Vietnam Reconsidered by John Ketwig

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John Ketwig’s 1985 book and a hard rain fell…: a GI’s True Story of the War in Vietnam stands among the top American Vietnam War memoirs. And that’s saying something as that conflict’s literary canon contains dozens of memoirs that are among best writing on war—any war.

Ketwig’s sprawling, ambitious new book, Vietnam Reconsidered: The War, the Times, and Why They Matter (Trine Day, 480 pp., $24.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle), is his attempt, as he puts it, “to say more about the war and modern-day militarism in America.” And say more Ketwig does in this lengthy book that contains what he calls “a mosaic of historic fragments,” along with his analysis of that history and the lessons he takes from the American war in Vietnam and other U.S. “military adventures.” Ketwig also includes first-person accounts of his life before, during, and after serving in the Vietnam War, an experience, he says that “devastated my heart and soul.”

Ketwig—who joined the Army in December 1966 with the draft breathing down his nineteen-year-old neck—deserves credit for some compelling writing and some well-executed parts of the book. The long history part, however, which includes many statistics, is presented with little attribution and without footnotes or end notes. Why? Because, Ketwig says, “most readers ignore them and they impede the joys of reading.” He does include a very long bibliography—nine pages of books, some of which he recommends, but none of which are annotated. So this is not the book to go to for a fact-checked history of the Vietnam War or the Vietnam War era.

Some of the facts he presents, in fact, do not check out. For example, Ketwig states as fact that there have been “200,000 suicides” by Vietnam veterans since the war. In reality, there are no reliable statistics on suicide in the U.S., much less on Vietnam War veteran suicides. Those who have looked into the subject trace extremely high suicide figures (such as 200,000) that people cite to a thoroughly debunked myth that sprung up in the early 1980s that more Vietnam veterans had killed themselves after the war than were killed in the war.

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John Ketwig

Another example: In Ketwig’s short section on R&R he says that American troops “were allowed a five-day R&R… once a year.” There may have been a once-a-year rule, but it was regularly broken. And some of the R&R destinations, such as Sydney and Honolulu, were for seven days. He also writes that GIs “disembarking from the R&R center” were “immediately accosted by a huge throng of ‘agents’ or pimps…”

That may have happened to Ketwig and others of his acquaintance, but for thousands of others nothing remotely like that occurred.

At its heart, Vietnam Reconsidered is a smart, well-read, highly political Vietnam War veteran’s interpretation of that still-controversial war, replete with John Ketwig’s strong antiwar opinions and some strong writing.

—Marc Leepson

Sticking It to the Man Edited by Iain McIntyre and Andrew Nette 

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Sticking it to the Man: Revolution and Counterculture in Pulp and Popular Fiction, 1950 to 1980 (PM Press, 336 pp., $29.95, paper) is a large-format, coffee-table book richly illustrated with color photos of book covers. Those images give more than a fair idea of what the mass market paperbacks of the time were like. The book’s editors Iain McIntyre and Andrew Nette, both of whom are Australian authors, sprinkle references to the Vietnam War are throughout this book.

The chapter Nette wrote, “Blowback,” is the mother lode. The subtitle is, “Late 1960s and ‘70’s Pulp and Popular Fiction about the Vietnam War,” and its ten pages are rich in illustrations and information about the mass market paperbacks dealing the war. The chapter also includes bibliographic information on Vietnam War novels that academic bibliographies managed to miss. The Vietnam War novels of Australia were a special revelation to me. I’m going to have to hunt them down and read them.

The sections of the book dealing with John Shaft, the African-American detective created by Ernest R. Tidyman and made famous in the 1971 movie directed by Gordon Parks, are especially good—and detailed.  I had no idea so many books were devoted to Shaft, who became a larger-than-life filmic Blacksploitation figure—let alone the number of Shaft films and television shows. I learned that John Shaft had been wounded in the Vietnam War, a state of affairs that was a common feature of 1970s fictional detectives.

Novels by women are well-covered in the book. Most are authors I had never encountered, even though I’ve been claiming to be an expert on novels of this era for many years.  Reading this book has made me a much more well-qualified bibliographer than I was before. I’ll have to obtain The Love Bombers by Gloria D. Miklowitz. Running away to join a cult is the subject of this Young Adult book—something I was worried about happening to my children.

51by81wnirl._sy346_Chester Himes created the Harlem Detective series with characters “Coffin Ed” Johnson and “Grave Digger” Jones, two of the toughest cops to ever wear badges. These books, including Cotton Comes to Harlem (1965), were also made into Blaxploitation movies. Many pages of this book are devoted to Himes, with illustrations of lurid and colorful book jackets.

Fictional vigilantes of the seventies, lesbian detectives, Yippies, and gay detectives also are referenced in this seriously all-inclusive book. In fact, I can’t think of any prominent movements of that era the editors left out.

I was relieved to find Iceberg Slim’s pimp novels were thoroughly covered. Iceberg Slim (1918-1992) was one of my favorites for light reading in the seventies

This book is a perfect gift for a bibliographer (or anyone else) who thinks he’s seen and read it all. I highly recommend it.

–David Willson

Revolution and Renaissance by Daniel Forbes Hauser

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When did “The Sixties” as known in American collective memory begin? When did that era end? Rarely does the socio-cultural phenomena that define a generation fit neatly into a proscribed ten-year period. A black-and-white photo of John F. Kennedy and the Whiz Kids in early 1961 does not evoke “The Sixties” the way the violence of the 1968 Tet Offensive or the 1969 peace of Woodstock do.

In Revolution and Renaissance: 1965 to 1975 (History Publishing Co., 430 pp. $33.99) Daniel Forbes Hauser examines this period through the prism of his hometown of Boulder, Colorado. Reflecting on the turbulence of this decade, Hauser analyzes this period of profound cultural transformation by examining the unprecedented confluence of the war in Vietnam, the Civil Rights movement, and—most significantly—the coming of age of the Baby Boomers.

Richie Furay of Buffalo Springfield contributes the foreword to the book, which is organized by a chapter per annum, with each chapter containing the author’s reflections on a year’s seminal events, interviews, and personal musings. It is regrettable that given the expansive nature of the material covered, the book does not have end notes. The book is loosely centered on Boulder as Hauser introduces two contrasting protagonists: Mark, a poor kid from the wrong side of town who would serve in Vietnam, and Tom, the Asian-American son of a University of Colorado physics professor awhose brother would become a member of the Weather Underground.

Hauser’s goal, he says, is to create an expeditious and entertaining book, and in that regard he has succeeded. That his engaging and breezy commentary can intermittently be glib can be forgiven given the context, though Hauser falls into the trap of placing his and his cohort’s memories as “America’s” or as the “general public’s.” These gross generalizations can diminish his perspective and erode his thesis.

There are some minor historical errors. Contrary to popular myth, for example, the vast majority of troops in World War II were draftees, not volunteers; Walter Cronkite did not say the Vietnam War was “unwinnable” in 1968, (he said it was a “stalemate”); and it was a South Vietnamese (not an American) plane that accidentally bombed the village that led to famous “Napalm girl” photograph. Hauser writes about the movie MASH in his section on 1967, hyperbolically stating it “helped destroy any last vestiges for America’s will to win in Southeast Asia.” But the novel was published in 1968, and the movie released in 1970. Though the subtext of the film and the later television series was the Vietnam War, contrary to Hauser’s recollection the setting was the Korea War.

Other mistakes can be more jarring: Hauser transposes the Medal of Honor for any military decoration and writes that John Kerry threw his Medal of Honor in a river. He also mistakenly writes that the 1973 Paris Peace Accords called for the reunification of Vietnam, and in writing about the period American military engagements of the 1950s and early 1960s he egregiously omits to mention that 37,000 Americans were killed and 95,000 wounded in the Korean War.

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Hauser ties his tome together with the bizarre story of Renner Forbes, the Marshall of a small town outside of Boulder called Nederland. In 1971, Forbes murdered and placed the body of a local hippie, Guy “Deputy Dog” Gaughnor, in an abandoned mine shaft. In ill health, Forbes confessed to the murder in 1997, and died in 2000. If this tale was not sufficiently sensational, in 2016 a former friend of Deputy Dog, in a futile act of vengeance, tried to blow up the Nederland Police Department.

The book would have been strengthened by more insights and commentary about Mark (the Vietnam War veteran) and Tom (the physics professor’s son), and more analysis of the Deputy Dog story. Still, Revolution and Renaissance it is an enjoyable and fast-paced trot through a most revolutionary decade.

The book’s website is revolutionandrenaissance.com

–Daniel R. Hart