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

 

Quang Tri Cadence by Jon Oplinger

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A Golden Oldie. That’s my category for Quang Tri Cadence: Memoir of a Rifle Platoon Leader in the Mountains of Vietnam (McFarland, 220 pp. $19.99, paper) by Jon Oplinger. The book is a reprint of the original 1993 edition.

Oplinger served in D Company with the 2nd/5th of the Army’s First Cavalry Division in 1968. His writing is lively, to the point, and humorous as he shows the drama and trauma of combat. His reflections on the behavior of young soldiers and old commanders fascinated me. More so, the practicality of Oplinger’s actions delighted me. At the platoon level he understood that everything he and his men possessed beyond their bodies was expendable—an attitude that went unappreciated by his superiors.

He shows how uncertainty prevailed during his platoon’s day-after-day, usually unproductive ambushes and search-and-destroy missions. Yes, he includes de rigueur topics such as subsisting on C-rations, humping heavy loads, and navigating through jungles while lost, but his explanations rest on an undertone of amazement more than anger.

Oplinger enlisted in the Army after flunking out of college. He earned a commission through OCS, went to Vietnam, and suffered wounds that hospitalized him for seven months. He returned to civilian life as a student at Kent State University just in time for the May 1970 riots.

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Oplinger

People who do not read the white spaces might classify Quang Tri Cadence strictly as a downer. But WTF—for most people, the entire Vietnam War was a downer.

Downer or not, Oplinger made me both laugh and shed a tear more than once over the trials of the infantrymen caught up in the thick of things.

Jon Oplinger is a professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Maine at Farmington.

—Henry Zeybel

The Aviators by Rex Gooch

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Rex Gooch writes about what young men do when they are carefree and voluntarily go to war. In their world, life becomes simply us-against-them and survival equates with victory.

Gooch, a life member of Vietnam Veterans of America, tells all about that in The Aviators: Stories of U.S. Army Helicopter Combat in the Vietnam War, 1971-72 (Lighthorse Publishing, 316 pp. $15.95, paper; $8.99, Kindle). The book consists of stories Gooch has collected from fellow helicopter crewmen in the Lighthorse Air Cavalry, the 17th Aviation Group, 18th Aviation Company who served during the Vietnam War in IV Corps at Vinh Long and Can Tho.

Kevin Kelly, “the best Cobra pilot in the troop,” as Gooch puts it, perfectly summed up their attitude. In control of a weapons system with overwhelming firepower, Kelly said, “I felt invincible.” But after being shot down twice, a shaken Kelly felt his “invincibility had been replaced by a more experienced outlook.”

These young men—mostly in their late teens and early twenties—endured a baptism of fire that revealed their mortality, Gooch says. Simultaneously, it bonded them for life.

The Aviators has two themes. First, the book records a short period of combat by an organization with a long history. Second, it describes Gooch’s progression from new copilot to aircraft commander. After a year of flight training, ROTC-graduate Gooch—nearly fearless and eager to fly in combat—went directly to the war zone.

Gooch tells stories with a style that puts the reader in the boots of pilots, crew chiefs, and gunners. Detail is his forte, but it can grow tiresome when Gooch repeatedly walks men through mundane activities such as getting out of bed, eating breakfast, and performing pre-flight chores.

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Rex Gooch

In describing the flight phase of missions, however, Gooch provides details that turn war stories into vivid teaching lessons. He slows the chaos of combat to an understandable speed and examines events from multiple angles. His account of the shoot-down of Chris Rash exemplifies how Gooch weaves interviews with fellow flyers into in-depth analyses. His stories about coordination within crews and between aircraft provide classic examples of teamwork.

Gooch explains topics such as Vietnamization, the Easter Offensive, and Nixon’s incursion into Cambodia with indented paragraphs jammed into the middle of the text. Old timers might see this as distracting because it slows the flow of a story, but young readers should appreciate the information and will learn from views into the past.

Chapters conclude with short biographies of men cited in the stories. Many pilots pursued post-war flying careers in and out of military service. As for Rex Gooch, he left the Army in 1974 and attained executive rank in Industrial Engineering and Human Resources corporations until retiring in 2001.

The Aviators is Gooch’s second contribution to Army helicopter history. His first book—Ace: The Story of Lt. Col. Ace Cozzalio—was a 2016 Independent Publisher Book Awards Bronze Medal recipient.

Rex Gooch’s website is www.fifthcavalry.com

—Henry Zeybel

Ghosts and Shadows by Phil Ball

Phil Ball’s memoir, Grunts and Shadows: A Marine in Vietnam, 1968-1969  (McFarland, 224 pp. $19.99, paper; $8.99, Kindle) tells the story of a young and—by his own admission—somewhat naïve Marine. It would be a nice selection for a reader not familiar with the Vietnam War. It also might make a good reading assignment for a high school AP English class.

Phil Ball, who died after the book came out, wrote a nicely developed presentation of his experiences as a Marine grunt who served in I Corps, the northern-most area of South Vietnam. He arrived in-country during 1968 after the Tet Offensive, and focuses his story on his assignment to Fox Company, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marines, which began operating close to Khe Sanh.

Ball takes the reader from his first days as a brand-new recruit in San Diego, through boot camp at Pendleton, to shipping out to Vietnam. Then he covers his tour in-country, and follows that with a heartfelt chapter on his return to civilian life. In a conversational style—leavened with some well-remembered  (or well-reconstructed) dialogue—he tells his war and post-war stories.

The book reads well, with appropriate military and battlefield jargon that doesn’t weight down the narrative. Ball described his buddies without the addition of drama or unnecessary rhetoric.

Ball also recounts his adventures during a Tokyo R & R, which included meeting a young Japanese woman, blowing all his money, and over-staying his leave. The return to Vietnam (and his temporary incarceration) provides perhaps a been-there-done-that for some of us.

Ball also describewsome of the racial tensions he saw and lived with in Vietnam, the disbelief and disillusionment with his own command structure and personnel, as well as the daily, all-pervading undercurrent of fear and unease.

In his Epilogue, Ball recountes twenty-plus years of great and small challenges he faced after coming home from the war. That includes dealing with the VA on several levels. He describes his realization that his diagnosis of PTSD may have laid to rest many questions and concerns. This book is the result of a cathartic, story-telling effort to release those demons and fears.

This is a readable, well-edited book, now it its second edition.

–Tom Werzyn

R.E.M.F.:  Vietnam’s Other GIs by John Vandevanter Carter

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John Vandevanter Carter was born and raised in Iowa and attended the University of Iowa before and after he served as a U.S. Army officer in the Vietnam War. His memoir, R.E.M.F.: Vietnam’s Other GIs (Sunbury Press, 468 pp. $19.95, paper; $4.99, Kindle), is much more than a commentary on the Vietnam War. It’s also about race relations in Vietnam during the war, and no book has treated the in-country Vietnam War drug culture more thoroughly than this one.

Van Carter served in Vietnam in 1970-71, the period that the war was beginning to wind down, and when drugs and race relations had started to become serious problems. I’ll mention here that I wrote a book, a novel, based on my tour of duty in Vietnam as an Army enlisted man, 1966-1967.  My book, REMF Diary, is very different from Carter’s.  There is almost no mention of drugs or race relations in the book, as during that period of time those issues were minor. Plus, I was writing from the point of view of an enlisted man.

Carter, on the other hand, was sent to Vietnam  in July 1970 as an infantry officer. However, due to his poor eyesight he served his entire tour of duty in the rear as an executive officer. Carter was stationed at Phu Tai at Camp Humper Stone.

Carter devotes much space in his book to his relationship with a young Vietnamese woman with whom he fell in love—and to describing the rampant corruption that the Americans brought with them to Vietnam. Carter himself participated in the corruption. He smoked carloads of marijuana, frequented houses of prostitution, defied the authority of the Army, and even visited an opium den. He struggled to get some of his men off of their addictions to heroin, and was successful with some.

Carter’s memoir is very well written and employs much humor. It is the best Army officer memoir I have read that deals with service in the rear. Carter’s wit and humor are evident on virtually every page. They make the book stand head and shoulders above most Vietnam War infantry memoirs.

Plus, he doesn’t beat the same old dead horses. I didn’t notice a single reference to John Wayne or Audie Murphy, for example, which was fine with me. Carter does deal with Agent Orange, baby killing, the Black Syph, fragging and crotch rot, which he was cursed with for much of his tour of duty.

I highly recommend Van Carter’s R.E.M.F. to those searching for a Vietnam War book that deals with that conflict from a different angle.

–David Willson

A Spear-Carrier in Viet Nam by Michael E. Tolle

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The strength of A Spear-Carrier in Viet Nam: Memoirs of an American Civilian in Country, 1967 and 1970-1972 (McFarland, 201 pp. $35.00, paper; $9.99, Kindle) derives from author Michael E. Tolle’s ability to reconstruct his youthful observations of what turned out to be a failed mission.

The book is “not a researched work of history,” Tolle says. A self-professed libertarian conservative of white privilege, he primarily worked from memory to draw a picture of a politically and economically corrupt South Vietnam. The broad cultural gap between American expectations and Vietnamese values, he says, doomed most projects on which he worked as a civilian.

Tolle’s first adventure in South Vietnam followed his sophomore year at Georgetown University. He spent that summer as a volunteer for the World Relief Commission, a Protestant missionary organization, in Da Nang. After graduating from college and completing a year of Vietnamese language training, he served a second tour with the U.S. Agency for International Development as an Assistant Relief/Rehabilitation Officer with MACV Advisory Team 38 in Bac Loc and Saigon.

His father’s position as a USAID education adviser helped Tolle enter diplomatic ranks as “both the youngest and lowest-ranking member of the USAID staff in Viet Nam,” he believes. “I made no policy while there, but only executed the policies of others,” he says.

Despite his underling status, Tolle accepted responsibilities beyond his pay grade and found himself engaged with a profusion of problems. His ability to circumvent rules (or the lack thereof) allowed him to perform remarkably well. Working mainly with refugees, Tolle’s tasks included:

  • Dealing with more than 10,000 Cambodians—overwhelmingly farmers with no belongings—who were fleeing ethnic cleansing.
  • Distributing building materials such as cement and 4-by-8-foot sheets of corrugated steel.
  • Finding use for food provided by America—such as bulgur wheat and a mixture known as CSM—that the Vietnamese considered inedible. Concurrently, guarding highly desirable vegetable oil from theft.
  • Preventing corruption and deceit that surrounded any project that involved doling out money to local contractors.
  • Briefing general officers who appeared to be merely filling squares.

In discussing his interactions with American and Vietnamese leaders, Tolle eventually resigned himself to their selfish behavior. “Siphoning off” America’s “copious material wealth was an understood fact of life at every level,” he says. Likewise, the Vietnamese ignored American pacification strategies.

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Michael Tolle

An assignment to Saigon made Tolle’s final year in-country relatively pleasurable. His American wife had a job in the city, and together they enjoyed short visits to Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos.

Tolle looks back on the war as a “transformative experience” for him. With a career in Foreign Service in mind, he had attended Georgetown because of its strong international relations program. By the end of his service in Vietnam, however, he determined that he “was simply not suited for that kind of work.”

Tolle also has written What Killed Downtown? Norristown, Pennsylvania: From Main Street to the Malls, and They’ve Been Down So Long, Getting Up’s Still On Their Minds, both of which deal with the demise of Pennsylvania steel mills.

His website is michaeltolle.com

—Henry Zeybel