Down Along the Piney by John Mort

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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.

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John Mort

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.

—David Willson

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Our Vietnam Wars by William F. Brown

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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.

His website is https://billbrownthrillernovels.com

—Henry Zeybel

The Vietnam War in Popular Culture, Vols. I & II, edited by Ron Milam

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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.

 

r-1472846-1266535399-jpegIn 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 Leepson

 

How Stevie Nearly Lost the War by Marc Levy

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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.

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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.

His book speaks to all who read it. Please do so.

You owe it to yourself and to your loved ones.

—David Willson

The author’s website is medicinthegreentime.com

The Vietnam War: The Definitive Illustrated History

The Vietnam War: The Definitive Illustrated History (DK, 360 pp., $40) is a coffee-table book that probably is not “the definitive” history of the war in words and pictures–but it comes close. Long on photos and other images (more than 500) and relatively short on words, the book (written by a group of historians in association with the Smithsonian Institution) concisely covers just about every political and military event associated with the Vietnam conflict from the French War in the 1950s to Indochina in the 21st century.

In between, chronologically presented, concisely written, profusely illustrated chapters zero in virtually every conceivable component of the war. Most of the short chapters deal with military and political history. But there also are images of war hardware (infantry weapons, artillery, aircraft, and armored vehicles), along with diagrams and maps.

Near the end there’s a two-page chapter, “American Homecoming,” that looks at Vietnam veterans’ homecoming. As is the case with the book’s other chapters, this one is concise and accurate. It includes a picture of a Vietnam veteran in a wheelchair panhandling, an image of the Purple Heart, an iconic shot of the big crowd at The Wall in Washington when it was dedicated in 1992, and a picture of a Desert Storm victory parade.

And this closing sentence:

“Vietnam veterans today stand alongside those who have served in the various theaters of the war on terrorism as worthy heroes—however shocking the new mantra of “Thank you for your service” may be to Vietnam veterans who experienced a totally different reception when they came home.”

The book’s inside covers are made up of collages of more than a hundred photos of photos submitted by Vietnam veterans.

—Marc Leepson

The War I Survived Was Vietnam by Michael Uhl

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Michael Uhl’s The War I Survived Was Vietnam: Collected Writings of a Veteran and Antiwar Activist (McFarland, 300 pp., $29.95, paper) is a wide-ranging compilation of Uhl’s reviews and opinion pieces that will certainly generate responses. True to its subtitle, this collection has an antiwar agenda. It also covers issues other than the Vietnam War, including the plight of veterans exposed to atomic weapons and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As David Cline, the national president of Veterans For Peace says in the book: “There have always been veterans for peace. War makes veterans warriors for peace.”

A Vietnam Veterans of America member I served with once told me that his feelings about the Vietnam War took several drastic shifts as his circumstances changed. He focused on survival while in country. When he came home, he examined how the war ended, as well as the nation’s treatment of veterans, along with the controversy over the design of the Vietnam Veteran Memorial in Washington, D.C., and the POW/MIA issue. Uhl, who served as an intelligence officer in Vietnam in 1968-69, includes reviews and essays on these subjects and more.

They are sure to evoke strong reactions. As Uhl puts it: “If they provoke thought in whoever reads them, I will be profoundly satisfied.”

Uhl writes about many players involved in the Vietnam War, including some unheralded heroes, some famous and infamous people, and some who helped orchestrate the war’s strategy and tactics. Gen. Julian Ewell, the Ninth Infantry Division Commander in February 1968, is one of the key players Uhl credits with implementing the “body count culture,” which he says enabled American troops to hand out “candy to small children” one moment, then later to torch “a hootch or abuse a cringing papa-san.”

Uhl’s essays cover many topics, but I believe his essay on the Heinemann brothers succinctly represents the personal impact the Vietnam War has had on many people. “Three Heinemann brothers would eventually go into the military, two to Vietnam,” Uhl wrote in 2005. “Among them only Larry [the author of Paco’s Story] remains. One brother was a post-war suicide; the other left his family never to be heard from again.”

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Michael Uhl

Mentioning Robert Strange McNamara will liven up any discussion of the war. In 1995 in The Nation Uhl and co-author Carol Brightman wrote: “McNamara’s critics span the ideological spectrum, though the burden of their indignation differs according to whether they believe his moral failure lies in the past for not having spoken out sooner, or in the present for having spoken at all.”

This anthology is a valuable reference tool for anyone looking for scholarly and incisive writing on America’s most divisive overseas war. The fervor of those opposed to the war may have never been matched. Uhl includes essays by some of those who were dedicated to bringing the war to an end, such as David Harris, former Secretary of State John Kerry, and environmentalist and one-time presidential candidate Barry Commoner.

This anonymous excerpt written by a veteran quoted by Uhl may be the best summation of the Vietnam War legacy:

I carried the war in my blood

In or out of service

I was at war

Even today

Every day war explodes in my brain

—Curt Nelson

Flapjacks and Fish Sauce by Jim Barker

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Jim Barker’s Flapjacks and Fish Sauce: Asymmetrical Vietnam Humor (115 pp., $12.95, paper) is a compilation of stories from veterans who served in Vietnam during the war. In his introduction, Barker (at left in the photo) says of war: “Like a Texas tornado, conditions can be quickly brewed up that make ‘saints of sinners,’ and occasionally vice-versa. In this colosseum of intensity, the extraordinary, absurd, unusual  and comic find fertile ground.”

The stories Baker has compiled prove his point. Some are outright funny. Some are of a gallows humor that makes one cringe.

One story tells of a man who lost his rifle in a rice paddy. He “fished around” for it, and thought he found it, only to come up with a severed arm.

The less gory tales can be laugh-out-loud funny. There’s the one about a guy on guard duty who felt something tapping on his shoulder.  He thought it was his team leader trying to keep him awake. A little later his rear was firmly squeezed. He yelped and turned around to find he was being groped by an orangutan.

Jim Barker served in Vietnam in 1971-72 as an adviser and linguist with MACV in II Corps.

For ordering info, email the author at erodemango@yahoo.com

—Loana Holyman