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

I Remember: Chicago Veterans of War Edited by Chris Green

I Remember: Chicago Veterans of War (Big Shoulders Books, 96 pp.) is a book I will long remember. This volume, edited by Chris Green with a foreword by Jim Fairhall (both of whom are English professors at DePaul University), contains the largest collection of essays with the fewest number of sentences I have ever read.

Green invited fifty Chicago veterans to share their memories from World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Bosnia, Iraq, and Afghanistan. The common theme of “war is hell” flows through all the essays. Contributors were asked to begin with the words “I remember.” The greatest difficulty was finding veterans of America’s latest conflict, as less than one percent of the population served in Iraq or Afghanistan. “It seems America no longer goes to war, the military does,” Green writes.

The veterans’ memories are not presented chronologically by war. Instead, one writer remembers his part in Bosnia, while the next, say, is talking about his experiences in Vietnam. The memories, however, are clearly written, and the reader can easily identify the war being discussed. If there is any doubt, the wars each writer took part in are identified at the end of the book.

The uniqueness of I Remember is that one or more sentences often tell a story of their own. Such as: ”I remember the abrupt claps of gunfire and the rude whistling of rounds,” and “I remember Fort Polk, autumn 1968. Night training, ITT. Parachute flares descending, an ambient glow penetrating the forest canopy,” and “I remember …shots.”

And:  “I remember the right wall opened up, and the engine carried them out of the plane,”   “I remember I raced away from the plane. I knew my hands were burning and I think my head was too,” and “I remember the hot, dry air. I remember my life was about to change forever. I remember the distance growing louder. I remember the explosion. I remember the sirens and alarms. I was not at home. I was in Afghanistan. I remember my first indirect fire.”

Jasmine Clark’s collection of photographs enhance the reading. Many are complete stories in themselves. One photo by Rolando Zavala depicts a group of soldiers resting in a hut. That image will be etched on my brain forever.

One of the book’s photos from the Vietnam War

The final veteran’s entry made a most unusual observation: “I remember the love. You probably have the wrong idea about war. War isn’t about hate: it’s about love. Hate has no place in war. You shoot any person not because you hate him, or you hate his ideology, or because crazy old Sgt. Hubble told you to. You do it because he’s trying to kill somebody you love.”

This book is notable for its simple style and depth. It will be of benefit to anyone looking to understand the experience of war. This is a worthwhile work of wartime literature that will long be remembered.

The nonprofit publisher, Big Shoulders Books, which is associated with DePaul University’s Master or Arts in Writing and Published program, is offering this book without charge. To order, go to http://bigshouldersbooks.com/new-page

—Joseph Reitz

In Honor and Memory by Ray Bows and Pia Bows

Ray Bows, a retired U.S. Army Master Sgt., served in the Vietnam War with the 25th Infantry Division in 1968-69. His latest book is the gigantic In Honor and Memory: Installations and Facilities of the Vietnam War (Bows and Company, 722 pp., $59.95, hardcover), a richly illustrated and detailed compendium of more than 800 named U.S. military fire support bases, camps, landing zones, patrol bases, compounds, and other installations and facilities in Vietnam,Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Okinawa, and Guam.

I suspect that most Vietnam veterans will do what I did: immediately check the long, detailed index to see if the book includes the place where I spent twelve months of my life. And, in fact, Bows has a half page on Camp Granite outside the city of Qui Nhon where I served from December 1967 to December 1968 with the 527th Personnel Service Company.

Ray Bows

I learned that Camp Granite is located “on the east side of Route QL-1, just south of Phu Tai at the base of Vung Chau Mountain” in Binh Dinh Province in the former II Corps. I didn’t know that the camp was named “for the granite cliffs that faced” it—although I probably should have figured that one out.

The entry includes two pictures of Camp Granite.

The book is not available in stores. For ordering info and to find out more about the book, go to www.bowsmilitarybooks.com 

—Marc Leepson

Camp Granite

 

Tales from the Teamhouse, Vol. III by Jim Kelley

Tales from the Teamhouse Vol. III (Old Mountain Press, 263 pp., $4.99, Kindle) is third collection of stories edited by Jim Kelley and written by members of the Special Forces, all of whom also are members of the Special Forces list. All of contributors are active duty or retired. Some are departed.

The book is arranged in subject sections and contains stories, humor pieces, and poetry. The stories range in size from a tiny anecdote to a long short story. They range also in quality. Some are sketchy at best, written by soldiers who had stories to tell but little notion of how to tell them. Others are superb tales that hold a reader’s attention and make him want more.

One of the better stories is “Big Boys” by Command U.S. Air Force SMAJ William E. Edge (RIP). It’s an account from his time in the Korean War with the First Cavalry Division. It deals with holding back the North Korean Army along the Naktong River.

Another fine story, “Pepsi From the Sky,” written by Rolf R. Kreuscher, deals with the evacuation of a village of about 1,000 souls in South Vietnam. This story embodies virtually all the themes and tragedies that were in place in the Vietnam War.

“Tet ’68″ by John Blevins also is an excellent piece. Blevins was sent to Saigon during Tet to get supplies for his team, and got stuck in Can Tho.

“Baby Killer!” by Reg Manning tells a funny story of how Manning dealt with a guy who made the mistake of hollering “baby killer” at him while riding a bike. “I never got spat upon, but I did get called a baby killer once,” he writes. I think that what happened to that ill-advised fellow should have happened to more of his ilk.

“Attack on the Camp” by Rudy Cooper (from his autobiography, Seed of Endurance) made me want to read his entire book. It was an exciting recounting of an attack, very well written, and emboding the values of the Special Forces.

“Barry Sadler in Panama” by Bill Coombs is a story about the former Green Beret on stage in 1965. Staff Sergeant Barry Sadler (above) was his billing and he made the point that he could not be paid “or accept any money for his appearances” while in uniform. I wish Barry Sadler had made it to one of the places I was stationed in 1966-67. We had to settle for Hank Snow.

The stories use language and themes that are often encountered in Vietnam War literature: Get the hell outta Dodge, cowardly ARVNs, the odious ham and lima beans, and so on. I encountered the notion that we were doing fine in Vietnam, and that we gave up fighting due to “a bunch of weak-dicked politicians who represented us.” There is a great glossary in the back of the book, more useful than most.

This book will please any aficionado of the Special Forces. I have not seen or read  Volumes I or II, but I’m sure those tales are as good or better than the bunch selected for this book.

—David Willson