Thank You for Your Service by W.D. Ehrhart

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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.

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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.

Thanks, Bill, for another great collection.

—David Willson

Beyond the Quagmire edited by Geoffrey Jensen and Matthew Stith

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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.

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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.

–Daniel R. Hart

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

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