Kapaun’s Battle (3rd Coast Books, 239 pp. $17.95, paper; $5.99, Kindle) is the inspiring story of the final year of the life of Emil Kapaun, a man of God who became the most decorated chaplain in U.S military history.
When the North Korean People’s Army invaded South Korea in the summer of 1950, United Nation forces, mainly from the U.S., moved in to aid the South Koreans. Among them was Father Kapaun, 34, who had served as a Catholic chaplain in World War II and rejoined the Army to go to Korea because, he said, he had “orders from God.” Upon his arrival “No one but the generals understand why we’re here,” Kapaun said.
In early action he had his helmet knocked off by rifle fire and later he was blown off his feet by a mortar round. Another time a bullet split Kapaun’s pipe in two while was holding it. He taped it back together. One soldier called him “the most fearless chaplain I’ve ever seen.” He always seemed to be surprised to be complimented for his bravery.
Father Kapaun was with the troops as they moved across the border into North Korea, frequently using the hood of a Jeep as an altar. He was also with them when China entered the war with human wave attacks that broke through the American lines. Kapaun was seen dragging wounded men to cover again and again during the assault, constantly moving among them, treating the wounded, and praying over them. He was in a command post when it was overrun by the Chinese.
Gress, a screenwriter, pulls no punches when describing deaths on the battlefield. Much of it involved hand-to hand-fighting, which Gress characterizes as “hell on earth.”
As the Chinese moved south, nearly a thousand captured Americans were marched north. Those who couldn’t keep up were shot. As the POWs marched, Kapaun prayed just loud enough for the men around him to hear.
Eventually Kapaun and the other POWs were put in camps where dead bodies were stacked up by the hundreds. During the winter of 1950-51, one of the coldest on record, the POWs slept “with their cold feet clamped in the armpits of others,” Gress writes.
During their captivity Kapaun constantly prayed and comforted the men. He also actively stole food for them, and once tried to dig a grave, though he only had dog tags and sticks to do it with. In the spring of 1951 he defiantly gave an Easter service.
Father Emil Kapaun died in captivity in May 1951 and was buried in a mass grave. He was awarded the Purple Heart, a Bronze Star, a Legion of Merit Award, and decades later, was posthumously given the Medal of Honor by President Barack Obama.
Kapaun’s Battle is a well-written book about a courageous, selfless man who is being considered for canonization by the Roman Catholic Church. It was an honor to read it.
The book’s publisher, Ron Mumford, served with the Americal Division’s 6/11th Artillery in 1970.
Carole Engel Avriett’s Under the Cover of Light: The Extraordinary Story of USAF COL Thomas “Jerry” Curtis’s 7 1/2 -Year Captivity in North Vietnam (Tyndale House, 320 pp. $24.99, hardcover; $15.99 paper; $11.99, Kindle) is, as the subtitle notes, the story of Cpt. Curtis’s POW experience in North Vietnam after the rescue helicopter he was piloting was shot down on September 20, 1965.
During that long period, Curtis was moved thirteen times. He was released on February, 12, 1973, a member of the first group of POWs to ride home in a C-141 Starlifter, AKA the “Hanoi Taxi.” He was a member of the group known in the camps as the “old heads,” the men who’d been there the longest.
Avriett, a journalist who specializes in religious themes, has constructed a very interesting book, detailing the saga of Curtis’ capture and imprisonment by the North Vietnamese. The story appears to have been developed entirely from Curtis’s memory and memorabilia, as there are no references, resources, or any other research items listed in the book. If that’s the case, Curtis has a prodigious memory.
We are taken into the solitary and communal cells and into the darkness that pervaded most of the places Curtis was held. Avriett explains the famed 25-position matrix tap-code—how it was initially developed in World War I, and it was used to communicate clandestinely in POW camps ever since.
The title of the book refers to Curtis’ deeply held religious faith. Frequently, prayer was the only thing he had available to turn to for solace and to muster the courage and strength to carry on.
Avriett details some of Curtis’ prayers and his conversations with God about his predicament. We see him asking for answers and strength and praying for the comfort of his fellow prisoners. Upon his repatriation, Curtis retired from the Air Force as a colonel.
This is a straightforward story without political rants or agendas. Curtis also speaks candidly, through the author, about conversations and disagreements with his wife about his re-entry into his family, including matters of child discipline, household chores, and things his wife had to do to keep the family going in his absence.
This is a good read; a well-constructed and edited presentation book.
William Winders’ Finally, Home (243 pp. $40, paper) is an amalgam of personal interviews and material gleened from reference materials. The interviews are mainly with Vietnam War veteran and former POW Dan Hefel, the subject of this very good book.
On Dec. 4, 1968, Daniel H. Hefel drove from his home near Buena Vista, Iowa, to the U.S. Army recruiting office in Dubuque and enlisted. In April 1969 PFC Hefel found himself in South Vietnam at Camp Sally as a 101st Airborne Division riflemen toting an M79 grenade launcher. For the next few months he took part in many large and small-scale actions from the A Shau Valley to the DMZ. Neither the NVA nor the VC could slow Hefel down, but a mosquito disabled him for a few weeks with a dose of malaria.
During this down time, Dan Hefel applied for and got permission to transfer to a 101st Aviation platoon as a Huey door gunner. He soon began flying missions manning an M60 machinegun.
On February 5, 1970, his chopper crashed near the A Shau Valley. The pilot died. Hefel and two other crew members survived, only to be captured by the NVA. They were transported to Hanoi and thrown in POW camps.
In Finally, Home, Dan Hefel recalls his POW experiences, which included recovering from a broken back and other crash injuries and dealing with torture, loneliness, and mental anguish. At one point, the prison doctor performed an emergency appendectomy on him without anesthesia. After being held for three-plus years, on March 27, 1973, Hefel, along with 590 fellow American POWs, was released.
A year after returning to the U.S., Hefel was declared disabled due to his combat injuries and retired from the Army as a staff sergeant. He returned to Iowa, reunited with his family and friends, got married, raised a family, and is now living the American Dream on his Harley.
Finally, Home is a very good book, loaded with pictures, maps, and drawings. I recommend reading Sgt. Dan Hefel’s story.
The book is available from Winders’ newspaper, The Dubuque Leader, 1527 Central Ave., Dubuque, IA 52001.
One would be hard pressed to find a journalist, Vietnam War veteran, or Baby Boomer who does not know the work of the Vietnamese-born war photographer, Nick Ut, especially his Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of Kim Phuc, known as “the Napalm Girl.”
Fellow photojournalist Hal Buell’s new book, From Hell to Hollywood: The Incredible Journey of AP Photographer Nick Ut (Associated Press, 216 pp. $35, paper; $11.49, Kindle), younger generations can learn about what a profound impact his photography had on an entire generation—whether they served in Vietnam, reported and photographed the war, or protested it at home.
The book contains 198 pages of photographs Nick Ut shot for the Associated Press in Vietnam from 1965 until he retired from the AP in 2017. There are many stirring photos he shot during the war, in which he was wounded twice.
What makes From Hell to Hollywood even better is Hal Buell’s fine prose, which details Nick Ut’s guarded entry into photography after his older brother, Huynh Thanh My, a well-known actor, CBS cameraman, then AP photographer, was killed photographing an ARVN operation near Can Tho in 1965. He’d been wounded and was killed by Viet Cong soldiers after they overran the battlefield.
“In that moment, the worlds of Huynh Cong (Nick) Ut and Arlette, My’s wife, collapsed. She was now a 21-year-old widow with a 5-month-old daughter,” Buell writes. “He was now a teenager whose mentor, the central foundation of his life, was taken away.”
Nick Ut’s sister-in-law pleaded with AP photo bureau chief Horst Faas to put him to work because his family needed a new bread winner. He was only 16 years old. Faas resisted at first; didn’t want to be responsible for the demise of two people in one family. But Faas relented and put the young man to work in the Saigon bureau’s darkroom.
It was there that Nick Ut became fascinated with the entire photographic process, and soon yearned to go out in the field as his brother had done. AP correspondent Peter Arnett helped make that happen and Nick Ut soon was doing what his brother had done in Vietnam and in Cambodia.
The photo he took for which he remains best known to this day was an image of then 9-year-old Phan Thi Kim Phuc as she was running down a road, naked, after her village was napalmed by a South Vietnamese Air Force plane on June 8, 1972. I interviewed Nick Ut about that fateful day for News Photographer Magazine in 2006.
“I saw a little girl running,” he told me. “She had torn off all her clothes. She was yelling, `Nóng quá! Nóng quá!’ [Too hot! Too hot!]. Her body was burned so badly. I didn’t want her to die, so I poured cold water on her.”
He didn’t know that cold water actually spread the napalm gel, exacerbating her pain.
“Then I borrowed a poncho from an ARVN 25th Division soldier because I did not want her to be naked,” he said. “She kept saying, `Chắc con sắp chết! Chắc con sắp chết!’ [I think I’m dying! I think I’m dying!].”
Ut said that Kim Phuc was in shock when he and other AP staffers got her to a hospital in Cu Chi. ARVN soldiers were mostly milling about. In a fit of exasperation, he showed his media pass and screamed: “If she dies, I will tell the story of this hospital.” Thanks to Nick Ut, Kim Phuc did not die.
In exacting, masterful prose Hal Buell tells the story of a photojournalist extraordinaire who went from capturing the horrors of war for the Associated Press to photos of American baseball (as foreign to him as cricket is to Americans), and countless movie stars.
According to Buell, when Nick Ut retired in 2017, he was constantly asked what he would do with his life now. His response? “I will always take pictures. Taking pictures is my doctor, my medicine. My life.”
From Hell to Hollywood will appeal to Vietnam War veterans, journalists, journalism students, and Baby Boomers.
–Marc Phillip Yablonka
Yablonka’s books include Vietnam Bao Chi: Warriors of Word and Film, profiles of 35 American military journalists who plied their trade during the Vietnam War.
Richard Camp’s Three War Marine Hero: General Raymond G. Davis (Casemate, 264 pp. $34.95, hardcover; $17.99, Kindle) is a biography one of the mostly highly decorated U.S. Marines. From humble beginnings in rural Georgia, we follow a young Marine through his early training and his service in World War II and the Korean and Vietnam Wars.
After graduating from Georgia Tech in 1938, Davis (1915-2003) received an Army ROTC commission as a second lieutenant—which he promptly resigned to accept the same commission from the Marines. After Marine Officers Basic School he met and married his lifetime companion, Willa “Knox” Heafner. They became inseparable, writing to each other daily whenever they were apart.
Camp devotes a great number of pages to meticulously recounting battles and encounters in which Davis was involved in the Western Pacific in World War II and later in Korea and Vietnam. Camp also covers Davis’ peacetime assignments and schooling.
As Davis’ career advanced, Dick Camp became his aide. They soon became confidants and now Camp—a military historian and the author fourteen books—has written Davis’ life story. His access to Davis has produced a detailed and comprehensive book that is long on battle scenes and minutia, but at times a bit short on details about Gen. Davis himself.
Davis went to Korea in 1950 as a lieutenant colonel. During his varied assignments, he planned, led, and successfully completed the rescue of a company of Marines from a perilous situation at Yudam-ni. For that action he received the Medal of Honor.
As the Vietnam War began to loom on the horizon, Davis became involved in the development of the air-mobile concept and its applications for the Marines. Davis later took command of the 3rd Marine Division in Vietnam, and served with distinction. In 1969, after his 13-month tour of duty, Davis returned to Marine Headquarters in Washington. He received his fourth star in 1971, served as the Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps, and retired in 1971
Three-War Marine Hero is a good book told by a competent author; it’s well researched and written. If you’re a Jarhead, it’s a must read.
Very few people know the burden of being born with a famous name. Some struggle with unfair expectations. Some shun the public and seek anonymity. Of those who enter the same field as their legendary predecessors, few reach the same levels of accomplishment.
Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. (1902-1985) was a three-term U.S. Senator, the longest-serving American Representative at the United Nations, as wall as U.S. Ambassador to South Vietnam (twice), West Germany, and the Vatican. He also advised five presidents and was continuously in public service for nearly five decades. As a young man with wealth, looks, and a Harvard degree, he made a curious choice to join the Army Reserve when the military was at its post-World War I nadir. He would serve his entire adult life in the Reserves before retiring with the rank of Major General.
Lodge, out of now-antiquated notions of probity, wrote two autobiographical sketches of his life, but no memoir. Luke A. Nichter’s The Last Brahmin: Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. and the Making of the Cold War (Yale University Press, 544 pp. $37.50, hardcover; $22.99, Kindle) is the first complete biography of this consequential American statesman. Nichter is a History professor at Texas A&M University–Central Texas and the co-editor of The Nixon Tapes, 1971-1972. In The Last Brahmin Nichter mines the wealth of secondary scholarship and Lodge’s archived material, as well as those of all the presidents from Eisenhower to Ford. The exhaustive nature of his research is evidenced by the book’s ninety pages of endnotes.
Lodge was the grandson—not the son—of Henry Cabot Lodge, the contemptuous Massachusetts Senator notorious for his stand preventing the United States from joining the League of Nations after World War I. The Cabots and the Lodges were the epitome of the Boston Brahmin aristocracy. Their forbearers gained wealth in shipping before turning to public service. Lodge’s forefathers included a Secretary of State, a Secretary of the Navy, and six U.S. Senators.
At age 42, Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. became the first sitting U.S. Senator since the Civil War to resign his seat and enter active military service and fight in a war. As it did for a generation of Americans, World War II changed Lodge from an isolationist (like his grandfather) to a zealous internationalist. He was re-elected to a third term in the Senate in 1946, but continuously clashed with the conservative Republican Old Guard. Determined to prevent another Republican loss in 1952, he convinced Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower to run. Lodge spent so much time working as Ike’s campaign manager that he neglected his own re-election campaign and lost his Senate seat to a young Congressman named John F. Kennedy.
After eight years at the UN, Richard Nixon tapped Lodge to be his running mate in the 1960 presidential election. They narrowly lost to the Kennedy-Johnson ticket. After the election Lodge considered himself too old to run for political office, but too young to retire. He crossed party lines and agreed to become Kennedy’s Ambassador to South Vietnam in the summer of 1963. It would seem a curious move for the patrician politician—working for a man who had defeated him twice in a remote, violent land with a fledgling government.
Despite an impressive career, the first three months Lodge served as Kennedy’s ambassador in Saigon are the most renowned of his life and the rightful cornerstone of Nichter’s work. A secretly recorded conversation implies that JFK gave Lodge approval to support a coup against South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem. Politically, Lodge was a nationalist in the best definition of the word; he valued loyalty and discretion, and did as well as he could in an extremely volatile situation. Lodge never explained his actions in Vietnam, but Nichter’s work is an important contribution in understanding America’s early involvement in what would become the nation’s most controversial overseas war.
In his effort to include as much as detail as possible, Nichter’s prose, though consistently accessible, can periodically be uneven. This is minor problem, though, given the scope of Nichter’s important work.
hgjkThe Last Brahmin is an impressive and authoritative account of a leading figure of the Cold War.
In A Final Valiant Act: The Story of Doug Dickey, Medal of Honor (Casemate, 296 pp. $23.92, hardcover; $17.99 Kindle) retired Marine Lt. Col. John B. Lang presents spellbinding accounts of the ferocity of fighting during Operations Deckhouse VI and Beacon Hill in early 1967 in Vietnam. His stories form the centerpiece of this biography of PFC Douglas Eugene Dickey, a Medal of Honor recipient who sacrificed his life by smothering the blast of a hand grenade with his body to save his fellow Marines.
In this deeply researched book Lang re-creates Dickey’s upbringing in Ohio, his military training and service in Asia, and the aftereffects of his sacrifice. Lang also includes Marine Corps history back to China and during World War II and the Korean War. The book’s 24 pages of photographs relate mostly to Dickey.
During the Vietnam War, fifty-eight Marines received the Medal of Honor, forty-four of them posthumously. Those medals went to young men who, like Doug Dickey, died saving their buddies, Lang says.
Lang graduated from U.S. Naval Academy with a BA in history and an MA in international relations, and served in the first Persian Gulf War and in Somalia, and Iraq during twenty-two years with the Marines. He considers Vietnam War veterans his leaders, mentors, and friends.
The portrayal of Doug Dickey, the oldest of four sons, reveals more than the details of his daily life as Lang provides touches of cerebral insight from letters Dickey frequently wrote to his mother and other relatives during his Marine Corps service. Lang’s many interviews with men who trained and fought alongside Dickey further show the depth of his subject’s character.
After graduating from high school and expecting to be drafted, Doug Dickey and four friends enlisted in the Marine Corps for two years under the Buddy Plan. The physical demands of basic training challenged Dickey to his limits, but he persevered. He breezed through the follow-on Infantry Training Regiment course.
Men of the Dickey’s platoon in the Third Marine Division’s First Battalion, Fourth Regiment comprise the core of manpower cited in the book. With them, Dickey engaged in the Combined Action Program, search-and-destroy missions, and amphibious operations of Marine Special Landing Forces against Viet Cong units around Duc Pho and the North Vietnamese Army along the DMZ. Both sides suffered high casualty counts in every encounter.
To better explain the amphibious operations, Lang includes a series of maps that show the company’s actions virtually day by day. This technique clarifies the Battalion Landing Team maneuver of striking the flank of the North Vietnamese Army invading across the DMZ, the operation in which Dickey died.
The last third of A Final Valiant Act examines the post-war lives of Second Platoon Marines by recounting their unwelcoming homecomings, their fortitude during prolonged and painful hospitalizations, post-traumatic stress issues, and suicides. The book also examines the emotional toll within Gold Star families.
Members of Dickey’s platoon at the 2014 opening of his Medal of Honor exhibit at the Garst House, a local history museum in Greenville, Ohio
In 1997 in honor of Dickey, Second Platoon members held their initial reunion, which became an annual affair. Lang first attended in 2006, and he retells stories of bitter combat and heartwarming friendships collected from attendees. The platoon made Lang an honorary member in 2009.
A Final Valiant Act leaves the reader with a definitive image of Doug Dickey: A selfless young man who loved his family, respected other people, and felt great responsibility toward his country.
Every American should know the life story of former Green Beret—and Vietnam War Medal of Honor recipient—Gary Beikirch. It’s an admirable life filled with honor, valor, service, and humility. And with severe physical and mental pain and anguish.
Gary Beikirch was born and raised in Rochester, New York. He struggled through a rocky childhood after his father deserted the family when he was in first grade. When he was twenty, Beikirch dropped out of college and joined the Army in August 1967. He volunteered for Special Forces, made it through the physically, emotionally, and intellectually vigorous SF training, and opted to become a medic.
Gary Beikirch arrived in Vietnam in July 1969. He wound up serving with a 5th Special Forces Group A Team in a remote Montagnard village called Dak Seang about a mile from the Laotian border in the jungles of the Central Highlands.
Beikirch found his calling tending to the medical needs of Montagnard men, women, and children. Like other Special Forces medics, he treated a myriad of health conditions, from pulling teeth to delivering babies, treating tropical diseases, and removing shrapnel wounds. He bonded with—and came to love—the Montagnard people, especially a 15-year-old boy named Deo, who more or less became his bodyguard.
On April 1, 1970, an NVA force numbering in the thousands launched a surprise human-wave attack on the camp. Caught off guard, the Green Berets and Montagnard fighters (and their families), suffered huge casualties. Beikirch and the other Green Berets sprang into action, defending the camp. Not long after the battle began, as he ran into the teeth of the assault to rescue a wounded Green Beret, a shrapnel burst knocked him unconscious. When he came to, Beikirch couldn’t walk—the metal had lodged near his spinal cord.
He shook off the injury and ordered Deo to carry him back to the perimeter to continue fighting the enemy and treat the wounded. Somehow—without the use of his legs—he helped rescue wounded Americans and Montagnards and treat them in the medic shed. During that time he was shot a second time, in the side. Again, the young Green Beret was treated and Deo took him back to the fighting. Beikirch took another bullet, this time in the stomach, but he refused entreaties to get back under cover. He continued to fight, even with Deo and two other men carrying him on a litter.
Then NVA rockets started falling. Deo jumped on top of Beikirch during a barrage and paid for that selfless act with his life. Somehow, Beikirch continued to fight until he collapsed and was medevaced out. The fighting would go on for nearly a month.
Next came months operations in hospitals in Vietnam and back in the U.S.A. He had to learn to walk again. When he recovered, Beikirch asked to be sent back to Vietnam. Instead, he spent his remaining time in the Army at Fort Devens in Massachusetts. When he took his honorable discharge, Gary Beikirch enrolled in college again. That’s when life got really rough.
“The war injured me physically,” he said in a TV interview in 2019, “but it was my homecoming that destroyed me.”
Being all but shunned and scorned by antiwar college students, he dropped out and for the next few years fought what seemed a losing battle with severe PTSD. He tried self-medicating with drugs and alcohol. He tried turning to the Bible. To little avail. Beikirch wound up living in a cave in the White Mountains of New Hampshire for nearly two years trying to come to terms with the carnage he’d experienced in Vietnam and survivor guilt—even after receiving the Medal of Honor in 1973 in a ceremony at the White House.
When Beikirch met his future wife Lolly in 1975, his life began to turn around. Her love and attention (and their embrace of Christianity) eased much of the psychic burdens he wrestled with. He graduated from White Mountain Seminary in New Hampshire, and two years later earned a BA in Psychology and Sociology from the University of New Hampshire. In 1981, he received an MS in Education Counseling specializing in adolescent psychology, trauma, and PTSD, from the State University of New York at Brockport.
But during those years there were setbacks and backsliding. Soon after Vietnam Veterans of America was founded in 1978, Gary Beikirch joined the fledgling organization and became one of VVA’s early leaders. He helped form Chapter 20 in his hometown of Rochester, and served as its first president from 1981-84. He was elected the first president of VVA’s New York State Council in 1982, and served in that position till 1984, and also did a 1983-85 term on the VVA National Board of Directors.
In 1981, Gary Beikirch—who was running Rochester’s pioneering Veterans Outreach Center and serving as a team counselor there—joined a small group of VVA leaders including then-president Bobby Muller that made a controversial trip to Vietnam to work on POW/MIA and other issues with the former enemy.
In the summer of 1988 Beikirch began working full time as a school counselor at Greece Arcadia Middle School in his hometown. That’s when he overcame the worst of his PTSD and became a loving husband and father—and a caring mentor to countless young teenagers. He spent nearly 25 years at that job. Since his retirement in 2013 Biekirch has traveled the country speaking to students, church groups, veterans, and others about overcoming adversity through faith and what he has called “finding love and being able to experience it” and “loving others more than myself.”
Marcus Brotherton, who specializes in writing inspirational books about military men, worked closely with Gary Beikirch to put together Blaze of Light: The Inspiring True Story of Green Beret Medic Gary Biekirch, Medal of Honor Recipient (Waterbrook, 261 pp. $26). Brotherton uses much reconstructed dialogue to tell Beikirch’s story in a style that calls to mind books aimed at young-adult readers. He stresses positives, but Brotherton does not shy away from describing the many low points in Beikirch’s life.
There is a strong emphasis on religion, which is fitting giving how important becoming a Christian had in bringing Beikirch out from the depths of emotional despair.
Brotherton mentions Vietnam Veterans of America only once in Blaze of Light, in the final chapter. He provides no information about the nation’s only congressionally chartered veterans service organization that concentrates on working for Vietnam War veterans and their families—other than writing that we are “a group.”
There’s not a word in the book about Gary Beikirch’s important role in VVA’s early years on the local, state, and national levels.
Richard J. Flaherty was “the most unconventional man ever to serve in the U.S. military,” according to The Giant Killer: American Hero, Mercenary, Spy … The Incredible True Story of the Smallest Man to Serve in the U.S. Military—Green Beret Captain Richard J. Flaherty (Mission Point Press, 318 pp. $14.99, paper; $6.99, Kindle) by David A. Yuzuk and Neil L. Yuzuk.
Within the first six pages of this very interested book, Flaherty is killed by a hit-and-run driver in the wee hours of a hot May morning in a small Florida town near Miami. Earlier that evening he had told David Yuzuk that “if you ask too many questions, it could be bad for your career, and dangerous to my health.”
Yuzuk was a police officer in Aventura, Florida, who befriended Richard Flaherty and received his permission to produce a 2017 documentary about his life. With the help of his father, Neil, David Yuzuk tells Flaherty’s story in the film and this biography.
As the book begins to take shape, it traces Flaherty’s life from his high school days in Stamford, Connecticut. The bones of the story come from notes taken during lots of conversations David Yuzuk had with Flaherty, who was homeless—more or less by choice—for more than twenty years. He also interviewed many men Flaherty served with; his father did much of the behind-the-scenes research.
The title, Giant Killer, comes from a high school graduation yearbook entry referring to the nickname Flaherty earned after retaliating against a much larger classmate following a locker room prank. It stuck with him over the years.
The authors follow Flaherty through his enlistment in the Army, Basic Training, Infantry AIT, Officer Candidate School, Green Beret training, and his deployments to Vietnam with the 101st Airborne Division and the 3rd Special Forces Group. He was always the smallest man in the room—and in the field. Flaherty took the derision and ridicule heaped upon him as fuel to excel at everything he attempted.
After the war, Flaherty—by then a decorated Special Forces Captain—was riffed out of the Army. Feeling cheated by the military, he embarked upon a series of adventures, with different partners and clients, some of them covert, some of them with agents of the U. S. Government. There was a short prison stay.
This is a good, well-written book about a very interesting man.
In 2014, Americans were asked to name the most admired person in the country. Colin Powell, then ten years removed from public life, made the top of the list. Powell is both an anachronism to the civilian military leadership of Dwight Eisenhower and George Marshall and a sui generis military officer, having served as the first African American National Security Adviser, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Secretary of State.
Jeffrey Matthews’ Colin Powell: Imperfect Patriot (University of Notre Dame Press, 416 pp., $35) is a thorough biography of Powell under the guise of leadership studies. Matthews, a professor of U.S. history and leadership at the University of Puget Sound, wrote about his subject in a previous book, The Art of Command: Military Leadership from George Washington to Colin Powell.
To Matthews, Powell was the “consummate follower” and an “exemplary subordinate,” traits that led to his rise from an aimless immigrant who barely graduated college to the pinnacle of American military and political power. Relying on government documents and first-hand accounts, including a four-hour interview with Powell, Matthews presents a chronological appraisal of Powell’s life that is comprehensively researched and readable.
Matthews praises many of Powell’s positive attributes, especially his undeniable charisma, executive skills, and personal courage. But this is no hagiography. “Too often,” Matthews writes, “successful and patriotic military officers such as Powell have prioritized career ambition, excessive obedience, and blind loyalty over independent critical reasoning and ethical principles.”
The scandals that Powell was directly or indirectly involved with—the cover-up of the My Lai massacre, the Iran-Contra affair, and his United Nations speech that led to the invasion of Iraq—form the crux of Matthews’ assessment of Powell. Matthews uses a degree of presentism, explaining events not as they occurred, but based on information now available, in recounting these episodes in Powell’s life.
This leads him to some harsh and hyperbolic accusations. Matthew accuses Powell, for example, of “clear obstruction of justice” and a “dereliction of duty” in the Iran-Contra affair. But the independent counsel who investigated found Powell’s testimony as merely inconsistent and not worthy of prosecution. As in other parts of the book, Matthews does not offer his thoughts on how Powell should have acted.
Though clearly written and easily accessible, the leadership nomenclature with which the book is written sometimes leads to tenuous connections. As a ROTC cadet, Matthews posits that Powell was recognized as an agreeable follower, which made him a mentor to other cadets. But people can recognize the difference between sycophancy and cordiality; his fellow cadets did not look to him as a leader because he was the consummate follower.
Powell arrived in Vietnam as an adviser in late 1962. He left in July 1963 with a Bronze Star and Purple Heart. He returned for a second tour in 1968, earning valorous distinction in rescuing others after his helicopter crashed. Powell’s connection to the My Lai massacre is tenuous, as he was not assigned to the Americal Division until three months after the atrocity. Matthews provides no new evidence that Powell had contemporaneous direct (or even indirect) knowledge of the massacre. Powell displayed bravery and leadership during his two tours in the Vietnam War, although he has acknowledged his failings about being unreflective about the role of America in the controversial conflict.
Matthews’ assessment of Powell’s Vietnam War service is more exacting: “The Vietnam experience revealed the limits of Powell’s professional development,” Matthews writes, “his unquestioning acceptance of orders, his unswerving allegiance to higher-ranking officers, his utilitarian ethics, and his overriding ambition to advance in rank.”
Douglas MacArthur believed that President Truman’s orders on the Korean War were dangerously wrong. Dwight Eisenhower openly criticized President Roosevelt’s decision to focus on North Africa and postpone an invasion of Europe. One led, one followed. The distinction may be fine, but Matthews’ book does not examine the difference between independent followership and feckless enabling—or the distinction between decisive leadership and rogue initiative.
His subtitle, “Imperfect Patriot” seems especially trite, as America could use Powell’s imperfection right now.