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

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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

The Revolution of Robert Kennedy by John R. Bohrer

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In The Revolution of Robert Kennedy: From Power to Protest after JFK (Bloomsbury Press, 384 pp. $30, hardcover; $9.99, Kindle) the journalist John R. Bohrer analyzes Robert F. Kennedy’s impact on America by examining three years of his life following the November 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy. During that period, RFK transformed himself into a national leader with aspirations to win the presidential election of 1968.

Bohrer explains how Bobby Kennedy shifted his persona from that of an upper-class, nationally known politician to that of a close friend of the working man. Before then, he had primarily served as JFK’s closest advisor and as his Attorney General.

Military manuals define leadership as “The art of influencing and directing men in a way that will win their obedience, confidence, respect, and loyal cooperation in achieving a common objective.” Bohrer shows how RFK’s evolution touched each aspect of leadership with underdogs, but also created rancor among Washington big dogs, particularly President Lyndon B. Johnson.

By 1966, after winning a seat in the U.S. Senate, Bobby Kennedy’s causes included supporting migrant farm workers, civil rights workers in the South, and those suffering under apartheid in South Africa. Furthermore, he backed the War on Poverty, which included correcting a general imbalance in the distribution of property and raising the welfare and educational levels of poor blacks. He also challenged the need for American involvement and increasing use of military power in the Vietnam War.

Bohrer clearly describes the turmoil of the era by citing contradictory opinions of influential American leaders on all of those social and political issues.

The Revolution of Robert Kennedy is Bohrer’s first book. His writing credentials include work as a reporter, interviewer, television news producer, and historian. One can only speculate that Bohrer has plans for a follow-up volume on the year and a half after this one ends, which would cover the 1968 assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy.

—Henry Zeybel

 

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