JFK: The Last Speech edited by Neil Bicknell, Roger Mills, & Jan Worth-Nelson

JFK-TheLastSpeech_Amazon

October 1963 was a tumultuous month for John F. Kennedy. Contentious negotiations over Civil Rights and tax-reform legislation occupied the president, as did the increasingly troublesome war that was brewing in Vietnam. High-risk plans to overthrow South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem were gaining momentum.

Not surprisingly, on October 26, 1963, when Kennedy spoke at Amherst College at the groundbreaking of the Robert Frost Library, he said: “The problems which this country now faces are staggering, both at home and abroad. We need the service, in the great sense, of every educated man or woman.”

The text of that convocation address is included in JFK: The Last Speech, edited by Neil Bicknell, Roger Mills, and Jan Worth-Nelson (Mascot Books, 363 pages. $27.95).

The book—along with a film of the same name—is the 50th reunion project of Amherst’s class of 1964. The book is made up of remembrances by members of that class who were on campus when JFK visited, along with a wide range of other material. That includes the typescript of an early version of the speech (drafted by the scholar and White House adviser Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.) with Kennedy’s handwritten edits; and articles by the literary critic Jay Parini, the actor/director and environmentalist Robert Redford, and the historian Jon Meacham.

The October 26 address gained resonance in the wake of the earth-shaking events of November 22, 1963. The president’s assassination, his Frost Library remarks, and his famed Inaugural Address (“Ask what you can do for your country….”) melded in the minds of Amherst students, many of whom chose various ways to serve to their country.

Rip Sparks, for example, who joined the Peace Corps, writes that people would tell him that that was “a good way to avoid the draft,” but “it wasn’t that at all.” Gene Palumbo became a conscientious objector and worked with the Urban Action Task Force in Harlem.

Thomas P. Jacobs, Jr. contributes an essay about his service in the war, “My Year in Vietnam with MILHAP Team 20.” In it, he writes: “I received my [draft] notice from the Army toward the middle of my second year of residency in internal medicine at Columbia University, early in 1970. According to the Army, I would be going to Vietnam that summer.”

JFK-at-State-Dept-cropped-1Jacobs opposed the war, but volunteered for the Military Provincial Health Assistance Program. Posted to the Central Highlands, he treated patients at the Kontum Province hospital. Especially gratifying was the chance to work most evenings at a second facility, a large mission hospital that treated Montagnard villagers who, Jacobs notes, “were usually victims of discrimination at the Vietnamese-only province hospital.”

Today Dr. Jacobs wonders if he may have played a small role “in prosecuting and perhaps prolonging the war.” On the other hand, he believes that he is a better person for his Kontum experience and that he saved many lives.

“Best of all,” he concludes, “I recall on an almost daily basis the warmth and welcome of the Montagnards, who may have been the last people on earth to love all Americans.”

The book’s website is jfkthelastspeech.org

–Angus Paul

Advertisements

The Philosophy of War Films edited by David LaRocca

David LaRocca is a university professor specializing in the philosophy of film. When I opened his book, The Philosophy of War Films (University Press of Kentucky, 538 pp., $30, paper; $45, hardcover), I hoped it would have an essay on the large number of films dealing with the Vietnam War. I scanned the table of contents and soon discovered this book did not.

The closest it came was a long, scholarly article on the war films of Werner Herzog, the most important living film director my age or older. So that made me happy. There are essays on Iraq war films, Israeli war films, and World War II films. And one on Francis Ford Coppola’s epic Vietnam War movie, Apocalypse Now.

I found the prose turgid and hard to struggle through. In fact, most of the book seemed that way to me. I decided that this was not a book written for folks like me. This is a serious book.

The article on Werner Herzog, “Profoundly Unreconciled to Nature:  Ecstatic Truth and the Humanistic Sublime in Werner Herzog’s War Films,”  runs forty-five pages and includes five pages of footnotes. David LaRocca, the editor of this book, is the author.

All the criticism you’ll ever need about Herzog’s war films is well-covered in this essay. I highly recommend it—and this book. Of course, there is lots of information on the Vietnam War films of other directors scattered throughout this big, thick book. The excellent index will help you locate that information by searching the titles of the films, the names of the directors, or the name of the war.

I found some great quotations about the Vietnam War in an essay entitled “General Patton and Private Ryan: The Conflicting Reality of War Films and Films about War” by Andrew Fiala, who chairs the Philosophy Department at Fresno State University. The eternal question about whether or not a war film is intrinsically antiwar because of what is shown on the screen is debated. Because the Vietnam War cannot be easily viewed as a just war in the way people look at World War II, it makes it difficult to see a Vietnam War film as antiwar. But folks persist in doing just that.

If you are interested in reading about the concept of apocalypse as it applies to the Vietnam War, read Bard College Philosophy and Aesthetics Prof. Gary Haagberg’s essay, “Apocalypse Within: The War Epic as Crisis of Self-Identity.”  And then there’s “Vernacular Metaphysics: On Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line,” by Robert Pippin,  a Distinguished Service Professor in the Committee on Social Thought in University of Chicago’s Philosophy Department. This is a pip of an essay on Terry Malick’s excellent movie.

Col. Kilgore (Robert Duvall), the man who loved “the smell of napalm in the morning” in Apocalypse Now

I believe the essay that tops them all is D’Youville College English Professor Joshua Gooch’s “Beyond Panopticism: The Biopolitical Labor of Surveillance and War in Contemporary film.” Things in that essay will give you pause.  If you’re like me, you’ll read some sentences three or four times and you might scratch your head.

Robert Bugoyne’s essay, “The Violated Body: Affective Experience and Somatic Intensity in Zero Dark Thirty” will cause you to reflect on what the deeper meanings of “somatic” really are. I had to rethink my opinion of that film. It’s a brutal one, so it should have been no surprise to me that it provoked a brutal essay from Burgoyne, a University of St. Andrews Honorary Professor in Film Studies.

I didn’t get any “blood satisfaction” from the essay, no more than I did from the film itself. I feel a need now to see the film again to take further stock of it. I guess that’s a tip of the hat to the power of the essayist.

This paperback edition is much cheaper than the hardcover, which I suppose is meant to make this collection of essays available to the average person in the street. That is, if he or she has ready access to a copy of Webster’s Unabridged.

Good luck with this valuable book of essays.

—David Willson

The Displaced edited by Viet Thanh Nguyen

41asf-undql-_sx332_bo1204203200_

“What is a refugee like?” asks the author Vu Tran, who fled Saigon as a child and grew up in Oklahoma. He poses that question the timely and moving book, The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives (Abrams, 190 pp. $25, hardcover; $15.99, paper; $9.99, Kindle), edited by the award-winning novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen.

Vu Tran offers three answers. Like an orphan, bereft of “the familial bonds of her homeland, her native community and culture and customs.” Like an actor, who often “is one person at home and another person at work or at school or simply in public.” Like a ghost, who “can be invisible even though her presence is felt.”

Viet Nguyen is himself a refugee, having left Vietnam with his family in 1975 at the age of four. Three years later the family settled in California. He has gone on to a distinguished career: professor of English and American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California; 2017 MacArthur Foundation fellow; and the recipient of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his Vietnam War-heavy novel, The Sympathizer.

“I believe,” Viet Nguyen writes in his introduction, “in my human kinship to those 65.6 million people that the United Nations classifies as displaced people. Of these, 40.3 million are internally displaced people, forced to move within their own countries; 22.5 million are refugees fleeing unrest in their countries; 2.8 million are asylum seekers. If these 65.6 million people were their own country, their nation would be the twenty-first largest in the world.”

The book originated with the publisher, Viet Nguyen explained during a recent wide-ranging recent interview with the Los Angeles Review of Books:  “The editor there is Jamison Stoltz, and he came at me out of the blue, said, ‘I want to do a book about refugees.’ This was around the time Trump’s Muslim ban had been announced. He came up with half the writers, and I came up with half the writers. The criterion we used was that they had to be refugees and writers.”

Abrams is donating a portion of the book’s profits to the International Rescue Committee.

The seventeen contributors were born in Afghanistan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Chile, Ethiopia, Germany, Hungary, Iran, Mexico, the Soviet Union, Thailand, Vietnam, or Zimbabwe, and settled—often with several stops on the way—in Canada, England, Pakistan, South Africa, and the United States.

viet-nguyen-author20photo

Viet Nguyen

“All of these writers are inevitably drawn to the memories of their own past and of their families,” Viet Nguyen writes. “To become a refugee is to know, inevitably, that the past is not only marked by the passage of time, but by loss—the loss of loved ones, of countries, of identities, of selves. We want to give voice to all those losses that would otherwise remain unheard except by us and those near and dear to us.”

It is, he concludes, “a writer’s dream, that if only we can hear these people that no one else wants to hear, then perhaps we can make you hear them, too.”

–Angus Paul

  Other Dreams by Marc Levy

Former Vietnam War Army Medic Marc Levy’s Other Dreams (Telegraphos Press, 361 pp., $18, paper; $4.99, Kindle) is another amazing book from the author of Dreams, Vietnam and How Stevie Nearly Lost the War. I never figured that Levy would produce a dream record to top his first book in this series. But he has done it—in spades.

“You are about to read a rare and valuable gift to human understanding and to dream research,” G. William Dormhoff, the author of The Emergence of Dreaming, says of Levy’s new book.

This is an understatement. Levy has endured PTSD for most of the last fifty years. I can’t help but think of something my mom told me thousands of times when I was growing up. “If life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” If Marc Levy has done that here by writing about some 250 of his dreams, this lemonade is the best drink ever created from the swamp water of war.

The best friend any survivor of war can have is a dog, and Levy’s first book presented dogs in that loving context. This book, though, boggled my mind with dog references: dogs in general were encountered dozens of times, but also specific dogs—pit bulls, talking dogs, three-hundred-pound dogs, German Shepherds, Golden Retrievers, Shepherd-setter mixes, Huskies, a big blue dog, Siberian Huskies, seal pups, a Degas dog, a huge shaggy dog, a Weimeraner, a black lab, and more.

The poet makes the statement at least once in a recorded dream, “I love dogs, too.”

My only complaint about the book is that it lacks Levy’s fabulous drawings. His word images compensate for this. But still…

Other Dreams benefits from slow, careful reading, like difficult modern poetry. Not since I read Saul Bellow’s Henderson, the Rain King, have I been so struck by the recurring motif of animals in a work of modern literature. Dogs, certainly, as mentioned above, but also cats, seals, a bull with no ears, hawks and eagles, ducks, cattle, horseshoe crabs, polar bears, foxes, butterflies, water bugs, swans, rabbits, mice, a beast man, kittens, goats, rats, ticks—and Jane Fonda.

On December 8, 2016, Levy tells us, he dreamed:

“I’m in a war zone with another person, possibly my brother, walking along a moonlit, snowy path. We pass a wide-open, snow-covered field. I say to the other person, ‘Hey buddy… hey buddy… just keep walking.’ I’m aware that at any moment we may be shot. Each time I say, ‘Hey, buddy…’ the other person tries to crowd me off the path. ‘Hey, buddy… Hey buddy,’ I say, pushing back, ‘Just keep walking.’”

This dream has elements of poetry, story, and song, and I feel fear in every line. Also, mystery and malice.

It was brave of Marc Levy to commit this dream to print, and I honor that bravery. Levy is always just one short dream away from being back in the jungles of Southeast Asia. I thank him for sharing the war he survived in that jungle. It is a scary place. 

Once you have read Marc Levy’s dream books, I recommend his classic volume of short stories, How Stevie Nearly Lost the War and Other Postwar Stories.

Stay tuned for his next work. I’ve been informed it is coming soon.

–David Willson

Courageous Women of the Vietnam War by Kathryn J. Atwood

In Courageous Women of the Vietnam War: Medics, Journalists, Survivors, and More (Chicago Review Press, 240 pp. $19.99, hardcover; $12.99, Kindle), Kathryn Atwood examines the American War (as the Vietnamese call it) and the Vietnam War (as Americans know it) from the perspectives of women from both sides—including the French who started it.

In this young adult book Atwood presents the war through the eyes of a French Army nurse captured by the Vietminh at Dien Bien Phu; a South Vietnamese revolutionary inspired by Ho Chi Minh; Joan Baez trapped in Hanoi during the Operation Linebacker II bombing; and eleven other vignettes.

Atwood’s accounts blend the women’s actions into an overall picture of the war. Therefore, the book covers material familiar to students of the war, but it also serves as a primer for younger readers. I was familiar with the lives of only four of the women. At the end of each chapter, Atwood lists two or three books suitable for further study on the topic she just covered.

K.J. Atwood

The book’s story line begins with the Viet Minh Revolution led by Ho Chi Minh, and progresses through the Ngo Dinh Diem Civil War and the machinations of Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon.

In her book Atwood gives life to people who otherwise might be forgotten. For the most part, without wielding weapons, the women featured in the book faced dangers equal to those faced by many men who saw combat.

Atwood praises the women for their contributions to their countries. She writes about more American women than Vietnamese.

She is the author of three previous YA books about heroic women who served in World Wars I and II. “Young people might not believe they like history,” she says, “but [they] might be enticed toward interest in a particular historical woman if the narrative is compelling.”

In Courageous Women of the Vietnam War, Kathryn Atwood makes the personalities tick for readers of any age.

Her website is kathrynatwood.com

—Henry Zeybel

Reflections on LZ Albany by James T. Lawrence

51e5fse-fnl-_sx322_bo1204203200_

James T. Lawrence’s Reflections on LZ Albany: The Agony of Vietnam (Deeds Publishing, 192 pp., $19.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle) is collection of rich personal essays, and is a different type of book on war.

The book captures the essence of the hearts of soldiers in combat, as well as the fears and challenges they faced. It is a book packed with true emotions from a man who was there in the early days of the Vietnam War.

Lawrence pulls the reader in with his opening essay, “The Band of Brothers,” introducing the bonds of brotherly love forged in the fires of combat. Lawrence is a former First Cavalry Division infantryman who bore the weight of leadership in combat. He survived a paralyzing head wound in the vicious fighting at Landing Zone Albany during the bloody November 1965 Battle of the Ia Drang Valley. While he was waiting in a medical tent with other wounded men he heard last rites being given amid the moans of men in severe pain.

Lawrence also brings the reader the joy of knowing war-time friendships—and the lasting sorrow of losing closing friends, something he describes in his rich essays “Conversations with a Tombstone,” “Voice from the Wall,” “The Premonition,” “Bringing in the Hueys,” and “Albany.” In “Just Don’t Ask Me,” Lawrence lays bare the pain of combat and suffering, and the realization of  lines of civility being crossed during war that can never be uncrossed.

Lawrence brings rich feelings to the surface. The reader can almost see him searching for young love in “She’s Out There” and feeling something  very different in “Dear John.” In the “Valley of the Shadow of Death,” he takes you into the triage tent with a chaplain. Lawrence’s prose immerses the reader in the intensity of the suffering in that dark and hot makeshift emergency room.

In “It’s All Over,” he describes what happens after he orders his first real meal in a restaurant after coming home from the war:

“And for the first time, the young ex-officer realized that the people back home, with the exception of family, had no idea what was going on in Southeast Asia and could care even less.  He had been in a battle where over 150 of his colleagues had been killed and over 120 wounded, including himself, but nobody knew and nobody gave a damn.

Evacuating a casualty from LZ X-Ray. Photo by Joe Galloway

“Now in his first day as an American civilian, he felt alone, isolated, unacknowledged, and unappreciated in a city of millions whose freedoms he thought he had fought to protect.  And for the very first time, he asked himself a question. Why?”

Jim Lawrence has captured the soul of soldiers in war in Vietnam. He speaks truth to the emotions of those who fought so hard and paid such a price.

This is a must read for students and scholars And for political and military leaders to help them realize the costs they ask to be paid when they send troops into harm’s way.

–Bud Alley

Inheriting the War edited by Laren McClung

413t5vmso0l-_sx329_bo1204203200_

Laren McClung is a poet and the author of a book of poetry,  Between Here and Monkey Mountain  (2012) Her father served a 1968-69 tour of duty in the Vietnam War with the 173rd Airborne.

In Inheriting the Wind: Poetry and Prose by Descendants of Vietnam Veterans and Refugees (Norton, 400 pp., $19.95, paper) McClung has included the work of a fair and balanced assortment of forty-four veterans’ descendants. The list of familiar and non-familiar Vietnam War veteran writers and poets’ surnames includes Lily Katherine Bowen, Linh Dinh, Heinz Insu Fenkle, Adam Karlin, Elmo Keep, Ada Limon, Bich Minh Nguyen, Andrew X. Pham, Monica Sok, and Hanh Nguyen Willband.

The book—with a Foreward by the acclaimed poet (and Vietnam War veteran) Yusef Komunyakaa—is arranged alphabetically by author’s last name. McClung gives a brief bio at the beginning of each section, providing just the right amount of information iabout the authors and translators. McClung does a commendable job digging up new and different writers representing all the groups that made the Vietnam War possible by their participation and those who now have a life of suffering due to that war.

We’re told early in the introduction that the United States sprayed 5.5 million acres of land in Vietnam with Agent Orange. This toxin sickened both Western troops and Vietnamese, and is a theme throughout the book in poems and stories.

Hoa Nguyen, for example, writing after Emily Dickenson in “Agent Orange Poem”:

 

What justice foreigns for a sovereign

We doom in nation rooms

Recommend & lend resembling fragrant

Chinaberry spring

Here we have high flowers  a lilac in the nose

“The Zeroes—taught us—Phosphorus”

and so stripped the leaves to none

Thanks to Hoa Nguyen for this fine poem. The quality of work in this book is always high and always thought provoking, as this poem was to me.

This isn’t a book to read a bedtime.  At least it wasn’t for me. I found it seriously disturbing on almost every page.

mcclung_laren1

Laren McClung

My favorite prose piece is “The Gangsta We Are All Looking For” by Le Thi Diem Thuy. My favorite sentence in the essay is: “When we moved in, we had to sign a form promising not to put fish bones in the garbage disposal.”

I laughed, out loud, when I read that sentence.

The author’s family had moved into old Navy housing in Linda Vista, California. I thought about the tales the garbage disposal could tell if it could talk. I guess it’s just as well it can’t.

A huge amount of work went into the success of this book, and I thank Laren McClung for it.

—David Willson