Heart of Gray by Richard W. Enners

 
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Richard W. Enners’ Heart of Gray: Lt. Raymond “Iggy Enners: Courage and Sacrifice of a West Point Graduate in Vietnam (Acclaim Press, 256 pp., $26.95) is a shining tribute to the author’s older brother. The book commemorates a life of honor and achievement, from junior high school to the Vietnam War, where Raymond Enners died. It is clear from the beginning that he was a team player who always left ego behind to make sure his team did well.

Richard Enners tells how early experiences built Ray’s character and led to his leadership abilities. He uses lacrosse and his brother’s expertise in the game as an example of the Ray’s natural-born talents. As a young boy in an important game, for example, Ray had a chance to score a goal but instead passed the ball to a teammate so he could reach a personal milestone. “Ray certainly had the guts, but was not interested in the glory,” his brother writes.

Such leadership carried through to the Vietnam War in which Ray served after graduating from the U.S. Military Academy. His brother—also an Academy graduate—discusses Ray’s life at West Point, from drills to dinner.

Raymond Enners went to Vietnam in 1968 where he used “influence, not authority, to lead his teammates,” Richard Enners writes. 1st Lt. Ray Enners led his unit, Alpha Co., in the Americal Division’s 1/20th Inf. Regiment of the 11th Infantry Brigade with courage and friendship. His men never suffered low morale, thanks primarily to his leadership.

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Richard Enners

Even Ray’s death on September 18, 1968, in a vicious firefight with the NVA near Ha Thanh showed his lack of selfishness, as well as his courage and humanity. He died in a rice paddy as he saved others. For this, he received the Distinguished Service Cross for dedication, bravery, and valor.

Heart of Gray is filled with extraordinary detail from Ray’s entire life. The fight in which Ray fought and died is described so well that the reader can easily envision the action. Even his R&R is chronicled in detail. There also are testimonies from former classmates, war buddies, and friends, all glowing with respect and admiration for Raymond Enners.

—Loana Hoylman

 

 

Focus on Vietnam by Steven Burchik

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Steven Burchik served as a sergeant with D Company of the 1st Infantry Division’s 2nd Battalion, 18th Infantry Regiment in Vietnam in 1968-69. Burchik was a forward observer, not a photographer, but he often had his camera with him. During his tour he took more than four thousand photographs. None of combat, he notes, since that’s when he was using a rifle—not a camera.

Burchik mailed the film to his wife, and didn’t see his prints or slides for the first time until after he returned from Vietnam. “It was an amazing experience to view them and remember the circumstances surrounding each image,” he writes in the introduction to Focus on Vietnam (Sharlin-K Press, 120 pp., $29, paper).

After that memorable experience, Burchik boxed up the photos and rarely looked at them until he was asked in 2013 to make a presentation on the war to a high school English class. Speaking to the class reignited his interest in the Vietnam War, and he wrote and published Compass and a Camera: A Year in Vietnam in 2014, followed by Focus on Vietnam.

You won’t find any Great Photographs in this new volume—no decisive moments, no grand tableaux, no epiphanies, no perfect compositions, no “Oh my God” images. The Vietnam War produced many great photographers—many unheralded—who left a trove of images of the beauty, the horror, the cruelty, and the kindnesses that resulted from America’s involvement in the conflict. Burchik is not one of them.

He took for himself a more prosaic task: depicting the daily life of the combat soldier.

Focus on Vietnam is arranged thematically into short chapters, each with brief introductory notes combined with relevant photos. The chapters reflect the interests of young Americans serving halfway around the world: weapons and transportation, children and villagers, Saigon and stand-downs, wading through rivers and tracking through jungles, pacification and the rice harvest. Burchik, curious and fresh-eyed, kept his camera by his side and recorded the life that passed before him.

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That’s the book’s power: a record of one man’s life as it is swept into a tidal wave of events far beyond his control. Everyone else depicted in his book, both American and Vietnamese, has similarly been swept up by the war. Yet daily life goes on, perhaps having taken on a sort of exotic sheen or at least an awareness that those involved are living history.

Burchik’s book, perhaps, will be best appreciated by those who have served and those who may soon serve. His images are fascinating yet familiar.

The author’s website is stevenburchik.com

–Michael Keating

Vietnam Reflections by Michael T. Keene

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In Vietnam Reflections: The Untold Story of the Holley Boys (Ad Hoc, 246 pp., $14.71, paper), Michael T. Keene presents a story about people and places that would be overlooked elsewhere. The most important people are eight men who died in the Vietnam War. They all came from Holley, New York, a small town on the Erie Canal: Ronald P. Sisson, Howard L. Bowen, David D. Case, John P. Davis, George W. Fischer, Jr., Paul Mandracchia, Gary E. Bullock, and Gary L. Stymus.

The loss of eight men from a town of approximately 1,800 was one of the nation’s highest Vietnam War death toll for any community. Keene recreates the men’s lives through letters they sent home, official documents, and more than sixty interviews with their families, friends, and fellow soldiers.

An avid researcher, Keene opens the book with a history of Holley and recognition of the town’s prominent citizens as far back as 1802. He alternates chapters about the Boys with episodes arranged chronologically from Vietnam’s history, such as the 1954 Battle of Dien Bien Phu, the 1963 Diem assassination, and the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident. This provides relevance between the deaths and the progress of the war.

The biographies of the eight offer many stories from their childhood and teen years but only limited information about their activities in the war. An award citation, an after-action report, and a condolence letter shed light on the war-zone lives of a few of the men. Enemy fire killed six of the eight. The first died in 1965 and the last in 1970. Their average age was slightly under twenty-three.

They were typical young Americans of their time. Growing up, they went to the same high school and took part in sports, marching band, Boy Scouts, and hot rod racing. Keene traces the occupations and lineages of some of their families.

Keene’s book brought to mind Beyond the Names: A Tribute to the Clermont County, Ohio, Vietnam War Dead, a work of love and admiration for forty men killed in the Vietnam War from Clermont County, Ohio. Gary L. Knepp wrote the book as a way to keep the sacrifices of the men from fading into obscurity.

Similarly, Eric Poole’s Company of Heroes: A Forgotten Medal of Honor and Bravo Company’s War in Vietnam tells of a company that lost eighteen men, all of whom are still fondly remembered by their comrades. Based on seven years of interviews, that book weaves together episodes from the men’s pre-war civilian lives with what they experienced in Vietnam.

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Michael Keene

Books such as these are important because too many Vietnam War grunts never received the honor and recognition they earned. These books chronicle people and events on the verge of disappearing and, in that manner, set examples for today’s young men and women who do not face the challenge of involuntary military service.

Vietnam Reflections contains four appendices, including one that analyzes the influence on the war of ten leaders such as Richard Nixon, Vo Nguyen Giap, and William Westmoreland.

Keene served two tours in Vietnam with the Marines. He has written many books about the people of upper New York State.

His website is ad-hoc-productions.com

—Henry Zeybel

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One Step at a Time by Greg Burham

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In One Step at a Time: A Navy SEAL Vietnam Combat Veteran’s Journey Home: Including his Hike from Alaska to Mexico (Phoca Press, 214 pp., $85) we follow former Petty Officer Greg Burham from his discharge in 1972 as he decides to exchange combat boots for hiking boots.

Burham’s childhood set the direction for physical and mental tenacity, from marveling at a man who rowed solo across the Atlantic Ocean to challenging himself with skill tests.  “I can say the seed was planted for me to take a long trip myself under my own power,” he writes. “Even as a very young person, doing physical or athletic things made me feel better about myself.”

Burham readily took on the “sink or swim” motto of intense Navy SEAL training and a subsequent seven-month tour of duty in the Vietnam War near Can Tho in the Mekong Delta beginning in late 1970. In 1972, Burham decided to leave the Navy after his four-year hitch. “Even as I was getting ready to muster out of service,” he says, “I still considered staying in and trying to get my degree at night.”

Burham faced unexpected barriers when he returned home to Kalispell, Montana. At the University of Montana he was confronted by another student who asked him how many kids he had killed, and who “thought it was terrible the government would give a baby killer money for college. I bit my tongue, but the words stung.”

In May 1974 he turned his thoughts to hiking from Alaska to Mexico into action. He postponed college, left his job, and sold his car. Burham’s boots hit the Alaskan tundra in July, launching a remarkable trek accentuated by natural beauty and the almost daily offers of rides (which he always declined), food or drink, hiking and camping advice, or just plain conversation with strangers he met on the trail.

There were times in which Burham enjoyed being alone with nature. “The sun was shining and the daisies were nodding in the breeze,” he wrote in his journal about one such occasion. “As much as I liked the company of the people I met along the way, I also enjoyed my solitude.”

Possibly an August item is the most significant entry in Burham’s log. He wrote: “My two month milestone marked a second event in my life. The next day, August 20, was six years since I had enlisted in the Navy. This was also officially my Discharge Day.” Alongside Gita Creek in Alberta, Canada, Burham reached life-altering decisions. He decided not to re-enlist in the Navy, and also reached an important emotional plateau. To wit: “Even though I came back to a country that was relentlessly negative to military veterans like me, on this day, I only felt a sense of satisfaction.”

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Burham trekking

 

While trekking, Burham’s diet varied from occasional home-cooked meals to small-town cafe fare, Dairy Queen ice cream, freeze-dried packs, and grocery store “pig-outs” including peanut butter, crackers, cupcakes, Grape-Nuts, powdered milk, and an arid turkey sandwich he consumed at the bottom of the Grand Canyon.

Climate surprises greeted the hiker many times. Approaching the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, Burham wrote: “The weather changed every five minutes, from sun, to rain, to sleet, back to sun, and then rain again.” Then came one more physical challenge.

“It was a tiring 30 mile climb from the desert floor in Fredonia to the top of the Kaibab Plateau (at around 7,900 or 8,000 feet elevation), making for a long day.”

At his final step in Sonoyta, Mexico, he began a new life phase, starting a career as a youth counselor while dealing with his own PTSD. Married and the father of three, Burham, went to work for the VA, counseling veterans from World War II through the current war in Afghanistan, including Russian veterans, until his retirement in 2007.

—Curt Nelson

 

To Hear Silence, 2nd Edition, by Ronald W. Hoffman

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Two years ago, we reviewed Ronald W. Hoffman’s memoir, To Hear Silence: Charlie Battery, 1st Battalion 13th Marines, The First 15 Months (July 1, 1966-October 5, 1967): The True Vietnam Experience Supporting the 3rd Battalion, 26th Marines (CreateSpace, 412 pp., $16.99 paper; 9.99, Kindle). This memoir focuses on Hoffman’s Vietnam War experiences with Charlie Battery.

In the book’s new second edition, Hoffman has added a Prologue, in which he sets out what he calls “events that eventually pulled us into this undeclared, limited political war.” He begins that historical journey with the Second World War and ends it fifteen pages later by saying, “And thus, the United States politically lost its first war ever.” By emphasizing the political entanglements in the Vietnam War, Hoffman quietly emphasizes the high degree of dedication shown by Marines (and other fighting men) who actually took part in the fighting.

—Henry Zeybel

Vietnam Doc by William Clayton Petty

 

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In his chapter titled “Impressions” in Vietnam Doc: An American Physician’s Memoir (Life Rich, 156 pp., $29.30, hardcover; $12.99, paper) Dr. William Clayton Petty bases his conclusions about the Vietnam War on the gore and suffering he witnessed in the operating rooms of the 24th Evacuation Hospital at Long Binh. What Petty saw and did made him question his basic values of life, particularly in regard to war.

That chapter reflects everything Petty had previously written about his responsibilities during a 1969-70 tour of duty in Vietnam centered on “administering anesthetic to soldiers wounded in combat,” as he says. Primarily his patients came to Long Binh directly from battlefields. “The majority of an anesthesia provider’s time during surgery was concentrated in giving blood and fluids,” he writes, often in “large quantities.” His personal record was 108 units to one soldier.

In this area, Petty all but offers a short course on how to fulfill the two needs, especially for men on the verge of death. His zealousness for his task created within me a grisly interest in medical procedures I had barely ever thought about. The book contains twenty-eight pages of photographs, a dozen of which show the equipment used by anesthesiologists in the war zone.

Other chapters titled “Saving Lives,” “People,” “Our Allies,” and “The Enemy” provide insights into the behavior of friends and foes. Petty emphasizes the dedication with which he and his fellow docs selflessly devoted their efforts toward helping anyone in need, including Viet Cong fighters and their sympathizers.

In “Impressions,” Petty asks himself, “Why did I go to Vietnam?” His pre-departure mind provided two answers: The Oath of Hippocrates must be served. And democracy must prevail.

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In country, he learned many unexpected lessons:

  • Lots of troops did not want to serve there.
  • “A daily diet of horror” upset his intellect.
  • His relationship with God got re-arranged.
  • America’s privileged classes generally avoided participating in combat—or serving in the military.
  • Body counts lied.
  • War endeavors created knee-deep waste.
  • Survival frequently meant people “now lived with injuries not compatible with life in previous wars.”
  • The enemy was “resilient, tough, smart, courageous, and willing to sacrifice anything to re-unite Vietnam.”
  • From beginning to end, the war was “an enormous deception by America’s leaders.”

Afterward, Petty suffered through a legacy of disorders. When he reached sixty, long-dormant symptoms came alive and triggered severe PTSD. His analysis of how to treat that problem provides another short course in doctoring.

Overall, Vietnam Doc digs deeply into unfamiliar medical knowledge.

—Henry Zeybel

Losing Binh Dinh by Kevin M. Boylan

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Reading and reviewing books about the Vietnam War in recent years has taken me down an intellectual path that grows ever more difficult. In Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War, Viet Thanh Nguyen says that wars “are fought twice, first on the battlefield and second in memory.” His words constitute an absolute truth when applied to the Vietnam War. Which leads to the vital question: Did America win or lose that war?

In Aid Under Fire: Nation Building and the Vietnam War, Jessica Elkind looks at the war in 1965 and concludes that the American effort was doomed from the start. Fundamentally, nation-building failed to make South Vietnam independent, she says, because the Vietnamese did not support American geopolitical goals set by applying western practices that overlooked the reluctance of recently decolonized Asians to accept them. Consequently, the South Vietnamese rural population did not devote its collective hearts and minds to supporting the anti-communist cause.

Opinions similar to Elkind’s had not precluded President Richard Nixon—and his National Security Adviser and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger—from employing an endgame strategy that “stressed the idea that the war in Vietnam had actually successfully ended.”

On the other hand, in The War after the War: The Struggle for Credibility during America’s Exit from Vietnam Johannes Kadura argues that Nixon and Kissinger foisted the blame for the loss of South Vietnam to the communists on Congress due to the nation’s lack of post-1973 support when Congress reduced military and economic aid.

Meticulously researched, these heavily foot-noted books are masterpieces of scholarship.

Kevin M. Boylan further pursues the question in Losing Binh Dinh: The Failure of Pacification and Vietnamization, 1969-1971 (University Press of Kansas, 376 pp., $34.95, hardcover: $19.99, Kindle). In this book Boylan seeks to come to a determination about whether the war ended in victory or defeat.

Boylan is a history professor at the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh. From 1995-2005, he worked in the Pentagon as DoD analyst for the U.S. Army staff. His book contains forty-three pages of notes, mainly from archives and interviews.

Pitting the orthodox (people who claim the war was unnecessary, unjust, and unwinnable) against the revisionist, Boylan questions whether “a victory to be lost” existed prior to America’s 1973 exit from Vietnam. In other words, did pacification and Vietnamization work? Following in the footsteps of the Vietnam Special Studies Group, Boylan focuses his study on heavily populated and strategically located Binh Dinh province.

He examines the province’s military, political, economic, and psychosocial aspects by comparing achievements with expectations in Operation Washington Green, a 1969 American pacification plan for the hamlets of Binh Dinh’s four districts. He gives equal attention to North and South Vietnamese and American perspectives.

Using MACV Advisory Team Activity Reports, Boylan shows how South Vietnamese dependency on American leadership continually increased throughout Operation Washington Green and how consequently the Vietnamese failed to attain self-sufficiency. His detailed accounts describe the inherent turmoil that exists when foreign troops babysit a distinctly different society, especially one threatened by insurgents.

Boylan notes that in the Vietnam War there “was, in fact, no such thing as a truly representative province,” but the problems that affected Binh Dinh occurred “throughout a dozen provinces embracing nearly half of South Vietnam’s territory.” When “studied from the bottom up,” it’s plain to see that after the Americans withdrew from the region in  1972, “‘fence sitting’ villagers threw in with the seemingly triumphant Communists,” he says.

If one accepts the failure of Operation Washington Green as a fact, Boylan’s “Conclusion: Triumph Mistaken” stands as a final verdict about the war’s outcome. The “lost victory” hypothesis (that the war was won by 1972 and that Congress “lost” the victory by cutting funds to South Vietnam) is wrong, he says. His conclusion is worth the price of the book.

Boylan points out that the current situations in Iraq and Afghanistan bear disturbing similarities to the Vietnam War. Again, the United States is propping up regimes with disputed legitimacy and military forces with questionable combat motivation.

Our extensive training, material, and logistical assistance in Iraq duplicates our commitment to Operation Washington Green in the Vietnam War, he says.

Gen. David Petraeus’s resurrection of “population-centric COIN” theory allowed Americans to withdraw from Iraq in 2011, but in 2014 Islamic invaders from Syria overran one-third of the country because Iraqi security forces “displayed a shocking lack of will to fight,” Boylan says.

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Troops of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, which took part in Operation Washington Green in northern Binh Dinh in 1969

I must add my experience of teaching COIN theory at Air University in the 1960s. We low-ranking instructors laughed inwardly at the naivete of a military plan that called for winning hearts and minds with love. We preferred more direct action, as in: “Grab them by the balls and their hearts and minds will follow.”

Infantrymen who served in Vietnam have told me that, for them, the war ended when pacification and Vietnamization began. They recognized the futility of the task as Boylan describes it: “The government of South Vietnam could spend years—even decades, if necessary—carrying out the nation-building programs required to resolve the underlying grievances that had fueled the insurgency in the first place.”

Furthermore, troops assigned to the task had no training to accomplish it, Boylan says.

I long for the simplicity of the Cold War.

—Henry Zeybel