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

 

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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

When We Wore the Uniform edited by Barry Hugh Yeakle

 

10917801_370410826493601_5675899735985768310_oFor years, a bunch of former Marines calling themselves the Leatherneck Coffee Club sat down together in Northern Indiana, drank coffee, and swapped stories about their active duty days. One guy kept insisting on putting the stories together in a book and sharing them with the rest of the world. Another guy asked around and got help from writing professionals. That led to finding support from the Indiana Humanities and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

That effort created a printed book rather than one written in crayon, according to Barry Hugh Yeakle who edited When We Wore the Uniform: The Collected Stories of the Leatherneck Coffee Club (Leatherneck Coffee Club of Northern Indiana, 188 pp.). The book spans the years 1950-2001.  Marines of different ages, ranks, and specialties talk about their experiences in training, in garrison, at sea, and overseas. A a few reflect on it all.

The book contains about a hundred stories. Barry Yeakle, Monte Hoover, John Purcell, Ron Stefanko, Sr., and Carl Johnson III contribute multiple times.

The storytellers are veterans with a strong sense of pride in the Marine Corps, but who also find humor in its flaws. Their ambivalent feelings about first sergeants provide images that nicely fill the traditional mold. And beating-the-system stands out as a favorite endeavor. The section titled “It Happened Overseas” contains stories about the Vietnam War.

The accounts of combat are recollected with little embellishment. Facts pertaining to life-or-death situations are told indirectly. For example, the casualty rate is described as follows: “Attrition was so bad that you might be a rifleman one day, the fire team leader the next, and a squus_marine_corps_mugad leader by the end of the week.”

“We were dehydrated, hungry, exhausted and furious at the enemy” summarizes a day that ended with a unit lost and outnumbered. The straightforward and unpretentious style of the former Marines makes it easy to find commonality with them.

Books like this are enlightening because a reader is privy to a what amounts to a bitch session in which participants are no longer under anyone’s jurisdiction. No holds are barred. Yet reflections made during the years since the events occurred temper complaints and things past are seen more accurately.

The book’s gem of a glossary of “naval lingo” provided a few definitions that made me laugh out loud.  The highly distinctive art style of Claudia Viscarra illustrates many of the stories.

—Henry Zeybel

Proud to Be edited by Susan Swartwout

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I wish I was a little bird

So I could fly away;

I’d go to all the far off places

Where my daddy has to stay.

—Ashley Williams

The “far off places” in this anthology are battlefields from Sharpsburg, Maryland, to Kanduhar, Afghanistan, and many American wars in between. Stories and photographs from veterans are collected in the fourth volume of Proud To Be: Writing by American Warriors (Missouri Humanities Council/Southeast Missouri State University Press, 270  pp., $15, paper) edited by Susan Swartwout, who worked on the previous three volumes.

Swarthout selected the short fiction, poetry, interviews, essays, and photography with the help of a six-person panel of judges. “The War Within” is the only screenplay in the volume. It succinctly and cleverly presents a cast of character in two versions, one a proud Marine and one dealing with PTSD.

PTSD is also covered in an essay by David Chrisinger, who teaches veteran re-integration at the University of Wisconsin. This well-researched essay centers on Marine Brett Foley’s service in Afghanistan, where he witnessed an IED explosion that killed two and wounded several others.

Dealing with the horror two years later, Foley said: “At the end of the day, it all comes down to the fact that at times I wished desperately that I could simply erase parts of my memory so that I could just be normal again.” In addition to counseling and his wife’s support, “what helped Brett’s resilience was talking about his trauma and remembering the good men he served with.”

The essay, “Korea 1951–Marines Don’t Cry,” predates the study of PTSD and describes how trauma can be dealt with on the battlefield. To wit: “I slowly walked out into the woods. Alone, I couldn’t stop the tears. I reached into my holster and took out my .45. Self-pity turned into anger. I lifted the gun, holding it in both hands and aimed at the sky. I shot it over and over. A couple Marines came running out yelling, ‘What’s going on?’ I pulled my cap down over my eyes so they couldn’t see the tears, turned to them and said, ‘Just practicing.'”

The irony of war could almost be the theme of this compilation. One account describes an action in Sicily during World War II in which German soldiers captured a group of American medics despite the fact that red crosses were on their helmets. They were imprisoned because the Germans had heard a rumor that American generals hid howitzers in ambulances.

“Best Revenge” is a stunning piece of short fiction in which a Marine corporal and a staff sergeant meet during the corporal’s last days in Vietnam. The surprise ending made this standout my favorite.

Another must-read is the essay “My Vietnam Nightmare” written by a former Navy Corpsman. He writes: “Terrified, I think this could very likely be the last day of my life. This suicidal waltz is known as ‘doing your duty.'”

The final section of Proud To Be is devoted to poetry. I recommend taking quiet time to read these poems, especially the well-crafted “Dead Man’s Cap” and “The Flight of the Liberty Belle.”

I would be remiss not to mention the photography category. “Remembering Home” and “Iraqi Boy Sitting” are two I particularly enjoyed.

Finally, here is the poem “Proctors” by Kanesha Washington:

You signed your names on the front lines of war

Susan Swartwout

Susan Swartwout

You packed your duffle bags with manhood
Many only teenagers yet you knew what you were fighting for.
while putting away your adolescence
You left behind family, children and even friends
to become a protector of our nation
Adorned in a uniform of freedom and pride
you marched with bravery on the battlefield of uncertainty
By land, ship, or sea
you proudly and selflessly carried out your duty
You are the stars represented on our flag
America salutes you

for your future, present and especially your past

—Curt Nelson