The War I Survived Was Vietnam by Michael Uhl

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Michael Uhl’s The War I Survived Was Vietnam: Collected Writings of a Veteran and Antiwar Activist (McFarland, 300 pp., $29.95, paper) is a wide-ranging compilation of Uhl’s reviews and opinion pieces that will certainly generate responses. True to its subtitle, this collection has an antiwar agenda. It also covers issues other than the Vietnam War, including the plight of veterans exposed to atomic weapons and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As David Cline, the national president of Veterans For Peace says in the book: “There have always been veterans for peace. War makes veterans warriors for peace.”

A Vietnam Veterans of America member I served with once told me that his feelings about the Vietnam War took several drastic shifts as his circumstances changed. He focused on survival while in country. When he came home, he examined how the war ended, as well as the nation’s treatment of veterans, along with the controversy over the design of the Vietnam Veteran Memorial in Washington, D.C., and the POW/MIA issue. Uhl, who served as an intelligence officer in Vietnam in 1968-69, includes reviews and essays on these subjects and more.

They are sure to evoke strong reactions. As Uhl puts it: “If they provoke thought in whoever reads them, I will be profoundly satisfied.”

Uhl writes about many players involved in the Vietnam War, including some unheralded heroes, some famous and infamous people, and some who helped orchestrate the war’s strategy and tactics. Gen. Julian Ewell, the Ninth Infantry Division Commander in February 1968, is one of the key players Uhl credits with implementing the “body count culture,” which he says enabled American troops to hand out “candy to small children” one moment, then later to torch “a hootch or abuse a cringing papa-san.”

Uhl’s essays cover many topics, but I believe his essay on the Heinemann brothers succinctly represents the personal impact the Vietnam War has had on many people. “Three Heinemann brothers would eventually go into the military, two to Vietnam,” Uhl wrote in 2005. “Among them only Larry [the author of Paco’s Story] remains. One brother was a post-war suicide; the other left his family never to be heard from again.”

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Michael Uhl

Mentioning Robert Strange McNamara will liven up any discussion of the war. In 1995 in The Nation Uhl and co-author Carol Brightman wrote: “McNamara’s critics span the ideological spectrum, though the burden of their indignation differs according to whether they believe his moral failure lies in the past for not having spoken out sooner, or in the present for having spoken at all.”

This anthology is a valuable reference tool for anyone looking for scholarly and incisive writing on America’s most divisive overseas war. The fervor of those opposed to the war may have never been matched. Uhl includes essays by some of those who were dedicated to bringing the war to an end, such as David Harris, former Secretary of State John Kerry, and environmentalist and one-time presidential candidate Barry Commoner.

This anonymous excerpt written by a veteran quoted by Uhl may be the best summation of the Vietnam War legacy:

I carried the war in my blood

In or out of service

I was at war

Even today

Every day war explodes in my brain

—Curt Nelson

ARVN Soldiers’ Poetry edited by Nguyễn Ngọc Bích

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Nguyễn Hữu Thời, who translated the poems in  Tho Linh Chien Mien Nam: ARVN Soldiers’ Poetry (CreateSpace, 416 pp., $20, paper), tells us that this poetry collection “is a product of soldiers. Not the ‘ghost soldiers’ or the decorative ones, nor the desk bound or office soldiers, but real soldiers, fighting ones in a difficult war, facing hardened and tricky warriors who give us very little breathing space: it’s either you or he, there was no other choice.”

Nguyễn Hữu Thời himself  “has gone through thick and thin in real battles, [and] can therefore empathize with the ‘powerful feelings’ of these poets, his valiant comrades in arms.”

There are no poems in this anthology by noncombatants. The translator hopes he’s represented the ideas of men who spent twenty years of their lives “defending the peace and security of some twenty million South Vietnamese, a quarter million ARVN soldiers died, hundreds of thousands were left handicapped for life and 300,000 went to concentration camps.”

These translated poems—which are presented side by side with the original Vietnamese ones— are often about that experience and represent a bleak picture of both the war and the post-war period. The language is often harsher than the language of poems Americans have written about their experiences in the Vietnam War. These poems also more than match the bitterness found in American Vietnam War veterans’ poems, which express the notion that they were sold down the river by political interests.

Here’s one example, “The Meal on the Battlefield” by Tran Dza Lu, who served as an officer in Kien Hoa province:

Four or five boys look helpless

In their ragged clothes

Eating besides the bodies

They pick their rice, holding the rifles

 

My heart’s with Mom in the Western Paradise

My mind’s with sister in the refugee camp

Villages and hamlets are inconsolably sad

The world is more deserted

 

After the meal, we scoop from the field

Some water we drink to get by

At home, do you know it?

The war dooms us the soldiers

 

It’s still lucky I can eat

Sometimes for two or three days

Having neither meal nor drink

I lie beside the plants and trees

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This is one of the book’s shorter and milder poems. My favorites are by Tran Dac Thang. Each one begins with the word “fuck.” Such as: “Fuck! Why sleep in the jungle again?/All night, the mosquitoes bite and bum one’s back.”

I highly recommend this book to American veterans who have complained about ARVN soldiers. They may not have been the paragons of virtue that we were, but they certainly suffered and died in very large numbers. I think they deserve respect for that.

Read this book and weep.  I did.

—David Willson

A Battalion of Angels by Mike Burns

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Mike Burns’ A Battalion of Angels (Mira Digital Publications, 131 pp., $12.99, paper) is an anthology of the stories of thirteen Vietnam War veterans centering on how their lives were saved in combat through Divine Intervention. These essays vividly describe helicopters flying into hot landing zones, dropping in combat units and evacuating casualties; soldiers patrolling in thick jungles that hide snipers and booby traps; and Marines walking into enemy ambushes. These are tales of how premonitions, early detections of attack, and last-minute battle plan revisions spared lives.

William Whitmore is the subject of the first chapter. More than half way through his tour of duty with the 101st Airborne the Bronze Star recipient was in an intense firefight. “While firing and moving, Bill felt a hand on his back that pushed him hard to the ground,” Burns writes. “To this day, Bill considers the hand and push as divine intervention, or more precisely, the hand of God”

This brief volume is well organized with chapter titles bearing the veteran’s name and time of service in-country, including evidence of the influence of a deity or a surrogate. In addition, there are remarkable battlefield accounts uniquely recording actions that are historically valuable alongside personal paths leading to the spiritual encounter.

Readers may identify with dates and locations as I did with the entry submitted by Raymond Jobin. His Vietnam War service dates correspond to my own, August 1969 to August 1970.  We had the same Commanding General, Maj. Gen. John A.B. Dillard.

Jobin was offered a position on Gen. Dillard’s staff, but was uncharacteristically uncertain about whether to accept it. Perhaps God influenced his late-night decision to turn down the offer. Seven months later Gen. Dillard and nine staff members died when their chopper was shot down.

The final story introduces Navy Corpsman Kurt Turner, who served on the hospital ship U.S.S. Repose in the South China Sea. Turner and other Corpsmen typically carried wounded Marines from helicopters to triage, placing each patient on a gurney. One time this routine duty was nearly deadly. A Marine on the gurney had a live grenade hidden in a gauze leg bandage. When the grenade was safely removed Turner looked for an ambulator Marine who spotted the live explosive and told the Corpsmen about it. But that Marine was no where to be found.

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“Kurt is very comfortable in his belief that the Marine was actually a guardian angel, whose name in life was James E. Williams, Jr.,” Burns writes.

I strongly recommend A Battalion of Angels. Mike Burns made contact with ten of the thirteen veterans in the book through the free ads he placed in the “Locator” column in The VVA Veteran magazine. Because of that he is donating some of the book’s profits to Vietnam Veterans of America.

—Curt Nelson

T.I.N.S* by Darrell Bain and Will Stafford

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Darrell Bain and Will Stafford are Vietnam War veterans who found each other on the Internet and became computer pen pals. Their years-long correspondence resulted in Bain narrating and publishing most of those exchanges in a book called T.I.N.S.* (CreateSpace, 290 pp., $11.99, paper). The book’s cover tells us that T.I.N.S. is an acronym for “This is no shit.” Humor is the basis for every story.

Or, as the subtitle says: “Hilarious stories by Vietnam vets, zany tales from the war, childhood craziness, and post-war foibles.” The difficulties of childhood and teenage development, along with mid-life aging, dominate the storytelling. This made me feel shortchanged as problems related to marriages, dogs and cats, professions, food and dieting, illnesses, and smoking dominated too much of the text.

At times, these exchanges resemble a game of can-you-top-this. They heighten the entertainment, but also create scenarios bordering on repetitive and mundane chores familiar to most people.

I wanted to hear more about the military careers of Stafford and Bain. Both men spent two tours in Vietnam. Stafford flew helicopter gunships and Chinooks. Bain served as an Army medic. Their few stories about the Vietnam War and military life in general lift the book to a higher level. These stories also are humorous, but deal with activities, events, and places far beyond ordinary life.

Regardless of the topic, Bain–the author of Medics Wild!— generally plays straight man to Stafford and makes him the star of the book. Both men display highly perfected senses of humor.

Bain extends a caveat: “This book contains the complete and unabridged books, Toppers and More Toppers,” both of which he wrote.

Bain’s website is darrellbain.com

—Henry Zeybel

Dragonfly Edited by Frederick D. Long

 

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Reading Dragonfly: The Smallest Fighter… The Fastest Gun… A-37s Over Vietnam (A-37 Association, 311 pp.; $29.95, hardcover; $19.95, paper) is like sorting a stack of lottery tickets and finding every one is a winner. Dragonfly presents a collection of attention-grabbing history lessons. I initially opened the book, edited by Frederick D. Long and Lon Holtz, to a story titled “Sir, I’m on Fire,” and was amazed by how in the heat of the moment (pun intended) pilots perform illogical actions and survive whole. It only got better from there.

The book is packed with first-hand accounts of Dragonfly pilots’ combat missions in Vietnam from 1967-72. Some other chapter titles are “I’ll Never Do That Again,” “Hanging By A Thread,” and “How to Kill a Water Buffalo.”

Arranged chronologically, the flying events parallel the course of the war. Pilots talk about the good, the bad, and the ugly. They recall dangerous and heroic deeds; they explain the utterly stupid ones. Honesty prevails.

The nine-by-eleven-inch book is a work of love and art. Its large format includes hundreds of photographs, maps, and illustrations. The A-37 Association published Dragonfly in 2014, with a second edition in 2015.

Editor Fred Long’s Introduction records the transformation of the T-37 from a trainer into an attack aircraft.  He also explains the development and deployment of other A-37 squadrons, starting with the 604th Air Commando Squadron up to the time when the USAF turned the fleet over to the South Vietnamese Air Force.

“The A-37 was called on to take out missile sites, artillery and supply sites, bunkers, trucks, sampans, buildings and support ground troops while under attack,” Long says. “They flew day and night, dropped napalm, bombs, fired rockets and the minigun under every conceivable condition. They went on FAC missions, dodged antiaircraft fire, and performed escort operations. A successful mission was the rule, not the exception.”

Associate Editor Lon Holtz, the President of the A-37 Association, adds historical perspective with “Prologue 1945-1966: The Beginning of an Unpopular War.” Holtz flew the Dragonfly in Vietnam during his 1968-69 tour of duty.

The editors included a section that honors thirteen Dragonfly pilots killed during the war. Appendices include a Vietnam War Photo Album, Dragonfly Combat Pilot Roster, and Glossary, along with an extensive Bibliography and Index.

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Books of this type are important because they fill voids in military history. Combat is a highly personalized and relatively spectatorless endeavor. Rarely are people standing around to watch and report it. Mainly, the people that see it are those engaged in it. Consequently, John Q. Public relies on guys from the arena to tell it like it was. This book performs that duty through the voices of a specialized group of warriors.

The same logic applies to any war memoir. I made four trips to Southeast Asia in four different jobs and thought I knew a lot. But since August of 2014, I have read and reviewed nearly seventy Vietnam War memoirs and each one has taught me something new about that conflict.

For more info, go to www.a-37.org/news/news_page.html

—Henry Zeybel

 

Proud to Be edited by Susan Swartwout

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I wish I was a little bird

So I could fly away;

I’d go to all the far off places

Where my daddy has to stay.

—Ashley Williams

The “far off places” in this anthology are battlefields from Sharpsburg, Maryland, to Kanduhar, Afghanistan, and many American wars in between. Stories and photographs from veterans are collected in the fourth volume of Proud To Be: Writing by American Warriors (Missouri Humanities Council/Southeast Missouri State University Press, 270  pp., $15, paper) edited by Susan Swartwout, who worked on the previous three volumes.

Swarthout selected the short fiction, poetry, interviews, essays, and photography with the help of a six-person panel of judges. “The War Within” is the only screenplay in the volume. It succinctly and cleverly presents a cast of character in two versions, one a proud Marine and one dealing with PTSD.

PTSD is also covered in an essay by David Chrisinger, who teaches veteran re-integration at the University of Wisconsin. This well-researched essay centers on Marine Brett Foley’s service in Afghanistan, where he witnessed an IED explosion that killed two and wounded several others.

Dealing with the horror two years later, Foley said: “At the end of the day, it all comes down to the fact that at times I wished desperately that I could simply erase parts of my memory so that I could just be normal again.” In addition to counseling and his wife’s support, “what helped Brett’s resilience was talking about his trauma and remembering the good men he served with.”

The essay, “Korea 1951–Marines Don’t Cry,” predates the study of PTSD and describes how trauma can be dealt with on the battlefield. To wit: “I slowly walked out into the woods. Alone, I couldn’t stop the tears. I reached into my holster and took out my .45. Self-pity turned into anger. I lifted the gun, holding it in both hands and aimed at the sky. I shot it over and over. A couple Marines came running out yelling, ‘What’s going on?’ I pulled my cap down over my eyes so they couldn’t see the tears, turned to them and said, ‘Just practicing.'”

The irony of war could almost be the theme of this compilation. One account describes an action in Sicily during World War II in which German soldiers captured a group of American medics despite the fact that red crosses were on their helmets. They were imprisoned because the Germans had heard a rumor that American generals hid howitzers in ambulances.

“Best Revenge” is a stunning piece of short fiction in which a Marine corporal and a staff sergeant meet during the corporal’s last days in Vietnam. The surprise ending made this standout my favorite.

Another must-read is the essay “My Vietnam Nightmare” written by a former Navy Corpsman. He writes: “Terrified, I think this could very likely be the last day of my life. This suicidal waltz is known as ‘doing your duty.'”

The final section of Proud To Be is devoted to poetry. I recommend taking quiet time to read these poems, especially the well-crafted “Dead Man’s Cap” and “The Flight of the Liberty Belle.”

I would be remiss not to mention the photography category. “Remembering Home” and “Iraqi Boy Sitting” are two I particularly enjoyed.

Finally, here is the poem “Proctors” by Kanesha Washington:

You signed your names on the front lines of war

Susan Swartwout

Susan Swartwout

You packed your duffle bags with manhood
Many only teenagers yet you knew what you were fighting for.
while putting away your adolescence
You left behind family, children and even friends
to become a protector of our nation
Adorned in a uniform of freedom and pride
you marched with bravery on the battlefield of uncertainty
By land, ship, or sea
you proudly and selflessly carried out your duty
You are the stars represented on our flag
America salutes you

for your future, present and especially your past

—Curt Nelson

I Remember: Chicago Veterans of War Edited by Chris Green

I Remember: Chicago Veterans of War (Big Shoulders Books, 96 pp.) is a book I will long remember. This volume, edited by Chris Green with a foreword by Jim Fairhall (both of whom are English professors at DePaul University), contains the largest collection of essays with the fewest number of sentences I have ever read.

Green invited fifty Chicago veterans to share their memories from World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Bosnia, Iraq, and Afghanistan. The common theme of “war is hell” flows through all the essays. Contributors were asked to begin with the words “I remember.” The greatest difficulty was finding veterans of America’s latest conflict, as less than one percent of the population served in Iraq or Afghanistan. “It seems America no longer goes to war, the military does,” Green writes.

The veterans’ memories are not presented chronologically by war. Instead, one writer remembers his part in Bosnia, while the next, say, is talking about his experiences in Vietnam. The memories, however, are clearly written, and the reader can easily identify the war being discussed. If there is any doubt, the wars each writer took part in are identified at the end of the book.

The uniqueness of I Remember is that one or more sentences often tell a story of their own. Such as: ”I remember the abrupt claps of gunfire and the rude whistling of rounds,” and “I remember Fort Polk, autumn 1968. Night training, ITT. Parachute flares descending, an ambient glow penetrating the forest canopy,” and “I remember …shots.”

And:  “I remember the right wall opened up, and the engine carried them out of the plane,”   “I remember I raced away from the plane. I knew my hands were burning and I think my head was too,” and “I remember the hot, dry air. I remember my life was about to change forever. I remember the distance growing louder. I remember the explosion. I remember the sirens and alarms. I was not at home. I was in Afghanistan. I remember my first indirect fire.”

Jasmine Clark’s collection of photographs enhance the reading. Many are complete stories in themselves. One photo by Rolando Zavala depicts a group of soldiers resting in a hut. That image will be etched on my brain forever.

One of the book’s photos from the Vietnam War

The final veteran’s entry made a most unusual observation: “I remember the love. You probably have the wrong idea about war. War isn’t about hate: it’s about love. Hate has no place in war. You shoot any person not because you hate him, or you hate his ideology, or because crazy old Sgt. Hubble told you to. You do it because he’s trying to kill somebody you love.”

This book is notable for its simple style and depth. It will be of benefit to anyone looking to understand the experience of war. This is a worthwhile work of wartime literature that will long be remembered.

The nonprofit publisher, Big Shoulders Books, which is associated with DePaul University’s Master or Arts in Writing and Published program, is offering this book without charge. To order, go to http://bigshouldersbooks.com/new-page

—Joseph Reitz