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

Witness to the Revolution by Clara Bingham

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Clara Bingham’s Witness to the Revolution: Radicals, Resisters, Vets, Hippies, and the Year America Lost Its Mind and Found Its Soul (Random House, 656 pp., $30, hardcover; $14.99, Kindle) is neither a polemic nor an unquestioning ode. Bingham uses oral histories of people who served in the Vietnam War, along with those who were involved in the political and cultural movements of the era, concentrating on the year of 1968. The individual testimonies are not long discussions or recollections; they are shorter sections interwoven into the narrative to make a complex tapestry.

The book is divided into sections such as the draft, Woodstock, My Lai, and Kent State. The chapters contain histories and the words of many of the movers and shakers of the day, including Mark Rudd and Bernadette Dohrn of the Weather Underground, Daniel Ellsberg, Timothy Leary, the journalist Seymour Hersh (who broke the My Lai story), and Oliver Stone. Bingham also makes good use of the voices of Vietnam veterans.

The Vietnam War was the cyclone around which most division centered during the 1960s and 70s. Questioning the most divisive overseas war in U.S. history made people question almost everything else, from feminism to government programs and policies to music.

The book contains two of the most famous and galvanizing photos of the Vietnam War: South Vietnamese Gen, Nguyen Ngoc Loan executing a VC prisoner in Saigon during Tet, and the naked Vietnamese girl running and screaming after being hit with napalm. Bingham also recounts the often-told tale of the My Lai massacre.

Bingham also deals with Vietnam War veterans’ post-war emotional adjustments, including these words from Vietnam Veterans of America’s founder Bobby Muller: “You come back, you’re in a normal place, you’re not in a war zone, you think about the shit you did, and you don’t believe that you fucking did this. And then you live with the memory.” He later says: “These are the good guys. We look at what goes on in the world and we think it’s a subspecies of human beings. It’s not. It’s us.”

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Clara Bingham

Nineteen-sixty-eight was the height of the war and the height of the protests at home, along with the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy and the police riot at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Many folks at home who had comfortable lives could not cope with the turmoil and our country suffered a huge divide. All these events are included in the book and all are told by the people involved at the time.

To read what those involved had to say—and still have to say—is to be transported back to that time. To those who lived through it, details return with clarity. For those who were not around in those days, their ideas and actions will arrive with clarity.

—Loana Hoylman

 

The Nix by Nathan Hill

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The first thing that came to mind as I pondered my reading experience with Nathan Hill’s The Nix (Knopf, 625 pp., $27.95), is the oft-used (but still prescient) line that Leo Tolstoy wrote in Anna Karenina: “All families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

This very long book is, at heart, a meditation on one very unhappy fictional family. To wit, a baby boom generation mother who has made a giant, stinking mess of her entire life and her adult son who is about to follow in her footsteps. Said messes include terribly unhappy childhoods, messy adolescences, and emotionally distressing adulthoods.

The mother in question, Faye Andresen, is brought up in a stifling Iowa town in the fifties and sixties and has a catastrophic, aborted college experience in Chicago in 1967 and 1968. Her son, Samuel Andresen-Anderson experiences a tortuous childhood, especially after his mother walks out on his family with no warning and for no apparent reason.

Samuel somehow survives his childhood and adolescent traumas, and becomes a college professor. The work is singularly uninspiring and Samuel descends into depressing—and countless hours playing some adolescent on-line game.

Then things go from worse to worse after Faye sort-of attacks a demagogic politician and Samuel has his entire world fall apart after an self-deceiving, selfish student falsely accuses him of mistreating her.

Hill spins out this yarn flashing back and forth in time, including a long section near the end in which Faye is caught up in the mayhem of the police riot during the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago–which is where the Vietnam War comes in. That and a small part earlier in the book where Faye’s boyfriend back home wrestles with the biggest question that every male of that generation faced: what to do about the Vietnam War draft.

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Hill is a more-than-capable storyteller and novelist. He brings his mostly over-the-top characters alive and created dizzying, almost-believable plots and subplots, often with ironic humor–and frequently with painful emotional and physical consequences for his characters.

His (almost literally) blow-by-blow rendition of the mayhem that occurred in the streets of downtown during the Democratic National Convention is intense–and probably (like the rest of the book) about twice as long as it should be.

That long set piece also is the vehicle Hill uses to let the reader know several secrets and to bring resolution of sorts to the careening lives of Faye and Samuel.

—Marc Leepson

Born on the Fourth of July by Ron Kovic

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Former Marine Ron Kovic was arguably the nation’s most famous Vietnam veteran from the mid-seventies through the late eighties on the strength of his 1976 primal scream of a memoir, Born on the Fourth of July, which came out in 1976, and the Oliver Stone movie of the same name, which hit the multiplexes in 1989 (with Tom Cruise playing Kovic).

The book, which became a big bestseller, was reissued in July—the 40th anniversary of its publication—by Akashic Books (224 pp., $26.95, hardcover; $15.95, paper), with a new, brief introduction by Bruce Springsteen. The big rock star became a strong supporter of Vietnam War veterans after meeting Kovic in 1978. Springsteen writes that after reading the book, he ran into Kovic in Los Angeles. The two men hit it off and Kovic took him to the Venice Vet Center to meet a group of other Vietnam veterans.

“It was unforgettable and sparked my interest in veterans’ affairs,” Springsteen writes, which “led to our concert in support of Vietnam veterans” in 1981 in L.A. Springsteen gave $100,000 of the proceeds of that memorable concert to a young, fledgling Vietnam War veterans organization–Vietnam Veterans of America—a staggering sum that helped rescue VVA from the precipice of financial ruin.

Born on the Fourth of July is a short book that chronicles Kovic’s life beginning with his All-American fifties upbringing on Long Island, through his time as a gung-ho Marine who volunteered for a second tour in Vietnam, and into his life battling the VA and becoming an antiwar activist after he was severely wounded and paralyzed from the chest down. It’s a very moving book, told in bitter and emotional bursts.

Look for our review of Kovic’s second memoir, Hurricane Street, in the “Books in Review” column in the upcoming September/October print edition of The VVA Veteran.

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Ron Kovic

—Marc Leepson

The American South and the Vietnam War by Joseph A. Fry

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I graduated from a Pittsburgh high school in 1951 and from Penn State in 1955. While talking about the American Civil War, my teachers inculcated me with the belief that the eleven states of the Confederacy were still a world apart from the rest of the nation. As northern liberals, my teachers had looked down on Southerners, disparaging their pride and dedication to the Confederacy and its lost cause.

Since 1956, except for overseas military assignments and extended vacations, I have lived in the South. I have encountered situations that confirmed or denied my teachers’ lessons. But long ago, I learned to accept each event according to its own merits.

Historian Joseph A. Fry resuscitated a few prejudices for me in The American South and the Vietnam War: Belligerence, Protest, and Agony in Dixie (University Press of Kentucky, 467 pp., $35.57, hardcover; $33.79, Kindle). The book describes the struggle between pro- and antiwar individuals and organizations, emphasizing the influence that like-thinking people from the eleven former-Confederate states (plus Kentucky) exerted on the Vietnam War and America at large.

Fry approaches this with a brief history lesson about Southerners and United States foreign relations from 1789-1973. Fry’s twelve southern states share a distinct regional perspective, viewing needs of the world as contrary to their domestic desires and favoring “unrestrained military intervention aimed at decisive victories rather than diplomatic negotiations.”

He next addresses Southerners’ opposition to the Vietnam War. As they do throughout the book, racism and other sensitive issues play a large part in the discussion. Ill will, anger, threats, violence, shootings, and killings frequently accelerated the dissension between opposing sides. Fry withholds judgment and allows facts to tell the story.

He astutely shows how powerful conservative Democratic Sens. Richard Russell of Georgia, John Stennis of Mississippi, and Harry Byrd of Virginia influenced the nation to minimize overseas military assistance from 1953-64. They contended then that intervention in South Vietnam would be too costly and its people were an inferior race unwilling to protect themselves.

Meanwhile, obsessed with a need to contain communist expansion, Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson gave aid to South Vietnam. A strong sense of honor and manhood made maintaining international credibility a necessity for Johnson. The 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident provided the impetus for him to gain a congressional resolution to prosecute war in Vietnam, Fry says.

Unfortunately, the resolution, which Congress overwhelmingly supported, did not solve the problem of how to run the war. Fry clearly shows that debates over the scale, pace, duration, and cost of the war never ended.

The book’s second half covers Southerners’ views on the war’s conduct, their contribution to the decision to withdraw from Vietnam (1968-70), and their views on ending the war (1971-73). Southern thinking seldom matched national attitudes about domestic policies, racial problems, military appropriations, foreign aid, and other contentious issues. Often, southern regionalism promoted self-serving behavior, which compounded disagreements. At times, racial assumptions and the quest to procure government military spending trumped party politics, Fry says.

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LBJ and Sen. John Stennis

Two sections—”Southern Soldiers” and “Southern College Students”—interrupt the book’s chronology. These chapters might hold the greatest interest for Vietnam veterans. “Soldiers” exemplifies southern manliness by describing horrific combat scenes in which Southerners engaged. But Fry’s argument here is weak because men from all sections of the country experienced similar horrors in Vietnam.

Much of Fry’s support material comes from books written by Southerners. Nevertheless, this chapter might educate readers unfamiliar with the war about death and destruction, leadership, religion, race relations, and post-war attitudes among fighting men.

The chapter focuses on the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley, including the fighting at Landing Zone Albany, all but glorifying them as engagements led by southern officers in which Southerners suffered the highest number of casualties. In fairness, Fry then cites the My Lai massacre, which was led by Southerners, as a failure in ethics. Later in the book, Fry reviews the political fallout from My Lai. He points out that it required “moral courage” by another Southerner to reveal the breadth of the massacre.

I disliked Fry’s long and emphatic references to characters from novels to “celebrate the South’s warrior tradition,”  even though one character reflects the thinking of former Marine and former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb, according to Fry. I believe Fry should have quoted Webb directly or quoted other courageous infantrymen—there are plenty of them—to make his point. As I see it, fiction is fiction and does not adequately serve a history book’s purpose.

“Students” does an excellent job reporting on the diverse antiwar activities by organized groups. Until the end of the war, University of Texas students, for example, led protests that unbalanced the South’s pro-war stance but never toppled it. Within Dixie, “antiwar students lost all the battles and the war for majority southern opinion regarding Vietnam,” Fry says.  He quotes fellow historian George C. Herring on the student issue: “The antiwar movement lost every battle but eventually won the war—the war for America’s mind and especially for its soul.”

Fifty-seven pages of endnotes support Fry’s study. Rather than listing sources alphabetically, he includes a bibliographic essay that relates sources to each other. Fry’s research included delving into oral histories, transcripts, interviews, memoirs, and letters by leaders, along with those from ordinary citizens, students, and military personnel.height-200-no_border-width-200

Andy Fry taught at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas for nearly forty years. His courses included U.S. foreign relations, the history of the American South after 1850, and U.S. involvement in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

At times I feel that Americans have overburdened themselves with their arguments about the Vietnam War. After fifty years of arguing, we should accept that we learned nothing from the war. Lyndon Johnson, a Southerner, tricked us into fighting in Southeast Asia, which we failed to recall when another Southerner, George W. Bush (aided by Dick Cheney’s misdirection), misled us into Southwest Asia.

In this election year, Fry’s book might best serve as a voters’ guide: Do not cast your ballot for anyone who professes a correlation between manhood and war.

—Henry Zeybel

 

Behind the Wire by James Stoup

 

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The word “paradoxical” perfectly describes the thoughts and actions of James Stoup as related in his “nonfiction novel,” Behind the Wire: A Story about Life in the Rear during the Vietnam War (Page Publishing, 318 pp., $17.95, paper: $9.99, Kindle). A member of the 25th Infantry and 1st Air Cavalry divisions in 1970-71, he gained the credentials of an Army war correspondent without covering combat. Furthermore, he called himself a war protester, but excelled as a reporter for the military establishment. While reading the book, I occasionally wondered if any of us fully understood what was going on back in the day.

Stoup, a member of Vietnam Veterans of America,  wrote a first draft of this book in 1994 and rewrote it in 2014. Surprisingly, his youthful emotions and opinions prevail, which makes the book valuable because it shows the contradictions felt by young men who supported the Vietnam antiwar movement. Stoup provides a wealth of stories about constructive and destructive behavior among rear echelon personnel, also known as REMFs.

Mainly, Stoup relies on personal observations and opinions to prove his points and seldom offers references to authoritative sources. His arguments usually rest on generalizations such as his friends’ estimate that sixty-five percent of enlisted men in Vietnam used drugs.

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Jim Stoup

 

His favorite topics are marijuana, marijuana, marijuana, and other drugs; incompetent lifers;  fragging; the quest for medals; and profiting from the war.

This paragraph perfectly reflects the heart of his REMF sentiments about the Army:

“There was still the occasional Army bullshit to put up with, like formations, police calls, inspections, starched fatigues, and polished boots. But those of us who escaped the stress and danger of combat figured we were lucky to be where we were, so we just put up with the lifers and the bullshit. And after the recent series of fraggings and tear gas incidents, the ‘off-the-record’ protocol that had been observed between the lifers and the EMs had now become more like a truce. After hours, they didn’t bother us and we didn’t bother them. They didn’t come into our living areas, unless necessary, and we stayed out of theirs. In other words, the troops could drink their beer, smoke their pot, and do their drugs in their haunts without fear of harassment or being busted. And the lifers could get falling-down drunk in their clubs without our snickering at them as they tripped and fell on their way back to their quarters.”

Frequent observations such as this show that for Stoup and his friends, protest against the war manifested itself as a schism between the ranks. In other words, protest among REMFs focused on daily living conditions.

In 1968 Jim Stroup brought Abbie Hoffman to lecture at Saint Joseph’s College. Stoup was president of the student body, and the FBI interviewed him about his intentions. He says, “Even though I never looked into it, I’m sure the FBI had a file on me.”

Stoup graduated from college in 1969. Certain to be drafted and fearing a sure trip to Vietnam as an infantryman, he enlisted in the Army as an officer candidate, even though commissioning required an additional year of service. Assigned as an infantry officer trainee, he resigned from OCS because he did not want responsibility for “the lives of young men drafted into the Army.”

From that point, he found other detours that bypassed the battlefield. Yet he grooved on meeting “seasoned-looking” soldiers who fought the war. He draws colorful pictures of men he admired for their courage. I especially liked Stoup’s description of one such group displaying “a blatant aberration of military discipline.”

Upon arriving at the 25th Division at Cu Chi, he sold his college education, writing skills, and ability to type ninety words a minute to an NCO and got a job in the Public Information Office.

Although he avoided combat situations, Stoup did go into the field and got in trouble for reporting exactly what he saw. His desire to tell the truth paralleled an incident described by correspondent Jim Smith in his memoir, Heroes to the End.

For one of his first stories, Jim Smith exposed the incompetence and inadequacies of the Combat Training Center. His editor told him to rewrite it or forget it; otherwise, Smith “would suddenly find [himself] slinging hash in a field kitchen in the Delta—at best.”

When Stoup wrote the truth about building a new bridge and its dedication ceremony, his commander told him: “I want you to cut the peace shit out of this story and rewrite it the Army way. And this better be the last time this happens, or you’re going to be spending a lot more time in the field.”

From then on, Stoup followed the party line and received commendations for his writing, along with increased responsibility. True to his contradictory nature, however, he simultaneously became a member of Vietnam Veterans Against the War.

Because his editor restricted him from writing about problems such as poor leadership and drug use, Stoup secretly passed privileged information to television network correspondents. Often, it is difficult to understand Stoup’s motivation for his actions, which requires separating his hatred for the war from his hatred for his military superiors.

When the 25th Division rotated home in 1970, Stoup transferred to the 1st Cav at Phuoc Vinh, which was a total contrast to Cu Chi. For example, the Phuoc Vinh division information officer wore shorts and flip-flops to work. Stoup used his “portfolio of writing samples and press clippings” to secure an information specialist MOS.

In that job, his writing earned him a “direct field promotion to Specialist 5th Class (E-5),” and he became honorary editor of the division newspaper. Talent and a cooperative spirit made him a valued member of the Army establishment, although I doubt that he viewed himself in those terms.

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25th Infantry Division HQ at Cu Chi

Throughout his time at Cu Chi and Phuoc Vinh, Stoup and his friends used drugs—mostly pot—practically every night. Stoup describes how other men frequently overdosed on harder drugs. At that stage of the war, the problem was not a “problem” because nobody seemed to care.

A confessed member of the counterculture, Stoup nevertheless accepted two Army Commendation Medals, and on one occasion, filled a foursome for bridge at the Officers’ Club. Furthermore, he credits his leaders with teaching him everything he knew about journalism, which helped him in his post-military career. Most surprising of all, he turned down a forty-one-day drop during a force reduction.

His finest anti-war action took place during his last month in-country at Bien Hoa: he initiated Article 138, UCMJ action that brought positive changes of unexpected magnitudes to REMFs. In the midst of this activity, he questioned his behavior and attitude for the first time: “Was I out of my fucking mind? After all, without proceeding with this action, I’d be on my way home in less than ten days, with little chance of anything happening to me from the dangers of the war to, well, anything else. Was I out of my fucking mind!”

Although Jim Stoup might not agree, I believe he used the military system to benefit himself equally as much as the lifers he detested, which was, of course, justifiable behavior for anyone who did not want to be there in the first place and who was determined to avoid combat.

It takes great strength to row against a ceaseless tide. I admire those who do so. Therefore, I enjoyed Stoup’s story and classify him as a clandestine fighter.

By the way, James, here’s the deal regarding medals: You don’t have to accept them. That type of rejection is a protest. At the end of my twenty years, my boss offered me a Meritorious Service Medal. I wrote to him: “Don’t bother. I’ve already been compensated for my work.”

Or should you and I have said, “I don’t need no stinking medal for doing my everyday job”? Oh well, I must confess that insubordination had already wrecked my “lifer” career.

The author’s website is www.behindthewire-vietnam.com/home.html 

—Henry Zeybel

 

 

 

Last Train Runnin by Ronnie D. Foster

Ronnie Foster sums up his opinion of the Vietnam War with words he attributes to his protagonist in his novel, Last Train Runnin (R.D. Foster, 415 pp.; $21.25, paper):

Oh the rich kids went to college

And the poor boys went to war.

They were soaking up the knowledge

Of beer and sex and cars.

We were shootin’ folks and dying,

Didn’t even know what for.

The rich kids went to college,

And the poor boys went to war.

Foster experienced his share of combat in Vietnam with the Marine Corps. In this novel of the 1960s, Foster tells his war story through the eyes of Everett Blalock, a Navy Corpsman with a serious case of fear. The young man was a renowned folk singer in Austin, Texas. After the wealthy parents of his sweetheart arranged for his induction into the Army through the draft, he enlisted in the Navy to avoid becoming an infantryman. That plan did not exactly work.

The story begins with Everett in bloody combat southwest of Da Nang. The sole survivor from an ambushed eight-man squad, he receives a Bronze Star and Purple Heart.

Thereafter, he watches many men die while he survives helicopter assaults, search and destroy missions, costly firefights, and rocket and mortar attacks. Homesick over his shattered relationship with his girlfriend, he writes songs—which are in the novel—about the good parts of life that he and the men around him are missing. Between battles, he teams up with a harmonica-playing sergeant and they create and perform music.

Alternating chapters present the life of David Duncan, an antiwar University of Texas rich kid in his sixth year of a college deferment. As a newspapers trainee, he receives an assignment to learn what became of Everett Blalock, who dropped out of sight after rock and roll took center stage from folk music. An out-of-control boozer and druggie, David staggers through a self-defeating series of life-changing events regarding protest, love, wealth, and war.

Ronnie Foster in 1987

His assignment takes him to Vietnam. The results of his quest and meeting with Everett have repercussions that extend decades beyond the end of the Vietnam War.

Along with writing books, Ronnie Foster has been a singer, songwriter, and musician since leaving the Corps. Foster’s One Day as a Lion is a tribute to twenty-one men from rural Collin County, Texas, who died in the Vietnam War.

Foster offers hundreds of pictures from Vietnam and a highly specialized brand of music and humor on his web at ronniefoster.com

—Henry Zeybel