Vietnam Reconsidered by John Ketwig

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John Ketwig’s 1985 book and a hard rain fell…: a GI’s True Story of the War in Vietnam stands among the top American Vietnam War memoirs. And that’s saying something as that conflict’s literary canon contains dozens of memoirs that are among best writing on war—any war.

Ketwig’s sprawling, ambitious new book, Vietnam Reconsidered: The War, the Times, and Why They Matter (Trine Day, 480 pp., $24.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle), is his attempt, as he puts it, “to say more about the war and modern-day militarism in America.” And say more Ketwig does in this lengthy book that contains what he calls “a mosaic of historic fragments,” along with his analysis of that history and the lessons he takes from the American war in Vietnam and other U.S. “military adventures.” Ketwig also includes first-person accounts of his life before, during, and after serving in the Vietnam War, an experience, he says that “devastated my heart and soul.”

Ketwig—who joined the Army in December 1966 with the draft breathing down his nineteen-year-old neck—deserves credit for some compelling writing and some well-executed parts of the book. The long history part, however, which includes many statistics, is presented with little attribution and without footnotes or end notes. Why? Because, Ketwig says, “most readers ignore them and they impede the joys of reading.” He does include a very long bibliography—nine pages of books, some of which he recommends, but none of which are annotated. So this is not the book to go to for a fact-checked history of the Vietnam War or the Vietnam War era.

Some of the facts he presents, in fact, do not check out. For example, Ketwig states as fact that there have been “200,000 suicides” by Vietnam veterans since the war. In reality, there are no reliable statistics on suicide in the U.S., much less on Vietnam War veteran suicides. Those who have looked into the subject trace extremely high suicide figures (such as 200,000) that people cite to a thoroughly debunked myth that sprung up in the early 1980s that more Vietnam veterans had killed themselves after the war than were killed in the war.

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John Ketwig

Another example: In Ketwig’s short section on R&R he says that American troops “were allowed a five-day R&R… once a year.” There may have been a once-a-year rule, but it was regularly broken. And some of the R&R destinations, such as Sydney and Honolulu, were for seven days. He also writes that GIs “disembarking from the R&R center” were “immediately accosted by a huge throng of ‘agents’ or pimps…”

That may have happened to Ketwig and others of his acquaintance, but for thousands of others nothing remotely like that occurred.

At its heart, Vietnam Reconsidered is a smart, well-read, highly political Vietnam War veteran’s interpretation of that still-controversial war, replete with John Ketwig’s strong antiwar opinions and some strong writing.

—Marc Leepson

The United States, Southeast Asia and Historical Memory edited by Mark Pavlick with Caroline Luft

Who controls history? How is collective memory formed? In the case of historical accounts of the Vietnam War, the famous maxim most widely attributed to Winston Churchill, “History is written by the victors,” is problematic. While the North Vietnamese won the war, the Americans have had both the resources and the freedom to win the proverbial battle for the memory of that conflict.

It is within this context that The United States, Southeast Asia, and Historical Memory (Haymarket, 450 pp. $22, paper) is written. The book, edited by Mark Pavlick, a longtime activist in the U.S. antiwar movement, and Caroline Luft, is the second edition of a work originally published in 2007. It consists of thirteen chapters: eight essays, two Noam Chomsky articles from the 1970s, one book excerpt, and two interviews.

Curiously, the editors never define historical memory. For the record, historical memory is the way groups of people or nations create and then identify with specific narratives about historical periods or events.

The book’s epigraph provocatively quotes Justice Robert H. Jackson’s opening address before the Nuremberg Tribunal of November 21, 1945, with a clear implication that the United States was guilty of war crimes in Southeast Asia on par with those committed by Nazi Germany. The works of Noam Chomsky and Fred Branfman fall within the vein of this polemical perspective.

The balance of the book, however, belies this overtly hostile style, with six essays that are scholarly in nature, promoting cogent theses without provoking raw emotion.

The essays on cluster bombing in Laos by Channapha Khamvongsa and Elaine Russell  and the use of Agent Orange by Tuan V. Nguyen are scholarly and thoughtful. The former even acknowledges the legitimacy of the bombing—if not its proportionately.

“Iraq, Another Vietnam? Consider Cambodia” is well considered even if its conclusion that there is a causal relationship between the American bombing in Cambodia and the genocide of the Khmer Rouge is tenuous. “The Indonesian Domino” by Clinton Fernandes proffers a thought-provoking thesis: that due to the destruction of the Indonesian Communist Party by 1967, that domino could no longer fall, invalidating the justification for the war predominant during the Kennedy Administration.

Gareth Porter’s treatment of the My Lai massacre, written from a definitive perspective, is authoritative in its research. Nick Turse’s essay is a powerful, if completely personal, indictment of the war. Ngo Vinh Long’s essay on U.S. policy toward Indochina since 1975 treads the familiar ground that this country is responsible for the stagnancy of Vietnam in the postwar years.

An interview and republished essays by Noam Chomsky, as well as the introductory essay by Fred Branfman, are the raison d’etre for the book. Polemics aside, these essays are problematic in their exploitation of history, which weakens their arguments.

Providing a different perspective to the perception of American mass propaganda is incredibly important, but it cannot be justified at the expense of its context. The thesis can fall into Manichean simplicity: America and its allies were unjust; therefore, North Vietnam and its allies must be just.

Chomsky makes no comment on the morality of North Vietnam’s execution of up to 25,000 “class enemies” in the mid-1950s, other than to point to the American exaggeration of the figure. He quotes Bernard Fall, but omits his estimate that the Viet Cong assassinated eleven South Vietnamese officials every day during the early 1960s.

The premise of moral equivalency is decidedly unhelpful in analyzing the Vietnam War. But Chomsky indulges irresponsibly in this matter, even taking a decidedly paternalistic and ahistorical view that communism in Vietnam was a monolithic movement among all Vietnamese people. But one million people fled North Vietnam in 1955 rather than live under communist rule, and two million left the country after the communists took in 1975.

Vietnam remains a closed society in which historians are denied access, and in which journalists are routinely imprisoned. They seemed to be rewarded for their totalitarian lack of transparency.

No matter one’s politics, this book will provoke and outrage.

–Daniel R. Hart

The Men and the Moment by Aram Goudsouzian

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The velocity of events in 1968 are staggering. Their importance is underscored by the need for only a word or a phrase to appreciate their significance. The events remain not just historically important, but cultural touchstones. Tet. LBJ not running. MLK in Memphis. RFK at the Ambassador. Chicago Democratic Convention. Columbia University sit-in. Nixon’s comeback. Earth rise aboard Apollo 8.

In the midst of this upheaval, America not only elected a new president, but also witnessed a change in how the candidates were chosen—and the birth of a profound realignment of the party system.

Aram Goudsouzian, a University of Memphis history professor, examines the eight men who vied to be the next president in The Men and the Moment: The Election of 1968 and the Rise of Partisan Politics in America (University of North Carolina, 240 pp., $25). This brisk and accessible (147 pages of text) study focuses on the character of the candidates and their responses to the moment.

Despite its brevity and its heavy reliance on secondary sources, the sixty pages of end-notes evince the book’s meticulous research. Goudsouzian leans particularly on contemporary articles from the New York Times, Time, U.S. News & World Report, and Newsweek, among others.

The 1968 political cycle marked the final stand of the political machines in choosing a candidate. Strong showings and even victories in the primaries did not translate into delegates, as the party leaders had the ultimate discretion in choosing their candidate. This fact cannot be emphasized enough, for despite Eugene McCarthy’s quixotic insurgency, Robert Kennedy’s star power, Nelson Rockefeller’s muddled efforts, and Ronald Reagan’s patient opportunism, the eventual candidates always were likely to be Nixon and, after LBJ’s decision not to run, Vice President Humbert Humphrey because of their work in securing the delegates.

Even though he announced he would not run, Lyndon Johnson remained the de facto leader of the Democrats, which meant that Humphrey’s delegates were actually Johnson’s, effectively handcuffing Humphrey’s campaign. Mixed into this mélange was Alabama Gov. George Wallace, who ran one of the most successful—albeit the most despicable—third party campaigns in American history.

Goudsouzian proficiently explores each man’s character and ambitions, though the work’s concision and use of anecdotal evidence can at times veer into sensationalism. Were the Chicago police really chanting, “Kill, kill, kill” at the Democratic Convention? Did Johnson yank out his penis in response to a reporter’s question about why the U.S. was in Vietnam? Though entertaining, these seem apocryphal.

Goudsouzian proffers a fine analysis of the “New Politics” campaigns directed to the people through rallies and modern technology, but he all but ignores the critical William F. Buckley-Gore Vidal television debates. It is telling that Buckley is grouped in with the John Birch Society, the right-wing group he helped de-legitimize, and that there are more references to Stalin and Hitler (three) than to Vidal and Buckley (one).

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The chapter on Nixon is, perhaps ironically, titled “The Loser,” and this moniker is repeated throughout the book. Goudsouzian frequently invokes Nixon’s use of the “silent center,” but Nixon did not use this phrase until November 1969. Though credited with the greatest comeback in American political history, there is perhaps too much presentism on Nixon, the eventual winner of this consequential campaign.

There is a reason that this is at least the fourth book in as many years devoted exclusively to the 1968 election. While the material is well trod, Goudsouzian has provided a useful perspective and enjoyable precis on the candidates and their times.

–Daniel R. Hart

The Fourteenth of September by Rita Dragonette

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Rita Dragonette’s novel, The Fourteenth of September (She Writes Press, 376 pp., $16.95, paper; $8.69. Kindle) is based on her personal experiences as a college student during the Vietnam War beginning in September 1969. That’s when she witnessed a confrontation between ROTC trainees and antiwar student demonstrators who were not sympathetic to those who had ended up in ROTC. This complex novel is, in essence, an inquiry into the domestic politics of protest when the world seems to stop making any sense.

The publisher describes the book as a “coming of conscience novel.” I read the book trying to make sense of that description. My guess is that the main character, PFC Judy Talton, wakes herself up politically by joining the campus anti-Vietnam War movement on her nineteenth birthday.

She is apparently not aware that by doing so, she is jeopardizing her Army scholarship, as well as alienating her military family. She asks her herself, “Who is she if she stays in the Army? Who is she if she chooses to leave?”  Good questions. Neither is easily answered.

The late summer of 1969 is a pivotal time in the Vietnam War, and it becomes a pivotal time in the life of a young and callow young woman who is riven with doubts about her identity and the identity of those around her. Are they her friends? Can she trust them to try to understand what is going on with her?

Few books have taken the time—and space—to examine so thoroughly the collegiate antiwar movement in small-town America. The story held my interest and reminded me of what was going on in Pullman, Washington, around the same time. The tone rang true in every line.

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Rita Dragonette

I was interested in the impact that the draft lottery and its rippling effects had on a generation heavily influenced by the chance uncertainty the lottery had on hundreds of thousands of young people. I had barely paid attention to the lottery because I was one of the young men drafted before the it was instituted.

 

This novel opened my eyes to issues that my thick skin and my age had protected me from. We are admonished to read this book and weep, and I actually did shed a tear or two of sympathy.

If you’re like me, after you read this well-written novel, it will be difficult to put it out of your mind.

The book’s page on the author’s website is ritadragonette.com/projects/the-fourteenth-of-september

—David Willson

Memories of a Vietnam Veteran by Barbara Child

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Barbara Child packs a big dose of love and sorrow into Memories of a Vietnam Veteran: What I Have Remembered and What He Could Not Forget (Chiron Publications, 200 pp. $28, hardcover; $18.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle). The book takes the reader on an emotional roller coaster as Child bares her soul in describing her often-futile pursuit of understanding a man she loved.

Her story pays tribute to Army medic Alan George Morris and captures the essence of the aftereffects of his exposure to combat. Morris committed suicide in 1996. Child’s ability to analyze his mentality, as well as her own, reconnected me with Jungian psychiatry, which I had not thought about for decades.

Alan Morris was twenty years old in 1970 when he completed a tour of duty in the Vietnam War with the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment. He had gone through countless blood-drenched episodes while treating the wounded and collecting pieces of the shattered dead. He was grounded from flying rescue missions after a day in which his helicopter took heavy damage and he was shot, and then after landing he went into shock during a mortar bombardment and ground attack.

Barbara Child’s life is one of successful endeavors: fifteen years as a tenured English professor at Kent State University; another fifteen years as an attorney practicing poverty law and teaching in California and Florida law schools; and accreditation as a minister.

She met Alan Morris at Kent State in 1970, the year National Guardsmen shot and killed four students during an antiwar demonstration. She and Morris shared the stage during a 1972 ACLU/VVAW rally, a photo of which is on the book’s cover. They lost track of each other until 1986 when Morris contacted Child and they embarked on a one-sided love affair (for Child), which did not stop with Morris’ suicide.

Their time together was chaotic. Both drank excessively until Child recognized her problem and stopped. Morris was antisocial, sober or drunk, and alcohol only increased his belligerence. Guns, which Child detested, were important to Morris. He slept with them, including a Colt .45 he later used to kill himself.

Despite sharing light-hearted times, they failed to understand each other’s needs. Child recognized the problem; Morris appeared not to notice. Along the way, she acted as a spokesperson for him. Occasionally they separated for months at a time. Her “An Open Letter to a Vietnam Veteran” is a masterful summation of their dilemma.

Morris left her a legacy of questions that are impossible to answer. As she reconsidered his behavior during times when they had been apart, she developed an obsession about his obvious closeness with other women, a feeling she had suppressed when he was alive. She describes in detail her grieving and second-guessing. Aid provided by professionals improved her psychologically.

Nearly twenty-five years after Alan Morris’ suicide, Barbara Child traveled to Vietnam. Seeing sites where Morris had barely escaped death helped her. Meeting Buddhists and participating in emotional cleansing ceremonies led her to write, in closing:

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Alan Morris & Barbara Child

“I used to say to Alan that I could not tell his story. The only story I could tell was my own. Through writing this book, I have at last let loose of it. And I do believe that just as the story of Barbara in Alan was finished when he died, the story of Alan in Barbara is now complete.”

She signs the statement: “Barbara Child, Ha Noi, Viet Nam, November 16, 2018.”

Child concludes the book with twenty-five pages of “Further Reading,” which is “not a comprehensive bibliography,” she says, but a collection of enlightening and thought-provoking resources. She recommends the writings of war correspondents and veterans, authorities on PTSD, the psychotherapist Edward Tick, antiwar advocates, and Jungian psychologists. For each recommendation, she cites an excerpt well worth reading.

—Henry Zeybel

Beyond the Quagmire edited by Geoffrey Jensen and Matthew Stith

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One should not judge a book by its cover. In the case of Beyond the Quagmire: New Interpretations of the Vietnam War (Texas A&M University, 432 pp., $29.95), one should not judge this fine collection of essays by its title.

That’s because the title suggests that after The Making of a Quagmire (1965), David Halberstam’s seminal account of the Kennedy administration’s move into the Vietnam War;  and after –Into The Quagmire (1991), a history of Lyndon Johnson’s escalation of the war from 1964-65; and even Before the Quagmire: American Intervention in Laos (2012), we can now move “beyond” the quagmire.

Beyond strives to move past the Vietnam War “morass,” the editors say, “by providing new ideas and directions,” and it is mostly successful in this regard. But these perspectives ironically deepen the muddle about the war and its remembrance, enhancing the conflict’s well-deserved reputation as “an awkward, complex, or hazardous situation.”

Editors Geoffrey Jensen and Matthew Stith—historians at the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and the University of Texas respectively—have compiled a collection of thirteen essays that explore many different issues, including rural development in South Vietnam under the Diem regime and the commemoration of the war through comic books. The book is divided into three sections, exploring the politics, the combatants, and the remembrance of the conflict.

The best of the essays are Nengher Vang’s treatment on the Hmong and Xiaobing Li’s review of Chinese involvement in the Vietnam War and Sino-Soviet relations. Ron Milam’s article on the role of military advisers, Susan Eastman’s on the ‘Nam comics, Doug Bradley’s on music and memory, and Heather Marie Stur’s on women, are all noteworthy additions.

Interesting perspectives, but perhaps ones that do not move beyond other scholarly work, include Martin Clemis’ essay on geography, Jeffrey Turner’s on the student movement in the South, Matthew Stith’s on the natural environment, and Sarah Thelen’s on Nixon and patriotism. The last essay would have benefited from an analysis of why antiwar activists seemed to be duped into allowing Nixon supporters to paint them as unpatriotic. Thelen’s contention that the Nixon team conceived the idea that “unity was not necessary for electoral victory” is belied by history.

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Nixon announcing the May 1970 incursion into Cambodia 

Some of the other perspectives are indeed new, but perhaps their originality underscores the limitations of their arguments. Geoffrey Stewart’s analysis on South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem’s rural development programs, for example, is solid in its review of Diem’s plans, but collapses under the weight of Diem’s despotism. The South Vietnamese government was not “struck by” the Buddhist Crisis in the summer of 1963 as he says, but had precipitated it through systematic repression. Even a forgiving understanding of Diem and his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu would not suggest that they acted in the best interests of South Vietnam’s peasants.

Geoffrey Jensen’s treatment on the lowering of standards required for induction in the military, McNamara’s Project 100,000, has a provocative but ultimately misguided thesis. Jensen misses obvious connections to the war itself: Both were conceived with the best of intentions, both were ultimately exploited and mismanaged, and neither was adequately reformed due to obdurate and selfish politicians.

In his essay on Vietnam veterans memorials, William Allison proffers a challenging thesis, contending that when the last Vietnam War veterans pass on, those men and women—and the war in which they fought—will be forgotten. Memorials are a physical manifestation to honor the sacrifice of veterans. They are not built as tourist attractions or as a means to foster oblivion about a war. If a memorial fosters solace, this is a positive thing. It does not lead to forgetting, for healing leaves a scar.

Beyond the Quagmire presents a diverse and erudite collection of compositions. It is a welcome addition and a worthy successor to 2002’s A Companion to the Vietnam War.

–Daniel R. Hart

Don’t Thank Me for My Service by S. Brian Willson

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Don’t Thank Me for My Service: My Viet Nam Awakening to the Long History of US Lies (Clarity Press, 412 pp. $29.95 paperback; $15.99, Kindle) is a difficult book to classify. The subtitle indicates that it is a memoir. But it turns out that this is more like a textbook—and one that perhaps should be required reading for a college or graduate school course on the Vietnam War.

Brian Willson commanded an Air Force combat security unit at Phan Rang Air Base in Vietnam. After coming home from the war, Willson went to law school and ended up as a peace advocate, taking on the criminal justice system and the foreign policies of the U.S. In a terrible accident during a protest, Willson lost both legs while attempting to block a train carrying weapons to Central America in 1987. The accident—which Willson writes about in his 2011 book, Blood on the Tracks—did not deter him. His new book is clearly the work of a man who is passionate about justice, and who puts in the hard work of research.

Willson, however, has crammed too much material into this book. There really are two books in one. The opening pages and the last chapter contain his personal stories, with an especially interesting recounting of his first day in country. The first eight chapters are a history book, a Howard Zinn-like perspective with lots and lots of footnotes.

This history covers a wide range of topics, from a review of the theft of the land of America’s indigenous inhabitants to Cold War hysteria, and just about everything in-between. There is a history of the fighting in Vietnam, a history of the social justice fights in America, and much more. It is exhausting.

One wishes that Willson could have broken this up into two—or even three—different books. And that he was a better writer.

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Willson

But don’t let that scare you away from this book. Don’t Thank Me for My Service is a historical resource with an important perspective.  Brian Willson comes down hard on American imperialism. His facts and his arguments need to be heard and need to be known.

My recommendation: Put this on your bookshelf, and look at it from time to time.

Brian Willson’s website is brianwillson.com

—Bill Fogarty