The 31st Infantry Regiment by The Members of the 31st Infantry Regiment Association

Stories are the way people pass knowledge from one generation to another.

The late Karl H. Lowe, with help from James B. Simms and Grady A. Smith, has passed down a century of military stories in The 31st Infantry Regiment: A History of “America’s Foreign Legion” in Peace and War (McFarland, 519 pp. $45, paper). The three men were career soldiers who served in the 31st Infantry Regiment. They know combat.

As the unit’s Regimental Historian for twenty years, Karl Lowe recorded the 31st from its activation in the Philippines in 1916 through the Vietnam War. In this book James Simms expands on the unit’s action in Vietnam, and Grady Smith reports on activities in Iraq and Afghanistan. An excellent selection of photographs from archives and personal sources supplements their writing.

The Regiment’s first battle took place during a deployment to Siberia in 1919 after Bolsheviks captured five American enlisted men following the Russian Revolution. That far north adventure earned the unit the nickname “The Polar Bear Regiment.” World War I had ended in Europe in 1918, but skirmishes between Russian, European, Asian, and American military forces continued in Siberia until 1920. Lowe’s account of the scale of interaction north of Vladivostok provided a new history lesson for me.

The same holds true for the Regiment’s deployment to Shanghai when that city became an International Settlement in 1932. This time the Americans stood aside with the British while Chinese and Japanese troops battled on the city’s fringes.

The entire book is a history lesson. Lowe writes about old encounters as if they had happened yesterday. Simms and Smith have a similar talent. Their stories tie troops, regardless of rank, to situations so that a reader fully understands what occurred and why. Best of all, the authors provide a feel for the moods of the troops and organizations.

Stationed in Manila from 1932-41, the undermanned and poorly equipped 31st Regiment followed a slow motion pace of activity, culminating in a series of ignored war alerts in November of 1941.

A few weeks later, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.

The remainder of the book focuses on the 31st Regiment in combat: in the Philippines, Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Afghanistan, and Iraq. The authors recreate battle scenes with great authenticity. Extensive chapter notes support their work. Many of the Regiment’s war stories have become high points in U.S. military history and the authors do justice to them.

31st Infantry Regiment troops in Vietnam in 1970

The Vietnam War is reported in two sections: 4th Battalion (1967-71) and 6th Battalion (1967-70). The latter includes operations in Cambodia. Again the reporting is personalized and describes actions and attitudes of individual infantrymen.

The book’s closing pages pay tribute to 31st Infantry Regiment troops killed in action in all wars.

The authors’ combat expertise, their fluid writing style, and the depth of their reporting make The 31st Infantry Regiment a worthwhile reading experience.

The book tells it like it was.

—Henry Zeybel

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The Headless Snake by Harry Wagner

While browsing Harry Wagner’s The Headless Snake: Peace Team Forward: A Methodology of Peace, Not War: A View of the Past and a Plan for the Future (CreateSpace, 262 pp. $16.50, paper), I flipped to the epilogue and read: “Following my refusal to assassinate a Vietnamese family for the Phoenix Program, I was unceremoniously asked to leave Vietnam.”

Wow, I thought, this guy has a message.

During 1966-68, Harry Wagner served in Vietnam after USAID recruited him away from his job as mayor of Friendswood, Texas, and gave him a civilian slot with the rank of major general. He worked with the U.S. Embassy, the First Field Force, and Psy Ops before ending up with the Phoenix Program. He pretty much had carte blanche to do anything he wanted to do for twenty-two months.

Accepted by Congress as a military tactic and controlled by the CIA under William Colby, Phoenix, Wagner writes, murdered “68,000 or more Vietnamese [civilian] suspects,” and made the American government “the world’s predominant terrorist.” This action coincided with (and complemented) the counterinsurgency program, which Wagner rates as a failure—then and now.

Phoenix operated under a concept called The Headless Snake. That is, if you cut the head off a snake, it dies. Killing suspected Viet Cong leaders in South Vietnam would take away the enemy’s head and theoretically destroy the body of enemy forces.

Based on his experiences in Vietnam and subsequent research of military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, Wagner concludes that the Pentagon, Congress, and White House “have greatly abused the use of our military power, for whatever objective they had in mind.”

He holds “our Generals” guilty of complying with a New World Order that makes the military’s primary function that of “war in foreign lands and not defense of our Constitution.” There “is no justification,” he writes, “for the current deployment of our military being used as strike forces in countries that are no threat to our security,.”

Wagner’s solution is “the proven strategy” of Persuasion with Relevance, which constitutes the essence of his book. He calls the effort “Peace Team Forward,” and says he employed and refined it in Vietnam.

The strategy is a sophisticated form of self-help that requires specialized planning and personnel deployed in a timely manner, most advantageously before general hostilities develop. Wagner labels the enemy as the Sheath (insurgents) and calls friendly forces the Spear (specialists highly trained in subtle motivation techniques) and the Shield (warriors to protect Spear personnel). In other words, the strategy deploys a Peace Team that ideally builds nations without first tearing them apart.

Wagner supports his theory by citing events from thirty operations he conducted during seventeen months in the field, the largest with a “population of 650” being the most successful. His evidence includes copies of reports and photographs. His success in organizing the Chieu Hoi defection program shows the effectiveness of persuasion with relevance.

Instead of winning hearts and minds of the indigenous people, his plan earns their trust and avoids the expense of lives and property destroyed by combat. His operation has a distinct non-military, Peace Corps appearance.

Basically, Wagner believes that helping other nations is a psychological problem, not a psychiatric endeavor. We cannot change national personalities, he says.

His accounts from the Vietnam War reveal one important fact: Officers were poorly trained and hampered by tradition, especially West Point graduates. Wagner believes the condition still exists and that the military needs a total re-education program of leaders at all levels of command.

William Colby, who directed the Phoenix Program in Vietnam, later became CIA Director

Although Wagner presents detailed and reasonable arguments for his theory, what he seeks appears unobtainable because I doubt that, in today’s America, he could find an adequate number of competent and unselfish people willing to make the long-term commitment required to fulfill his mission.

Wagner’s plan, that is, is too demanding for Americans today. As I see it, making Team Forward successful would require the re-education of our entire military structure and also the re-education of our entire nation.

On the day I began reading The Headless Snake, the White House suggested that U.S.-backed Afghan troops retreat from sparsely populated areas of their nation and allow the Taliban to control vast stretches of their country. Simultaneously, U.S. and Taliban representatives met face-to-face without the presence of Afghan officials, a stipulation of the Taliban. Concessions such as these confirm the weakness of America’s master plan for dealing with insurgents.

Wagner’s strategy might be questionable. His idealism contains hints of isolationism. By advocating the rejection of policies and practices dating back to World War II, he asks us to re-evaluate our entire lives.

How many people are willing to attempt that?

—Henry Zeybel

51-50: The Book by Ron Irwin

Ron Irwin, a former USMC Corporal, has written a pocketbook-size, mini-memoir in which he addresses himself in the third person. He calls it 51-50: The Book (Lulu, 148 pp. $7.98, paper). The numbers represent police code for “crazy.”

Everyone has a story to tell with a special angle. Irwin finds humor in the craziness he encountered as a misdirected child and then as a United States Marine. In both cases, his stories rank well above the ordinary.

Pessimism enhances their telling. When searching for a post-high school job, for example, Irwin recognizes that he would earn “just about enough for him to be homeless.”

Ron Irwin traces his youth with wonderment heightened by distance and age. He reflects a brashness that serves as a defense mechanism to compensate for the innocence that once controlled him. Yet it also freed him to attempt the extraordinary.

Irwin’s 51-50 episodes began with his mother, a woman lacking even a hint of self-control. She wrecked her marriages with his father and a second husband, a man who stole Irwin’s “modest coin collection” to buy beer. Following 51-50 parental guidance, Irwin failed to capitalize on excellent opportunities as a student.

At the age of eighteen, he enlisted in the Marine Corps and his 51-50 experiences multiplied. He encountered the madhouse tempo of boot camp and the illogical luxuries he savored as an enlisted man in Okinawa and aboard the USS Valley Forge. Then came thirteen months of frantic Vietnam War duties in 1966-67 with a Marine air wing in Chu Lai.

One life-changing fact Irwin learned while FACing (yes, he voluntarily flew Forward Air Control operations with a Korean Marine major in a Bird Dog) was “napalm is totally indiscriminate.” It convinced him to hate warfare.

In Vietnam, tragedy continually overwhelmed humor. “Too many examples of 51-50 behavior that may have started with good intentions ultimately fell straight into hell,” Irwin writes.

Irwin’s 51-50 USMC events culminated with buying a couple of beers for two North Vietnamese soldiers and sharing the favors of— Wait: rather than spoiling an audacious scene, I suggest you read the book for yourself.

Ron Irwin

Written in a freestyle conversational voice, 50-51: The Book held my interest because of its undercurrent of turbulence. Editing purists might be turned off by the book’s lack of punctuation beyond sentence-ending periods and an abundance of typographical errors.

More than likely, few people will read this small book, but its messages about life are as pertinent as those found in scholarly tomes.

Irwin is donating a portion of the book’s proceeds to Vietnam Veterans of America. His website is ronirwin.net

—Henry Zeybel

Reflections on LZ Albany by James T. Lawrence

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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

Grunt by Larry Kuykendall

A two-year draftee, Larry Kuykendall excelled in training and went to Vietnam as an Army staff sergeant where he lead a platoon of other draftees during his 1969-70 tour of duty. Kuykendall’s memoir, Grunt: A Tale of Men and War (BookLocker, 230 pp. $15.95, paper) tells the story of his life with the 3rd Brigade, 22nd Regiment of the 25th Infantry Division operating mainly out of Fire Support Base Washington near Tay Ninh in III Corps.

Kuykendall touches on many topics recorded in other Vietnam War memoirs. For example, he discusses alcohol and drug use among his men, race relations, fear, close calls with death, and death itself. He describes monsoon rains, heat, hydration, and off-duty interactions with Vietnamese civilians beyond the wire.

Interspersed with this common knowledge, however, Kuykendall also teaches the leadership lessons he learned as he led a constantly undermanned platoon of twelve-to-twenty men. Sergeants led all platoons in his Delta Company, as his company commander determined that newly minted lieutenants were incompetent.

Honesty and fairness comprise the core of Kuykendall’s leadership philosophy. Furthermore, he believed that mission ranked secondary to safety. He made sure that his men understood those beliefs. As a result, Kuydendall lost only one man, and he was hit by friendly fire. Still, he writes, “every third man would be wounded in some way,” including himself.

The best lesson Kuykendall learned was to distrust authority. Decisions of officers under whom he served convinced him that authority was motivated by its own agenda for personal success, a conclusion he held fast for decades after the war.

By recreating two major operations involving his company, Kuykendall shows the great distance between the goals of upper-echelon Army officers and grunts. He led his platoon on a deployment up Black Virgin Mountain and in the invasion into Cambodia in 1970. Planners for each operation had minimal understanding of the situations. The results were exercises in futility, he says. In both cases, the NVA chose not to fight because its leaders envisioned an end to the war, which U.S. Army leaders refused to consider.

Nevertheless, Kuykendall projects a broad cultural personality that enlivens his story telling. He separates right from wrong and communicates his beliefs logically.

25th Infantry Division troops checking out a wounded NVA soldier for concealed weapons outside Fire Support Base Washington in 1969 (Photo by Spec 4 K.C. Cullen)

I believe that Larry Kuykendall should have titled his book Coping in a World of Disillusionment. He begins with a twelve-page preface that is an editorial denouncing America’s obsession with maintaining a strong military and employing it to support worldwide wars. Throughout the book, much shorter commentaries offer similar arguments.

Although Grunt repeats information covered in many other Vietnam War veteran memoirs, Kuykendall provides a fresh, front-row view of how a platoon of two-year draftees survived in a war with a questionable purpose.

—Henry Zeybel

The Restless Wave by John McCain and Mark Salter

Politics runs the gamut from head-butting battles to bipartisan friendships. John McCain has experienced both extremes during his thirty-year career as a United States Senator. Now, challenged by life-threatening brain cancer, he has written The Restless Wave: Good Times, Just Causes, Great Fights, and Other Appreciations with his long-time literary collaborator Mark Salter (Simon & Schuster, 416 pp. $30, hardcover; $14.99, Kindle). In this memoir, McCain looks back and evaluates his contributions to American politics.

Whenever McCain—a Vietnam War hero who endured unimaginable hardships when he was held prisoner in North Vietnam for five-and-a-half years—encountered a problem for which he saw a political solution, he pursued it anywhere in the world. He explains his good and bad performances without boasting or excusing himself. In doing so in this book, he resolved some questions that I had but were never satisfactorily answered in the news media over the past decade or two.

McCain’s principal efforts focused on democracy and human rights, immigration, and rendition and torture of prisoners. Late in the book, he cites his ideals to provide guidelines for American leaders based on our historical responsibility to humanity.

Both directly and indirectly, McCain finds fault with the decisions and demeanor of President Trump and what McCain characterizes as “odd characters involved in [his] campaign.”

Similarly, he condemns the behavior of Vladimir Putin and classifies him as “our implacable foe,” as well as a criminal who “might be the wealthiest person on earth” based on stealing from the Russian people. With that belief foremost in mind, McCain analyzes Russia’s goals and its association with the vulnerable former Soviet republics, where he frequently has traveled to support their quests for freedom.

McCain also finds fault with his own leadership role. He berates himself for supporting the invasion of Iraq and accepting the lie that the nation had weapons of mass destruction. To his credit, during 2004-07, he repeatedly visited Iraq and Afghanistan and questioned military strategies, particularly the counterinsurgency program and manpower needs. He ventured to the Middle East throughout the Arab Spring.

Along with his efforts to improve the world, McCain also evaluates his 2008 run for the presidency. These chapters are the most insightful because McCain accepts responsibility for losing the election.

“I had a full opportunity to persuade Americans they should trust me with the security and prosperity of our civilization,” he writes. “I didn’t convince them.” He also notes that running for president, “on the whole,” was “the privilege of a lifetime.”

McCain has written six other books with Salter, who has worked on his staff for eighteen years. Last year, Elaine S. Povich produced John McCain: American Maverick, a coffee-table-sized collection of photographs and text, which The Restless Wave  complements.

Even if you had never heard of John McCain, reading The Restless Wave would make you want to pick him for your team. He is relentless in his pursuit of helping oppressed people predicated on his appreciation of American exceptionalism.

—Henry Zeybel

The World Looked Away by Dave Bushy

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Dave Bushy’s The World Looked Away: Vietnam after the War: Quoc Pham’s Story (Archway Publishing, 422 pp. $39.99, hardcover; $25.99, paper; $2.40, Kindle) tells the story of Quoc Pham and his family during and after the 1975 communist takeover of South Vietnam.

Bushy is a consultant and executive coach for clients in aviation and other businesses. He served as a U.S. Army Intelligence staff officer in in Germany from 1975-77.

Quoc Pham served as a South Vietnamese Navy lieutenant. In April 1975, he opted to stay behind and fend for his family rather than accept a guaranteed escape to freedom.

The World Looked Away is very well researched and is well-illustrated with photos. It is a first-hand look at what happened to Quoc, his family, and others who opted to (or had to) stay in South Vietnam after the war ended. To this day, many Vietnamese refer to 1975-85 as “The Ten Dark Years.”

Each chapter begins with a quote from a Buddhist or Vietnamese proverb or from an individual.  For example:  “A little food while hungry is like a lot of food while full.” And “What money can’t buy, more money can.” Both are Vietnamese proverbs.

The World Looked Away centers on Quoc and his personal experiences, but to better understand the bigger picture, the narrative periodically breaks away to describe the experiences of other South Vietnamese people around Quoc. The love and camaraderie of Quoc, his wife King-Cuong, and their extended family is central to their survival and eventual success.

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When he was imprisoned in a re-education camp in Vietnam, a fellow prisoner told Quoc: “We lost the war. The key now, is not to conquer, but to survive.” This entire story, in fact, is one of survival. The brutality of the communist conquerors was harsh and sustained. It was imposed on the prisoners in the camps and on the population at large.  Its purpose was not re-education but retribution.

The World Looked Away is a must-read for anybody interested in seeing what can happen when freedom is lost, and what can be accomplished if you never give up.

It is riveting and pulsates with hope and fear, victory and defeat.

— Bob Wartman