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

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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

Every Day is Extra by John Kerry

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One of the most emotional passages in former Sen. John Kerry’s memoir, Every Day is Extra (Simon & Schuster, 640 pp., $35, hardcover; $16.99, Kindle), comes when he recounts the attacks on his record as a Swift Boat commander in Vietnam during the 2004 presidential campaign. Not so much because it was an attack on him personally, but because “Swift Boating” has since become a term that political campaigns use as shorthand to describe the tactic of using smears and lies to attack a candidate’s character.

It is “horrific,” he writes, because it dishonors all those whose fought and died on South Vietnam’s rivers, casting their sacrifices as a lie.

Kerry faults himself for following the advice of his own campaign advisers to ignore the attacks as trivial and not to fight back forcefully. The irony is that the admiral who organized the campaign had written a glowing commendation for Kerry and his crew in 1969.

Kerry—who went on to become Secretary of State—acknowledges that many veterans hated the antiwar movement of which he became a part. “No parades, no thank you for their service.” What brought together Vietnam Veterans Against the War was that feeling of alienation. “I understand that undercurrent of resentment,” he writes, which in turn was also directed at veterans who opposed and demonstrated against the war.

Kerry’s statement about understanding such resentment characterizes much of the book’s tone. He is reflective, analytic, and measured. Indeed, many of his emotions seem understated.

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Lt. Kerry and shipmates, 1969

His best-known antiwar actions came when he joined other veterans depositing their medals on the steps of the U.S. Capitol and asking in testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee: “How do you ask a man to die in Vietnam? How do you ask a man to be the last man for a mistake?”

Nonetheless, Kerry had misgivings about leaving his medals on steps where politicians walked. He proposed instead that the medals be placed solemnly on a table covered by a white tablecloth and then be collected and returned to the Pentagon. Other VVAW leaders outvoted him.

Kerry became involved in VVAW after noticing an advertisement in Life magazine with “the image of a rifle with a fixed bayonet planted in the ground with a helmet hanging on top. It was a powerfully evocative symbol. It meant that there were a lot of guys out there who felt as I did.”

Many veterans at VVAW meetings had what is today commonly called PTSD and were “seriously messed up.” Some were in wheelchairs, missing eyes or limbs, or self-medicating.  Before VVAW became a force against the war—which occurred “without any singular moment of decision, without debate”—it sponsored Vietnam veteran support groups.

Like many organizations, VVAW struggled to get off the ground financially and internally. Kerry began pulling away from the disorganization. “Within VVAW there were suddenly too many different agendas competing for priority,” he writes, “some of them controversial.” There were differences over issues of class, drug use, tactics, opposition to the Vietnam War or all wars, as well as a contingent who believed America was “rotten to the core” and those who wanted to put the country “back together.”

Kerry’s activism turned to electoral politics, with the memoir describing his rise to leadership in the Senate and as Secretary of State. It includes his work with the late Sen. John McCain on the Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs and its exhaustive search tracking down every rumor about live POWs who had been left behind. The senators even conducted a surreal inspection underneath Ho Chi Minh’s tomb in Hanoi—“walking around a mass of tubes, compressors and pumps” and opening doors to make sure there were no hidden tunnels or cells.

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Senators Kerry and McCain in 1985

At almost 600 pages of text, one wishes that an editor had trimmed the memoir more thoroughly. The first two chapters, “Childhood” and “Bright College Years,” recounting his lineage and his life and travels in Europe as the son of a Foreign Service office might be particular candidates, if only because they reinforce Kerry’s image of elitism, which occasionally dogged him in public life.

For all its length, the memoir is still worth reading. Chapters can be skipped or skimmed in order to focus on more engaging ones, such as the description of in-county Swift Boat operations.

The title Every Day is Extra is compelling and appropriate. It represents an attitude about life that “summarizes how a bunch of guys I served with in Vietnam felt about coming home alive.” It also honors those who did not—with a promise not to waste the gift of a single day in making a difference.

“There are worse things than losing an argument or even an election,” Kerry writes.

The Vietnam War shaped John Kerry’s view of the world and his mission in life. It is reflected on every page of the book.

–Bob Carolla

The Game by George Howe Colt

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George Howe Colt was inspired to write The Game: Harvard, Yale, and America in 1968 (Scribner, 400 pp., $28, hardcover; $14.99, Kindle) after watching “Harvard Beats Yale, 29-29,” a terrific documentary film made in 2008 by Kevin Rafferty. The documentary and book focus on one of the most improbable football comebacks imaginable—so improbable that the tie felt very much like a victory for the underdog Harvard team.

Colt was fourteen years old in 1968, living what he calls “a Harvard-saturated childhood.” He went to The Game in 1968 with his father and brother—and, in fact, still has his game ticket.

There are many interesting story lines in The Game, and the writing is generally engaging. With the subtitle, “Harvard, Yale and America in 1968,” the book’s scope is ambitious. I wonder, though, whether Colt would have given us a better book if he’d concentrated in more depth on fewer stories lines. He writes about so many players, coaches, and others that I needed a cheat sheet to keep track of who everyone was.

The first 125 pages drags a bit. But the book picks up speed midway, and ends with a bang. The book takes off when Colt gets to the story of John Tyson. Tyson, an African-American football player at Harvard, is an admirable figure who allows Colt the opportunity to weave in a several Civil Rights stories.

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Pat Conway

The war in Vietnam is a constant presence in the book, though Colt doesn’t provide many specifics. The most Vietnam War-related compelling story involves an older Harvard player, Pat Conway. The defensive back had dropped out of Harvard, enlisted in the Marines, and ended up at the Khe Sanh.

Conway then made his way back to Harvard—and to the football team—in time to take part in the 1968 season. Colt’s descriptions of Vietnam War battle scenes are memorable. But I wish he had spent more time on Conway’s time in Vietnam.

Colt does a lot of name dropping—(Do we really need to know that one of the players dated Meryl Streep?)—with some names having no context for readers unfamiliar with the 1960s. That said, there are many interesting folks who make their way into the book, including Harvard roommates Tommy Lee Jones and Al Gore, and fledgling Yale cartoonist Garry (“Doonesbury”) Trudeau. Jones played offensive guard in The Game.

11111111111111111111111111There is a double epilogue of sorts, with a chapter on antiwar activities on the Harvard campus in 1969, followed by a true epilogue with updated info on the book’s main players. The mature reflections of a few players are startling in their vulnerability.

Even with the attempt to capture so many different stories, there are some gaps. There is nothing on the dramatic and contentious 1968 presidential election, for example, which seems strange.

In a nutshell, the book is kind of history-lite, but with enough stories and odd bits of information to keep you entertained—and to make you want to learn more.

I just might go out and read a biography of the Yale’s noted antiwar chaplain, William Sloane Coffin.

–Bill Fogarty

Sweden by Matthew Turner

 

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Lance Cpl. James Earle Harper, an African American from Mississippi, is badly wounded at Khe Sanh saving the life of his lieutenant. In the Cam Ranh Bay hospital, just before Christmas 1967, he is visited by—not Santa—but by President Johnson, who pins a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart to his hospital gown.

Harper is central to Sweden (The Mantle, 327 pp., $14.95, paper; $3.95, Kindle), Matthew Turner’s first novel. In the 1990s, Turner, a New Zealander, was living in Japan, working as a freelance translator, he said in an article on his publisher’s website. That’s when he learned of a late-1960s group called the Japan Technical Committee for Assistance to Anti-War U.S. Deserters (JATEC), the underground arm of Beheiren, the Citizens’ Federation for Peace in Vietnam.

The desertion rate for the Vietnam War peaked “at 73.5 per 1,000 troops in 1971, well above the highest figures from World War II (63 per 1,000 troops in 1944) and the Korean War (22.3 per 1,000 in 1953),” Turner writes in a historical note. JATEC’s role in helping Vietnam War deserters was a small but fascinating one.

Turner started writing this novel in 2010. “[M]ost of the primary sources I relied on in researching Sweden were written in Japanese by people involved with the group,” he said. Another important source was Terry Whitmore’s 1971 memoir ,Memphis, Nam, Sweden: The Story of a Black Deserter.

Whitmore was the model for Earle Harper, who, after his encounter with LBJ, is flown to Japan for rehab at a U.S. military hospital. He’s told his next stop probably will be the States. Instead, he is ordered back to Vietnam and a war he no longer believes in. So he deserts.

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Matthew Turner

So does another character, Eddie Flynn, a seaman apprentice on a U.S. hospital ship, after gruesome chores with the triage unit and in the morgue led to spells in the brig and drug addiction. Flynn spends one month as a patient in the naval mental health unit in Yokosuka. Pronounced fit for return to duty, he simply walks away.

In alternating chapters, Turner tells Flynn’s story, and Harper’s, and that of a rowdy trio of teenagers. He also shares absorbing details on Japan’s past, geography, religion, culture, and cuisine; recreates several days of a violent student strike at Nihon University; and portrays life at a hippie commune, a way station for American deserters.

The narrative keeps moving, thanks to Turner’s efficient prose, as well as an attractive supporting cast. The Beat poet Gary Snyder shows up at a Buddhist temple. And JATEC operatives—the jazz enthusiast Masuda among them—show resourcefulness in guiding the deserters on their individual perilous journeys.

There’s no guarantee of reaching the country’s far north, embarkation point for the next leg of the escape.

–Angus Paul

1968 by Richard Vinen

“The single most important cause of change in the tone of politics in the 1960s was the Vietnam War,” Richard Vinen writes in 1968: Radical Protest and Its Enemies (HarperCollins, 464 pp., $29.95). The war, he writes, “seemed to focus and incarnate all the other conflicts—about race, imperialism, militarism and capitalism.”

The book came out in July, a half-century after the cataclysmic year that saw the Tet Offensive, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, and the election of Richard Nixon.

Vinen examines the twelve months of 1968 primarily in the context of the years just before and after, what he calls “the long ’68,” and he focuses on the West. “My version of ’68,” he writes, “involves affluent countries in which radical protest came up against elected governments.”

A professor at King’s College London and a recipient of Britain’s Wolfson History Prize, the author distills an extraordinary amount of information into about 340 pages of jargon-free text. He takes a thematic, rather than a linear, approach. So while the book can profitably be read straight through, it may be more valuable as a reference work.

Beyond the United States, Vinen concentrates on three countries: France, West German, and Britain. France experienced  intense activity—worker strikes and student demonstrations—in May 1968 in Paris. In West Germany, the “number of the most committed radicals was relatively small,” he writes, and “terrorism took its most extreme form.” In Britain, 1970s radicalization “extended beyond the campus [to] political violence in Northern Ireland.”

Richard Vinen

Vinen examines phenomena that, in addition to the Vietnam War, influenced “the long ’68,” such as economic growth, the increase in the number of college and university students, and the Civil Rights movement. Throughout, he substitutes complexities for clichéd dichotomies—young/old, new/traditional, outsiders/authority—and shares many intriguing details, among them:

  • “The largest live audience that John F. Kennedy ever addressed was not in Washington or Berlin but in Berkeley, California, and Berkeley illustrated the hopes that many placed in America during the early 1960s.”
  • “Many who had been radicalized in the late 1960s or ’70s turned to writing works that were inspired by American crime fiction. Most famously, Stieg Larsson, the Swedish creator of the Millennium series, had been a very young ’68er, campaigning against the Vietnam War when he was 14 and joining a Trotskyist movement six years later.”
  • “Some American women who opposed the war made much of their status as mothers. Not all feminists felt comfortable with this. Betty Friedan said: ‘I don’t think the fact that milk once flowed in my breasts is the reason I am against the war.’ A group of anti-war feminists staged a ceremony to bury ‘traditional motherhood’ at Arlington National Cemetery.”

–Angus Paul