The Hardest Part by Bruce I. McDaniel

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Bruce McDaniel enlisted in the Army in September 1967 and spent a year as a medic with the 198th Light Infantry Brigade in Vietnam. He wrote about that experience in a 2016 memoir, Walk Through the Valley: The Spiritual Journey of a Vietnam War Medic, which we reviewed on these pages.

In  Homecoming Stories from the Vietnam War (Lulu.com, 64 pp., $8, paper) McDaniel uses those experiences to create a group of short stories that explore his feelings about the challenges of returning to America after his tour of duty. He did not anticipate the troubles he would encounter.

McDaniel’s service as a medic saving lives in the Vietnam War did not make him popular in the civilian world when he returned home.  Some of the stories he uses to explore what it is like to be back deal with a Vietnam veteran on leave who chooses to travel in his uniform because of the advantages he thought that would give him as a traveler.

The story I appreciated most was about a veteran who enrolls in college with his war wound dogging him, but not a wound that is readily identifiable. He lacks one eye, which was damaged by a tiny piece of shrapnel. He’s actually told by a fellow student that it served him right for being in Vietnam.

Nobody has told me that about my Agent Orange-connected disability, but the world has changed a lot since 1968. The story made me wonder, though, if the occasional person might have that thought. It wouldn’t surprise me.

These stories frequently provoked me to fits of thinking, which is what one hopes for from good fiction. There are far fewer than seventy-five pages is this little book, but it packs a punch.

In fact, it packs several punches, and I highly recommend it to all veterans. I believe the stories would be especially helpful to read and discussed by a group of veterans dealing with stubborn, painful issues that have refused to fly away into the clouds.

I appreciate that Bruce McDaniel used his memories and imagination to produce these powerful stories.

—David Willson

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Syllables of Rain By D. S. Lliteras

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Syllables of Rain (Rainbow Ridge Books, 152 pp., $16.95, paper) is a poetic novel of pure genius by the novelist and poet D.S. Lliteras. A former Navy combat corpsman with the First Recon Marines in the Vietnam War, Lliteras received a Bronze Star for his courage under fire.

This work surpasses his earlier books that dealt with the Vietnam War: 613 West Jefferson, in which a returning Vietnam veteran tries to make sense of the terrible world he has returned to, and Viet Man, which shows what veterans dealt with while serving in Vietnam. Both are master works.  But neither book grapples with the things that Syllables of Rain takes on.

Syllables of Rain should be placed on the book shelf next to Karl Marlantes’ novel Matterhorn as an antidote to giant books that seem to last as long as the war itself did.  Syllables of Rain lets the reader know what happened to Marines after the war, experiences weighed down by great sadness—as Matterhorn is burdened with blood, thunder, and death.

Llewellyn and Cookie, the friends at the heart of Syllables of Rain, are easily imagined in the world of Matterhorn and it is easy to imagine them buoyed up by Jansen, a larger-than-life Zen master who influences the rest of their lives. Llewellyn and Cookie had intersected years before, but their lives were ordained by fate to become intertwined yet again.  They stand, confronting each other on a street in Baltimore, face to face with their mortality and with assessing what their lives have measured up to.

Will they have a future with the women they love? Will they come to terms with their shared past and go on to deal successfully with their war and their emotions? They and we can only hope.  Some of us will even pray that they will. Llewellyn asks the question, “Is it wrong to be lost?”

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D.S. Lliteras

My favorite kind of Vietnam War book is short, poetical, and filled with hard-fought truths.  Every page would be purest poetry, quarried from the marble of experience. This is that book. D. S. Lliteras brings his unique genius to bear on the world of the Vietnam War veteran, sometimes homeless, often heartsick from love lost.

Viet Man is a gritty in-country novel; Syllables of Rain is the poetic novel of a lifetime of coping with war, of struggling “to make peace with Vietnam” with the war that “separated us from everybody else.”

I’d thought that D. S. Lliteras’ previous book, Viet Man, was un-toppable, but I was dead wrong.

—David Willson

Between the Walls of Time by Michael Stafford

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Michael Stafford did a lot of research about war before writing his novel, Between the Walls of Time (Grey Swan Press, 485 pp., $36.95). When his main character Cyrus Kohler thinks about war, he “knew that war damaged souls, left them with unhealed wounds. The pain came unexpectedly, and on many levels, and often brought along its companion, hopelessness.”

This rang true to me. Certainly I experience it that way, thanks to having to deal with multiple myeloma, which is related to my exposure to Agent Orange in the Vietnam War.

The first section of this book focuses on the main character’s time in that war.  Lt. Kohler, an Army Ranger, participates in the Americans’ last big land battle of the Vietnam War, the 1970 fight at Firebase Ripcord, serving with the 101st Airborne, 2nd Battalion, 506th Infantry, the Currahees. In that fight, four battalions of American troops confronted an entire division of North Vietnamese Army troops.

In the novel, due to incompetent leadership, Lt. Kohler and his men are abandoned, but Cyrus survives. In the thirty years after he returns home, Kohler gets his PhD and becomes a university professor, something few returning Vietnam War veterans have done.

We are told that during this thirty years,Cyrus witnessed “the decline of America” and he “is compelled to form a third political party, which he names “the Front.’” That is what the rest of the book is about. Stafford manages to get a reference to Jane Fonda into the narrative, although he devotes far more space to her one-time husband and fellow antiwar activist Tom Hayden.

The prose is sometimes demanding. For example: “The sky grimaced, the palette of its wet, gray, monsoon overwhelmed by so many ascending souls.”

As I read that passage near the book’s beginning, I asked myself, “Can I stand reading almost 450 more pages with sentences like that? It’s going to be a long hard slog for me.”  Thankfully, the book lightened up after that—at least the prose did.

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Michael Stafford

My favorite parts involve the action pieces. There’s a character, a bald eagle named Myoconda, who kills one of the primary bad guys by descending from the sky and dispatching him with his talons and his beak. Good riddance to him.

The bad guy in question had just murdered one of my favorite characters in the book, an ancient Shawnee woman named Tante Colleen, a reputed voodoo sorceress. Her great grandmother had walked The Trail of Tears.

The book was enjoyable and I recommend it to those who like reading about folks who are trying to save America by forming new political parties.

The author’s website is johnmichaelstafford.com

—David Willson

Firebase by Mark Anthony Sullivan

Mark Anthony Sullivan served in an Americal Division field artillery unit in Vietnam. In Sullivan’s Firebase: A Novel of Wartime Suspense and Romance (306 pp., $14.75, paper; $5.99, Kindle) the main character, Mike Ward, also serves with that unit at a forward firebase.

Ward arrives in the Vietnam War zone as troop withdrawals are in full swing with the Nixon administration’s policy of Vietnamization. It’s May 1970 and Ward is in the middle of a breakup with his longtime girlfriend who thinks that he should have stayed home and been a good boyfriend. That’s how she sees life.

Mike Ward had the option of serving in an Army Reserve appointment. His high morals caused him to see that as a copout, so off to Vietnam he goes.

He gets assigned to the 23rd Infantry Division (the Americal) out of Chu Lai. He doesn’t realize until later that that’s the Americal’s numerical designation. The book provides much detail of what the life of a Spec. 4 assigned to field artillery in the Vietnam War is like.

There’s also a lot of detail about the girl he left behind and her anger at him for choosing the Army over what she saw as his obligations to her. The entire novel is told in letter format and Sullivan makes it work well. He tells us that he had plenty of letters to work with and that he relied on them for information, tone, and other details.

His evaluation of our efforts in Vietnam is simple: “We’re going absolutely nowhere.” The difference between the Vietnam War and World War II makes it difficult for the characters to see progress. No land is captured and held. A war measured in body counts seems to be a war with no progress.

The Paris Peace Talks are discussed and dismissed as pointless as the participants could barely decide on the shape of the table, let alone on anything of importance.

John Wayne gets a mention or two, and shit burning is discussed, as does Agent Orange. My Lai also comes up, as it was attached to the Americal Division in peoples’ minds. Even though it took place when our main character was home in law school, he somehow gets blamed.

There is a lot of ill feeling aimed at soldiers serving in the war. The notion seems to be that if they only chose not to go into the Army, there’d be no Vietnam War. As if it was that easy.

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This is a serious novel, well-written and well-organized. It has an ending unlike any I’ve encountered  before in Vietnam War fiction. Mike Ward’s girlfriend manages to redeem herself, at least in my eyes, by doing something that doesn’t just border on magical realism, but tests my brain in all possible respects. I won’t spoil it for the prospective reader.

Suffice it to say that the ending took my breath away. I read it over and over again, trying to get it straight in my mind. I never did manage to wrap my mind around it.

That’s my fault, I’m sure.

—David Willson

Nam: The Story of a Generation by Mel Smith

Mel Smith was born in Helena, Montana. He joined the Naval Reserves in 1966 and went on active duty in July 1968. He served on the destroyer U.S.S. Taylor out of Pearl Harbor as a member of the deck force, the tough ship maintenance division. This crew is sometimes referred to as deck apes. He transferred to the U.S.S. De Haven on a West Pacific tour and got an early out in April 1970.

Smith’s novel, Nam: The Story of a Generation (First Steps, 360 pp., $33.64, hardcover; $24.95, paper; $6.99 Kindle), follows the lives of three young men—two Americans and one North Vietnamese, a starry-eyed patriot.

The main character, Mark Cameron, has a best friend named JT, who does not make it. Their counterpoint character, Dat, becomes a general on the other side. Cameron spends his tour of duty in Vietnam in the Brown Water Navy, on a PBR.

His backstory is based on that of the author. The book jumps around chronologically, but the sections are clearly labelled as a kindness to the reader. The book starts in 1948 and 1998, and then leapfrogs back and forth through time to give a full picture of the Vietnam War Generation. The story ends in California, in August 1998.

Mark Cameron intersects with Dat, who had been a North Vietnamese general, and is now a civilian wearing a $600 suit. Dat is now known as Van and owns a string of convenience stores. The encounter is totally friendly and rings true to this reader’s ears.

As is not unusual in such a book, John Wayne’s name pops up more than once. Plus,  there is a big stateside scene in which one of the characters returning home from the war is called a baby killer and has eggs tossed at him.

Mel Smith

This is one of those rare semi-autobiographical American Vietnam War novels that includes a substantial cast of well drawn and realistically portrayed Vietnamese characters. In one realistic scene among Americans in Vietnam, the main character confronts a c-ration can of ham and limas and is warned off. He winds up being served a ham sandwich instead by a minor character who has access to the mess hall.

I highly recommend this well-written book.  It held my attention and more.

—David Willson

Some Never Forget by R. Cyril West

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Some Never Forget (Molan Labe, 302 pp., $12.95, paper; $.99, Kindle) is the second book in R. Cyril West’s POW/MIA Truth series. His first was The Thin Wall.

Some Never Forget is an intriguing mix of conspiracy theory related to the betrayal of POWs being left behind in Southeast Asia by their government, along with American Indian Tlingit mythology. The latter is an attempt to reap the sort of magic that Tony Hillerman made his own and nobody else has been able to hold a candle to.

West believes there are baskets full of dirty government secrets. It’s hard to argue with that. He begins the story begins in Sitka, Alaska, in 1980, nine years after Walter Greene’s son went missing in the Vietnam War. Greene is tormented about the unknown fate that befell his boy—especially after the Department of Defense suddenly changes his son’s status from MIA to KIA.

Greene sees this clerical change as redolent of meaning. After he gets a warning from a government functionary and weird things start happening on his homestead, Greene is galvanized into action.

He believes it is a lie that all the POWs came home. He wants to get to the bottom of things. We are assured that the end of the novel will make us gasp. It sort of does.

The first page of this paranoia thriller gives us the phrases “Korea Veteran,” “Don’t Tread on Me,” and “Fuck Hanoi Jane.” When I read the third, which is lettered on Greene’s leather jacket, I thought I knew all I needed to know about his mindset. I was pretty much right.

I guess I am in the “anti-American” crowd that Greene wishes to steer clear of.  I hope I am wrong.

The author’s web site is http://www.rcyrilwest.com/some-never-forget

—David Willson

Four Corners from LBJ by Marty Beebe

Marty Beebe, who served in the Vietnam War in 1969-70, is the author of the novels Orange Bug White Fender and Cussy Rode a ’34.  His latest book, Four Corners from LBJ (CreateSpace, 224 pp., $9.95, paper; $2.99, Kindle), is one of the strangest books I’ve read about the Vietnam War.

Beebe tells us it is a work of fiction. It seems to be a work of magical realism. The first half is mostly about a riot at LBJ in Vietnam. In this case, “LBJ” stands for Long Binh Jail. Spelling and sentence structure in this novel are erratic.

Daniel Beebe did the cover of this book in which a prison lookout tower dominates the top half, separated from the bottom half by concertina wire. The bottom half contains a map of the Four Corners area of the Southwest United States labeled “Navajo Reservation.”

Also listed on this map are the Ute Mountain Reservation, Mesa Verde National Park, San Juan National Forest, McGhee Park, Sunray Park, Aztec Ruins National Monument, Shiprock, and Farmington. I list them because they are the only way I can get at the subject of the second half of this strange book.

I’ve read a lot about riots in LBJ (the jail) and believe the pages devoted to that subject are fairly accurate. There is a lot of violence on both sides, including the guards and the inmates. Fire hoses and black rubber hoses are used for beatings.

Private Baker is the featured character in the novel and sort of holds the narrative together. The other main character is “a full-blooded Apache” named Sau who serves the purpose of being a mystical and spiritual guide to Baker when he is magically transported from LBJ in South Vietnam to the area of the United States featured on the map.

This is a short book with large print. It is one of the few I’ve read that attempts to deal in a serious way with riots in prison camps in South Vietnam. If you are interested in that elusive subject, read this book. It doesn’t take long to read. But be warned, it is fiction.

—David Willson