Colors of War & Peace by D.M. Thompson

Colors of War & Peace (190 pp. $14.99, paper) is a collection of eight short stories written in a creative nonfiction style by D.M. Thompson. It is one of the best literary works dealing with the Vietnam War I have read in years.

Thompson served in Vietnam in 1968-70 with MAC-V SOG, the covert Studies and Observation Group. He was called back in 1978 to serve eight years with the 11th Special Forces Group. Each story in this book is told in first person and they follow each other in a mostly chronological order.

In the introductory story, “Blue Tattoo,” it’s 1967 and a session of Army Officer Candidate School is more than half over. There are still building inspections to face and pugil stick training matches to be held, but the hardest thing ahead for the cadets is finding the required date for the Senior Ball.  

In the second story, “Walking Point with Sergeant Rock,” the narrator is now a “bush-tailed lieutenant,” living in a “jerry-rigged camp” alongside a small airstrip in South Vietnam. He is fighting alongside the indigenous people of the mountains, known as Montagnards, and their “crossbow culture.” He has lost twenty pounds during his first month in-country, mainly the result of constant diarrhea.  

“Boxcar Orange” is a reference to the new, wild, color schemes being used by Braniff Airlines for their planes that frequently carried U.S. troops into and out of the war zone. The narrator is two months into his second tour and has just boarded a plane to Sydney for a one-week R&R. While sitting buckled-up in his seat he worries that he is helpless inside a large stationary bulls-eye for 122mm rockets.

“Challenging Disaster” takes place on January 28, 1986. Our narrator now works for a brokerage firm while attending occasional drills as a member of the Special Forces Reserve. Getting to his office requires him to walk down a long hallway, “dark and drafty as a French prison.” Many of the people and things he encounters cause him to recall some act of violence during the Vietnam War. Meanwhile, the space shuttle Challenger moves closer to its rescheduled launch time.

Dan Thompson

In “Black Hand” the narrator is preparing to make one of his regularly required Reserve parachute jumps. Maj. Wilson is sitting in the number-one slot, making him the “wind dummy.” His jump will help determine if wind speeds are safe enough for the others. Waiting his turn, the narrator’s thoughts go back to a combat jump he once made into a situation of “controlled chaos” in Vietnam.

This is a great collection of stories written in a unique, experimental style. Thompson’s use of the English language is a joy to behold. While writing stories that seem to be exploding in several directions, Thompson never lets them get out control.

Dan Thompson has a new fan and I’m thrilled to help spread the word about him and this fine literary work.

–Bill McCloud

The Fifth Special Forces in the Valleys of Vietnam, 1967 by Douglas Coulter

In his compelling memoir, The Fifth Special Forces in the Valleys of Vietnam, 1967: An Insider’s Account (McFarland, 240 pp. $29.95, paper; $13.49, hardcover), Douglas Coulter describes how he was kicked out of Harvard and wound up in the jungles of Vietnam to perform one of the war’s most dangerous assignments, a long range reconnaissance patrol leader.

Coulter, a privileged Mayflower descendant who died last year, volunteered for Vietnam and to be a platoon leader with Project Delta (the forerunner of today’s Delta Force), a small reconnaisance unit jmade up of American and Vietnamese Special Forces. He went on to lead three-to-five-day patrols off five-man LRRP teams up to 25 miles behind enemy lines in the highly dangerous A Shau Valley, well out of range of friendly artillery. 

He describes in gripping detail the terror, uncertainty, and fear he felt while leading these patrols. Coulter’s depiction of moving through the dense jungle, which he says “in all its aspects conspired to kill,” is graphic and the reader can almost feel the roots, thorns, and vines that his patrol had to defeat, as well as traverse, in the dark. The patrols, while terrifying, were only occasionally successful in gaining intel and made contact with the enemy only once—on his final patrol.

Because he clearly walked the walk, Douglas Coulter is entitled to talk the talk, including criticizing American involvement in the Vietnam War. He says that narcissism was the underlying issue that led to the war and attacks the notion of American exceptionalism. He believes that much of the war was window dressing and a show, and severely criticized how individual Americans treated their Vietnamese allies. On the other hand, he hated the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese soldiers, although he admired their commitment and their abilities.

Coulter criticizes by name and in detail many decisions by, and the character of, many American soldiers of all ranks. He contends that said decisions were born of impure reasons – professional jealousy, stupidity, the desire to look good, power and career over duty and honor, incompetence, bad judgment, cowardice, ass kissing, and lack of character. He describes an incident in which an officer unnecessarily got into a chopper and had it fly over a skirmish so that he could receive the Combat Infantryman Badge, not an uncommon occurrence in the Vietnam War.

A Project Delta LRRP Team

Not sparing himself, Coulter cites incidents of his own errors of judgment, incompetence, and stupidity. He goes on to say that experiencing the character of other men is one of the great things about serving in the military, but concludes that he hadn’t “gained a thing” from serving in the war, and hadn’t learned to act like a man. This reviewer disagrees with that assessment.

Coulter returned from the war and finished his Harvard degree, then added an MBA from its business school. He became a political organizer working for the 1972 presidential campaign of George McGovern.

Coulter and I had a close mutual friend at Harvard who idolized him. So did almost all of the men he served with, including Gen. Henry Hugh Shelton, the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who was a Project Delta captain in the Vietnam War and who wrote the book’s foreword.

A Harvard rallying cry is, “Fight Fiercely, Harvard,” something Douglas Coulter did.

–Harvey Weiner

The Dreaming Circus by Jim Morris

The works of soldier-writer Jim Morris—who served three Army Special Forces Vietnam War tours of duty—have enraptured readers for decades. War Story, his Vietnam War memoir, and The Devil’s Secret Name, largely about his time as a combat correspondent for Soldier of Fortune magazine during the 1982 war in Lebanon, are but two examples.

With his latest book, The Dreaming Circus: Special Ops, LSD, and My Unlikely Path to Toltec Wisdom (Bear & Company, 288 pp. $20, paper; $13.99, Kindle), Morris proves to be an even more fascinating person than legend holds.

Morris feels bitter about the way the U.S. abandoned the Vietnamese people in 1975. He reveals just how bitter in the opening pages of The Dreaming Circus:

“When the U.S. bailed on the people it had sent me to save all that patriotism died. The U.S. toyed with those people’s lives for a decade and a half, and then casually abandoned them when the going got tough.”

Before he served in Vietnam, Morris patriotically supported the war. After being wounded four times, that patriotism evaporated when the U.S. failed to keep a promise to the beloved Montagnards with whom he fought. “When I retired from the Army, I had done all the right stuff,” he writes. “I had repeatedly put my life on the line [but was] abandoned by the people who sent me to do it. The basis on which I had built my life was destroyed.”

Back home, in late 1969, Morris’s consciousness was awakened after he read Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid and became aware of Ken Kesey and his frolicking busload of hippies known as the Merry Pranksters. “One thing I noticed is how many in Kesey’s group were ex-GIs. Not just ex-GIs, but former combat arms officers,” Morris writes.

Jim Morris In Country

In one of his own forays into the world of LSD, the lives of Jim Morris, soldier, and Jim Morris, acid imbiber, seem to collide. In The Dreaming Circus, he writes about “walking into his soul.” That is precisely what he did in finding “the path to Toltec wisdom.”

The Toltecs, who flourished from the 10th to the 12th centuries, were the predecessors of the Aztecs. For Morris, their wisdom was channeled through two people he writes extensively about: mystical historian Carlos Castaneda, author of The Teachings of Don Juan, with whom Morris seems to have connected in a deeply spiritual sense, and author-shaman don Miguel Ruiz, whom he interviewed.

From their teachings, Morris learned “spells, prayers, and ceremonies are ways of focusing intent to create what you want. That means the world you experience is part of you, as much as the other way around. You are a wave in a vast ocean, but the ocean is you. Claim it all. See what you want to see. You have eternity to complete this task.”

The Dreaming Circus: Special Ops, LSD, and My Unlikely Path to Toltec Wisdom is a book that could well help readers do so.

–Marc Philip Yablonka

Marc Phillip Yablonka is a Burbank, California-based military journalist and author. His book Hot Mics and TV Lights: The American Forces Vietnam Network, will be published in 2023 by Double Dagger Books.