Dear Allyanna by Michael Lee Lanning

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After receiving a diagnosis of terminal kidney cancer, Michael Lee Lanning decided he still had a mind full of knowledge that he wanted to share. At the time, he had written twenty-five non-fiction books on the Vietnam War, other aspects of military history, sports, and health. Many were big sellers.

As a result of his response to the diagnosis, Lee Lanning has written Dear Allyanna: An Old Soldier’s Last Letter to His Granddaughter (Hardy Publishing, 238 pp., $18.95, paper).

The book relates ideas and experiences he had yet to share with his offspring. Granddaughter Allyanna became the vehicle for transmitting information that alphabetically ranges from “Abortion” to “Zen.”

The length of each discussion stretches from one sentence to fourteen pages. Lanning has fun with lists such as “Things That I Like” followed by “Things That Irritate Me,” and “Things I Am Pretty Sure Of,” followed by “Things I Still Have Questions About.”

Growing up on an isolated West Texas ranch and serving in the U.S. Army provide background for much of his advice. During 1969-70, he led a 199th Light Infantry Brigade platoon and then a company in the Vietnam War, eventually retiring as a lieutenant colonel in 1988. He blends first-hand accounts of the fury of firefights and of 2008 Hurricane Ike with topics such as “Books I Didn’t Write,” “Psychotherapy,” and “Race Relations.”

He favors liberal-leaning values and dismisses undeserved recognition of authority such as a bow or curtsy to royalty based only on birthright. At the same time, he scatters tidbits of conservative guidance. At heart, Lee Lanning is a self-made realist who evaluates his seventy-year-plus journey through life to cull the pros and cons for lessons that simplify entry into adulthood.

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Col. Lanning

His target audience is teenagers. Occasionally his advice makes me recall Amy Vanderbilt’s New Complete Book of Etiquette, which is a good thing because Dear Allyanna sets a standard of behavior higher than normally expected of young adults.

It does so, however, without mentioning finger bowls or silver place settings. Lanning’s book might provide the exact guidance that our grand-kids need.

Practicing a regimen of “meds and treatments that nearly killed [him] before the disease could do so,” and fortified by a diet that defies imagination, he beat cancer and is alive today.

Dear Allyanna nicely wraps up Lee Lanning’s two Vietnam War memoirs: The Only War We Had: A Platoon Leader’s Journal of Vietnam, and Vietnam, 1969-1970: A Company Commander’s Journal.

Lanning’s website is michaelleelanning.com

—Henry Zeybel

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Vietnam Bao Chi by Marc Phillip Yablonka

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Most Vietnam War histories on the broadcast media focus on, and critique, civilian coverage of the war. TV television coverage brought the war into America’s living rooms and many believe turned public opinion against the war. President Johnson hated most coverage, at one point saying that it was as if CBS and NBC  were “controlled by the Viet Cong.”

Journalist and author Marc Phillip Yablonka’s Vietnam Bao Chi: Warriors of Word and Film (Casemate, 320 pp., $32.95, hardcover; $11.99, Kindle) provides a different point of view. Yablonka tells the stories of more than thirty Army, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard, and Marine military correspondents, photographers, and TV and documentary cameramen and directors who covered the war for Stars & Stripes and various military media.

Marines, as Yablonka shows, were warriors first and reporters or photographers second. In one case, Yablonka writes of a Marine cameraman, as the next most senior in rank, picking up his M-14 and calling in an airstrike after his lieutenant and sergeant were severely wounded. In another, a Marine journalist captured six Viet Cong.

Loosely translated,“Bao Chi” is Vietnamese for journalist. But the men Yablonka writes about covered the war more viscerally, with emotional perspective cast in terms like bravery, courage, honor, and loyalty. The Marine cameraman who took command declares, for example:

“I was with the finest company of those Marines and Navy corpsman and thank them for giving me the rare privilege to bear witness to their efforts and sacrifices. I wish all the images in my mind could be reproduced because they are far more exceptional than the images I captured on film.”

Each chapter deals with a different person’s experiences in the war. To some degree the chapters are repetitious. At the same time, a reader can pick and choose among chapters, drawn in by titles such as “Rockin’ and Rollin’ with the Montagnards” and “From Hot Rod Comics and Hemingway…to Vietnam.”

Military abbreviations and jargon pepper the text; the glossary is seven-pages long. Some veterans may find the terms nostalgic; civilian readers may find themselves regularly referring to that glossary.

Some chapters recount the war’s “surreal” moments.” In one case, ten Marines on a roof watch flashes in the distance as rockets fall on Da Nang’s airbase, excited by “the fireworks show.” They sit in beach chairs and drink beer. Then someone yells out: “Get naked.” So they did.

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Marc Yablonka

Another time, after a firefight, a lieutenant had his unit call out their last names to determine if anyone had been killed. One guy didn’t answer. After a frantic search, he was found behind a boulder—calmly eating C-ration fruit cocktail.

Vietnam Bao Chi isn’t for everyone because of its repetition and level of detail. But that was the mission of military correspondents: to provide context and details that arguably escaped recognition by civilian reporters.

The book’s perspective may be unique among the number of books written about the Vietnam War.

—Bob Carolla

Ho Chi Minh’s Blueprint for a Revolution by Virginia Morris

The enigma of Ho Chi Minh continues to both fascinate and mystify. In Ho Chi Minh’s Blueprint for Revolution: In the Words of Vietnamese Strategists and Operatives (McFarland, 395 pp., $45, paper; $24.99, Kindle) the British security and defense analyst Virginia Morris uses first-hand accounts of Vietnamese officials to try to understand how Ho could defeat two vastly superior armies and unify a country. Morris says her work is “distinctive” because it is “told from the point of view of communist leader Ho Chi Minh.”

She argues that what made Ho’s “blueprint” unique was not the insurgent strategies and tactics that have been used for centuries, but how he “combined [them] and then used the population that made his unified system new.” Through an exhaustive use of interviews, Morris thoughtfully examines Ho’s use of female couriers, his implementation of both regular and irregular armies; and his deft approach to communications and logistics, mass propaganda campaigns, and domestic and international diplomacy. Ho’s nationalist vision of an independent and unified Vietnam, Morris shows, never wavered.

Almost all serious works on Ho Chi Minh center on one question: Was he, as the historian Sophie Quinn-Judge described him, the “Nationalist Saint” of Vietnam, or was he the “Machiavellian Apparatchik” of the Chinese and Soviets?

Morris’ work places Ho squarely in the first camp. Her enthusiasm for the subjects in her book is palpable, but this sympathetic portrayal impugns an objective treatment of the material as Morris either belittles or ignores the violence and terror of the communist system. There is no mention of the more than one million Vietnamese who fled North Vietnam in 1954, the thought reform campaigns of the 1950s and 1960s that persecuted so-called “class enemies,” and the North Vietnamese tactic of placing civilians in harm’s way to use casualties for propaganda purposes.

In sections on the communist infiltration into the South Vietnamese government and other organizations, when direct propaganda or blackmail proves ineffective, Morris casually mentions that targets were “eventually killed.” The land reforms that led to the deaths of thousands were Ho’s “concession” to the Chinese and the Soviets, she writes, for their financial and military support. These tactics, though abhorrent, were effective, but are not part of the “blueprint.”

The implication of the title is that Ho Chi Minh’s blueprint is transferrable, but Morris does not make this case. Though it is implicit in her work, she misses the key element of all successful revolutions: the cult of personality in leaders as disparate as Mao, Nehru, Lenin, Castro, and Tito.

The book would have been strengthened with an examination into the myth making of “Uncle Ho.” One question not answered: When he was internally criticized in the early 1960s and ultimately forced out of the leadership by Le Duan, why was Ho willing to become a ceremonial figurehead?

Morris asserts that few people understand the strategies behind Ho’s blueprint, but this does not stand up to scrutiny. In her epilogue, she lists the banal, self-help tactics that Ho employed:

“Have a clear objective and robust strategy on how to achieve it. Create a strong brand. Use the people and utilize their traits, strengths and weaknesses… Be diplomatic. Form alliances.” In trying to prove that the blueprint was unique, Morris may be missing that it was Ho Chi Minh who was inimitable.

Virginia Morris

The book’s strength is its use of primary-source interviews. Here, Morris’ efforts are exemplary. Although the sources are generally put in context, more analysis and narrative would have elevated the prose. Quotes from the sources generally run over a page, which weakens the narrative integrity.

The use of maps and diagrams is mostly effective, but some are presented in a level of detail that renders them challenging to follow.

Despite these shortcomings, Ho Chi Minh’s Blueprint for Revolution is a welcome and important work on the conundrum of Ho Chi Minh.

–Daniel R. Hart

 

Don’t Thank Me for My Service by S. Brian Willson

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Don’t Thank Me for My Service: My Viet Nam Awakening to the Long History of US Lies (Clarity Press, 412 pp. $29.95 paperback; $15.99, Kindle) is a difficult book to classify. The subtitle indicates that it is a memoir. But it turns out that this is more like a textbook—and one that perhaps should be required reading for a college or graduate school course on the Vietnam War.

Brian Willson commanded an Air Force combat security unit at Phan Rang Air Base in Vietnam. After coming home from the war, Willson went to law school and ended up as a peace advocate, taking on the criminal justice system and the foreign policies of the U.S. In a terrible accident during a protest, Willson lost both legs while attempting to block a train carrying weapons to Central America in 1987. The accident—which Willson writes about in his 2011 book, Blood on the Tracks—did not deter him. His new book is clearly the work of a man who is passionate about justice, and who puts in the hard work of research.

Willson, however, has crammed too much material into this book. There really are two books in one. The opening pages and the last chapter contain his personal stories, with an especially interesting recounting of his first day in country. The first eight chapters are a history book, a Howard Zinn-like perspective with lots and lots of footnotes.

This history covers a wide range of topics, from a review of the theft of the land of America’s indigenous inhabitants to Cold War hysteria, and just about everything in-between. There is a history of the fighting in Vietnam, a history of the social justice fights in America, and much more. It is exhausting.

One wishes that Willson could have broken this up into two—or even three—different books. And that he was a better writer.

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Willson

But don’t let that scare you away from this book. Don’t Thank Me for My Service is a historical resource with an important perspective.  Brian Willson comes down hard on American imperialism. His facts and his arguments need to be heard and need to be known.

My recommendation: Put this on your bookshelf, and look at it from time to time.

Brian Willson’s website is brianwillson.com

—Bill Fogarty

50 Years After Vietnam by Bill Lord

After five decades of trying to forget about the Vietnam War, Bill Lord looks back on his 1967-68 tour of duty in 50 Years After Vietnam: Lessons and Letters from the War I Hated Fighting (222 pp., $13.95, paper; $7.95, Kindle).

Lord enlisted in the Army when he twenty years old. He arrived in Vietnam in September 1967 and served as a rifleman with the 9th Infantry Division. Lord makes good use of many letters he sent home from Vietnam to his mother to help tell his story.

The letters are initially very positive and upbeat, but later in his tour he began to be critical of the war. After Lord came home and got out of the Army, he enrolled at the University of Washington and became an outspoken member of the antiwar movement.

Bill Lord’s Vietnam War story doesn’t dwell on blood and guts, but instead shows what it is like being a young soldier in a war zone. Among many other things, he discusses what he carried in his pack, inflated enemy body counts, and the dangers of “paddy foot.” I loved his description of the hated C-rat, Ham and Lima beans:

“You opened the can and stared at a vomit glaze of green slimy nuggets encased in a congealed white lardy fat substance.”

One chapter deals with the death of a friend in a friendly-fire accident and the moving experience of visiting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., and seeing his friend’s name on The Wall.

Bill Lord went on to a long, distinguished broadcasting career, including serving as an NBC News correspondent and as news director and general manager of WJLA-TV, the ABC News affiliate in Washington, D.C. His many broadcasting honors include the Peabody Award, the duPont-Columbia Award,  and multiple Emmy Awards.

Lord is an excellent writer, and highly recommend his book.

Mark S. Miller

Sketches of an Earlier Time by Scott O. Ferguson

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For Scott O. Ferguson, memory lane stretches from horizon to horizon—and then some. He served with the U.S. Navy in World War II and with the Air Force in the American wars in Korea and Vietnam.

Ferguson recollects his combat experiences in Sketches of an Earlier Time: A Three-War Combat Veteran Recounts a Twentieth Century Life of Duty and Adventure (Merriam Press, 149 pp. $9.99, paper). His stories cover the middle half of the 20th century—from his birth in 1925 to 1975 when he retired as a colonel from the Air Force.

Alongside his look at warfare, Ferguson spells out the difficulties of a childhood during the depression and of family life amid a USAF career. Barbara, his wife, often single-handedly raised four children during long separations caused by the call of duty.

Having lived through most of the same years, I vouch for the accuracy of Ferguson’s remembrances. His accounts provide touches of insight about the times and moods of society in decades gone by.

During World War II, as soon as he was old enough, Ferguson dropped out of high school and enlisted in the Navy. He served nearly four years as a seaman. His adventures in New Guinea and the Philippine Islands provide unusual views of a young man’s reaction to unpredictable events, along with dilemmas he created. To me, this was the most revealing part of the book.

In 1949, after marrying, Ferguson completed Aviation Cadet training and found assignments in fighter/interceptor aircraft. He flew the F-84G (in the book he refers to aircraft only by letters and numbers) in Korea and performed “all types of missions with all manner of purpose,” he says. Ferguson’s biggest concern was the presence of “flak traps everywhere.” His memories of the Korean War are a continuous flow of anecdotes about his squadron’s successes and failures.

During the Vietnam War Ferguson supervised the covert Task Force Alpha/Igloo White electronic warfare activities at Nakhon Phanom Air Base in Thailand in 1967-68. He flew many missions into Laos with O-2 Cessna FACs and in the back seat of F-4s. His stories from this time are as interesting and informative as earlier ones.

Excellent photographs ranging from Ferguson’s childhood to recently accompany each section of the memoir.

—Henry Zeybel

Blue Ghost: Reveille by John W. Harris

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John W. Harris’ Blueghost Reveille (Page Publishing, 162 pp. $24.95, hardcover; $14.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle) is a Vietnam War memoir coming fifty years after the author was drafted into Army in May 1968.

Harris divides his book into seventy vignettes, each offering a picture of his life as member of F Troop of the Eighth Cavalry (the “Blue Ghosts”). F Troops was an autonomous unit assigned to the Americal Division consisting of an infantry platoon, an aerial scout platoon, and an armed aerial rocketry platoon.

The infantrymen served as the ground recon and rescue wing of the troop. The platoon, nominally composed of forty infantry soldiers, rarely reached that number. For most of Harris’ tour, the number was in the twenties.

After he finished AIT. Harris was selected to attend a special NCO school at Fort Benning. Following “Shake and Bake” school, he found himself a buck sergeant after less than a year in the Army and on the way to Vietnam to become a squad leader. Despite his inexperience, after Harris got his feet on the ground he quickly adjusted to his new role and responsibilities as a twenty-two-year-old NCO.

Writing with honesty and humor, John Harris walks the reader through the tasks and operations of an infantry platoon. He carefully explains the terminology for the non-initiated. From his arrival in Vietnam on a commercial airliner to his return to Fort Lewis and his discharge a year later, Harris entertains the reader with one adventure after another.

There are hair-raising moments of small unit combat. There are other, less-dangerous vignettes, as Harris covers the mundane and the heroism equally with clarity and detail.  Each of his brief portraits is self-contained, yet the narrative flows with ease.

Of the many stories Harris relates, none is more exemplary than that of Roger Caruthers, his heroism in Vietnam, and his post-war life in a wheelchair. Harris describes Caruthers as a hero in civilian life as an uncle educating three nieces. Caruthers went on to help many others despite his own infirmities with a smile and a happy story for all.

In a fitting tribute, Harris concludes the book with a very poignant piece titled, “Why Did You Go and Leave Me?”

This is a short book filled with honest emotions that’s enjoyable and easy to read. I recommend it anyone, young and old, who seeks a glimpse into the life a citizen soldier sent off to war in a foreign land.

–Bud Alley