Not Enough Tears by Dave Wright

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I try to read a Vietnam War memoirs as if it was the first book I’ve read on the subject. Despite that, I recognize similarities from previous books. Consequently, the depths to which a writer reveals personal experiences influences my reaction to a book. In other words, I often judge a book based on the writer’s willingness to share his or her most horrific war stories and reactions to them.

In Not Enough Tears (Author House, 277 pp. $14.95, paper; $4.99, Kindle), Dave Wright generously opens his mind and heart to tell what he did and saw as a twenty-three-year-old Army infantryman. He was assigned to the 1st Battalion/26th Regiment of the First Infantry Division at Lai Khe during his 1968-69 Vietnam War tour.

Wright took part in two encounters that wiped out his squad, but left him unscratched. He justified—but at the same time questioned—surviving those and other traumatizing events as the result of his faith, which began when he was eleven.

“God let me ‘sense’ when we were walking into trouble,” he says.

Draftee Wright hated the war. “By three months,” he writes, “I was sick of life as a grunt.”

Yet he strove to keep others safe, choosing to walk point to protect new guys after watching too many of them get killed too quickly. Because he was a few years older, his fellow soldiers called him “The Old Man” or “Father.” They admired his good luck.

A natural leader, Dave Wright developed a philosophy whereby, when possible, he bypassed the enemy. His rationale centered on the certainty that his men would suffer casualties regardless of how many VC they killed, wounded, or captured. So avoiding firefights protected them from harm.

Wright discusses progressive mental and physical problems that made him resort to a “sham” and other schemes to get an easier job after eight months in the field. “I needed someone to recognize that I had done all I could, for as long as I could,” he says.

He was reassigned to a newly formed recon platoon made up of twenty-five “eight balls from the whole battalion,” as he calls them. The job was safer, but he started having “anxiety attacks just hours before it was time to go out into the jungle,” he says, and “was getting closer and closer to becoming a mental casualty.”

Despite his covenant with God, Wright worried about the future: “What if I screwed up and made Him mad,” he thought. “Would He stop protecting me and all those around me?” Eventually, Wright ended up in a support company where he felt relief. But he also felt guilt for “getting off line almost two months early,” he says.

You don’t have to be Sherlock to figure out the cause-effect of Wright’s PTSD. He provides the facts of his experiences and the effects naturally follow. For example, he reached “a new low,” he says, when he ripped open a dead VC’s face to help another soldier extract a gold tooth. He acted atrociously and no punishment followed, which complicated his “Why me, Lord?” puzzlement.

Back home and newly married, Wright slowly recognized that he had little control over his life compared to the control he felt when walking point. Depression, anguish, and pain followed. Work and church became the foundation for his life.

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Dave Wright

By writing Not Enough Tears, Wright was able to examine the changes in his personality that had resulted from war experiences. God provided salvation. As he puts it: “My stories are certainly not of biblical quality, but they are a true record of what Jesus has done in my life.”

Originally published in 2004, Not Enough Tears was recently re-released with revisions and photographs.

Richard Charles Martinez, author of Grunts Don’t Cry, served in the same 1st Infantry Division platoon as Wright in 1968-69. Their books complement each other.

—Henry Zeybel

 

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Improvising a War by Benjamin L. Landis

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If you want an accurate picture of how the United States Army General Staff functioned during the early years of the Vietnam War, you should read Benjamin L. Landis’ Improvising a War: The Pentagon Years, 1965-1967: Reminiscences of an Untried Warrior  (Merriam Press, 186 pp. $11.95, paper).

Landis, who graduated from West Point in 1946, wrote the book based on his staff work as a lieutenant colonel at the place and time of the title. The representative of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Personnel, his job was to see that requested and approved units went to Vietnam on their scheduled dates, he says.

That sounds easy: Cut the orders and ship the troops. But it didn’t work that way because President Lyndon Johnson would not let the Army use National Guard and Reserve troops. That left an undermanned and under-equipped Army to fend for itself.

From among a crowd of lieutenant colonels who filled junior positions in their section of the Pentagon, Landis ended up in a job for which he had no background or training. As the newest guy, he had led an ad hoc inter-staff committee designed to find, equip, and train enough men for deployment to Vietnam, a duty that no other LTC wanted.

By that time, four big combat units had been sent to Vietnam. But they were not in good-enough shape to perform their missions, as Landis saw it. The need to improve the system was exemplified by Landis’ “disillusioned and frustrated” boss, a senior colonel who told him, “If I’m going to go down because of this, I’m not going alone.”

With tacit approval from his superiors, Landis enlisted Maj. William Duba and together they “skirted [and] circumvented, rules, regulations, policies, chain of command. I exceeded my authority regularly,” he says. “We did whatever we had to do to get the required people into the units deploying to Vietnam. We were not always 100% successful. We were in a bureaucratic morass that at times engulfed us.”

During his first year at the Pentagon, Landis worked without a computer despite needing to search Army records worldwide to fill assignments. Guidance came from Army Regulation 220-1 Field Organizations Unit Readiness. Landis attaches a copy of that reg at the end of his book. He also includes photographs of the most important players involved in the deployment program.

Improvising a War is a good read because Benjamin Landis wrote it fifteen years after leaving the Pentagon when his on-the-job notes and vivid memories were fresh. In 2012, he pulled the draft from his files, edited it, and added anecdotes from his long military career, then published it this year.

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His writing style delighted me. He uses real names, and the guilty are not forgotten. Landis describes a fellow officer as “undoubtedly the worst lieutenant colonel I ever encountered” who “could very well have been the worst lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army at that time.” He says an orientation talk about his new job from his new boss was “cordial, concise, and imprecise.” He tells a story about a major general who carried “tradition to the outer limits of absurdity.”

Landis, by the way, also lauds his heroes.

His insight into the dreams, schemes, and machinations of full and light colonels in quest of their next promotions validates the suspicions often held by lower-ranking personnel. The book also provides an eye-opening lecture on Army readiness in the mid-sixties.

Shuffling paperwork can be a lackluster pursuit, but Landis has turned his deployment task into a management adventure as entertaining as any I have read.

Vietnam veterans who served in the 9th or 25th Infantry Divisions or the 196th Infantry Brigade should find interest in Landis’  inside stories of the war-time deployment of their units.

—Henry Zeybel

Logical Family by Armistead Maupin

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Armistead Maupin, the writer best-known for his best-selling, six-volume Tales of the City series, served as an officer in the U.S. Navy after graduating from the University of North Carolina. That service included a tour of River Patrol Force duty in the Vietnam War.

Years ago, I attended a reading Maupin gave in Seattle. I asked him afterward if he had any plans to write a memoir dealing with his Navy service. Maupin said something about how long ago and far away the Vietnam War was, and that he thought it unlikely he would ever do that.

I encouraged him to write that memoir and told him how rare it was for a professional writer to write his own life story. He muttered something about how he didn’t think he remembered enough detail to write that book.

The good news is that Maupin has just written that memoir, a  Logical Family: A Memoir (Harper, 304 pp., $27.99, hardcover; $26.36, paper; $14.99, Kindle). It is a wonderful piece of work, that’s just as warm, witty, and personal as his novels and journalism. Maupin tells us he joined the Navy to make his conservative father proud of him. He goes on to reveal a lot of fascinating detail about his naval duties, during which he hobnobbed with officers at the top of the Navy hierarchy—a mighty contrast to how most of the other men of his age (24-25) spent their Vietnam War tours.

In this book, Maupin mentions John Wayne a couple of times, and Joan Baez and Leadbelly in passing. The tragedy of Agent Orange gets some important space. Maupin writes that he missed the Vietnam War so much that he chose to return there as a civilian to work on a housing unit for disabled South Vietnamese naval veterans. Mostly this was a propaganda effort.111111111111111111111111111111111

Maupin is one of America’s greatest story tellers and this book is jam-packed with stories, many of them indiscreet and some of them downright ribald. Warning: Some of Maupin’s tales are sad and will provoke tears. But that is as it should be when a master story teller brings his genius to bear on his life and on the Vietnam War.

Maupin has spoiled me for reading homemade memoirs by veterans whose sincerity is no substitute for talent and skill.

—David Willson

Donut Dollies in Vietnam by Nancy Smoyer

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“I’d rather be heard than comforted,” Nancy Smoyer writes near the end of Donut Dollies in Vietnam: Baby-Blue Dresses & OD Green (Chopper Books, 250 pp., $15.00, paper). By that point in the book, Smoyer has fulfilled that goal in this memoir that looks at her time in South Vietnam during the war and its aftermath.

The core of Smoyer’s book describes the pride and dedication she developed toward servicemen as a Donut Dolly in Vietnam in 1967-68. “I still refer to it as the best year of my life,” she writes, “and the worst.”

Smoyer was one of 627 women in the Red Cross Supplemental Recreation Activities Overseas program, which lasted from 1965-72. The largest number of women in-country at one time, she tells us, was 109 in 1969. All of them were college grads and volunteers. They inherited the nickname “Donut Dollies” from Red Cross workers who performed similar duties in Europe during World War II.

The women worked throughout South Vietnam. They took helicopter to the most forward positions. Their chores varied from serving 3:00 a.m. breakfasts to men girding for at-dawn assaults, to organizing C-ration picnics, to playing made-up games. Talking to the troops for any length of time, Smoyer says, “is the most satisfying part of the job. When we go to the field we just talk to the guys as they work.”

She was twenty-five years old. “We were there to boost the morale of the troops, plain and simple,” Smoyer explains. “Everything I did revolved around the men, and I don’t regret a minute of it.”

Being in-country and exposed to the same threats as the men in uniform, Donut Dollies encountered common war and post-war problems. After coming home Smoyer suffered PTSD, predicated on survival guilt, which was compounded by her brother’s death in action a few months after she returned to the United States.

On a visit to Vietnam in 1993, Smoyer says she overcame her PTSD by learning compassion for the Vietnamese—something that she had not allowed herself to feel before.

The second half of the book deals with post-war events. Many scenes involve emotional encounters at The Wall where Smoyer began serving as a volunteer guide shortly after its 1982 dedication. “Those days when emotions were raw, none of us knew how to act,” she says, “but we connected on such a deep and immediate level.”

Over the years, Smoyer extended her volunteer work to many other areas dealing with veterans. Serving in Vietnam gave her life its ultimate purpose.

111111111111111111111111111111111She closes the book with letters in tribute to her brother—a Marine lieutenant—from his teachers, coaches, and friends.

While telling her story, Smoyer makes references to the experiences of many other former Donut Dollies. She has maintained contact with them through email, letters, tapes, reunions, musings, and conversations.

Like Nancy Smoyer, they have a lasting commitment to helping veterans.

Smoyer is donating proceeds from the sale of her books to the Semper Fi Fund.

—Henry Zeybel

Da Nang Diary by Tom Yarborough

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Jerry Hall’s Yes Sir, Yes Sir, 3 Bags Full: Flying, Friendships, and Trying to Make Sense of a Senseless War taught me a lot about the world of forward air controllers in the Vietnam War. In it, Hall recreates what it was like flying O-2 Skymasters out of Bien Hoa in 1969-70. For him, the mission took top priority even when it required disobeying orders or regulations. Considering the consequences of those actions came afterward.

In an equally straightforward style, Tom Yarborough adds immeasurably to my knowledge of FACs in Da Nang Diary: A Forward Air Controller’s Gunsight View of Flying with SOG (Casemate, 356 pp., $32.95, hardcover; $16.95, paper; $9.99 Kindle), which delves into his piloting of OV-10 Broncos with the 20th TASS in 1970-71, including the ultra-secret Prairie Fire FACs operations. If you are unfamiliar with that program, Yarborough tells what you need to know about it.

Yarborough has devoted a significant amount of time to telling the SOG story. He first addressed the subject in 1991 with a book that he has twice expanded. Da Nang Diary tells the “whole story,” despite what Yarborough calls “self-immersion and limited perspective.” The foundation for the book is the twelve-hundred-page diary he wrote during the war.

During two tours, Yarborough flew six hundred combat missions in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. He complements stories about his own adventures with those of other pilots’ heroics. FAC tasks bordered on the unimaginable and resulted in frequent losses. Much of what they did supported SOG teams behind enemy lines outside of South Vietnam.

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In the cockpit

While with Spectre in 1971, one sunny morning I hitched a ride to Laos with a Nail FAC. Orbiting here and there, he flew at extremely low altitudes over the assigned area. The flight reminded me of a cop walking a beat. Nothing dangerous happened, but activity on the ground stopped when the FAC appeared. People disappeared. An extremely enlightening non-event.

Hall and Yarborough have left me with a keen appreciation for the performance of FACs under extreme combat conditions. Young and eager in the midst of war, both men learned that enemies existed within their chain of command—not just among the foreigners who shot at them.

They capably handled foes from both.

—Henry Zeybel

The Odyssey of Echo Company by Doug Stanton

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Doug Stanton’s The Odyssey of Echo Company: The 1968 Tet Offensive and the Epic Battle of Echo Company to Survive the Vietnam War (Scribner, 337 pp. $30, hardcover; $14.99, Kindle) centers on the author’s quest to help former infantryman Stan Parker answer the most pressing question of his life: “What happened to me in Vietnam?”

In an effort to deal with his post-war emotional problems, Parker sought to find meaning for himself and his fellow U.S. Army 101st Airborne Division soldiers who were killed and wounded during the 1968 Tet Offensive.

Days after graduating from high school in 1966, Parker enlisted in the Army. He won jump wings and learned long-range reconnaissance skills. In December 1967, as a volunteer, he arrived in Vietnam, turned twenty, and was assigned to a recon platoon in Echo Company of the 1st Battalion in the 101st’s 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment. The small unit, he says, was “supposed to be the eyes and ears of the battalion, to find the enemy, to probe, size up, and report to the battalion so that the line companies—the ‘line doggies,’ the other grunt soldiers—can come in and fight.”

The recon platoon operated near Cu Chi in the Iron Triangle. For six months, Parker says, “Nothing ever changes, and yet nothing ever is the same.” He went out on many patrols until he was wounded for the third time in May 1968.

Much of the book focuses on killing and remorse, killing and sorrow, and more killing—and pain. Friends and foe alike suffer. By recording grotesque incidents told to him by Parker and other Echo troops, Stanton (the author of the bestsellers In Harm’s Way and Horse Soldiers) captures the essence of Vietnam War combat.

With chilling, detailed accounts, Stanton shows the disintegration of the minds of men repeatedly exposed to injury and death. Anguish, grief, hate, and sorrow filled their days. Shredding other men with gunfire, they rued their task while knowing it was their salvation: kill or be killed. They recognized their actions as counter-intuitive behavior of man toward his fellow man.

Guilt created conflict in the minds of many Echo Company men. Despite their heroic actions, Parker and others questioned the reasons for the war. At the same time the men built a brotherhood, akin to being in “a new fraternity.” Still, those associations did not last beyond the war.

Based on many firefights described in the book, one could call Parker the consummate warrior. He had total intensity toward a mission. He ignored vulnerability and pain. Best of all, he reacted creatively to apparently unsolvable problems.

“War is really about elimination—eliminating, erasing, wasting, greasing, making nonexistent,” he says. “You kill the other guy, until there are more of you than there are of them.”

For several years, Parker’s post-war life was nearly as violent as his time in Vietnam. As a civilian, he reacted to physical threats with unreserved violence.

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Doug Stanton

Parker and Stanton returned to Vietnam in 2013, with Parker still filled with guilt and questions about his and his unit’s role in the war. They visit places where Parker was wounded. Surprisingly, they befriend a former enemy soldier who fought at one of the sites. That brief encounter created a bonding to help Parker find a modicum of relief from the PTSD that had pursued him after the war.

The book developed from a long acquaintanceship between Stan Parker and Doug Stanton. At its heart, it is Parker’s memoir of the start of his military career based on his own words, along with Stanton’s interviews with other Echo Company soldiers, letters from the time, and official reports and records.

The realistic writing style of The Odyssey of Echo Company flows easily and should appeal to military nonfiction fans.

The author’s website is www.dougstanton.com

—Henry Zeybel

Why Vietnam Matters by Rufus Phillips

“This is an inside history of what really happened in Vietnam and why it matters.”

That’s the first line of one of the most important books on the early history of the Vietnam War, Why Vietnam Matters: An Eyewitness Account of Lessons Not Learned by Rufus Phillips. This 2008 memoir—now out in paperback for the first time (Naval Institute, 448 pp., $24.95—is an insider’s account of the fateful 1950s and early 1960s decisions that set in motion the U.S. war in Vietnam.

Phillips, who turned 88 last month, was sent to South Vietnam in 1954 as a member of the first CIA team there, led by the legendary intelligence agent Edward Lansdale, a career USAF officer who worked with the OSS in World War II and the CIA after the war. Phillips spent most of the next decade doing undercover and pacification work in Vietnam. He played an important behind-the-scenes advisory role in the high-level power struggle that developed over how the United States would help South Vietnam defeat the communist Viet Cong and North Vietnamese.

Rufus Phillips (who is a featured commentator in the new Ken Burns PBS Vietnam War documentary) was a strong proponent of what came to be known as the “hearts and minds” approach: helping build a stable democratic government in the south, one that the people of South Vietnam would put their lives on the line to preserve. At the same time, he (like his mentor, Lansdale) spoke out strongly and consistently against sending in American combat troops. That includes speaking face-to-face with President John F. Kennedy in the White House on September 10, 1963–a memorable meeting that Phillips describes in detail in the book.

As we wrote in our 2008 review, this is a revealing inside-baseball memoir, in which Phillips provides a fascinating look at how the Kennedy and Johnson administrations never gave the pacification approach more than lip service.

Phillips in Vietnam in 1954

Phillips offers intimate, revealing portraits of the Lansdale, the colorful CIA operative Lucien Conein, South Vietnamese Premier Ngo Dinh Diem, Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, President JKennedy, Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, and a slew of other Kennedy and Johnson higher-ups.

Phillips clearly shows that those best and brightest, especially McNamara, exhibited “poor judgment, bureaucratic prejudice, and personal hubris” as they steered Vietnam War policy in a disastrous course. Phillips adds a short chapter on lessons learned from the Vietnam War calamity.

As I wrote in 2008, this book should be mandatory reading in Washington, D.C. It still should.

The author’s website is whyvietnammatters.com

—Marc Leepson