Colin Cahoon’s Mended Wings: The Vietnam War Experience through the Eyes of Ten American Purple Heart Helicopter Pilots (Valor Press, 249 pp. $17.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle) is a compilation of ten stories Cahoon put together honoring men who were wounded in acting flying rotary-winged aircraft in the Vietnam War. Cahoon, who served as an Army helicopter pilot in the mid-1980s, also is the author of two novels, The Man with the Black Box and Charlie Calling.
Mended Wings is based on many interviews Cahoon conducted and a good deal of research he did into the part helicopters played in the Vietnam War. Each chapter contains a concise account of the often chaotic and bone-chilling events that resulted in a pilot getting wounded. Cahoon also skillfully includes the details of the pilots’ early years, military careers, and post-war lives.
Cahoon’s first-hand knowledge of helicopters helps him describe many aspects of the capabilities, strategies, and tactics of helicopters in the Vietnam War. He also goes over each mission’s objectives, risks, planned and unplanned events, and end results, along with the pilots’ reasoning and state of mind.
As I began reading a chapter, I was invariably drawn to the photos at the end. I had to see the faces of of the pilots as I read their stories. That way I could practically see, hear, and sometimes feel the chaos inside the helicopters when they were hit, sometimes from close range. In several cases, the pilots volunteered to extend their tours or to serve second tours of duty in the dangerous skies of South Vietnam. There must be hundreds of similar stories and I would love to see Cahoon do another book with more of them.
Reading this book, I felt each chapter was almost a book in itself. I always believed Vietnam War helicopter pilots to be warriors. This book leaves no doubt in my mind that they were some of the bravest, most dependable, and most valuable assets of that war.
Warfare engraves unforgettable memories in the minds of its participants, a fact convincingly confirmed by the Vietnam War veterans whose stories are told in Echoes of Our War: Vietnam Veterans Reflect 50 Years Later (BookCrafters, 286 pp. $29.95, paper), which was put together by Retired Marine Col. Robert L. Fischer. Some memories are as vivid as the events were a half century ago.
In reacting to witnessing a wartime atrocity committed against Vietnamese civilians in 1968, for example, former Navy Corpsman Dennis E. Sedlack says: “I experience gut-wrenching terror. I am so angry, and I have horrific rage at God, my government, and life in general. My feeling is I want to kill everyone in sight. The desire to kill all or to flee has never gone away. To this day, when life closes in and gets too heavy, that same urge still shows up.”
Sedlack provides a dynamic study in sheer terror and exposure to carnage. He records what he saw and did in Vietnam with astounding honesty, particularly the fear and anger. His battlefield stories and thoughts rank among the most revelatory I have read in reviewing more than 300 books about the Vietnam War. He sets the standard for the recollections of nine Marines—eight one-time grunts and one F-4 Phantom jock—in Echoes of Our War.
Paralleling Sedlack, the other veterans offer life-altering accounts of their war experiences. PFC Bill Purcell describes 13 days of “seemingly hopeless” combat in Hue City during the Tet Offensive before wounds took him out of action. His description of building-to-building fighting is a masterpiece of observation and recall.
Reporting battles on the eastern edge of Hue, Corp. Grady Birdsong complements Purcell. Birdsong served an extended 20-month tour starting in February 1968. He is the foremost contributor to the book. Along with his experiences, he provides a footnoted analysis of the entire war, including a short history of how the U.S. became involved going back to 1880.
Recollecting his 26 days in Hue, Corp. Gary Eichler gives a different view of door-to-door and room-to-room fighting. He finished his year by patrolling the area near Khe Sanh. His writing reflects a mood of “What the fuck am I doing here?”
Sgt. Tom Jacobs, also in-country for Tet ‘68, recreates just about the ugliest ambush that a company has ever experienced. He survived untouched, but four months later a mortar round explosion took him out of the war with a 100 percent disability wound.
Lt. Bob Averill and MSgt. John Decker also add their version of the war’s history to their personal accounts. Averill succeeded as a company commander by relentlessly using massive firepower. He then led a Combined Action Company and developed an overwhelming sense of responsibility toward the Vietnamese that continues to this day. Decker served two tours separated by seven months spent recuperating from the effects of wounds. He chops through fields of government, media, and military mistakes as if harvesting history. His thinking is original and his writing style flows with an entertaining voice.
Capt. Dan Guenther, Lt. C.R. Cusack, and Lance Cpl. Mike Frazier write the book’s shortest chapters with differing perspectives of the war. Guenther discusses the logistics of his 19 months in Amphibious Tractor operations. Cusack tells a couple of flying stories focused on other people. Frazier walked point on at least forty patrols before a wound ended his tour. He sticks to facts and tells it like it was.
Dedication to the U.S. Marine Corps is a dominant theme of the book. Men who fought at Hue express fault the U.S. Army’s lack of cooperation in procuring food, water, and ammo and its undisciplined approach to combat. Most of the veterans sling accusations of incompetent decision making at American presidents. They label politicians as “consummate cowards” and inefficient administrators as “pogues.” One says Gen. William Westmoreland was “a pompous showboat and fool.”
The book is the brainchild of Bob Fischer. The ten writers were selected from more than 160 Denver-area veterans from all wars, members of “Cooper’s Troopers,” a group founded by Fischer, “China Marine” Ed Cooper, and Iwo Jima veteran Al Jennings that meets monthly. Co-editors Guenther, Birdsong, and Mark Hardcastle finalized the manuscript.
Fischer and his crew gave the writers a list of questions dealing with combat assignments, their thoughts on past controversies, the value and morality of the war, examples of its impact on an individual, racial problems, regrets, and lingering personal issues such as PTSD.
Photographs, maps, and a large glossary round out this informative collection of timeless memories.
Marc Levy’s The Best of Medic in the Green Time: Writings from the Vietnam War and Its Aftermath (Winter Street Press, 563 pp. $24, paper) is a kaleidoscopic book of stories written by Levy and others. Kaleidoscopically, these colorful stories burst out in all directions. They’re collected from a website that Levy, who served as a medic with the First Cavalry Division in the Vietnam War, started in 2007.
The stories, poems, essays, recollections, and reflections are divided into three sections: War, Poetry, and Postwar. There are more than seventy stories in all, three-fourths written by Levy.
Here is some of what we encounter in the opening section on the Vietnam War. A casualty of friendly fire, the first man Levy has to patch up. How to make morning GI coffee. Inflated body counts. Souvenirs taken from the dead. Medals awarded to appease grieving families. Coincidences that save lives. Men voluntarily returning to the war because they missed the adrenaline rush.
Several stories describe extreme combat at a personal level. A buddy dying in Levy’s arms. The attacking Viet Cong dressed only in loin cloths. Men giving themselves self-inflicted wounds to try to keep from returning to combat.
The poems are a mixed bag; some of the best are written by Levy. In “He Would Tell You,” for example, he writes:
Let me never tell you
Things you cannot know
Let me never tell you
Things that won’t let go.
“Portrait of a Young Girl at Dawn” ends with:
They haul her in.
Beneath the whirling blades
She is spinning, spinning
She is floating away.
“Dead Letter Day,” begins: “He sent the letter to the guy’s wife/The same day,/Leaving out the following:”
We then learn the truth of the man’s death. Things his widow must never know.
One of the best poems, by Tom Laaser, is “Things I Think About at 11:11 on November the 11th”. In it, a man is attending yet another program for vets in a high-school auditorium and he’s conflicted. He senses that he does not want to be a veteran,
But the second that god damn flag is unfurled
And that crappy high school band strikes up you
Give way to unyielding patriotism of the highest degree.
I bled for this
You want to scream.
I am a veteran. This is MY country. I earned this freedom.
The third part, “Postwar,” includes a small section on combat humor, as well as one on how to talk to college students about the war, and one on the symptoms and treatments of PTSD because, as Levy writes, “Whatever you did in war will always be with you.” An especially interesting section includes comments from dozens of veterans describing what they think when some well-meaning person says, “Thank you for your service.”
It’s a phrase Levy considers to be “petty.”
This is a great book because of the well-written variety of stories and topics Levy covers. It’s also great because of how it’s put together. There is no reason to read the more than seventy chapters in order. Dig in and skip around any way you choose.
Waging Peace in Vietnam: U.S. Soldiers and Veterans Who Opposed the War (New Village Press, 256 pp., $35, paper) is a-large format, heavily illustrated book that looks at the role played by active-duty troops and Vietnam War veterans in the antiwar movement. The book—edited by Ron Carver, David Cortright, and Barbara Doherty—is based on a multimedia exhibit that has been shown in this country and in Vietnam.
The editors begin with a 1964-73 timeline of the Vietnam War antiwar movement. Then comes an essay, “Dissent and Resistance Within the Military During the Vietnam War,” by Cortright, a former Army draftee who was active in the GI peace movement who today is professor of peace studies at the University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies. In the essay Cortright writes that by 1970 U. S. ground troops had ceased fighting as an effective fighting force. The reason, he says, was opposition to the war from within fomented by underground GI newspapers and other antiwar activity.
Other essays, oral histories, and reprinted newspapers, posters, flyers and photographs deal with Jane Fonda, John Kerry, and nearly all the usual suspects who played important roles opposing the Vietnam War. There also are brief sections on important places and people in Vietnam, such as Long Binh Jail, aka LBJ. There is a good photo of LBJ, which communicates what the place must have been like for those locked behind its bars.
The biographical section at the end contains good information on the voices heard in the book and the men pictured on the front cover. I enjoyed reading those bios and learned a few things I had not previously known.
This is a valuable reference book and should be a part of every Vietnam War section in college and public libraries.
W.D. Ehrhart joined the U.S. Marine Corps right after he graduated from high school in 1966 and served on active duty for three years. He arrived in Vietnam in February 1967, and went on to experience an eventful thirteen-month tour of duty. He was awarded the Purple Heart for wounds received in action in Hue City during the 1968 Tet Offensive, among other decorations.
His service in the Marine Corps in the Vietnam War became grist for the poetic mill that enabled Ehrhart to produce hundreds of fine poems dealing that subject. Of course, talent and hard work combined with Ehrhart’s experiences to come up with the collection of poems that fills most of the pages of his latest book, Thank You for Your Service (McFarland, 310 pp., $35, paper)
I tried hard to select a few lines from this group of chronologically arranged poems to convey the totality of Ehrhart’s talent, but I failed in that attempt. It was just too difficult to choose among so many outstanding poems.
Bill Ehrhart in County, 1967
If I had to list his best work (if, that is, an editor asked me to do so), I would name the following poems: “Scientific Treatise for My Wife,” “More Than You Ever Imagined,” “Afraid of the Dark,” “Waking Alone in Darkness,” “Desire, “The Fool, “ “Sins of the Fathers,” “Letting Go,” “Golfing with My Father,” “Home on the Range,” What Keeps Me Going,” and “How History Gets Written.”
If I had to choose a poem to quote some of Bill Ehrhart’s best poetic lines, I would go with “What Keeps Me Going”:
Pressed down by the weight of despair, I could sit for hours idly searching the ashes from my cigarette, the darkness of silos, the convoluted paths we have followed into this morass of disasters just waiting to happen,
But my daughter needs to sleep and wants me near. She knows nothing of my thoughts. Not one missile mars her questioning inspection of my eyes; she wants only the assurance of my smile, the familiar places just so:
Brown Bear, Thumper Bunny, Clown.
These are the circumference of her world. She sucks her thumb,
Rubs her face hard against the mattress
And begins again
The long night dreaming
Darkness into light.
Ehrhart’s book is filled with such poems and I delighted in them.
One should not judge a book by its cover. In the case of Beyond the Quagmire: New Interpretations of the Vietnam War (Texas A&M University, 432 pp., $29.95), one should not judge this fine collection of essays by its title.
That’s because the title suggests that after The Making of a Quagmire (1965), David Halberstam’s seminal account of the Kennedy administration’s move into the Vietnam War; and after –Into The Quagmire (1991), a history of Lyndon Johnson’s escalation of the war from 1964-65; and even Before the Quagmire: American Intervention in Laos (2012), we can now move “beyond” the quagmire.
Beyond strives to move past the Vietnam War “morass,” the editors say, “by providing new ideas and directions,” and it is mostly successful in this regard. But these perspectives ironically deepen the muddle about the war and its remembrance, enhancing the conflict’s well-deserved reputation as “an awkward, complex, or hazardous situation.”
Editors Geoffrey Jensen and Matthew Stith—historians at the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and the University of Texas respectively—have compiled a collection of thirteen essays that explore many different issues, including rural development in South Vietnam under the Diem regime and the commemoration of the war through comic books. The book is divided into three sections, exploring the politics, the combatants, and the remembrance of the conflict.
The best of the essays are Nengher Vang’s treatment on the Hmong and Xiaobing Li’s review of Chinese involvement in the Vietnam War and Sino-Soviet relations. Ron Milam’s article on the role of military advisers, Susan Eastman’s on the ‘Nam comics, Doug Bradley’s on music and memory, and Heather Marie Stur’s on women, are all noteworthy additions.
Interesting perspectives, but perhaps ones that do not move beyond other scholarly work, include Martin Clemis’ essay on geography, Jeffrey Turner’s on the student movement in the South, Matthew Stith’s on the natural environment, and Sarah Thelen’s on Nixon and patriotism. The last essay would have benefited from an analysis of why antiwar activists seemed to be duped into allowing Nixon supporters to paint them as unpatriotic. Thelen’s contention that the Nixon team conceived the idea that “unity was not necessary for electoral victory” is belied by history.
Nixon announcing the May 1970 incursion into Cambodia
Some of the other perspectives are indeed new, but perhaps their originality underscores the limitations of their arguments. Geoffrey Stewart’s analysis on South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem’s rural development programs, for example, is solid in its review of Diem’s plans, but collapses under the weight of Diem’s despotism. The South Vietnamese government was not “struck by” the Buddhist Crisis in the summer of 1963 as he says, but had precipitated it through systematic repression. Even a forgiving understanding of Diem and his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu would not suggest that they acted in the best interests of South Vietnam’s peasants.
Geoffrey Jensen’s treatment on the lowering of standards required for induction in the military, McNamara’s Project 100,000, has a provocative but ultimately misguided thesis. Jensen misses obvious connections to the war itself: Both were conceived with the best of intentions, both were ultimately exploited and mismanaged, and neither was adequately reformed due to obdurate and selfish politicians.
In his essay on Vietnam veterans memorials, William Allison proffers a challenging thesis, contending that when the last Vietnam War veterans pass on, those men and women—and the war in which they fought—will be forgotten. Memorials are a physical manifestation to honor the sacrifice of veterans. They are not built as tourist attractions or as a means to foster oblivion about a war. If a memorial fosters solace, this is a positive thing. It does not lead to forgetting, for healing leaves a scar.
Beyond the Quagmire presents a diverse and erudite collection of compositions. It is a welcome addition and a worthy successor to 2002’s A Companion to the Vietnam War.
John Mort, one of America’s premier storytellers, served in the Vietnam War with the First Cavalry Division. His story, “Hog Whisperer,” received the 2013 Spur Award for best short story from the Western Writers of America. Mort writes edge-of the seat fictional masterpieces, presenting characters for us to root for and cherish, as well as the other kind. They are all-American people who breathe on the page—people we wish we knew, people we do know, or people we are happy we have yet to encounter.
Mort’s latest collection, Down Along the Piney: Ozark Stories (University of Notre Dame Press, 186 pp., $50, hardcover; $20, paper) contains thirteen fine stories, including “Hog Whisperer.” Some of these tales are so lively and dense that it’s difficult to believe they aren’t novels as so much happens in the course of each story. “Hog Whisperer” is one of those stellar stories.
Another one that is rich and full of the intent and accomplishment of a novel is “Pitchblende,” the first in the collection. We are introduced by the narrator to his father, known as “the Colonel,” in the first paragraph. He is a larger-than-life character who intends to run the lives of his entire family. His wife is not up for that, so she departs.
The Colonel was gone during most of that family’s life, serving in various wars around the planet. He disgraced himself—or thought he did—in the Korean War, after which his career was as good as over due to events that were beyond his control. That is often the nature of war. No more promotions were there, so the old man left the military and spent the rest of his life trying to strike it rich finding uranium in the form of pitchblende.
He dug big holes in the ground with his Cat, which was as close to his old Sherman tank as he could get on his property, which becomes known as Bald Mountain because of what he and his Cat do to the surface of the land and to the trees.
My favorite sentence in this story is: “That’s because they ain’t no uranium in Missouri.” Just sticky, old soft coal that’s worthless.
The story’s hero graduated from high school, joined the Army, and learned to fly helicopters.
“I was a warrant officer,” he says. “I was a pilot, and twice I was shot down. Who knows why, but the bullets flew all around me, and I was never touched.”
There’s lots of war in the stories in this fine book, including the Vietnam War. “Take the Man Out and Shoot Him” alone is worth the price of admission.
If you have even the vaguest love of fine short stories or want to read great stories about people and war, buy this book. It will not disappoint.
Back in the sixties, Andy Warhol announced, “In the future everybody will be world famous for fifteen minutes.” William F. Brown helps to fulfill that dictum with Our Vietnam Wars: As Told by 100 Veterans Who Served (Booknook, 344 pp. $14.49, paper; $4.99, Kindle).
The book contains three- or four-page biographies of one hundred men and women who served in Vietnam from 1955-75. The people in the book represent a cross-section of services and duties. Even a couple of Aussies made it into the mix, which is composed predominantly of former enlisted personnel. Presented chronologically, many of the stories and photographs reveal short looks at the big picture, which provide historical dimension along with details of each person’s time in-country.
Otherwise, the biographies focus on the duties of each veteran. Brown has nicely edited diatribes against war-time miseries such a burning shit and subsisting on C-rations. He emphasizes common hardships just enough to paint a scene.
With that format, Brown presents a history lesson for “our children and grandchildren” who “know so little about that place.”
“I don’t believe there was a single vet I interviewed who doesn’t think the war was a monstrous mistake,” he says, made by U.S. presidents and politicians.
Many of the interviewees now suffer from the debilitating effects of exposure to Agent Orange but most have received adequate medical treatment.
Contemplating a second volume of Our Vietnam Wars, Brown closes by saying: “If you are a Vietnam Vet and would like me to add your story to our narrative, send me an email at Billthursday1@gmail.com and I’ll be in touch.”
Brown has written nine mysteries and suspense thrillers, along with four screenplays prior to looking back on the Vietnam War. He commanded a U.S. Army company in the Vietnam War.
Ron Milam, a Texas Tech University history professor who served in the Vietnam War and has written widely about it, has done an excellent job putting together the two-volume The Vietnam War in Popular Culture: The Influence of America’s Most Controversial War on Everyday Life (ABC-CLIO/Praeger, 772 pp., $164), a valuable collection of wide-ranging essays by more than three dozen contributors.
The first volume’s entries focus on aspects of popular culture (primarily movies, music, television shows, magazines and newspapers, and fiction and nonfiction literature) that hit the scene during the war. The second volume looks at the same areas in the years since the war ended in 1975. Nearly all the essays are from university professors; more than a few teach at Texas Tech. The noted Vietnam War historian George Herring contributes an excellent introduction.
Highlights in Volume I include Beverly Tomek’s hard-hitting essay, “‘Hanoi Jane’ and the Myth of Betrayal: The Cultural War on the Home Front,” and Roger Landes’ “Barry Sadler and ‘The Ballad of the Green Berets.'” As the author of the first biography of Barry Sadler (Ballad of the Green Beret: The Life and Wars of Staff Sgt. Barry Sadler), I am pleased to report that Landes—a music professor at Texas Tech who teaches the history of rock and roll—presents an excellent, in-depth look at Sadler’s song, which sold nine million copies and was the No. 1 single of the year in 1966. He used the best sources and his conclusions about why the song went viral twenty-five years before the birth of Internet are right on the money.
The essay that stood out for me in the second volume is Lindy Poling’s insightful (and cleverly titled) “Encouraging Students to Think Outside the ‘Box Office,'” which reports on a survey of students who took her innovative one-semester elective class, “Lessons of Vietnam.” Poling created that course and taught it from 1997-2011 at Millbrook High School in Raleigh, North Carolina.
In her essay, Poling reports on what her former students told her about their knowledge of the war before taking the class and how what they learned (from studying a wide variety of perspectives on the war, hearing from Vietnam War veterans, and visiting The Wall in Washington, D.C.) changed their perceptions of the war and those who took part in it.
Poling found that 55 percent of her students “entered the course with Hollywood film and popular media-based preconceptions” of the war and its veterans; 25 percent had learned about the war mainly from their parents or other adults; and the rest knew “very little” about the war.
After immersing themselves in learning about the war in her class, Poling found that many of them were motivated “to personally investigate and gain a better understanding of what was happening during the Vietnam era, both at home and abroad. In addition, these students come to sincerely appreciate the tremendous sacrifice of our veterans, as well as those who fought for South Vietnam.”
What’s more, she writes, most of her former students no longer rely on Hollywood movies for their understanding of the Vietnam War.
That good news led Poling to her conclusion: “Yes, they truly have learned to think outside the box office!”
Marc Levy served as a medic in the 1st Cavalry Division in Vietnam and Cambodia in 1970. How Stevie Nearly Lost the War and other Postwar Stories (Winter Street Press, 154 pp. $12, paper; $2.99, Kindle) is a small book of powerful short stories and essays that hits like a hand grenade ignited in a closet full of secrets.
Full disclosure: I was a stenographer in Vietnam, so I don’t really know exactly what happened out in the field. Imagining that grenade blast is as close as I wish to get to it.
The special power of language is immediately apparent in the book’s first two stories in which Marc Levy pulls no punches. These stories, in fact, are a punch in the gut.
Here, for example, are a few lines from the beginning of “The Thing They Will Always Carry”:
VA Shrink: Were you in Vietnam?
Vietnam Vet: Yes.
VA Shrink: When were you there?
Vietnam Vet: Last night.
Yes. He was there last night. I totally get that. I was a steno in Vietnam, and when I napped briefly this afternoon, I was back there. I was not typing or taking shorthand. I was interviewing a black guy in Long Binh Jail. Did I ever do that? Yes. But it was much scarier in my dream than it had been in real life—if that is what my tour of duty in Vietnam was.
In his book Levy describes a “safe rear job” in his story “Meeting the New Lieutenant.” He writes of “clean clothes, showers, real beds, reinforced bunkers, fresh food.” All of that is true. Levy doesn’t mention that the water we showered with was saturated with Agent Orange. Just a small thing to overlook, but there it is.
Marc Levy in Vietnam
Marc Levy’s great talent is his ability to reach the reader at a personal, intimate level with his poetic whispers and shouts. We are lucky he has chosen to take the time to communicate with us.