was born in 1984 in Rockhampton, Australia, and lives in Tasmania. I wouldn’t be surprised if her father served during the Vietnam War. Certainly the way she characterizes the people in her novel, A Loving, Faithful Animal (Catapult, 176 pp., $16.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle), indicates she knows about Vietnam War veterans. Or she is a damned good researcher. Either way, her characters ring true.

I was relieved to read that the characters in the book are fictitious as I would hate to blunder into any of them in real life. Or in my dreams, for that matter.  Especially Uncle Les “who seems to move through their lives like a ghost, earning trust and suspicion.”

The backbone of A Loving, Faithful Animal (the only book I’ve read that presents the Australian ruins of the Vietnam War) is the fact that Ru’s father, an Australian conscript during the Vietnam War, has turned up missing, this time with an air of finality. This makes Ru think “he’s gone for good.” Or for evil.

One blurb writer says the book’s “astonishing poetic prose left me aching and inspired.”  I got half of that—unfortunately, the aching part.

I don’t know if the greeting, “Have a few bottles of Tiger Piss and get defoliated,” was invented for this book, or if it is a common one in Australia’s legacy of their involvement in the Vietnam War. I hope it is just particular to this novel.

A character cuts off both trigger fingers to avoid being drafted. That seems extreme to me. But the book reminds me that a prevalent attitude during the war was that if you were drafted you would be sent to Vietnam and if you were sent there, you would die there. I never understood that, but I did encounter it.

John Wayne does get a mention, so do Audrey Hepburn, Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, LBJ, and Ho Chi Minh. One of the comments a character makes about being the offspring of a Vietnam veteran is that she’s spent her life “trying to lead [her] father out of the jungle.”

The question gets asked, “Why are we in Vietnam?”  The answer is that Ho Chi Minh kicked over LBJ’s trike. I’d say that’s as good a reason as any.

Josephine Rowe

Early in the novel we are told that all chemical agents used in Vietnam “have been fully exonerated from causing veterans’ subsequent ill health, with the partial exception of the antimalarial drug Dapsone, whose status has not been resolved.”

That makes me feel better about the Multiple Myeloma that is killing me by degrees. The question about how many Vietnam vets it takes to screw in a light bulb gets asked. No answer is given.

If you feel the need to read a book about the impact of the Vietnam War on the people of Australia, start with this one.

You could do worse. I did.

—David Willson