Charlie Company’s Journey Home by Andrew Wiest

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A first produces a milestone for life: A first kiss. A first job. A first child.

Arguably, the dynamics of these experiences pale in insignificance compared to events related to war. Andrew Wiest examines this relationship in Charlie Company’s Journey Home: The Boys of ’67 and the War They Left Behind (Osprey, 400 pp. $28).

Wiest teaches history at the University of Southern Mississippi and is the founding director of the Center for the Study of War and Society. Two of his previous four books about the Vietnam War have won awards. His new book is a follow-up to The Boys of ’67: Charlie Company’s War in Vietnam, which was the basis for a National Geographic documentary.

Charlie Company fought in the Vietnam War, but the effects of battle also had a strong impact on their wives and girlfriends back home. “War [became] a part of their lives, and that of their families, forever,” Wiest writes. The women’s reactions to war are the focus of the book.

Wiest bases the book on nearly one hundred original interviews; corresponding documents from personal collections and national archives; and large letter collections. He identifies twenty-four Charlie Company wives and forty-six men of Charlie Company as his “cast of characters.”

The clarity and certainty of Wiest’s writing produces a highly personalized look into the long-distance interactions between overseas troops and their families back home. At its core, the book is a love story—as well as a war story.

We see the women go through various stages of maturity. Initially, they are young, vulnerable, and in love with men destined to go off to war in Southeast Asia. When that happens, without the benefit of electronic communications, they become dependent on letters and an unpredictable mail service as a lifeline. Uncertainty rules their worlds and Wiest explains how they contended with trying situations far beyond what they expected.

Andrew Wiest

Andrew Wiest

Within the framework of the women’s lives Wiest also describes bloody search-and-destroy missions in which Charlie Company battled the Viet Cong. Sharing “firsts” engendered by these encounters produced life-changing psychological upheaval, Wiest says.

Reading Charlie Company’s Journey Home might provide an eye-opening lesson for the average American. Today’s society often overlooks or takes its all-volunteer armed forces for granted.

In comparison, the men of Charlie Company were almost entirely made up of draftees whose lives were involuntarily disrupted by military service. The difference in self-sacrifice is incalculable and Wiest shows it.

—Henry Zeybel

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Every Day is Extra by John Kerry

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One of the most emotional passages in former Sen. John Kerry’s memoir, Every Day is Extra (Simon & Schuster, 640 pp., $35, hardcover; $16.99, Kindle), comes when he recounts the attacks on his record as a Swift Boat commander in Vietnam during the 2004 presidential campaign. Not so much because it was an attack on him personally, but because “Swift Boating” has since become a term that political campaigns use as shorthand to describe the tactic of using smears and lies to attack a candidate’s character.

It is “horrific,” he writes, because it dishonors all those whose fought and died on South Vietnam’s rivers, casting their sacrifices as a lie.

Kerry faults himself for following the advice of his own campaign advisers to ignore the attacks as trivial and not to fight back forcefully. The irony is that the admiral who organized the campaign had written a glowing commendation for Kerry and his crew in 1969.

Kerry—who went on to become Secretary of State—acknowledges that many veterans hated the antiwar movement of which he became a part. “No parades, no thank you for their service.” What brought together Vietnam Veterans Against the War was that feeling of alienation. “I understand that undercurrent of resentment,” he writes, which in turn was also directed at veterans who opposed and demonstrated against the war.

Kerry’s statement about understanding such resentment characterizes much of the book’s tone. He is reflective, analytic, and measured. Indeed, many of his emotions seem understated.

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Lt. Kerry and shipmates, 1969

His best-known antiwar actions came when he joined other veterans depositing their medals on the steps of the U.S. Capitol and asking in testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee: “How do you ask a man to die in Vietnam? How do you ask a man to be the last man for a mistake?”

Nonetheless, Kerry had misgivings about leaving his medals on steps where politicians walked. He proposed instead that the medals be placed solemnly on a table covered by a white tablecloth and then be collected and returned to the Pentagon. Other VVAW leaders outvoted him.

Kerry became involved in VVAW after noticing an advertisement in Life magazine with “the image of a rifle with a fixed bayonet planted in the ground with a helmet hanging on top. It was a powerfully evocative symbol. It meant that there were a lot of guys out there who felt as I did.”

Many veterans at VVAW meetings had what is today commonly called PTSD and were “seriously messed up.” Some were in wheelchairs, missing eyes or limbs, or self-medicating.  Before VVAW became a force against the war—which occurred “without any singular moment of decision, without debate”—it sponsored Vietnam veteran support groups.

Like many organizations, VVAW struggled to get off the ground financially and internally. Kerry began pulling away from the disorganization. “Within VVAW there were suddenly too many different agendas competing for priority,” he writes, “some of them controversial.” There were differences over issues of class, drug use, tactics, opposition to the Vietnam War or all wars, as well as a contingent who believed America was “rotten to the core” and those who wanted to put the country “back together.”

Kerry’s activism turned to electoral politics, with the memoir describing his rise to leadership in the Senate and as Secretary of State. It includes his work with the late Sen. John McCain on the Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs and its exhaustive search tracking down every rumor about live POWs who had been left behind. The senators even conducted a surreal inspection underneath Ho Chi Minh’s tomb in Hanoi—“walking around a mass of tubes, compressors and pumps” and opening doors to make sure there were no hidden tunnels or cells.

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Senators Kerry and McCain in 1985

At almost 600 pages of text, one wishes that an editor had trimmed the memoir more thoroughly. The first two chapters, “Childhood” and “Bright College Years,” recounting his lineage and his life and travels in Europe as the son of a Foreign Service office might be particular candidates, if only because they reinforce Kerry’s image of elitism, which occasionally dogged him in public life.

For all its length, the memoir is still worth reading. Chapters can be skipped or skimmed in order to focus on more engaging ones, such as the description of in-county Swift Boat operations.

The title Every Day is Extra is compelling and appropriate. It represents an attitude about life that “summarizes how a bunch of guys I served with in Vietnam felt about coming home alive.” It also honors those who did not—with a promise not to waste the gift of a single day in making a difference.

“There are worse things than losing an argument or even an election,” Kerry writes.

The Vietnam War shaped John Kerry’s view of the world and his mission in life. It is reflected on every page of the book.

–Bob Carolla

Blades of Thunder by W. Larry Dandridge

Blades of Thunder: The True Stories of Army Helicopter Pilots, Crew Chiefs, and Door Gunners in Vietnam, Book One (TVV Publishing, 428 pp. $17.99, paper; $4.99, Kindle) is a work of love, admiration, and respect for men that author W. Larry Dandridge served with in the Vietnam War.

Initially published Blades of Thunder in 2015, Dandridge updated the book late in 2017 partly to earn money to support Fisher House in Charleston, South Carolina, which serves families of veterans undergoing treatment at the local VA Medical Center. He also voluntarily fills several advisory roles at the Center. For the retired Army lieutenant colonel, life has no dull moments.

Dandridge is an old-school raconteur who finds interest in personalities as well as events. His stories revolve around friends he made while learning to fly helicopters and then going to Vietnam together. During an assignment with the 121st Assault Helicopter Company at Soc Trang in 1968-69, Dandridge flew Hueys.

The book’s opening chapter describes his crash in a helicopter, his severe injuries, and his physical reconstruction. The chapter is a stunning opening for a long series of flying stories about chaotic situations and other adventures.

Amid the war scenes, Dandridge includes an award-winning leadership speech he presents that sets standards for any leader, military or civilian. This demanding kick-ass address puts everyone and everything in place. He counterbalances his authoritarianism with clever jokes.

The book’s many images include detailed captions that give the reader an on-the-scene feeling. Among the book’s eleven appendices, a collection of forty-four “Lessons Learned and Lessons Perhaps Not Learned” is the most noteworthy. In it, Dandridge evaluates warfare in thought-provoking lessons that cover issues from grand strategy to day-by-day tactics.

Larry Dandridge

On the higher level, he suggests an isolationist approach by America to military intervention overseas. He summarizes many lessons at this level by labeling them “only partially learned.”

Most lessons for everyday tactics, which constitute the bulk of the appendix, conclude with “learned but…” and require “today’s aviators [to] benefit from reviewing such lessons.” Others focus on people and projects deserving special recognition.

As a fan of helicopter crews, I look forward to Book Two, which Dandridge indicates will be published by the end of this year.

—Henry Zeybel

 

The Displaced edited by Viet Thanh Nguyen

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“What is a refugee like?” asks the author Vu Tran, who fled Saigon as a child and grew up in Oklahoma. He poses that question the timely and moving book, The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives (Abrams, 190 pp. $25, hardcover; $15.99, paper; $9.99, Kindle), edited by the award-winning novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen.

Vu Tran offers three answers. Like an orphan, bereft of “the familial bonds of her homeland, her native community and culture and customs.” Like an actor, who often “is one person at home and another person at work or at school or simply in public.” Like a ghost, who “can be invisible even though her presence is felt.”

Viet Nguyen is himself a refugee, having left Vietnam with his family in 1975 at the age of four. Three years later the family settled in California. He has gone on to a distinguished career: professor of English and American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California; 2017 MacArthur Foundation fellow; and the recipient of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his Vietnam War-heavy novel, The Sympathizer.

“I believe,” Viet Nguyen writes in his introduction, “in my human kinship to those 65.6 million people that the United Nations classifies as displaced people. Of these, 40.3 million are internally displaced people, forced to move within their own countries; 22.5 million are refugees fleeing unrest in their countries; 2.8 million are asylum seekers. If these 65.6 million people were their own country, their nation would be the twenty-first largest in the world.”

The book originated with the publisher, Viet Nguyen explained during a recent wide-ranging recent interview with the Los Angeles Review of Books:  “The editor there is Jamison Stoltz, and he came at me out of the blue, said, ‘I want to do a book about refugees.’ This was around the time Trump’s Muslim ban had been announced. He came up with half the writers, and I came up with half the writers. The criterion we used was that they had to be refugees and writers.”

Abrams is donating a portion of the book’s profits to the International Rescue Committee.

The seventeen contributors were born in Afghanistan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Chile, Ethiopia, Germany, Hungary, Iran, Mexico, the Soviet Union, Thailand, Vietnam, or Zimbabwe, and settled—often with several stops on the way—in Canada, England, Pakistan, South Africa, and the United States.

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Viet Nguyen

“All of these writers are inevitably drawn to the memories of their own past and of their families,” Viet Nguyen writes. “To become a refugee is to know, inevitably, that the past is not only marked by the passage of time, but by loss—the loss of loved ones, of countries, of identities, of selves. We want to give voice to all those losses that would otherwise remain unheard except by us and those near and dear to us.”

It is, he concludes, “a writer’s dream, that if only we can hear these people that no one else wants to hear, then perhaps we can make you hear them, too.”

–Angus Paul

Between the Sheets Behind Enemy Lines  by Michael J. McCormack

Michael J. McCormack, the author of Between the Sheets Behind Enemy Lines: A Life Story of a Decorated Vietnam Veteran (CreateSpace, 396 pp., $19.99, paper; $19.99, Kindle), served as a Marine in the Vietnam War.  He “was born into a poor family in the Irish slums of Chicago and still went on to become a self-made worldwide journalist,”  McCormack tells us.

His father and grandfather were both Marines, but growing up McCormack was a screw-up and always in trouble with the law. He thought there was no hope that he could be a Marine. But a Marine recruiter thought differently.

Mack McCormack had to stand in front of a judge to get into the Marines. Luckily for him—or perhaps not so luckily—the judge had been a Marine. “Where you are going, you won’t have time for this nonsense,” he told McCormack. “You’ve got to grow up quickly, son.”

With a main character called Clancy and lots of dialogue, the book reads more like a novel than a memoir. In it, McCormack explores the extremes of his life, often using extreme and frowned-upon language. His references to people of color are mostly phrased in ways that would cause eyebrows to be raised in polite society.  He makes the point throughout the book that he is not a person who came from polite society, nor does he seek to occupy a place there.

Jewish women are invariably referred to as “Jew bitches” and African Americans are usually referred to by the “n” word. Those of us who occupied positions in the rear echelons in the military are referred to as “military fairies,” a phrase I had not previously heard. The New York Times is referred to as the “Jew York Times” and liberal ideas are called “left wing bullshit.”

PTSD is often discussed, usually as it relates to the behavior and failings of the author. He was also plagued with eczema for which he had expected to be forgiven military service. That did not happen and caused him much resentment.

john_world_war_ii_draftJohn Wayne gets discussed way beyond the usual mentions and the phrase “baby killers” is used more often than in any book I’ve read. Agent Orange is discussed, as is Bob Hope and the Vietnamese custom of using their feet to wipe their butts after defecation.

That’s another new one on me.

The book is not well proofread. “Land mines,” for example, appears as “land minds.”  According to McCormack, African Americans can’t swim and flak jackets are “flat” jackets.

It’s a strange world.

The author’s website is clancy21.com

—David Willson

We Shot the War edited by Lisa Nguyen

It’s not that the photos in We Shot the War: Overseas Weekly in Vietnam (Hoover Institution Press, 214 pp. $49.95, hardcover; $11.99, Kindle), aren’t first rate. They’re really good and provide a clear look at everyday life of American troops in the Vietnam War. That said, the photos are a letdown after the big build-up from the publisher.

The Overseas Weekly is described as a trail-blazing, anti-establishment rag that was the GI’s voice: “The least popular publication at the Pentagon,” we’re told. The people who put it together must have been real rabble-rousers.

The book’s Foreword tells us that the images used in the book were culled from 20,000 photos in the Hoover Institution Library’s Archives. National Geographic also liked to trumpet how many rolls of film were shot, but I always thought the greatest boast would be getting the greatest number of unforgettable images from the fewest rolls of film.

The book is edited by Lisa Nguyen, an archivist who organized an exhibit this summer of Overseas Weekly war photos at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. The Overseas Weekly was founded in Germany by Stanford graduates in 1950 to cover military affairs in a less-official manner. As the war in Vietnam escalated, a Saigon office was established. A young, Texas journalist, Ann Bryan, its editor-in-chief, was the only female editor in Southeast Asia.

The Overseas Weekly irritated the brass by covering such sensitive topics as drug use and racial strife among the troops. It was noted, too, for its “Man in the Street” column, which gave enlisted men the opportunity to sound off—and for running lots of photos of pretty girls.

Ann Bryan in Vietnam in 1967

The paper had a small, dedicated staff and a shoestring budget. The first issue went to press in 1966 and by 1970 it was all but washed up. But in that four-year period its writers and photographers (often one and the same) scattered across South Vietnam and Cambodia, documented the war from the GI’s perspective. Unlike better-known media covering the war, its readers were those fighting the war.

Subsequently, the coverage became more nuanced, providing a gentler portrayal of the war’s combatants. It wasn’t pandering; it’s because the editor would be called on every error of fact and tone. Reaction was immediate because the audience wasn’t half a world away.

–Michael Keating

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From the Overseas Weekly archive, South Vietnam, 1967

The Game by George Howe Colt

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George Howe Colt was inspired to write The Game: Harvard, Yale, and America in 1968 (Scribner, 400 pp., $28, hardcover; $14.99, Kindle) after watching “Harvard Beats Yale, 29-29,” a terrific documentary film made in 2008 by Kevin Rafferty. The documentary and book focus on one of the most improbable football comebacks imaginable—so improbable that the tie felt very much like a victory for the underdog Harvard team.

Colt was fourteen years old in 1968, living what he calls “a Harvard-saturated childhood.” He went to The Game in 1968 with his father and brother—and, in fact, still has his game ticket.

There are many interesting story lines in The Game, and the writing is generally engaging. With the subtitle, “Harvard, Yale and America in 1968,” the book’s scope is ambitious. I wonder, though, whether Colt would have given us a better book if he’d concentrated in more depth on fewer stories lines. He writes about so many players, coaches, and others that I needed a cheat sheet to keep track of who everyone was.

The first 125 pages drags a bit. But the book picks up speed midway, and ends with a bang. The book takes off when Colt gets to the story of John Tyson. Tyson, an African-American football player at Harvard, is an admirable figure who allows Colt the opportunity to weave in a several Civil Rights stories.

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Pat Conway

The war in Vietnam is a constant presence in the book, though Colt doesn’t provide many specifics. The most Vietnam War-related compelling story involves an older Harvard player, Pat Conway. The defensive back had dropped out of Harvard, enlisted in the Marines, and ended up at the Khe Sanh.

Conway then made his way back to Harvard—and to the football team—in time to take part in the 1968 season. Colt’s descriptions of Vietnam War battle scenes are memorable. But I wish he had spent more time on Conway’s time in Vietnam.

Colt does a lot of name dropping—(Do we really need to know that one of the players dated Meryl Streep?)—with some names having no context for readers unfamiliar with the 1960s. That said, there are many interesting folks who make their way into the book, including Harvard roommates Tommy Lee Jones and Al Gore, and fledgling Yale cartoonist Garry (“Doonesbury”) Trudeau. Jones played offensive guard in The Game.

11111111111111111111111111There is a double epilogue of sorts, with a chapter on antiwar activities on the Harvard campus in 1969, followed by a true epilogue with updated info on the book’s main players. The mature reflections of a few players are startling in their vulnerability.

Even with the attempt to capture so many different stories, there are some gaps. There is nothing on the dramatic and contentious 1968 presidential election, for example, which seems strange.

In a nutshell, the book is kind of history-lite, but with enough stories and odd bits of information to keep you entertained—and to make you want to learn more.

I just might go out and read a biography of the Yale’s noted antiwar chaplain, William Sloane Coffin.

–Bill Fogarty