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

Dragonfly Edited by Frederick D. Long

 

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Reading Dragonfly: The Smallest Fighter… The Fastest Gun… A-37s Over Vietnam (A-37 Association, 311 pp.; $29.95, hardcover; $19.95, paper) is like sorting a stack of lottery tickets and finding every one is a winner. Dragonfly presents a collection of attention-grabbing history lessons. I initially opened the book, edited by Frederick D. Long and Lon Holtz, to a story titled “Sir, I’m on Fire,” and was amazed by how in the heat of the moment (pun intended) pilots perform illogical actions and survive whole. It only got better from there.

The book is packed with first-hand accounts of Dragonfly pilots’ combat missions in Vietnam from 1967-72. Some other chapter titles are “I’ll Never Do That Again,” “Hanging By A Thread,” and “How to Kill a Water Buffalo.”

Arranged chronologically, the flying events parallel the course of the war. Pilots talk about the good, the bad, and the ugly. They recall dangerous and heroic deeds; they explain the utterly stupid ones. Honesty prevails.

The nine-by-eleven-inch book is a work of love and art. Its large format includes hundreds of photographs, maps, and illustrations. The A-37 Association published Dragonfly in 2014, with a second edition in 2015.

Editor Fred Long’s Introduction records the transformation of the T-37 from a trainer into an attack aircraft.  He also explains the development and deployment of other A-37 squadrons, starting with the 604th Air Commando Squadron up to the time when the USAF turned the fleet over to the South Vietnamese Air Force.

“The A-37 was called on to take out missile sites, artillery and supply sites, bunkers, trucks, sampans, buildings and support ground troops while under attack,” Long says. “They flew day and night, dropped napalm, bombs, fired rockets and the minigun under every conceivable condition. They went on FAC missions, dodged antiaircraft fire, and performed escort operations. A successful mission was the rule, not the exception.”

Associate Editor Lon Holtz, the President of the A-37 Association, adds historical perspective with “Prologue 1945-1966: The Beginning of an Unpopular War.” Holtz flew the Dragonfly in Vietnam during his 1968-69 tour of duty.

The editors included a section that honors thirteen Dragonfly pilots killed during the war. Appendices include a Vietnam War Photo Album, Dragonfly Combat Pilot Roster, and Glossary, along with an extensive Bibliography and Index.

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Books of this type are important because they fill voids in military history. Combat is a highly personalized and relatively spectatorless endeavor. Rarely are people standing around to watch and report it. Mainly, the people that see it are those engaged in it. Consequently, John Q. Public relies on guys from the arena to tell it like it was. This book performs that duty through the voices of a specialized group of warriors.

The same logic applies to any war memoir. I made four trips to Southeast Asia in four different jobs and thought I knew a lot. But since August of 2014, I have read and reviewed nearly seventy Vietnam War memoirs and each one has taught me something new about that conflict.

For more info, go to www.a-37.org/news/news_page.html

—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

Red, White, & True by Tracy Crow

Red, White, and True: Stories from Veterans and Families, World War II to Present (Potomac Books, 288 pp., $21.95, paper), edited by Tracy Crow, is an anthology of nonfiction. Crow is a former Marine Corps officer and the author of Eyes Right: Confessions from a Woman Marine. She served in the Marines for ten years.

Many of these thirty-two true stories deal with how lives have been affected by military service, either the service members or those close to them. The most powerful—and also most sad—are the stories that deal with the Vietnam War. That includes “The Thirty-Day Project,” in which Chrystal Presley tries to understand her father’s Vietnam War experiences. Those experiences traumatized her childhood and left her barely able to function.

Her father was a type very familiar to many members of the Vietnam Generation. In fact, I had a father similar to Presley’s. But my father had never been to Vietnam. He was a World War II Marine veteran of Iwo Jima.  I expected from the title that the story would progress through thirty days of conversation with her father. But no conversation happened. Presley made one effort and that was that.

Tracy Crow

Not all the stories in this large collection deal with the Vietnam War, but a surprising number do relate to America’s most controversial overseas conflict.  Ronald Jackson, Tracy Kidder, Stephen Wilson—all are Vietnam veterans with worthy stories to tell.

Children of Vietnam veterans also speak out. In addition to Chrystal Presley, there also is Lorrie Lykins with “Panel 30W, Row 15,” and Leah Hampton, with “Above and Beyond.” Read these stories and you may weep, as I did.

These fine stories remind us of the residual cost of America’s wars. They do so in a relentless and involving way.

In a country made by war, there’s nothing special in having a jumpy, sometimes violent father, one who wants his children to be neither seen nor heard. No loud noises permitted, not unless you want to court disaster. Lots of fathers of this sort figure in these stories—men who were called to war and who did their duty to this fine country, and who did not come back as the men they left. Nor did they return to the country as it was when they departed.

Most of this is sad stuff. Did I read a story in this anthology that made me happy, made me laugh? Not that I recollect. Still, I highly recommend this collection for libraries—especially young adult libraries—and as a gift to any young person who is hot to join up and go off to war. These stories might cause him or her to reconsider.

—David Willson

The World’s Greatest Military Investigator’s Ultimate Book of War Stories by Michael J Oszman

Michael J Oszman’s The World’s Greatest Military Investigators Ultimate Book of War Stories (CreateSpace, 60 pp., $10, paper) is a collection of fiction, rumors, war stories comments, dim memories, and a little truth. Oszman dedicates his book to his brother Chester and a friend named Eddy, both of whom died in 1994. I believe that they would hope—as I do—that is the first of many such writings.

The author received a degree in criminal justice and went to work for an agency of the government. He never reveals which agency because he says that if he did, he would have to kill the reader.

Oszman opens with an explanation of a rule that was extremely difficult for most military people to understand: the procedure by which troops had to receive permission to fire on the enemy. Perhaps he placed this entry at the beginning of the book because it sets the surrealistic tone of his reporting.

The book continues with dozens of brief descriptions of incidents Oszman investigated. Some are comedic and some disastrous. The author closes each incident with a bit of his own wisdom or laugh line.

The case of an exploding latrine tells how a soldier was ordered to burn material but no one told him to first remove the drums from the latrines. So he poured two gallons of gasoline into the stuff and threw in a flaming rag. As a result, a lieutenant was seriously burned.

In another incident, one trooper, suspecting that an inspection was imminent, passed around a bottle of Jack Daniels. When it was half empty, he pissed into the bottle before an officer confiscated it. The reader can only imagine the look on the officer’s face when he took a swig.

Oszman describes another incident in which the main communication lines to Air Force command were cut. Since the lines had been buried and there was no map to locate them, it was assumed that the enemy had sabotaged them. Panic ensued. In the author’s special note he explains that the wires had been accidentally severed by a backhoe.

Michael J Oszman

Oszman follows the first twenty investigative reports with a shift to military life in Korea. He tells of a Korean farmer who pick-axed a pipeline of jet fuel thinking that the line was carrying water. In another fuel incident, a Korean houseboy filled barracks heaters with gasoline. After he learned about the color coding of fuel tanks, the houseboy was observed tasting the fuel cans to make sure he had the right stuff.

The author opens one chapter with a comment about the horrors of Agent Orange. Large numbers of veterans, including Oszman’s brother Chester, suffered and died from the being exposed to that toxic herbicide.

In a humorous episode, a large flight of helicopters passed over a group of officers. Objects began falling from the helicopters. The objects were condoms filled with urine.  One landed on a major’s head. Oszman was ordered to find out who perpetrated that foul deed.

He closes this short book with a few observations about the conundrum called the Vietnam War, and ends with the statement, “but that is another story.” We hope he shares that story with us.

—Joseph Reitz

 

The War That Never Ends edited by David L. Anderson and John Ernst

David L. Anderson and John Ernst, the editors of the 2008 anthology The War That Never Ends: New Perspectives on the Vietnam War, which is out in a new paperback edition (University of Kentucky, 376 pp., $28), dedicate this worthy volume to the eminent Vietnam War historian George Herring. He is the author of the classic concise history, America’s Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950-1975 (1979).

Herring, the Alumni Professor of History Emeritus at UK, contributes an excellent essay, “The War That Never Seems to Go Away,” to this collection. It deals with how the lessons and experiences of the Vietnam War have become part of the debate whenever the United States gets involved—or thinks about getting involved—in military action around the globe.

Other contributors include Vietnam War historian Marilyn Young, who writes in her introduction, “Why Vietnam Still Matters,” that—as Herring indicates—the lessons of the Vietnam War have mattered very much in “each conflict in which the United States has engaged since 1975.” Also of note: Robert K. Brigham’s essay on Ho Chi Minh, Confucianism, and Marxism; Robert Topmiller on the Buddhist antiwar movement in South Vietnam; and Robert Buzzanco on military dissent during the Vietnam War.

Anderson is a history professor at California State University, Monterey Bay, who has written widely about the Vietnam War and who served a 1968-70 tour of duty in Vietnam in the U.S. Army  Ernst is a U.S. History prof at Morehead State University where he teaches a course in the Vietnam War, his specialty.

—Marc Leepson