Snapshots from the Edge of a War by John Buquoi

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John Buquoi was trained as a Vietnamese linguist at the Army Language School in Monterey, California, and then assigned to the Army Security Agency’s 3rd Radio Research Unit, a military branch of the National Security Agency in Saigon and its Detachment J in Phu Bai in Vietnam from 1963-65.  After separation from the Army he returned to Vietnam where he worked as a civilian for defense contractors for more than five years. During that time Buquoi traveled to virtually every province in South Vietnam.

Snapshots from the Edge of a War (CreateSpace, 138 pp., $9.95, paper; $4.99, Kindle) is a book of poems, written fifty years later—or, as Buquoi puts it: “This is a work of fiction.”  The back cover has a photograph of the author in the aftermath of the Brinks Hotel bombing in Saigon on Christmas Eve 1964. The photo and the poems demonstrate strongly that John Buquoi was a man who was there, “in the shit.”

The back cover blurb says it well: “The poems in this volume are, after fifty years, echoes of that experience in a series of reflective narrative vignettes which one critic has called, ‘first rate in every respect, resonating on all levels—emotional, personal, factual, historical, literary.'”

Buquoi’s six-page story poem, “The gifts of Christmas,” is the best piece of any kind I’ve read on the bombing of the Brinks Hotel, which served as a Bachelor Officers Quarters in downtown Saigon. Buquoi writes of “Mr. Xuan, the sapper santa” who  sat across the street and sipped coffee after the bombing, “Satisfied as he watched his plastique work explode.”  His 200-pound car bomb killed two and wounded more than 200 Vietnamese and Americans, civilian and military alike.

This story poem brings home the reality of a war that could kill you anywhere. You didn’t have to be “out in the shit.”  The shit could come to you—anytime, even on Christmas Eve.

This book also contains one of the best things written on Gen. William Westmoreland, whom Buquoi calls by his nickname, “Westy.” He was the general who seemed designed for photo ops and little else. He showed up after things calmed down for the heroic pictures that appear in most books and articles about him. Certainly the Westy I knew was a photo op general.

“Get a haircut,” he once told me.  I felt like asking, “Why?” since nobody was taking my picture.  I just said, “Yes, sir.”

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John Buquoi (in steel pot, center right) outside Saigon in 1963

The language of this poetry seems written to be read aloud, what this poet calls a “talkie poem.”  We encounter Terry Southern, Jack Kerouac, “john fucking waynes without no brains,” Wile e. Coyote, Bob Dylan, and in person, Raymond Burr, who shows up to buoy up the troops by out-drinking all of them.

I loved every page of this book of poems and highly recommend it to everyone not just to poetry fans.

—David Willson

Stand-By One! by Vernon Grant

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Good news for Books in Review II readers. A second edition of Vietnam veteran Vernon Grant’s Stand-By One! has just been published ( Little Creek Press, 40 pp., $9.95, paper) and his wife Betsy Grant is now on a book tour with her late husband’s cartoon collection. Grant’s cartoons are familiar, but they are as descriptive and humorous now as when he drew them in 1969.

Last November, in a review of Grant’s Point Man Palmer, I wrote: “Cpt. Grant received his Army discharge in 1968 after his tour of duty in the Vietnam War. That’s when he began publishing his cartoons and graphic novels. Stand-By One!, published in 1969, presents panels in which Grant occasionally inserts himself in his depiction of a soldier’s routine in the field, off duty, and in stand down.”

The characters in these humorous and ironic situations include PFC Goonfunkle and other soldiers in foxholes, on patrol, during R & R, and after coming “back to the world.”

These un-numbered pages contain drawings revealing typical and quirky scenes such as troops identifying a rescued Vietnamese villager wearing a Ho Chi Minh tee shirt as having been “re-educated” and four officers standing at an entrance to the “Hanoi to Saigon Subway.”

One combat scene shows two soldiers under a ” rocket attack,”  except it’s raining down copies of Playboy magazine, C Rations, and a television. The caption reads: “It looks like they’re running low on ammunition.”

Another carton shows a Vietnam veteran sitting with his date in a restaurant. He says to the waiter: “A beer for me and a Saigon Tea -er- a coke for the lady.” Grant has also drawn tanks with bayonets affixed and a soldier in counseling with a Chaplain in which they both wear Mickey Mouse ears.

 

The best way to appreciate these cartoons is to see them together in Stand-By-One!, an affordable last-minute holiday gift. Betsy Grant’s website is http://bvgrantstudio.com

—Curt Nelson

Primary Candidates by Mike Sutton

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Mike Sutton’s experiences in the Vietnam War are the basis for his first novel, No Survivors (2004). Henry Small Deer was a primary character in No Survivors and returns in Primary Candidates (War Zone Press, 308 pp., $35.99, hardcover; $19.99, paper) as an authority on armaments.  All of the characters of Sutton’s second novel, High Order (2009), also have returned. The author informs us that the novel is inspired by historical events.

As the title implies, this novel is about politicians who want to be president. Three senators are featured doing what senators do when they think they should have their party’s nomination to the nation’s highest office.

The poisonous worm in this political apple is a shipment of Stinger missiles from Arizona to Fort Hood, Texas. At this point the book becomes a hijack novel in which law enforcement agencies scramble to retrieve the missiles and kill the hijacking criminals. Something serious always goes wrong in a scenario of this sort. If it doesn’t, there is no story to hold our attention.

Detective Hunter Morgan is one of the law enforcement people who goes after the missiles. Naturally, he did three tours in Vietnam. One is never enough for a character of this sort. He’s a glutton for punishment.

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Mike Sutton

Many more things go awry in this thriller: snipers in Baltimore, railroad catastrophes, terrorist strikes on major American airports. Then one of the senators “turns up missing.”  That’s one of my favorite all-time clichés.

This book is a rouser, though. I highly recommend it to those who enjoy thrillers and to those who enjoyed Sutton’s previous novels.

Sutton, a witty author, also provides my favorite Jane Fonda quote out of many hundreds I’ve read in Vietnam War books. In this case the words come from a senator speaking to the President:

“Jane Fonda,” the senator says, “has a better chance of becoming the National Commander of the Vietnam Veterans of America than the Desert Fox does winning in November.” This caught me by surprise so late in the book, and caused me to laugh aloud, something I rarely do when I read Vietnam War thrillers.  Congrats to Sutton for his wit and wisdom.

—David Willson

McNamara’s Folly by Hamilton Gregory

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Hamilton Gregory volunteered for the Army, and served three years, including one in the Vietnam War in military intelligence. He was a strong believer in America’s fight against communism, and thought it was his patriotic duty to serve.

Project 100,000 was promoted as a great social experiment that would provide troops to the Army and, in turn, the Army would teach these men to read and write—and brush their teeth. But the Army never got around to teaching these men anything. They just got shipped to Vietnam.

The men in this group were referred to kindly by President Johnson as “second class fellows.”  They were the men who were too heavy, too thin, too short. They often had medical liabilities, psychiatric disorders, criminal tendencies, and maladjustment problems. After these men served, they were often separated under other than honorable conditions. LBJ looked to these men as a way to avoid displeasing middle class voters by doing away with college deferments and National Guard special treatment.

America’s military leaders were not in favor of Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara’s plan to induct men previously labelled unfit for military service. They had “grave doubts” and only went along with this plan with “bitter disappointment,” Gregory writes in McNamara’s Folly: The Use of Low-IQ Troops in the Vietnam War, Plus the Induction of Unfit Men, Criminals, and Misfits (Infinity Publishing, 262 pp., $16.95, paper; $7.95, Kindle).

It was the civilian bosses—McNamara and LBJ—who foisted this social experiment off on the military, which was ill prepared to educate the unfit.

Some military leaders felt that this plan showed that McNamara and LBJ had little understanding of the qualities a soldier had to possess to be successful at difficult and complex jobs such as handling loaded rifles and hand grenades. Do we want such men performing those tasks? I certainly don’t.

LBJ and McNamara

I went through basic training at Fort Ord with an unfit man, L.C. He scared us every day. We tried our hardest to communicate to our leaders what was wrong with the guy, but nothing got through.

The strongest part of this fine book is the section in which Gregory relates his own narrative about being in Special Training with unfit men at Fort Benning. Gregory ended up there due to physical problems and what he refers to as his “goofy” face.  He saw with his own eyes that “McNamara’s experiment in social engineering had the most awful results.”

His stories of the suffering of these men brought tears to my eyes. They were not supposed to be destined for a combat role in Vietnam, but guess what?  They went to Vietnam and many fought and died there.

Gregory began researching this book in the 1970s, but his experiences in 1967 at Fort Benning provided first-hand observations that became the bedrock of the story.

Gregory’s beloved wife, Merrill, believed her husband “was probably the only man in America who had the experiences and the commitment to tell the whole story of McNamara’s Folly.” I agree with her.

My only complaint about this fine book is that there was no photograph of Hamilton Gregory. I wished I could see with my own eyes his goofy face. Many saints have had less-than-ideal Ken Doll visages.

—David Willson