The Hawk and the Dove by Tom Baker

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With his big novel, The Hawk and the Dove (Page Publishing, 493 pp. $21.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle), Vietnam War veteran Tom Baker draws a thread through more than a thousand years, tying together examples of military courage by men and women who find themselves engaged in conflicts of different kinds in different places around the world.

The book opens in the middle of a Viking raid, then moves to a time when British troops are trying to hold back Napoleon’s advancing forces. In its second half, the book takes us into the American Civil War, World War II, and then the American war in Vietnam and the 1990s civil war in Rwanda.

What ties the stories together are appearances in each one of a hawk as well as dove, which almost seems to be the hawk’s mate. Sometimes the hawk attacks people, sometimes it protects others. Some people direct it to attack and the hawk responds. Sometimes it influences battlefield decisions. Which leads to the question: Is it a reincarnated warrior?

When some Vikings are asked why they pillage and rampage, the response is because it’s what they’ve always done. Baker also writes that “every little boy wants to be a warrior.”

When the second chapter moved to the Napoleonic Wars I was happy to see that Baker wrote it without making it read like just the same people from the first chapter were saying the same things they did centuries earlier. Chapter Two—which contains one surprise after another—transports the reader to a different place and time, beautifully described, though the warriors still struggle with big and small questions about war and peace.

In Chapter Three we encounter a Confederate troops fighting against the Union Army during the American Civil War. While the big reasons for this war are up for debate, most of the southern troops say they are fighting because their land had been invaded by Lincoln’s army. Here we encounter ambushes, amputations, field hospitals, and prisoners of war. A character dreams of Vikings, tying us to the book’s first page. The pairing of the hawk and dove seems more than ever to be expressing a future possibility of human beings eventually learning to coexist peacefully.

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The final two chapters deal with episodes during World War II and in the Vietnam War (briefly). Things finish up in the east-central African nation of Rwanda in 1994. Throughout the book it’s made clear than women can be guided by warrior spirits just as men can. Toward the end, things become mystical, but Baker makes it work.

A summarizing quote from the book could be: “The quest for peace is an ever-renewed task, calling forth brave men and women in every generation.”

Baker’s novel is an enjoyable, thoughtful, reading experience.

–Bill McCloud

The Life of an Airborne Ranger Book Three: Everyone Comes Home by Michael Kitz-Miller

 

Michael Kitz-Miller enlisted in the U.S. Army and served for three years, leaving the military as a 101st Airborne Division Sergeant E-5. The Life of an Airborne Ranger, Book Three: Everyone Comes Home (Xlibris, 476 pp. $34.99, hardcover; $23.93, paper; $3.99, Kindle) is the third novel in his series of Airborne ranger books. It is filled with action, along with endless details about the nature of being a career soldier in the Army taking part in conflicts in Grenada, Panama, Somalia, Iran Hostage, Kuwait, and Iraq.

I had never read anything about our war in Grenada, so that section of the book especially interested me. Kitz-Miller, who died in July, portrays that war as a fucked-up mess from the get-go. As an example of how unready we were to fight that war, he points out that no official maps were available. The novel’s hero, Jack Donovan, has to obtain and use tourist maps to try to find the college campuses he is supposed to be protecting and evacuating.

The 44th Airborne Division and the 45th Infantry Division are fictional units invented by the author to protect the guilty. Kitz-Miller’s heavy reliance on the teachings and writings of Ayn Rand are interesting, but are not the bible of Objectivism, her philosophic system. Rand, who once visited West Point and delivered a lecture there is mentioned often in the novel, but she’s not the only one. Audie Murphy gets a major shout-out when Donovan is described as the most decorated soldier of the modern era.  Murphy is put in the shade by Donovan who seems to get five and six of most major medals.

This massive novel follows Jack Donovan’s career up to his promotion to four-star general. The details are engrossing and well-described and held my interest. The narrative is spiced up by the adventures of Donovan’s Welsh terrier and the academic progress of Donovan’s college professor wife.

I recommend this novel to readers who are interested in Army careers and what it takes to rise to the top in the modern military. I am glad I decided that a military career was not for me. Spec.5 was as high as I went. That happens to be where Jack’s career starts in this book. Right where mine ended.

—David Willson

 

The Night Fire by Michael Connelly

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Reading the new Michael Connelly Harry Bosch/Renee Ballard detective procedural, The Night Fire (Little Brown, 416 pp., $29), you’d have to be a good detective to know that Bosch is a Vietnam War veteran. This is Connelly’s 32nd detective procedural, the 22nd featuring Harry Bosch. I’ve been a big fan since I read the first one, the brilliant Black Echo, in 1992, and have devoured (and reviewed) every one of them. Before this, each Bosch book included details of Harry’s service in the war (he was a tunnel rat) and its impact on his mercurial law-enforcement career.

In some of the books Connelly offered but a few sentences here and there about Harry and the Vietnam War. In others, including The Black Echo, there was much more. This time the word “Vietnam” is not mentioned. Late in the book, Harry tells Ballard that he served in the Army—but that’s it.

Which is fine, although a tad disappointing because in my view Harry Bosch (along with James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux) is by far the best-drawn fictional Nam vet detective out there. And it’s always a good thing to encounter admirable Vietnam War veterans in fiction. Harry is street-smart, dedicated, courageous, and stubborn. He’s also brusque and often cranky and doesn’t easily suffer fools, frauds, or criminals. He regularly gets into deep trouble at the office and often runs into life-threatening situations on cases.

In The Night Fire, Bosh and Ballard—both of whom are dedicated, driven, high-maintenance detectives (he’s retired from LAPD and working part time; she’s active duty) —work on two different cases alone and together. As usual, Connelly tells a tale with red herrings galore and more than a few plot twists—sometimes a bit too many. But Connelly’s a master at spinning an exciting yarn that gets more exciting as it goes along and he does exactly that in this book.

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As always, Connelly creates fully flushed-out characters, especially Bosch and Ballard. And, in the end—well, no spoilers here. I will say that Connelly offers some veiled references to what might come next in Bosch’s life, mostly dealing with age-related physical problems.

My advice: Read this excellent detective novel and follow the clues to find out for yourself whodunit, how the detectives figured it out, and what might become of Harry Bosch.

–Marc Leepson

Still Come Home by Katey Schultz

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Katey Schultz’s Still Come Home (Apprentice House Press, 241 pp. $26.99, hardcover; $16.99, paper; $6.29, Kindle) is a work of literary fiction. Many books are written by people who have a story to tell and do so the best they can. Schultz, on the other hand, is a gifted writer who focuses in this book on a three-day period in 2009 in Afghanistan and on three main characters.

Aasey, seventeen, lives in “a village the size of a flea” in the middle of a war. Three years earlier her entire family had been murdered, victims of false rumors, and she was forced into a rushed marriage to her father’s cousin. She feels trapped in a culture that forces her to dangerously push boundaries as she longs for more independence.

U.S. Army 2nd LT Nathan Miller is on his fourth tour of duty in Afghanistan. His six-year marriage is shaky. That situation is not helped by his life being one of saying “goodbye, and goodbye, and goodbye, and goodbye.”

Rahim, Aasey’s husband, who is twenty-three years older than she is, finds himself working for—but not with—the Taliban. He’s torn between shielding his wife from the horrors he’s seen and dealing with her independent streak, which sometimes makes him want to “shove her into the wall.”

Miller is preparing to lead his men away from their routine of watching movies and playing pickup football games to one final humanitarian mission. His unit gets orders to drive their armored vehicles fifty kilometers across the desert to do something a helicopter drop could have handled in a few hours. But the Army knows you get a better sense of what’s going on in an area by being on the ground.

So Miller and his men prepare to go to the village of Inmar, Aasey’s home, just as she has become concerned about the Taliban’s renewed presence there. After all, it was the Taliban who “stole everything from her but her own heartbeat.” One bright spot in her life is the friendship she’s developed with a younger, mute orphan boy.

Miller has never gotten over the death of an NCO on a previous tour. He begins to question the rules of engagement and increasingly considers the brass to be giving orders for a different war than the one he and his men are fighting.

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Katey Schultz

An old battered paperback copy of a Merriam-Webster dictionary becomes almost a character in the story and there is at least one major surprise.

It’s a shame that in the decades since the end of the Vietnam War, wars are still taking place for people to write about. On the other hand, it’s a blessing that we have novelists like Katey Schultz to tell stories of those wars in an enlightened and empathic manner.

The author’s website is kateyschultz.com

–Bill McCloud

Unremembered Victory by Dennis H. Klein

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Unremembered Victory (Truth in the Hills Press, 176 pp. $8, paper; $2.99, Kindle) is a short historical novel by Dennis H. Klein. It deals with American military concerns and actions along the DMZ between North Korea and South Korea in 1968. Klein says all the stories in the book are true, but he uses “poetic license” in telling them.

The focus of the story is on what’s been called the 1968 “DMZ War” or sometimes the “Second Korean War.” Klein says all the characters are based on people he served with or met during his twenty-one months in Korea.

Four thousand American troops found themselves stationed near the DMZ a fifteen years after the Korean War ended in a stalemate. These men were considered neither the best nor the worst of what America had to offer. It was commonly believed that the best troops at the time were serving in Vietnam. But so, it was believed, were our worst troops because of Secretary of Defense McNamara’s lowering of the mental standards to fill out numbers for the war in Vietnam.

Plus, the West Point graduates serving as officers in Korea were rumored to have graduated in the bottom third of their class. As if that wasn’t enough, it seemed that the equipment sent to Korea was all “antiquated junk” because the good stuff was going to Vietnam.

Assuming this is basically true, that left a Second Infantry Division with average troops and questionable equipment and a second-rate officer corps to face the North Korean Army, the fourth largest in the world, which was hell bent on invading South Korea.

With North Korea’s seizure of the U.S.S. Pueblo in January 1968, Americans along the DMZ went from their usual “state of high lollygag,” as Klein puts it, to preparing for a war that “could start anytime. Clerks, mechanics, medics and cooks were now infantry soldiers.” There were firefights up and down the line and the extremely lethal North Korean commandos were known to sometimes cross surreptitiously into the South.

Students in South Korea began marching in protest—not against the possibility of war with the North, though. They were in favor of a war in order to unite North and South Korea.

Washington did not want to fight another war while engaged in Vietnam so the Army’s job was to control things so they didn’t develop into a big news story. Yet there also was talk of the possible use of nuclear weapons. While this didn’t become a major war, it was certainly war enough for the American troops on the ground.

“Once you are north of the fence long enough, you are out on the line in your head all the rest of your days,” was a commonly expressed thought.

A phrase heard in writers’ circles is if you can’t find the book you want to read, then write it. That’s what Klein has done, maintaining that the Vietnam War “should not be the only story told of our generation.” The 1968 face-off with North Korea was a “victory,” as opposed to our defeat in Vietnam, which, he says, “forever brands us as a bunch of losers.”

This is an interesting look at a story in danger of being lost in the mists of history.

–Bill McCloud

The Deserter by Nelson DeMille & Alex DeMille

The Deserter (Simon & Schuster, 544 pp., $28.99, hardcover; $14.99, Kindle; $49.99, audiobook) is the first novel by Nelson and Alex DeMille, a father and son team of writers. The father (Nelson) has written many best-selling thrillers, several of which deal with the Vietnam War. This one is little different than his previous novels. The Deserter features two new DeMille characters: Scott Brodie and Maggie Taylor.

The plot is a familiar one. The two protagonists journey to the heart of darkness—this time in Venezuela—in search of a bad guy, Former Army Delta Force Capt. Kyle Mercer, who has committed evil acts. Mercer has been spotted in Caracas in a part of the city that is off  limits to all but the worst criminals.

The team must enter this section of the city and somehow convince Capt. Mercer to return with them to civilization for trial and punishment. Brodie is suspicious of his partner, primarily because he thinks she’s a secret CIA operative.

The team goes up river in a boat which they steal, and which is hardly dependable. When Mercer has been captured, things go wrong, which is what this reader expected.

The novel is filled with the usual hairpin plot twists and black humor that I expect from a thriller from Nelson DeMille, who served a Vietnam War tour of duty as a 1st Cavalry Division LT. It is impossible to discern which portions of the novel were written by father and which by the son. Does that really matter?  Not to me.

There is much talk of black ops, winning hearts and minds, and raising rhubarb. Even Rambo gets a mention. Also being in “a world of shit.” The Vietnam War comes up several times, as does the Mekong Delta, “beans, bandages and bullets,” and Vietnam veterans.

I found the novel to be involving and fun to read. It was a bit on the long side, but for fans of DeMille that is a good thing.

The book’s page on Nelson DeMille’s website is nelsondemille.net/books/the-deserter

–David Willson

 

 

 

 

 

The Travelers by Regina Porter

Regina Porter, a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, did her Vietnam War homework for her new novel, The Travelers (Hogarth, 320 pp. $27, hardcover; $13.99, Kindle). Among other things, she interviewed a university historian who teaches a Vietnam War in Film class; read John Darrell Sherwood’s Black Sailor, White Navy: Racial Unrest in the Fleet During the Vietnam Era; and researched the Vietnam Women’s Memorial to learn about the contributions of American female troops during the Vietnam War.

The novel begins with a two-page list of characters, which is kind of a key to the meaning of the book. Porter also offers a brief statement of time, which helps the reader some. “This novel,” she notes, “travels from the mid-fifties to the first year of President Obama’s first term.” The list of settings includes Long Island, New York, and the former South Vietnam. Even with this attempt to help the reader, though, the book sometimes comes across as a hodgepodge of events, characters, and places.

Mostly I enjoyed the book, but only by turning it into a game by keeping track of  all the references to the Vietnam War. They mounted up rapidly and made it possible for me to view The Travelers as a Vietnam War novel. The story deals with Agent Orange, the Tet Offensive, the Gulf of Tonkin, Nixon’s war, the South China Sea, and Vietnam veterans more thoroughly than many literary Vietnam War novels do.

Porter places many of her characters in Vietnam where they do the things that young men were said to do during the war. Sex and drugs are given a lot of space, and the troops suffer psychologically by their involvement with those things. My painstaking mining of the text for Vietnam War references was rewarding, but likely would not be the way most readers will deal with the book.

The Travelers contains a fair number of photographic images, many related to the Vietnam War, including one of two sailors pressing pants on the USS Intrepid. The chapter entitled “I Know Where the Poison Lives” has a nice photo of the USS Oklahoma City and a powerful introduction to Agent Orange, including the line: “That shit ate up our daddy’s intestines.”  Porter goes on to discuss how Agent Orange affected Blue Water Navy veterans who served on aircraft carriers off the coast of South Vietnam during the war.

The role of African Americans in the Vietnam War is presented in the lives of the black characters, especially Eddie Christie, who serves on an aircraft carrier. During the war he is introduced to the play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead and it becomes an anchor to his life in a sea of racial unrest.

One reviewer calls the book unlike anything she’s ever read. That’s true for me as well.

–David Willson