Where the Flowers Went by John Henningson

 

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John Henningson enlisted in the U.S. Army in July 1968. He was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant in August 1969. He went to Vietnam August 1970.

As Henningson writes in Where the Flowers Went In Poetry and Pictures (Mira Digital Publishing, 66 pp., $20, paper) when he shipped out to Vietnam he left “his wife who was 7 months pregnant with their first child behind.” In Vietnam he was assigned to the 3rd/82nd Artillery, which was part of the  the Americal Division in I Corps. Most of his time, he writes, was spent with infantry units as an artillery forward observer and later as a battalion artillery liaison officer.

Henningson’s  military memoir is entitled A Reluctant Warrior: 1968-1971. He tells us that Where the Flowers Went “builds on the prose” in that book, and that his “intent is to go beyond the direct recitation of events but rather to express how those experiences continue to affect my thinking today.”

Henningson’s poems are concrete and packed with detail about his tour of duty. I’m sure that much of the poetry came right out of his memoir, little changed other than to make some of the lines rhyme.

His poems have titles that let the reader know their subjects. “Baby Killers,” for example, is about his encounters with students when he drove his Jeep to bars near a university campus to drag drunken EMs home after trying to pick up college girls. “Their blame was misdirected not against the politicians who caused to all, but rather against those heroes so had answered their Nation’s call,” Henningson writes.

Other titles include “Night Lager,” “Grunts vs REMFs,” “When Death First Came to Call,” “A Grunt’s Feast,” and “Friendly Fire.”

Henningson can wax mighty poetical occasionally as in: “Suddenly a group of Cong appear and sprint toward a patch of trees/ We all draw down and fire at them but they disappear like a bit of smoke wafting in the breeze.”

“Grunts vs REMFs” is one of the best delineations of the eternal war between those two groups that I have read. It is well worth reading, as is every other poem in this fine collection.

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John Henningston in country 

Where the Flowers Went is one of the few poetry books written by a non-poet that I enjoyed reading. Why?  Because it is written from direct experience and that direct experience is on the page in a no-nonsense way. I look forward to reading Henningson’s next book.

I also enjoyed the many color paintings in the book. They remind me of the work of the great 18th century English poet and painter William Blake.

The author’s website is www.henningson.net

—David Willson

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Stand-By One! by Vernon Grant

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Good news for Books in Review II readers. A second edition of Vietnam veteran Vernon Grant’s Stand-By One! has just been published ( Little Creek Press, 40 pp., $9.95, paper) and his wife Betsy Grant is now on a book tour with her late husband’s cartoon collection. Grant’s cartoons are familiar, but they are as descriptive and humorous now as when he drew them in 1969.

Last November, in a review of Grant’s Point Man Palmer, I wrote: “Cpt. Grant received his Army discharge in 1968 after his tour of duty in the Vietnam War. That’s when he began publishing his cartoons and graphic novels. Stand-By One!, published in 1969, presents panels in which Grant occasionally inserts himself in his depiction of a soldier’s routine in the field, off duty, and in stand down.”

The characters in these humorous and ironic situations include PFC Goonfunkle and other soldiers in foxholes, on patrol, during R & R, and after coming “back to the world.”

These un-numbered pages contain drawings revealing typical and quirky scenes such as troops identifying a rescued Vietnamese villager wearing a Ho Chi Minh tee shirt as having been “re-educated” and four officers standing at an entrance to the “Hanoi to Saigon Subway.”

One combat scene shows two soldiers under a ” rocket attack,”  except it’s raining down copies of Playboy magazine, C Rations, and a television. The caption reads: “It looks like they’re running low on ammunition.”

Another carton shows a Vietnam veteran sitting with his date in a restaurant. He says to the waiter: “A beer for me and a Saigon Tea -er- a coke for the lady.” Grant has also drawn tanks with bayonets affixed and a soldier in counseling with a Chaplain in which they both wear Mickey Mouse ears.

 

The best way to appreciate these cartoons is to see them together in Stand-By-One!, an affordable last-minute holiday gift. Betsy Grant’s website is http://bvgrantstudio.com

—Curt Nelson

Eleven Months and Nineteen Days by John Bowen

John Bowen’s Eleven Months and Nineteen Days: A Vietnam Illustrator’s Memoir (Middle River Press, 264 pp., $24.95, paper) is a unique book. It documents his experiences as the only U.S. Air Force illustrator assigned to Tan Son Nhut Air Base outside of Saigon from 1967-68.

Bowen was born in New York City and raised in New Jersey. He began working in the commercial art field after high school, then joined the U.S. Air Force in 1961 as an illustrator. Six years later, he was a staff sergeant and received orders to Vietnam, where he was assigned to the 834th Air Division Headquarters Unit.

As the only illustrator, his primary duty was documenting airlift resupply operations by drawing and painting what he observed. His many sketches and drawings placed liberally throughout this book enhance the reader’s ability to visualize what the author is writing. Some of his works are on display at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.

A large majority of those who served in the Vietnam War were support troops. This is one of their stories. Bowen aptly describes the transformation in his unit from an almost state-side quality of day-to-day life—living in a barracks, sleeping in a bed, taking a warm showers, watching full-length movies, and dining in a mess hall—to life after the 1968 Tet Offensive.

Tan Son Nhut Air Base and nearby Saigon were in the thick of it. A good friend of Bowen’s was killed by an enemy rocket inside the civilian terminal while waiting in line to board a plane back to The World.

By John Bowen

While security forces from the U.S. Army and ARVN Airborne moved through the area responding to enemy attacks, Bowen and his men were on placed on alert, ready to respond. Enemy rocket attacks continued night and day through February and into March, concentrating on the flight line and housing areas. The base control tower even sustained a direct hit. Bowen includes many sketches of the destruction in his book.

Especially poignant was Bowen comforting another airman who was on a sandbag-filling detail when they were bracketed by a salvo of rockets, killing and wounding several men.

The enemy’s May 1968 Spring Offensive saw more attacks on Tan Son Nhut. Again, the combined U.S. Army, Air Force, and ARVN units prevented the base from being overrun.

The author’s unit, the 834th Air Division, received two Presidential Unit Citations for outstanding performance during the Tet Offensive and the Spring Offensive. After reading John Bowen’s well-written and profusely illustrated book, you will have a new appreciation for the troops who kept our supplies coming, no matter what.

For ordering info, go to the author’s website, www.johnbowenwatercolorist.com

—-James P. Coan

Wartorn Heart by Kathleen Trew Swazuk

Kathleen Trew Swazuk was an Army nurse at the 93rd EVAC Hospital in Long Binh during her 1969-70 tour of duty in the Vietnam War. Her “scars have taken years to heal,” she writes in Wartorn Heart: Poems and Art Inspired by the Vietnam War (Blurb, 48 pp., $41.49)

This large, thin, and beautiful book contains very short poems bolstered by art work by many different artists. The poems and the art resonate with, and support, each other. And they resonate with the reader.

The poem that spoke loudest to me is  “Agent Orange.” It’s almost as if the poem was written for me, or by me.

Agent Orange

Sprayed orange in a yellow war.

Breathing in and out the pixie dust that coats the air…

Seeping into body trying to destroy the soul.

 

I am old now.  The body is racked with pain

bones soft and bones broken.

Lungs no longer willing to expand

and let in the reborn air of spring.

Inert too long, I must climb out of this

bunker I have built,

to isolate my wornout

body to try and heal my war torn soul.

 

There will be no choppers to rescue me.

Escape must be on my own.

I wave the white flag of surrender

so that I can move into the light.

I walk toward the sunrise

and brightness of a new day.

 

A new beginning…A new landing zone

where the dust is no longer orange.

 

The book contains many photographs of the people and the work done at 93rd Evac during the author’s time there. The horror and pain of the butcher’s bill of war are well communicated in this book. It takes a place of honor in the literature of nursing in the Vietnam War.

—David Willson

Kill for Peace by Matthew Israel

Matthew Israel’s Kill for Peace: American Artists Against the Vietnam War (University of Texas Press, 278 pp., $29.95, paper) fills the space that was left by Lucy Lippard’s A Different War:  Vietnam in Art and the National Vietnam Veterans Art Museum’s Vietnam: Reflexes and Reflections.

Much of the art in those two books is antiwar; in his book Matthew Israel focuses on that art to great effect. Israel is a New York art historian and author who has taught at New York University and the Museum of Modern Art. No information is given in the book on his military service.

The “baby killer” motif is prominent in Israel’s presentation and analysis of antiwar art. I’ve read hundreds of books by Vietnam veterans who say they are tormented by that appellation. This book has many references to the “baby killer” theme, although when I went to the otherwise fine index, that term was not there.

Korean War and World War II veterans got a free pass on the issue of killing innocent civilians, but Vietnam War veterans are held to account in a way that veterans of those wars were not. Was it that no women and children were killed in previous wars?  We know that is not true. Previous wars also drafted civilians to be soldiers, so that isn’t the variable either.  So what is it?

Israel addresses this question in a chapter entitled “AWC, Dead Babies, Dead American Soldiers.”  It contained an epiphany for me. First, Israel doesn’t say it straight out, but most home-front  Americans believed that all soldiers in Vietnam were in the infantry. Americans still tend to think this. But something like ninety percent of us were support troops who had little or no access to weapons—and if we had them, we would not have chosen to kill women and children with them.

The visuals in this chapter clearly show that the posters disseminated after the My Lai massacre focused on the notion that American soldiers were baby killers—that that, in fact, was their mission.

The most scurrilous image in the book is of a 1970 poster, Jeff Kramm’s “My Lai,” displaying a naked ROTC soldier as a muscular, smug rapist and murderer. The caption is “My Lai—We Lie—They Die.” As if young men were joining ROTC motivated by the urge to kill. Most men were in ROTC either as a way to get a college education or because we attended Land Grant colleges that required ROTC. That’s why I was in ROTC—no choice at all, just like when I got my draft notice in late 1965.

Leon Golub created a lot of art about the war: the Vietnam Series and later, the Napalm series. He later recanted. “I couldn’t blame the G.I.’s for the guys who were initiating all this,” he said. “The soldiers weren’t assassins. I became ashamed.”  Golub then destroyed most of those demonizing art works, but it was too late, the damage was done.

Tens of thousands of posters showing Vietnamese civilians—including the iconic photo taken by Ron Haeberle of My Lai (below)—did their work in demonizing American troops in Vietnam. That includes a poster that showed a Vietnamese mother holding her burned child with the words:“Would you burn a child? When necessary.”

These images became the defining visual myth that ruled the minds of most Americans, convincing them that we were all “baby killers.” The idea that Golub presents—that those who sent us to Vietnam are the real “baby killers”—escapes most Americans.

The entitled elite who used the term “baby killers” against us re-purposed the term from World War I, when the English used it to refer to what the German use of zeppelins did over English cities.

Matthew Israel

The World War II generation—the so-called “Greatest Generation”—punished Vietnam veterans for this sin when we returned home by not giving us much of a G.I. Bill, by not giving us jobs, and by not allowing us to join the VFW and similar old-line veterans organizations because we weren’t “real” war veterans.

Reading this book reminded me again and again of the questions I had in the eighties when I taught Vietnam War classes at a community college.  In a nutshell, students would ask, “Why did you go?  If you’d just refused to be drafted, there would have been no war, no dead Americans, no dead Vietnamese.”

My answer was: You are right, but young men don’t get to decide. Also, they don’t know what they knew later, and they don’t know what you know now. They just know that America was in a war against communism and that their dads wore the uniform and saved the world, and they now had the opportunity to do the same. Later, they know stuff that changes their point-of-view, and makes them very bitter at how they were taken advantage of. They knew then that if they hadn’t served, prison and infamy awaited them, and their families would disown them.

Anyone curious about how American soldiers who served in Vietnam became stereotyped as “baby killers” should read this fine book. Matthew Israel has done a brilliant job demonstrating the power of the media, both television and art. He shows how they worked together to foster the myth of American soldiers running amok in Vietnam.

The author’s website is www.matthewisrael.com

—David Willson