The Physics of War & Land of Loud Noises and Vacant Stares by Peter M. Bourret

Peter Bourret served with 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, as an 81 mm mortar man in Vietnam in 1967-68. He is a life member of Vietnam Veterans of America.

His two small books of poetry–The Physics of War: Poems of War and Healing (CreateSpace, 92 pp., $15, paper) and Land of Loud Noises and Vacant Stares (CreateSpace, 106 pp., $15, paper)—revisit many of the same things that many Vietnam War memoirs, poetry books, and novels dwell upon.

PTSD is much in evidence here. Agent Orange gets serious time. We read about Indian Country, the Thousand Yard Stare, John Wayne being AWOL, the light at the end of the tunnel, Walter Cronkite, trigger time, the sins of Dow Chemical, Marine veterans being spat upon, and the Animals’ “Sky Pilot.”  The National Anthem and the rocket’s red glare get needed attention.

Peter Bourret puts his boots back into the red clay of 45 years ago, revisiting the pain that has never left him. I hope that Bourret gives the reader some concrete images and passages dealing with the important job of being an 81 mm mortar man in his next book of poetry. I have a great curiosity about how Bourett would turn his considerable word skills on that job. I spent my time in Vietnam as an Army stenographer, so I could learn a lot from Bourett, and would enjoy the chance to do so.

These are handsome books and would make great reading for those who have grappled with PTSD since their return from Vietnam—or for others working through a traumatic event that left them with PTSD. Buy these books for that person in your life who is brave enough to sit down and read these poems.

The poem “a twenty-first-century Hawthorne character” is a fine example of Peter Bourret’s  best work. There’s pain on the page here:

i wear no Purple Heart upon my chest

but rather

i wear the scarlet letter

PTSD

and

hester Prynne will show me

the road

that leads me

away from the shame

that has stained my days

newwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwww

—David Willson

Service

Bruce Lack served honorably in the United States Marines from 2003-07, including two deployments totaling twenty-one months in Fallujah in Iraq.  His book, Service: Poems (Texas Tech University, 128 pp., $18.95, paper), contains dozens of fine poems dealing with Lack’s time in Fallujah. I looked hard for references to the Vietnam War, but failed to find any.

I’ve read many books about America’s recent wars in the Middle East: poetry, novels, memoirs, histories, every kind of thing.  Service is one of the finest of all of them. The poems deal with all aspects of a Marine’s time in Fallujah, and many are heartbreaking. Some deal with how Marines build life-saving skills for dealing with the war in Iraq—skills that are not helpful when they return home.

The language of Lack’s poems powerfully evokes the physicality of Marines in Fallujah.  These are not airy-fairy poems. They hit hard. “Assholes from Blackwater:  All These Things Can Kill You” is probably the most powerful sixteen-line poem I’ve ever read—and I was an English major back in the sixties when we were required to read what seemed like millions of great poems.

Bruce Lack

I won’t quote from the poem here. But I recommend you buy this book just for this short poem—and then get knocked back on your haunches by the rest of the book.

Service is not for the faint of heart, but it is a book filled with heart, and love, too. But you have to read the book carefully for that.

I wish that Lack would give classes to Vietnam veterans about writing poetry. Memo to Vietnam veterans thinking about writing and publishing a poetry book: Please read this one before you do, and try to hew to this high standard.

I really loved this book. I’m eager for more books by this fine writer.

—David Willson

If I Could Find a Way by John M. Koelsch

John M. Koelsch served in the Army in the Vietnam War as a infantry Platoon Leader in 1968. He is the author of Mickey 6, a novel based on his combat experiences.

Koelsch describes his book of poetry and short prose pieces, If I Could Find a Way (CreateSpace, 98 pp., $9.99, paper), as “a journey through the Vietnam War, through the aftermath of that war, and hopefully to at least the beginning of healing. These poems present the intensity of combat, and the descent into the darkest of valleys.”

That is a fair description of this book. There are fewer than fifty short poems, but they pack a punch. They are titled to let the reader know what they are about: “Claymore Mines,” “Payback,” “Bugs,” “Bobby-Trap,” “Barber,” “Sniper,” “Ten Thousand Meter Stare,” “Baby-Killers,” etc.

The poem “Barber” embodies one of the most common recurring motifs of the Vietnam War. It also is one of Koelsch’s finest poems, and gives the flavor of the book.

Duke was a fine patriotic fellow,

who gave solid military haircuts

and friendly “G.I. Numbah 1” chatter.

His sweet-faced wife provided laundry service,

while his small son would shine your boots.

A nice group; happy Americans were here.

That morning, none of them showed up for work.

Recon Platoon called in from their ambush.

Seven bodies of hardcore NVA.

A very successful operation.

Wait a minute! Duke is among the dead.

He’s wearing NVA Lieutenant pips.

Our barber guided enemy patrols

through our area using U. S. maps.

Duke, a good barber; a true patriot.

He will be missed, as will his family.

They never did return to work.

I loved this poem and many others in this book. I highly recommend it to lovers of Vietnam War poetry.

Koelsch mentions more than once that the Vietnam War was “the war we weren’t allowed to win.”  I’d like to know who exactly who connived not to let us win that war? If I have to guess, I’d say it was Duke, the patriotic barber—and his fellow patriots.

—David Willson

My Brother’s Keeper by Rodwick Padilla


Rodwick Padilla is a Marine Corps veteran who served a 1966-67 Vietnam War tour of duty. He tells us that his brother, Ronald M. Padilla, came home from Vietnam after six months “in a green Zip up bag.”  Rodwick Padilla,  a member of Vietnam Veterans America, was nineteen when he volunteered to go to Vietnam “to avenge his [brother’s] death.”

My Brother’s Keeper: Poems of the Vietnam War (America Star Books, 84 pp., $17.95, paper; $7.99, Kindle) is made up of “the raw war poems of Vietnam Marine Cpl. Rod Padilla,” we are told. “They are a spontaneous outpouring of his battlefield experience years after the event. The voice is authentic. The poems are unedited.”

Honesty is the best policy my mother always told me. Given his publisher’s disclaimer, it would be churlish of me to take Padilla to task for his poems not being well-edited or proofread. However, the lack of editing still bothered me. Maybe it’s because I am a guy with a degree in English writing from the University of Washington and I have no experience as a Marine—two things that made it difficult for me to fully appreciate Padilla’s rawness and honesty.

I’ll quote a tiny bit of one of the long poem, “Between the Cracks,” to give a sense of how the poems are written:

I had a feeling that Ski had been shot

If you guest where, you would be right

Yea, where the sun don’t shine

Yes, right up his be-hind

Most of the poems in this short book are in rhyme or verse of a sort, and Padilla keeps them simple. We encounter K-bars, poisonous snakes, punji pits, John Wayne, and baby killers.  Also what he calls “Sea Rations.” Padilla refers to the AR-15 as a little plastic toy. He says we weren’t defeated in this war, if you call it a war.

We are told that the author has spent time in a penitentiary, but no details are given. We are also told that he was abandoned as a baby by his mother. He uses the expression “pineapple” to refer to himself, as he is from Hawaii. He also uses the term “little grass shack,” which I’ve heard in songs.  

The book is a physically beautiful one, with a great illustration of Padilla on the cover, his sweet, innocent Hawaiian face in a half-smile. He looks a little bit Vietnamese. There are lots of tiny black and white photos in the middle of the book showing him in-country.  

Marines “drop like flies” when “the shit hits the fan” in this little book. So if these expressions don’t bother you, and you don’t mind struggling through the un-proofread lines, this book of Marine Corps verse may appeal to you.

 It is a lovely book to look at.  

—David Willson

Who Cares? I Do by Jack Moser

Jack Moser entered the Navy in 1958. He served as an intelligence officer in the Vietnam War, and holds a doctorate in psychology.

A few of the poems in Who Cares? I Do: Poems  (Fithian Press, 128 pp., $14, paper) deal with the Vietnam War:  “Kill Everything That Moves,” “My Queen of Vietnam,” and “The Phu Qui Island Chorus.”  Lots of the poems deal with God and Ireland. I’ll quote from “Kill Everything That Moves” to provide a sense of the book.

It is thirty-eight years since the Vietnam War ended.

The sordid stories of American atrocities

Are just starting to raise their bloody heads.

We now know that U.S. military forces

Killed millions of innocent civilians in cold blood

We were all so obsessed with the “body count”

That everyone we killed was the enemy

From the one-month old baby

To the ninety-year-old man planting rice,

The orders were clear, “Kill everything that moves”

That meant everything:

Women

Children

Water buffalo

Americans “killing millions of innocent civilians in cold blood”? This is not the war that I knew in Vietnam—and it is nothing close to the truth. Even books that claim that Americans committed unending atrocities in the Vietnam War, such as Nick Turse’s deeply flawed Kill Everything That Moves (2013), don’t come close to contending that we killed millions of innocents in cold blood.

This book of poetry is not for me, but perhaps it might be for you.

—David Willson

Images from Hell by F.L. Riker

F. L. Riker was just like many Americans who served his country during the Vietnam War. He returned to “an unfriendly country” where he suffered from PTSD, as Riker puts it in Images from Hell (AuthorHouse, 84 pp., $11.45, paperback), a collection of his poetry.

No details of Riker’s service are given in the book, but this small volume contains after action reports, one of which deals with a battle that took place in Vietnam on April 11, 1968, that involved the 3rd Battalion, 22nd Infantry of the 25th Infantry Division. The base camp of the unit involved in that battle was Dau Tieng. Many died in that battle and the reports contain a long list of weapons and equipment recovered from the enemy, hundreds of whom died.

I assume that this battle and others like it fueled the poetry in this book. But we are not told that straight out.

This book contains a few dozen poems with titles such as “Savage Country,” “A Victim,”  “Death of a Captive,” “The Fear Inside,” “Angels Above,” and “One Way Out.”

Typical of Riker’s brief poems about the effect of the war on him is  “Duration.”

In these close dark spaces of my mind

I feel the deepening horror,

Digging blood dripping pitchforks

Torture me throughout my whole,

Empty blackening walls they now surround me

Reaching hopelessly for a single blood soaked door,

 

In this dreadful while of time

I’ll now spend with the devil in my soul

Never ending hell is all that’s left for me

Nothing left of the world I knew

From now I’ll never see.

Images of Hell takes its place among other collections of poems about how the Vietnam War has taken a toll on the soul. I recommend it to young people who are considering joining the military. It will provide food for thought and reflection.

—David Willson

Wartorn Heart by Kathleen Trew Swazuk

Kathleen Trew Swazuk was an Army nurse at the 93rd EVAC Hospital in Long Binh during her 1969-70 tour of duty in the Vietnam War. Her “scars have taken years to heal,” she writes in Wartorn Heart: Poems and Art Inspired by the Vietnam War (Blurb, 48 pp., $41.49)

This large, thin, and beautiful book contains very short poems bolstered by art work by many different artists. The poems and the art resonate with, and support, each other. And they resonate with the reader.

The poem that spoke loudest to me is  “Agent Orange.” It’s almost as if the poem was written for me, or by me.

Agent Orange

Sprayed orange in a yellow war.

Breathing in and out the pixie dust that coats the air…

Seeping into body trying to destroy the soul.

 

I am old now.  The body is racked with pain

bones soft and bones broken.

Lungs no longer willing to expand

and let in the reborn air of spring.

Inert too long, I must climb out of this

bunker I have built,

to isolate my wornout

body to try and heal my war torn soul.

 

There will be no choppers to rescue me.

Escape must be on my own.

I wave the white flag of surrender

so that I can move into the light.

I walk toward the sunrise

and brightness of a new day.

 

A new beginning…A new landing zone

where the dust is no longer orange.

 

The book contains many photographs of the people and the work done at 93rd Evac during the author’s time there. The horror and pain of the butcher’s bill of war are well communicated in this book. It takes a place of honor in the literature of nursing in the Vietnam War.

—David Willson