Agent Orange Roundup by Sandy Scull & Brent MacKinnon

Agent Orange Roundup: Living with a Foot in Two Worlds (Bookstand Publishing, 210 pp. $24.95, hardcover; $15.95, paper; $4.99, Kindle), by Sandy Scull and Brent MacKinnon, is a unique, poetic condemnation of the massive use of defoliants and herbicides by the United States during the war in Vietnam. It is also an educational resource to help people learn more about the development, use, and devastating effects of Agent Orange. Along with poetry, the book contains artwork, stories, and essays.

Scull and MacKinnon served with the Marines during the war; they first met in 1988. They both have received Stage 4 cancer diagnoses that they believe are associated with being exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam.

The first part of the book consists of poems by Scull, including this couplet:

“We return to you with a souvenir

 Of present and future Death”

He goes on to describes AO as “the round we didn’t hear, and it is killing us.”

He says that today, “I like my steak tartar/shrapnel-cut and raw –” and refers to war as a “big bang without the theory.”

Here’s more:

“When memory of war joins a poem, it’s more

than a blood trail, it has a voice and is free

to move with and punctuate its own rhythm.

Those imprinted lines of sacrifice now curve.”

Scull writes that he arrived in Vietnam with a “dread of what would come.” Here’s what he says about the American military’s policy of war by body count:

“This number game had faces.

My face. And mothers. My mother.”

At one point, he’s running to catch a plane leaving Khe Sanh, “wondering how many/rotting Marines want into my jungle boots leaving.” He also questions “How much blood can this soil absorb?”

We learn from Scull that when you smash your M-16 against a tree out of grief for five men lost to rifle jams, it comes apart this way: “The plastic butt stock shattered first, then the hand guard, the trigger and rear sight.”

MacKinnon begins his part of the book by declaring: “These poems and prose are by two combat Marines sentenced to slow death by the country who sent us in harm’s way.”

One of his poems mentions those who are “soon to die,” “already dead,” and “almost dead.”

He cries out to the U.S. government: “I don’t want money. Just say you did It/Say you killed me with Agent Orange/say you did it.”

Scull and MacKinnon (Lt. Scull and Cpl. Mac) bring the reader right into the poem-writing process with a line like, “You say, cut this last stanza –” and a title such as, “These Are Not Your Poems!”

There are poems here that deal with receiving cancer treatments and living with cancer. Scull sums things up beautifully when he says: “Though the subject matter of these poems may seem like a downer, my hope is that the human spirit of love and connection bleeds through.”

Overall, this is a strong collection of material written by two war veterans who have made a pact with their readers that they are going to go out fighting.

–Bill McCloud

In the Shadow of Green Bamboos by C.L. Hoang

In the Shadow of Green Bamboos (Willow Stream Publishing, 196 pp. $10.95, paper; $4.99, Kindle), by C.L. Hoang is a delightful collection of a half dozen short stories, all of which contain brief but penetrating glimpses into the lives of a cross section of people, Vietnamese and American, who were affected in significant ways by the American war in Vietnam. Hoang was born in Vietnam and came to the United States in the 1970s. This is his third book; all three deal with the country of Vietnam and the wars that took place there.

The opening story, “In a Land Called Honah-Lee,” involves a chance meeting at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, a stuffed toy dragon and a connection made between children in both countries. But then there is fatal anti-aircraft fire and the story becomes one of survivor’s guilt.

By the time I was half-way through the next story, “Flowers in the Sky,” I saw that Hoang’s method of storytelling makes his words come alive, consistently—almost like watching a movie. All of my senses were engaged. This story takes place in Saigon in late 1972 and features a six-year-old boy, a red lantern, a harvest moon, and an exciting parade.

It’s a time when the Americans are withdrawing, the boy’s father is away from home fighting, and his mother’s hair is noticeably turning grey. This is a good example of Hoang’s writing at its best and shows off his ability to tell stories in a very moving manner.

In the title story, a Vietnamese woman living in Washington, D.C., thinks back over almost fifty years of marriage to the American she met in Saigon. Her memories stir up secrets, including one about a “mysterious crying woman.”

The title of the fourth story, “Of Crickets and Dragons,” should be enough to entice you into wanting to read this tale of two young boys killing time in 1968 Saigon.

“When Swallows Return” begins with pleasant memories of college life in the early sixties, including with love poems written on fancy stationery. The war then brings a time of separation that becomes permanent when a plane is shot down. But then, almost fifty years later, a mysterious phone call changes everything.

As I prepared to begin to read the final story, “A Cup of Love,” I wished there were a dozen more in this book. Then this one begins with an older Vietnamese woman saying to her young granddaughter, “Do you want to hear a story?” And the voice in my mind drowned out the voice of the young girl as I may even have said out loud, “Yes, Mr. Hoang, another story, please.”

But what I really want is another book full of stories by C.L. Hoang.

The author’s website is mulberryfieldsforever.com

–Bill McCloud

Our Best War Stories edited by Christopher Lyke

The title—Our Best War Stories: Prize-Winning Poetry & Prose from the Col. Darron L. Wright Memorial Awards (Middle West Press, 234 pp. $17.99, paper; $9.99, Kindle) edited by Christopher Lyke—sets up expectations that the book meets time and time again. The awards, honoring an Iraq War veteran killed in a training accident, are administered by Line of Advance, an on-line veterans literary journal. Lyke, a U.S. Army veteran of the Afghanistan War, is the journal’s co-founder and editor.

As for the poems, I especially enjoyed “Starling Wire” by David S. Pointer because of its great word flow and the use of words such as “microscopicesque” and “retro-futuristically.” I also liked Eric Chandler’s “Air Born,” which has us flying home with a “war hangover,” and Jeremy Hussein Warneke’s “Facing 2003,” in which he looks at the aftermath of war with a poem inside a poem. Randy Brown’s “Robert Olen Butler wants nachos” deals with desire.

“Soldier’s Song” by Ben Weakley is my favorite among the poems as it lyrically deals with time and worlds that exist in the tip of a bullet that barely misses your head. In “Havoc 58” Laura Joyce-Hubbard describes a grief-filled widowed pilot’s wife as “Dressed black-drunk.”

Some of the short stories that stood out were David R. Dixon’s “The Stay,” about a man who can smell death, and Michael Lund’s “Left-Hearted,” featuring a man with a rare heart condition. Other worthy stories include  “Bagging It Up” by Scott Hubbartt, and “Walking Point” by former Marine Dewaine Farria, my second favorite story in the book, looks at the warden of a small town prison in Oklahoma. Some of his memories are of men who became only “blood-soaked heaps of jungle fatigues on stretchers.” He uncovers a prisoner’s dangerous shank and realizes that prison and war “encourage ingenuity.’”

“Village With No Name” by Ray McPadden is my favorite short story in the book. It’s set in Iraq and looks at a group of men motivated to get their dangerous mission completed quickly because of an impending sandstorm. They shoot dogs “for no particular reason” and carelessly rip down electric lines as they drive through a village. Then, when one of the men is bitten by a poisonous cobra, and the medic says, “I ain’t no snake doctor,” they find themselves begging for help from an old woman and her jar of paste.

Christopher Lyke

In Travis Klempan’s “Some Kind of Storm” a newly discharged veteran finds himself in “the least hospitable place in America,” a Christian rock festival in southern Oklahoma. He encounters the Painted Man (a tribute to Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man) whose tattoos seem to come to life.

The most exciting story is “Green” by Brian L. Braden. In it, a helicopter pilot refueling in-flight suddenly sees tracers from ground fire arcing in the sky. In William R. Upton’s “A Jeep to Quang Tri” we’re aboard a fixed-wing Caribou in Vietnam about to land on a “small dirt strip with more VC than flies on a dog turd.”

Our Best War Stories contains many great poems, stories, and essays—all of them well-told. That’s as good a combination as you can ask for.

–Bill McCloud

The Best of Medic in the Green Time by Marc Levy

Marc Levy’s The Best of Medic in the Green Time: Writings from the Vietnam War and Its Aftermath (Winter Street Press, 563 pp. $24, paper) is a kaleidoscopic book of stories written by Levy and others. Kaleidoscopically, these colorful stories burst out in all directions. They’re collected from a website that Levy, who served as a medic with the First Cavalry Division in the Vietnam War, started in 2007.

The stories, poems, essays, recollections, and reflections are divided into three sections: War, Poetry, and Postwar. There are more than seventy stories in all, three-fourths written by Levy.

Here is some of what we encounter in the opening section on the Vietnam War. A casualty of friendly fire, the first man Levy has to patch up. How to make morning GI coffee. Inflated body counts. Souvenirs taken from the dead. Medals awarded to appease grieving families. Coincidences that save lives. Men voluntarily returning to the war because they missed the adrenaline rush.

Several stories describe extreme combat at a personal level. A buddy dying in Levy’s arms. The attacking Viet Cong dressed only in loin cloths. Men giving themselves self-inflicted wounds to try to keep from returning to combat.

The poems are a mixed bag; some of the best are written by Levy. In “He Would Tell You,” for example, he writes:

 Let me never tell you

Things you cannot know

Let me never tell you

Things that won’t let go.

“Portrait of a Young Girl at Dawn” ends with:

They haul her in.

Beneath the whirling blades

She is spinning, spinning

She is floating away.

“Dead Letter Day,” begins: “He sent the letter to the guy’s wife/The same day,/Leaving out the following:”

We then learn the truth of the man’s death. Things his widow must never know.

One of the best poems, by Tom Laaser, is “Things I Think About at 11:11 on November the 11th”. In it, a man is attending yet another program for vets in a high-school auditorium and he’s conflicted. He senses that he does not want to be a veteran,

But the second that god damn flag is unfurled

And that crappy high school band strikes up you

Give way to unyielding patriotism of the highest degree.

I bled for this

You want to scream.

I am a veteran. This is MY country. I earned this freedom.

I earned

This day.

Marc Levy, left, at LZ Compton in An Loc, 1969

The third part, “Postwar,” includes a small section on combat humor, as well as one on how to talk to college students about the war, and one on the symptoms and treatments of PTSD because, as Levy writes, “Whatever you did in war will always be with you.” An especially interesting section includes comments from dozens of veterans describing what they think when some well-meaning person says, “Thank you for your service.”

It’s a phrase Levy considers to be “petty.”

This is a great book because of the well-written variety of stories and topics Levy covers. It’s also great because of how it’s put together. There is no reason to read the more than seventy chapters in order. Dig in and skip around any way you choose.

A kaleidoscope of stories awaits you.

Marc Levy’s website, Medic in the Green Time, is medicinthegreentime.com

–Bill McCloud

Down Along the Piney by John Mort

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John Mort, one of America’s premier storytellers, served in the Vietnam War with the First Cavalry Division. His story, “Hog Whisperer,” received the 2013 Spur Award for best short story from the Western Writers of America.  Mort writes edge-of the seat fictional masterpieces, presenting characters for us to root for and cherish, as well as the other kind. They are all-American people who breathe on the page—people we wish we knew, people we do know, or people we are happy we have yet to encounter.

Mort’s latest collection, Down Along the Piney: Ozark Stories (University of Notre Dame Press, 186 pp., $50, hardcover; $20, paper) contains thirteen fine stories, including “Hog Whisperer.” Some of these tales are so lively and dense that it’s difficult to believe they aren’t novels as so much happens in the course of each story. “Hog Whisperer” is one of those stellar stories.

Another one that is rich and full of the intent and accomplishment of a novel is “Pitchblende,” the first in the collection. We are introduced by the narrator to his father, known as “the Colonel,” in the first paragraph. He is a larger-than-life character who intends to run the lives of his entire family. His wife is not up for that, so she departs.

The Colonel was gone during most of that family’s life, serving in various wars around the planet. He disgraced himself—or thought he did—in the Korean War, after which his career was as good as over due to events that were beyond his control. That is often the nature of war. No more promotions were there, so the old man left the military and spent the rest of his life trying to strike it rich finding uranium in the form of pitchblende.

He dug big holes in the ground with his Cat, which was as close to his old Sherman tank as he could get on his property, which becomes known as Bald Mountain because of what he and his Cat do to the surface of the land and to the trees.

My favorite sentence in this story is: “That’s because they ain’t no uranium in Missouri.” Just sticky, old soft coal that’s worthless.

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John Mort

The story’s hero graduated from high school, joined the Army, and learned to fly helicopters.

“I was a warrant officer,” he says. “I was a pilot, and twice I was shot down. Who knows why, but the bullets flew all around me, and I was never touched.”

There’s lots of war in the stories in this fine book, including the Vietnam War. “Take the Man Out and Shoot Him” alone is worth the price of admission.

If you have even the vaguest love of fine short stories or want to read great stories about people and war, buy this book. It will not disappoint.

—David Willson

The Hardest Part by Bruce I. McDaniel

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Bruce McDaniel enlisted in the Army in September 1967 and spent a year as a medic with the 198th Light Infantry Brigade in Vietnam. He wrote about that experience in a 2016 memoir, Walk Through the Valley: The Spiritual Journey of a Vietnam War Medic, which we reviewed on these pages.

In  Homecoming Stories from the Vietnam War (Lulu.com, 64 pp., $8, paper) McDaniel uses those experiences to create a group of short stories that explore his feelings about the challenges of returning to America after his tour of duty. He did not anticipate the troubles he would encounter.

McDaniel’s service as a medic saving lives in the Vietnam War did not make him popular in the civilian world when he returned home.  Some of the stories he uses to explore what it is like to be back deal with a Vietnam veteran on leave who chooses to travel in his uniform because of the advantages he thought that would give him as a traveler.

The story I appreciated most was about a veteran who enrolls in college with his war wound dogging him, but not a wound that is readily identifiable. He lacks one eye, which was damaged by a tiny piece of shrapnel. He’s actually told by a fellow student that it served him right for being in Vietnam.

Nobody has told me that about my Agent Orange-connected disability, but the world has changed a lot since 1968. The story made me wonder, though, if the occasional person might have that thought. It wouldn’t surprise me.

These stories frequently provoked me to fits of thinking, which is what one hopes for from good fiction. There are far fewer than seventy-five pages is this little book, but it packs a punch.

In fact, it packs several punches, and I highly recommend it to all veterans. I believe the stories would be especially helpful to read and discussed by a group of veterans dealing with stubborn, painful issues that have refused to fly away into the clouds.

I appreciate that Bruce McDaniel used his memories and imagination to produce these powerful stories.

—David Willson

How Stevie Nearly Lost the War by Marc Levy

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Marc Levy served as a medic in the 1st Cavalry Division in Vietnam and Cambodia in 1970. How Stevie Nearly Lost the War and other Postwar Stories (Winter Street Press, 154 pp. $12, paper; $2.99, Kindle) is a small book of powerful short stories and essays that hits like a hand grenade ignited in a closet full of secrets.

Full disclosure: I was a stenographer in Vietnam, so I don’t really know exactly what happened out in the field. Imagining that grenade blast is as close as I wish to get to it.

The special power of language is immediately apparent in the book’s first two stories in which Marc Levy pulls no punches. These stories, in fact, are a punch in the gut.

Here, for example, are a few lines from the beginning of “The Thing They Will Always Carry”:

VA Shrink:  Were you in Vietnam?

Vietnam Vet:  Yes.

VA Shrink:  When were you there?

Vietnam Vet:  Last night.

Yes. He was there last night. I totally get that. I was a steno in Vietnam, and when I napped briefly this afternoon, I was back there. I was not typing or taking shorthand. I was interviewing a black guy in Long Binh Jail. Did I ever do that? Yes. But it was much scarier in my dream than it had been in real life—if that is what my tour of duty in Vietnam was.

In his book Levy describes a “safe rear job” in his story “Meeting the New Lieutenant.”  He writes of “clean clothes, showers, real beds, reinforced bunkers, fresh food.” All of that is true. Levy doesn’t mention that the water we showered with was saturated with Agent Orange. Just a small thing to overlook, but there it is.

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Marc Levy in Vietnam

Marc Levy’s great talent is his ability to reach the reader at a personal, intimate level with his poetic whispers and shouts. We are lucky he has chosen to take the time to communicate with us.

His book speaks to all who read it. Please do so.

You owe it to yourself and to your loved ones.

—David Willson

The author’s website is medicinthegreentime.com

Foreign Correspondent by Patricia L. Mosure and Stephen G. Patten

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Foreign Correspondent: A Journalist’s True Story by Patricia L. Mosure and Stephen G. Patten (Lee and Grant International, 401 pp., $17.95, paper) focuses on Patten’s experiences over a forty-year period. He served as a Captain in the Marine Corps from 1962-68, including a short tour (three weeks) in Vietnam in 1967. He then was a foreign correspondent in the Middle East, the Far East, and Central America. The authors also devote one chapter to the current war on terror.

Steve Patten and  co-author Mosure also recount their meeting a Catholic nun, Sister Linh, who was running an orphanage in South Vietnam. She told Patten that “if the Communists come, they will kill me.” In 1975, with the fall of South Vietnam imminent, Patten flew there to try and rescue Sister Lihn. The mission failed and he never saw her again.

That incident spurred Patten’s interest in the POW-MIA issue. Several chapters are devoted to discussing the 83,120 who remain missing from World War II, the Korean and Vietnam Wars, the Cold War. and Gulf War. Especially poignant are the stories of five returned POWs: Angelo Donati (Laos), Ed DeMattos and Phil Nadler (World War II), and Paul Galanti (Vietnam).

The book gives a realistic view of what life as a foreign correspondent entails. The authors’ stories include accounts of South Vietnamese refugees (the boat people) fleeing communist rule, the Plain of Jars in Laos, Pope John Paul’s visit to South Korea, guerrillas in El Salvador,and interviews with Mother Teresa and India’s Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

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Steve Patten

Several chapters are devoted to Patten’s struggle to clear his name after being fired in 1984 by CBS following allegations that he was a CIA agent. Patten worked briefly for NBC, but was fired again when the CIA rumors resurfaced.

The authors suggest the CIA rumor was planted by the Israelis to discredit him because of his critical reporting of Israel’s invasion of Lebanon. The book follows Patten’s fight all the way to the CBS Board of Directors in 1990, but does not reveal if a settlement was reached.

I found this book very interesting and would recommend it to anyone with an interest in war reporting, POW/MIAs, and the history of our most recent wars.

—Mark S. Miller

 

The Jake Fischer Stories by Stewart Bird

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Stewart Bird, the author of The Jake Fischer Stories (Dog Ear Publishing, 176 pp., $12.97, paper; $9.99, Kindle) is a novelist (Murder at the Yeshiva), a TV documentary writer/producer (The Wobblies, Coming Home, et al.), and a member of Vietnam Veterans of America.  I suspect his military history is similar to that of the stories’ protagonist, Jack Fischer.

Bird has produced a baker’s dozen of short stories of varying lengths with the protagonist Jake Fischer, as the title indicates.  Jake is drafted into the Army and ends up as a psychiatric social worker at the Michigan Army Hospital during the Vietnam War.

Some of the titles of the stories are:  “Basic,” “The  War at Home,” “Coming Home,” and “Chicago 68.” The stories reflect the titles. All are interesting and well-written. “Basic” takes place in the fall of 1965 at Fort Hamilton, Brooklyn and then moves to Fort Dix in New Jersey. “They took everyone with a heartbeat,” Bird writes.

The story “War at Home” is mostly about drugs. Bird refers to Robert S. MacNamara as “the systems analyst who planned and ran the Vietnam War:  The face of death.” He certainly captures my feelings about the man.

The reader gets references to LBJ and how many kid he killed today, as well as to Scarface, Full Metal Jacket, Ron Kovic, Bob Dylan, Catch-22, and President Nixon looking like a cattle rustler in a John Ford Western. There is a lot of wit and some humor in these serious literary stories. I enjoyed all of them.

I highly recommend this collection of short stories to anyone who wishes to read finely written short fiction about the Vietnam War era.

The author’s website is www.stewartbird.net/the_jake_fischer_stories_125234.htmu

—David Willson

Eating With Veterans by Michael Lund

Michael Lund served in the U. S. Army as a correspondent in Vietnam, 1970-71. He is the author of a memoir, Route 66 to Vietnam: A Draftee’s Story, and a book of short stories, How Not to Tell a War Story.  Lund’s latest book is Eating With Veterans (BeachHouse Books, 268 pp., $16.95, paper; $3.99, Kindle), a book of twenty serious short stories.

Lundh, a life member of Vietnam Veterans of America, holds a PhD in literature from Emory University, so I expected his stories to be literate and well-written. I was not disappointed.

Most of the characters in these fine stories are aging veterans, mostly of the Vietnam War. Often these veterans and their companions are eating, drinking, and talking. Occasionally a story will seem like a deliberate homage to Raymond Carver, for instance “The Soy Bean Field.”  I intend this as the highest of compliments.

Most of the stories communicate an atmosphere of social unease. Many take place, at least in part, in South Vietnam, and give us insights into the lives of soldiers who served there in communications. Some of the titles are: “The Rules of Engagement,” “Drugs Away,” “Blood Drive,” “The Death of Short-timer Sam,” and “Counterinsurgency. ”

Some of the stories that have non-military sounding titles are the ones that contain the most overt military scenes, for instance Lund’s Tet Offensive story, “Magician.”  We get a reference in that story to the school at Fort Benjamin Harrison, where the correspondent was trained—and where I was trained as a stenographer. I am always pleased when I read a book that deals with what the 80 to 90 percent of us did in Vietnam: not take part in combat. This is one of the best books yet that deals seriously with that aspect of our war.

Lund uses the phrase “rear echelon troops,” and the derogatory term “REMF” does not appear. It’s a term, by the way, that I never heard in Vietnam, but trip over endlessly in Vietnam War combat books, both novels and memoirs.

Lund does deal with some war-horse items such as Agent Orange, and he does have a story that mentions the oft-related tale of returning soldiers being spat upon and called baby killers. But he also includes  “Hadrian’s Wall,”  a rare story dealing with the Coast Guard’s role in the Vietnam War. Jimi Hendrix, one of my favorite Vietnam War era veterans, gets more than a mention—he gets an entire story, “Look Alike.”

Michael Lund

In “Camp Hoover” Lund captures an elusive feeling that I have tried to put into words, but failed to do so: how the past and the present can get intertwined and confused. It’s a great story and the saddest one in the book—perhaps one of the saddest stories I’ve ever read.

I highly recommend the stories in this book to all those drawn to serious writing about the Vietnam War and to seekers after the whole story—not just a narrow story told over and over again.

—David Willson