The American War in Viet Nam by Susan Lyn Eastman

The author of The American War in Viet Nam: Cultural Memories at the Turn of the Century (University of Tennessee Press, 238 pp., $39.95), Susan Lyn Eastman, is not a Vietnam War veteran, nor any other kind of military veteran. She was raised in a small town in New Hampshire that was off the grid, attended a two-room school house, and her father is a Vietnam War veteran. Eastman is particularly interested in the treatment of veterans following the war. I suspect that relates to her father’s decision to get far away from modern post-war America.

In her book, Eastman, an English professor at Dalton State College in Georgia, examines a wide range of cultural productions. She discusses war memorials, poetry, and cinematic and fictional narratives. Eastman begins with a short Preface in which she recounts reading thirty names at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and giving in to tears when she did so. She says that the memorial does not account for the deaths of many others caused by the war, certainly not the more than one million Vietnamese dead.

Most interesting to me was Chapter 7, “Unfinished Remembrance: Beyond the United States and Vietnam—Jessica Hagedorn’s Dream Jungle and Frances Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now Redux.” I’d read a couple of Hagedorn’s books but not this one. I ordered the book, but decided to plod forward with this review.

The most useful aspect of this fine book was that it motivated me to do more reading about the Vietnam War. I was arrogant enough to imagine that I’d not missed the paramount books written about the war. So this book was a wake-up call for me.

The few black-and-white photos in the book were useful to the extent that they helped with the analysis of Vietnam War and veterans memorials. But they are muddy and not celebratory in any way, just useful to scholarly purposes.

Lyn Susan Eastman

The bibliography and the index are excellent. I spent much time pouring over them and then going to the references to see what I’d missed.  A book like this without an index and a bibliography is worse than useless, as all of us who have grappled with such messes will attest.

The author’s honesty about being the daughter of a Vietnam War veteran and how this affected her research and her point of view drove the book’s orientation and its power. Thanks to Susan Lyn Eastman for using her own life story to produce a useful and powerful interdisciplinary study that probes deeply where other books have only gone lightly.

–David Willson

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More Than Nine Lives by Evan Balasuriya

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In More Than Nine Lives (CreateSpace, 208 pp. $24.95, hardcover; $19.95 paper ), Evan Balasuriya writes about narrow escapes from death early in his life. That theme reaches a crescendo during the 1968 Tet Offensive when his band—Savages—is in the middle of a tour entertaining American troops in South Vietnam.

Savages consisted of four men (three guitar players and a drummer) and three women (a lead singer and two go-go dancers) mainly from Sri Lanka where they were one of the country’s most popular rock bands. The group had more than nine lives, Balasuriya, notes, having cheated “death more than eleven times and perform[ed] for nearly 500,000 U.S. soldiers” during thirteen long months in-country.

Their brushes with death included rocket attacks; their van coming under small arms fire; confrontations with drunken ARVN, Korean, and American sexual predators; and speeding along narrow roads in the blackness of night in the middle of nowhere. Balasuriya plays each event for all it is worth. He personalizes a stray bullet that hits a wall near him, for example, by saying, “Yet again, I had cheated death.”

Balasuriya builds a background for the Vietnam War scenes by recalling growing up in Sri Lanka. For me, this was the most interesting part of his memoir.

Born in 1942, he describes a near-drowning and a near-emasculating bicycle accident, along with other threats to his life. The son of a doctor who worked in government hospitals, he grew up with six siblings. He labels his Catholic parents as “upper middle class,” but they had servants and their children attended boarding schools. In high school, Balasuriya excelled as a soccer goalie, captaining his team to a national championship.

Despite being his father’s scapegoat for misdeeds by the children, Balasuriya developed a strong personality and sense of responsibility without harboring resentment. Consequently, he displayed excellent leadership at critical times, especially in Vietnam.

In keeping with a privileged upbringing, Balasuriya’s thinking reflects puritanical standards. His observations on love, sex, war, prostitution, and other controversial topics reveal a righteous state of mind that led him to face physical danger to protect the women in his band and to stand up to bullies.

For Balasuriya, going to Vietnam resembled a leap to another planet. It was his first trip outside Sri Lanka and his first airplane ride. He had no knowledge about the war or its purpose. To him, everything in Vietnam portended danger.

Like the other members of Savages, Balasuriya delighted in entertaining enlisted men, NCOs, and officers with separate performances in a given day. Savages played some 750 concerts.

Similar to other Asian bands, Savages mimicked performers such as the Beatles and Rolling Stones. Balasuriya mentions nearly every song Savages played for the troops, which should trigger at least a few memories for Vietnam War veterans.

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The book contains about a hundred photographs he took. Many are small or dark. But they all provide evidence of an unusual year for a remarkable leader and his group.

Balasuriya migrated to the United States in 1973. For years, he operated a nationally renowned restaurant in Minneapolis. In 2005, he founded an organization that built houses for Sri Lanka tsunami victims.

The author’s website is morethanninelives.com

—Henry Zeybel

1965: The Most Revolutionary Year in Music by Andrew Grant Jackson

The VVA Veteran’s Arts Editor Marc Leepson opened an envelope and handed me the book inside. “This book might be of interest to you,” he said.

The cover art, with its hand-drawn lettering, is reminiscent of a Jefferson Airplane concert poster. The title, 1965: The Most Revolutionary Year in Music (Thomas Dunne Books, 352 pp., $27.99), definitely piqued my interest. Having retired from a career on the radio playing sixties and seventies rock music, I quickly took it from him and read it.

Author Andrew Grant Jackson covers the music scene in 1965, a scene that took a sharp turn with the “British Invasion” led by the Beatles. Before that, ballad singers such as Bobby Vinton, and coffee house folksingers such as Peter, Paul and Mary and The Kingston Trio dominated the charts. The Beatles were paving the way, but Bob Dylan also was a powerful influence.

The author divides the year of 1965 into its four seasons (not to be confused with the rock group of the same name). He writes about the British Invasion, and also includes Motown, the surfer music of the Beach Boys, Bakersfield, and Nashville, and the challenge of Soulsville vs Hitsville. Background information on the songs and the singers is provided in great detail.

Andrew Grant Jackson

I didn’t always agree with the author’s interpretations of what specific songs were saying. To me, this is personal—it’s how you hear a song. It doesn’t matter if the songwriter wanted to say this or that, but what you feel he or she is saying.

Jackson also too often strayed from what I was interested in—the actual music. He branched off into the history of the year, including his thoughts on long hair, the pill, race riots, and the Vietnam War. This was the year that the U.S. sent combat troops to Vietnam for the first time—the start of the Johnson administration’s massive escalation of the war. Other than the Vietnam War part, I skipped the history lessons, and continued reading what I came for, the music.

Overall, I liked the book, including the sections on the scandal Bob Dylan caused by going electric; the Beatles going from She loves you, yea, yea, yea” to “In My Life”and their direction-changing album Rubber Soul . The author covered a lot more than many of the other books on music history I have read.

—Wes Guidry