Blaze of Light by Marcus Brotherton

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.

Gary and Lolly Beikirch in 2019

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.

–Marc Leepson

Receiving the Medal of Honor at the White House in 1973

The Giant Killer by David A. Yuzuk & Neil L. Yuzuk

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. 

–Tom Werzyn

Colin Powell by Jeffrey J. Matthews

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.

Colin Powell during his first Vietnam War tour in 1963

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.

—Daniel R. Hart

In That Time by Daniel H. Weiss

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Daniel H. Weiss’s In That Time: Michael O’Donnell and the Tragic Era of Vietnam (PublicAffairs, 192 pp., $26) is a stunning book. It contains only 176 pages of text, but is well written and presented.

Weiss, the president and CEO of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, is an accomplished researcher and writer. He has produced a nicely constructed offering that threads a historical narrative of the Vietnam War into the story of Army Capt. Michael D. O’Donnell, a helicopter pilot whose chopper was shot down by enemy fire in Cambodia while extracting a secret reconnaissance team on March 24, 1970. The crew and passengers went down in flames in dense jungle surrounded by the NVA.

Weiss follows O’Donnell and his family from birth to his loss. Then he shows how his parents, sister, and girlfriend dealt with the fact that he was officially missing in action. O’Donnell’s remains were not identified until 1995. He was buried in 2001 at Arlington National Cemetery in a common grave with the remains of the five men he tried to rescue and his 170th Attack Helicopter Co. co-pilot John Hosken,

His story is told in conjunction with a very compact presentation of the history of the  Vietnam War. Though not a member of the Vietnam War generation, Weiss, a former college president and author, is a proven researcher. His Vietnam War history is dispassionate and un-cynical—even clinical.

His telling of Mike O’Donnell’s short life story is special, mainly because of the fact that he was a poet. During O’Donnell’s teen-age years and his short foray at college, music and poetry were driving forces for him. He enlisted in the Army with the draft breathing down his neck. He made it through OCS and helicopter flight school and in Vietnam served a UH-1 Huey helicopter pilot with 170th ASC at Pleiku and Dak To.

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During his time in country O’Donnell wrote a good number of poems (and some song lyrics) that he wanted to assemble under the title “Letters from Pleiku.” One of his poems came to be known after his death by its first line, “if you are able.” It has been widely published, including on the home page of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial website run by the 4th Battalion/9th Infantry Association, and on the Fallen Warriors page on the Blue Star Mothers’ website.

I enjoyed this book. I recommend that it become a staple in high school curricula as a resource during the study of the Vietnam War.

–Tom Werzyn

Our Man by George Packer

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“Idealism,” writes George Packer, “without egotism is feckless; egotism without idealism is destructive.” This was the central tension of Ambassador Richard Holbrooke’s life and death, a struggle to balance a blinding ambition with American virtue.

Packer is a writer at The New Yorker and The Atlantic whose best-selling book, The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, won a National Book Award in 2013. Producing his latest book, Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century (Knopf, 609 pp., $30), was not a dispassionate undertaking for him. He starts Our Man with: “Holbrooke? Yes I knew him. I can’t get his voice out of my head.”

This initial conversational prose continues throughout the book, primarily in the first person by Packer, but occasionally by a third-person narrator. At times, Packer cedes narrative control to Holbrooke, using the former diplomat’s diary to fill an entire chapter.

George Packer’s simpatico relationship with Richard Holbrooke is underscored by their mutual support for the war in Iraq. That influenced Holbrooke’s third wife and widow to allow Packer unfettered access to her husband’s previously private papers and diaries. Packer also conducted more than 250 interviews for the book.

The brilliance of the end product is in revealing the essence of Holbrooke. He is not necessarily a likable figure, and Packer is unafraid to portray the more profane aspects of his personality. Yet Holbrooke’s ambition propelled him into achieving great things for his country, most notably negotiating a peaceful end to the conflict in Bosnia.

Richard Holbrooke arrived in South Vietnam in the spring of 1963 as a Foreign Service Officer in the JFK mold. He stayed for three years before leaving for Washington to work for pacification czar Robert (“Blowtorch Bob”) Komer. He would stay in Washington long enough to write a volume of The Pentagon Papers and participate in the Paris Peace Talks in 1968.

Under President Carter, Holbrooke became the youngest Assistant Secretary of State. He met his match in National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, though, who bested Holbrooke bureaucratically and consistently proscribed more-effective policies. Exiled during Reagan-Bush years, Holbrooke would fail in his life-long goal of becoming Secretary of State. He served in the Clinton and Obama presidencies in various roles, including as special envoy to the Balkans, and as special representative to Afghanistan.

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Holbrooke in South Vietnam in the early sixties

As it was during his time in Vietnam, Holbrooke’s ambition was sweeping and shameless, a characteristic Packer finds humanizing—but one that others may find revolting. Packer seemingly spares no salacious detail in the book. “He didn’t want to miss a minute of life,” Packer writes. He carried on many affairs (one famously with Diane Sawyer), played video games, watching an endless stream of movies, and wooed his best friend’s wife.

The journalist and biographer Walter Isaacson contends that if one was to read only one book about America’s foreign policy in the past fifty years, Our Man should be the book. This may be too sanguine, but it is not without merit.

Holbrooke’s perspective on foreign policy was forged by the Vietnam War, with its paradoxical mélange of exploited patriotism and sincere idealism, of earnestness and hubris, which has established the rhetorical framework for the use of American force since. His support for the war in Iraq showed that Holbrooke did not learn this lesson, allowing his egotism to destroy his idealism. When he tried to apply these lessons to his time as Special Representative to Afghanistan, he lacked the temperament to work with President Obama.

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Holbrooke at the table at the Paris Peace Talks

Our Man is a biographical masterpiece, but Packer’s history lacks a serious analytical framework. The second half of the title, “The End of the American Century,” seems to have been absorbed from others as a commentary about the current administration. In the scope of this magisterial effort, this seems like trifling criticism.

Our Man is captivating, infuriating, and engrossing. Much like Holbrooke himself.

–Daniel R. Hart

Hal Moore: A Life in Pictures by Mike Guardia

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The journalist and former Vietnam War correspondent Joe Galloway gave legendary status to Lt. Gen. Hal Moore by joining with him to write We Were Soldiers Once… and Young: Ia Drang – The Battle That Changed the War in Vietnam (1992). Hollywood turned the book into a popular movie starring Mel Gibson as the general and sanctified Moore’s leadership.

Military historian Mike Guardia, who serves as a Captain in the U.S. Army Reserve, further fortified Moore’s stature by writing  Hal Moore: A Soldier Once… And Always in 2014 and Hal Moore on Leadership: Winning when Outgunned and Outmanned in 2017. His latest book is Hal Moore: A Life in Pictures (Magnum, 192 pp. $27.95, hardcover; $25.95, paper; $7.99, Kindle).

Guardia calls his new book “the definitive biography of this revered leader,” who died in 2017, two days short of ninety-five years of life. With nearly three hundred photographs, many of them “never-before-published,” Guardia says, A Life in Pictures leads the reader through the stages of Moore’s life:

  • Childhood in rural Kentucky
  • West Point during World War II
  • Occupied Japan
  • War in Korean
  • The Vietnam War
  • Peacetime training supervision
  • Building a loving family with his wife, Julie and their five children

The nearly sixty photographs from the Vietnam War interested me the most. They primarily focus on the 1965 Battle of Ia Drang in which Moore led the 1/7th Cavalry. Captions provide concise accounts that show Moore’s commitment to his men. They also emphasize his remarkable ability of leading from the front, particularly throughout the 1966 search-and-destroy Bon Song Campaign.

The overall effect of the book created a strong admiration within me for Hal Moore’s life and career. Before opening the book, I anticipated seeing a bunch of pictures of soldiers standing around in uniforms. Instead, I met the memory of a man filled with compassion for his troops. Moore’s humility overwhelmed me. For example, the press’ comparing him to Gen. George Patton “horrified him,” according to Guardia. Perhaps best of all, Hal Moore had a sense of humor.

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LTC Moore at Ia Drang in November 1965 (U.S. Army photo)

Guardia is an avid fan of Hal Moore, but he portrays Moore’s behavior in war and peace with low-keyed vignettes that fully justify the general’s legendary recognition as a soldier’s soldier.

The author’s website is

—Henry Zeybel

Wisconsin’s 37 by Erin Miller  

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In Wisconsin’s 37: The Lives of Those Missing in Action in the Vietnam War (McFarland, 251 pp., $29.95, paper) Erin Miller, a young, first-time author, has skillfully parlayed an extensive and exhaustive research project—the outgrowth of a homework assignment—into a quite readable effort to tell the life stories of the men noted in her subtitle, some of whose remains were recently returned from the battlefield.

Miller is an admitted military neophyte who had to develop a glossary of people, places, and terms, to begin her research. The book stems from a response to an innocuous social media entry and is based on Miller’s deep dive into countless documents, as well as interviews with family members and comrades of the thirty-seven Wisconsin men listed as missing in action in the Vietnam War.

She wrote the book with the help of University Wisconsin U.S. History Professor John Sharpless, who calls the experience at once an “emotionally draining, and deeply rewarding.”

Miller and Sharpless present the story chronologically, from 1965-73, and add post-war information about individual histories and repatriation efforts. As of the time of publication in May of this year, twenty five of thirty seven remain unaccounted for.

The book is a thoroughly commendable memorial to the lives of these men. The biographies allow us to vicariously visit with each of them. We learn of their hopes, dreams and plans, as well as their families’ unanswered questions and loss.

–Tom Werzyn

Straining Forward by Michelle Layer Rahal

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Finding a niche in life might require a lifetime. Imagine the difficulty of that task for an adolescent woman suffering feelings of responsibility for her parents’ unhappiness; who sees her loving father and two siblings shot dead by a Vietcong soldier; endures war and the indignities of prison, torture, rape, starvation, and homelessness; and loses her mother to prostitution.

Michelle Layer Rahal accepts the challenge of unraveling such a life in the biography, Straining Forward: Minh Phuong Towner’s Story (Xulon Press, 374 pp. $19.49, paper; $9.99, Kindle).

Born in 1958 to an upper-class Vietnamese family in Saigon, Minh Phuong Towner attended a Catholic school that conducted lessons in French. When the communists won control of Vietnam in 1975, her world collapsed, and her mother ordered her to flee the country with her younger brother Thanh.

The escape of Minh and Thanh from Vietnam is a spellbinding story and sets the stage for all that follows. Searching for freedom and identity, Minh traveled through Taiwan, France, and Australia, ending up in the United States. Her life is a study in coping with emotional and physical trials by adapting to the demands of her environments.

Along the way, Minh experienced nearly every pain and privation that could befall a defenseless young woman. Her naivety led to repeated victimization. She suffered, but never gave up.

To win acceptance in each country, she learned the local languages and analyzed herself. At the end of a torture session in Vietnam, she thought: “God has abandoned me.”

In Taiwan, she decided: “I know how to care for others, I do not know how to care for myself.” France taught her that “Working to stay alive is not the same as working to live, and [she] wanted to live.”  In Australia, after becoming a registered nurse, she asked herself: “Who am I? What do I want out of life?”

She married an American in Australia, and had a son and daughter. Her brother Thanh’s death from cancer made Minh consider suicide: “Death would have been easy,” she says, “but I chose the harder route. I chose life.” When the marriage failed, she moved to the United States.

She married for a second time and evolved spiritually. Diagnosed with PTSD, she learned to manage. She earned a graduate degree and attained a satisfying life in ministry and became a United States citizen.

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Michelle Rahal

The pace of this uplifting book slows after Minh reaches Australia. Activities during her nearly thirty years in that nation relate mainly to repetitive domestic conflicts. Thankfully, Rahal’s fluid writing style sustained my interest.

Twenty photographs that perfectly span sixty years show Minh and her family from childhood to the present.

Mihn’s story reminded me of Thuhang Tran’s Standing Up After Saigon. Both books focus on young women facing life-changing challenges and provide information about the assimilation of Vietnamese people in other nations, as well as their acceptance into the United States.

—Henry Zeybel

John McCain: American Maverick by Elaine S. Povich

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Elaine S. Povich’s John McCain: American Maverick (Sterling, 208 pp, $24.95) is a coffee-table-like tome featuring large, glossy (and evocative) photographs on nearly every page. The photos are used to good effect to cover the many highlights of McCain’s notable life, including the five-and-a-half years he was held as a POW in the Hanoi Hilton.

Povich, a Washington, D.C. journalist who has covered the nation’s capital for UPI, the Chicago Tribune, and Newsday, wrote a conventional bio of McCain—John McCain: A Biography—in 2009. This go-round she mainly uses McCain’s own words, including more than a few pithy pull quotes, to accompany the bare-bones text and the great many photographs from throughout McCain’s eventful personal and political lives.

Ken Burns, Mr. Documentary, provides a Foreword that—like the book itself—is a paean to McCain’s heroism and service.

McCain is, “without doubt,” Burns writes, “a genuine American hero—complicated, brave, flawed, sacrificing, confounding, inspiring—and above all human. I have had the great privilege of spending time with him on many occasions over the last two-plus decades and each meeting has only reinforced my conviction about his unique and inspirational greatness.”

Povich agrees.

“Above it all,” in McCain’s life, she writes, there is “honor—the code by which he has always lived. The worst times of his life were when he felt that honor tarnished, yet they were rare. McCain tries to do what he feels is right. He doesn’t always succeed. But he surely has a hell of a time trying.

“If he is remembered for anything, McCain has said, he would like it to be that he ‘served his country. And I hope, we could add, honorably.’

“He has done so. And honorably.”

—Marc Leepson

Danger 79er by James H. Willbanks

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James F. Hollingsworth began his military career in 1940 as a United States Army lieutenant. He retired thirty-six years later as a lieutenant general. The long list of his awards and decorations staggered my imagination.

James H. Willbanks has recreated Hollingsworth’s life in Danger 79er: The Life and Times of Lieutenant General James F. Hollingsworth (Texas A&M University Press, 256 pp. $32). “Danger 79er” was Hollingsworth’s call sign in the Vietnam War. The book is an exciting and informative read because it examines the leadership qualities of a man who advocated destroying enemies without compromise despite being accused of overzealousness in delivering death and destruction on the battlefield where his actions matched his theories.

Willbanks is a retired Army infantry officer who was an adviser to the ARVN at An Loc during the 1972 NVA Easter Offensive. Since 1992, he has directed and taught at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth. A tireless researcher, he has written fifteen military history books, specializing in the Vietnam War.

Hollingsworth, who died in 2010 at the age of ninety-one, earned his commission through the Texas A&M Corps of Cadets (as did Willbanks). He commanded 2nd Armored Division tanks from platoon to battalion level in World War II under Gen. George S. Patton. At the war’s end, Hollingsworth was a twenty-seven-year-old lieutenant colonel with a Distinguished Service Cross, four Silver Stars, four Bronze Stars, and five Purple Hearts.

In World War II, his bravery in North Africa, Sicily, and Europe had no bounds, according to people Willbanks interviewed. Writing about Hollingsworth leading his troops in the field, Willbanks says, “Holly was a soldier’s general,” and (to me) that says it all.

Time after time, Hollingsworth’s performance set standards for combat that few men are brave enough or competent enough to follow. Willbanks provides many stirring examples of Hollingsworth’s affinity with grunts in both wars. All amount to lessons in leadership.

Critics challenged Hollingsworth’s approach to combat when he became assistant commander of the 1st Infantry Division in Vietnam in 1965 under Maj. Gen. William DePuy. The two thought and acted alike and were labeled “unguided missiles” and “hip shooters.” Bending to public sentiment against the war, some fellow officers—up to and including the Army Chief of Staff—believed that Hollingsworth and DePuy projected an unacceptable eagerness to kill opponents. Nevertheless, neither man backed down. They lived on the battlefield.

For his second tour in Vietnam in 1971-72, Hollingsworth was assigned by Gen. Creighton Abrams to revitalize the troops in I Corps whose morale plummeted during Vietnamization. Before Hollingsworth completed the task, Abrams moved him to help the ARVN commander at the battle for Loc Ninh and An Loc. Shortly thereafter, Hollingsworth assumed command of the area. His use of air power showed a talent for targeting as if foreseeing enemy movements. Relentless B-52 strikes decided the outcome by stymieing NVA ground attacks, according to Willbanks, who was at the scene. The NVA lost nearly three infantry divisions.

Criticism of Hollingsworth intensified when he received command of combined forces in South Korea in 1973 and turned a defensive master battle plan into a hyper-aggressive offensive strategy. That prevented his earning a fourth star and led to his retirement. As a civilian he continued to speak out on behalf of national defense.

Willbanks presents insightful looks into relationships between general officers. He also shows that, between wars, Hollingsworth served tours at the Pentagon in positions where he met, befriended, and exchanged philosophies with members of Congress and cabinet heads. His devotion to duty and outspoken manner pleased many people while irritating others. With this information, Willbanks provides excellent lessons in management.

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The “Danger 79” statue on the Texas A&M campus

The book’s World War II maps of North Africa and Europe are annotated so that they practically tell the story of the fighting there by themselves. Photographs also enhance the text.

Although Danger 79er primarily tells the story of Hollingsworth, Willbanks expands its scale to history book proportion. He talks about the design and execution of World War II strategy. He also includes inside views about two vital issues of the Vietnam War: the importance of leadership in executing search-and-destroy tactics, and the effects of Vietnamization and what they portended after the Americans departed.

In retrospect, it is easy to see that the writing was on the wall; too few people bothered to read it.

I enjoyed all aspects of the book.

—Henry Zeybel