Escape Route by Elan Barnehama

Elan Barnehama’s second novel, Escape Route (Running Wild Press, 242 pp., $19.99, paper; $9.49, Kindle), is an entertaining, fast-moving, well-written story about a small group of precocious teenagers in New York City in the late 1960s. The chapter-like story breaks have rock music titles such as “All Along the Watchtower,” “Piece of My Heart,” and “Summer in the City.”

The action swirls around Zach, who plays right field on his high school’s baseball team because that’s “where they played you if you couldn’t play.” His sister Ali is a student at Columbia University. Zach’s family is Jewish and his parents are Holocaust survivors. He accepts the traditions of Judaism, but questions a God who allowed the Holocaust to take place and his father to get polio. Zach believes that Jewish history is like “a series of apocalyptic novels that never seems to end.”

Zach is also concerned about the increasing violence reported in Vietnam and decides to use a notebook to begin recording the daily American casualty reports gleaned from the newspapers. He’s also aware that he doesn’t know anyone who served in the war.

Then he attends a party and hears a Marine tell a story that’s also related in Nicholas Proffit’s classic Vietnam War-heavy novel, Gardens of Stone. In it, someone jokes about the Viet Cong shooting arrows at American helicopters and someone else explains the difficulty of defeating an enemy willing to use arrows against helicopters.

It’s a time when the U.S. is experiencing political assassinations and increasing antiwar demonstrations. Zach begins engaging in philosophical conversations about the war and the Holocaust. He continues tracking war casualties, though his parents hope he’ll grow out of it.

A homeless Korean War veteran comes into Zach’s life, as well as a girl whose brother is a Vietnam War veteran. The nation learns of the My Lai massacre, Zach becomes infatuated with Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road, and he gets excited about an upcoming Jimi Hendrix concert.

Zach then starts to believe that the government may very well start rounding up Jews. He joins AAA to have access to road maps, and sets out little-traveled routes into Canada with the idea that his family could escape north of the border and would be allowed in since the Canadians readily accepted American draft evaders.

While the book’s ending seemed to be abrupt, I’ll attribute that mainly that fact that I was not ready for this story to end.

Always leave your audience wanting more. That’s what Barnehama has done with this enjoyable, relatively short novel.

The author’s website is elanbarnehama.com

–Bill McCloud

I Refuse to Kill by Francesco Da Vinci

Francesco Da Vinci’s I Refuse to Kill: My Path to Nonviolent Action in the 1960s (Sunbury Press, 294 pp. $34.95, hardcover; $9.99, Kindle) is an interesting, informative look at one man’s lengthy battle with his Virginia draft board in the sixties. Da Vinci is an L.A.-based journalist and speaker. Over the years his photographs have appeared in publications such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Time.

In telling the story of his efforts to be accepted by the Selective Service System as a Conscientious Objector Da Vinci relies on journals he wrote in between 1960 and 1971. He writes that he remembers when he was 15 hearing President Kennedy’s call “for my generation to become active citizens and make the country better.” Inspired by JFK, he became interested in politics.

Da Vinci says his family would appear outwardly to be an all-American one, yet he can’t remember either of his alcoholic parents ever hugging or kissing him. A third-generation pacifist, he writes that he believes war is “never justified, no matter how glorified and propagandized.”

A politically precocious teenager, Da Vinci wanted to take part in the 1963 March on Washington, but his parents didn’t allow him to go. He dutifully registered for the draft at eighteen, a time when he was becoming interested in the Civil Rights movement and the protest music of the time “with its messages of social justice and peace through nonviolence.”  

As he prepared to begin college, he showed up at the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, and soon began studying the Vietnam War in depth. In college he began thinking about giving up his student deferment and officially becoming a Conscientious Objector because of his moral beliefs about war. He realized that if his request was not approved it would mean he likely would go to prison.

Sickened by the war’s “relentless violence shown on TV,” he applied for C.O. status guided, he writes, “by a non-religious but spiritual philosophy.” After he graduated from college Da Vinci’s draft board rejected his claim. He felt very strongly that he was not dodging the draft, but was facing it in his own way. He went on to fight with the draft board over his classification for the next three years.

Da Vinci

Francesco Da Vinci seems to be almost a Forrest Gump-like character as he meets or comes close to raft of celebrities, including Neil Armstrong, Joan Baez, Bob Hope, John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Eugene McCarthy, Paul Newman, and Rosa Parks. He includes an amazing collection of “you are there” photos in the book, mostly ones he took.

In his book, he also sets out the history of the concept of declaring oneself a Conscientious Objector. He uses his own experiences to try to explain why some people are willing to place their freedom in jeopardy in order to live a life based strictly on what their conscience tells them is right. This is an important story, and one that should be neither ridiculed nor ignored.

The author’s website is irefusetokill.com

–Bill McCloud

The Vietnam War 1956-75 by Andrew Wiest

Andrew Wiest’s The Vietnam War, 1956-1975 (Osprey, 144 pp. $20, paper; $9.99, Kindle) is a great book. I recommend it to anyone seeking an overview of the Vietnam War and the era during which it took place. This concise very readable book was first published in 2002 and has been updated by the author. Reading it reminds the reader that the era was a trying time domestically in the United States as the struggle for social change reached a critical moment.  

Vietnam War veterans will be pleased to find that this book is an honest and accurate account of their war. However, we Vietnam veterans are a clear minority in today’s America, and the war is half a century behind us. Consequently, the desired readership should be the generations who have come after us and have no memories of the war.  

For them in particular I believe that Andrew Wiest—a history professor and the founding director of the Dale Center for the Study of War & Society at the University of Southern Mississippi—captures all the important factors of a complicated conflict and its impact throughout the world. Beyond the often brutal battles and the high number of casualties, the reader learns how costly, in the long term, the war was for Vietnam’s environment, its economy, and its people. The same factors also have had a crippling impact on Cambodia and Laos.   

Wiest is the author of two Vietnam War books, Vietnam’s Forgotten Army and The Boys of ’67. The Vietnam War includes a section on how returning American veterans suffered in many ways in a society indifferent—if not hostile—to their service, which further exacerbated problems once known as the Vietnam Syndrome. Interestingly, as the book mentions, this was also true for Australian Vietnam War veterans when they returned to their country where the war was very unpopular. 

Wiest explains why many Americans came to distrust their government as a consequence of the war when it became clear that from the beginning the American public had been misled and lied to. Additionally, Wiest shows how the conflict had a deeply negative impact on the U.S. military in the years after the war, particularly the U.S. Army. As many of us serving in the aftermath of the war experienced, the Army in the mid 1970s was broken and in need of significant repair.  

All of this and more is covered in this outstanding book; it is well worth reading and sharing with younger generations.

–John Cirafici

Like Boy Scouts with Guns by Roger S. Durham

Roger Durham’s memoir, Like Boy Scouts with Guns: Memoir of a Counterculture Warrior in Vietnam, (McFarland, 302 pp. $35, paper; $21.99, Kindle) is a change of pace for him. While his previous books deal with the Civil War and other military history topics, this one focuses on his 1970-71 tour of duty in the Vietnam War.

In his revealing Introduction, Durham sets out his views of the ‘60s and ‘70s counterculture and highlights people’s attitudes, motivations, and stereotypes. He explains that his book is about “the men who fought the war while opposing it.” However, throughout the book, there is little mention of opposition to the Vietnam War. He spends much more time describing recreational drug uses, including accounts of him and his buddies getting high just about every day.

In the late sixties Durham attended college as a way, he says, of avoiding the draft. But he flunked out and was soon drafted into the Army. He spent 16 months in Vietnam attached first to the 18th Engineer Brigade at Dong Ba Thin, then with the 35th Engineer Group at Cam Ranh. He writes about his three R&Rs to Sydney where he found his way to a counterculture commune, made a few friends, and continued his drug use.

Throughout his enlistment, Durham was singled out for his ability to type, which landed him in safe, rear-echelon jobs. His father had persuaded him to take a typing class in high school and Durham thanks him for guiding him away from danger.

After returning to The World, Roger Durham went back to college and earned a degree in history. Upon graduation, he put that degree to good use. Ironically, even though he opposed the Vietnam War and flouted Army regulations, he went to work for several state and federal agencies, and wound up spending 24 years operating U.S. Army base museums.

I recommend this book for anyone interested in learning about recreational drug use among the troops in the Vietnam War in the early seventies.

–Bob Wartman

Jacobo’s Rainbow by David Hirshberg

Can the mystical Jewish demon, the Golem, save the lives of two Army medics in the jungle during the Vietnam War? Did you know that there were Jews living in India for many centuries? Or about people known as “Conversos” who, since the Inquisition in Spain and Portugal, have lived outwardly as Catholics but secretly observe Jewish rituals in private, including in communities in the Southwestern United States?

If you read David Hirshberg’s novel, Jacobo’s Rainbow (Fig Tree Books, 352 pp. $15.49, hardcover; $1.99, Kindle), you will find the answers to all of these questions.

In the book the pseudonymous Hirshberg tells how the Jewish people have had to be resilient in resisting anti-Semitism for millennia. The novel is set in Vietnam during the war and at fictional university in New Mexico where a student free speech movement and antiwar protests converge.

The anti-Semitism of a student leader affects some Jewish students who are part of the movement. One thing leads to another and then one of the young Jews is arrested and a judge gives him a choice of going to jail or getting drafted. He chooses the latter and is sent to Vietnam where he undergoes heavy combat. I served in the rear in that war, so I can’t address the accuracy of the book’s combat scenes, but they seem a bit out of sync with the real deal.

In addition to the in-country action, a lot happens on campus as students face off with the college administrators and the police. Plus, we get tepid romances between some of the characters. Ultimately, there is an answer to the question of whether justice will prevail among the book’s characters. 

As someone who is Jewish, who served in the Army in Vietnam, and also was involved in the antiwar movement, I found the depictions of both to be interesting, but not riveting. It is likely that this book will appeal to some Jewish readers. Whether it will be attractive to a broader audience remains to be seen.

— Bruce I. Waxman

Conscientious Objector by Wayne R. Ferren, Jr.

The words “conscientious objector” are at once are a label, a category, a frame of mind, a belief—and a designation that can well cause a wounded war veteran to stiffen his spine. Conscientious objector status, classified 1-O by the Selective Service System during the Vietnam War, was granted to tens of thousands of  American men during the war. Nearly 55 percent of them completed alternative civilian service.

Wayne R. Ferren, Jr., the author of the memoir, Conscientious Objector: A Journey of Peace, Justice, Culture, and Environment (Archway, 538 pp. $44.95, hardcover; $33.99, paper; $8.99, Kindle), is a self-described hippie. Ferren writes that he has “a firmly professed primal faith, neo-pagan, and new-age bases for my beliefs, as well leanings toward Buddhism and Transcendentalism,” although he was raised as a Methodist.

His book contains more than 425 pages of text, along with 60 pages of endnotes. It follows Ferren from his 1948 birth to the present, and seems at times to be a peripatetic ramble through his life. An early interest in geology propelled him to study the interconnectedness of the earth and its systems. He takes us through his school years, where he began to form his anti-conflict beliefs, and his future involvement in the anti-Vietnam War movement in the late 60s and early 70s.

Throughout the book Ferren regales the reader with his thought processes and how he went about securing his much-sought-after CO designation from the Selective Service. He even includes copies of copy of the paperwork involved, intertwining those passages with the story of his life and times as a “hippie activist.” There are a few factual errors, but the writing and editing of this book are well done.

As a Vietnam War veteran, I found myself reacting to Ferren’s story with a much kinder eye than would have been possible for me to do 50 or so years ago as the ensuing years have both blunted and sharpened my perceptions of the antiwar movement and those who took part in it.

Which is why I recommend this book as maybe it’s time to see the other side of the coin.

–Tom Werzyn

Elsewhere Than Vietnam by David Schwartz

Elsewhere Than Vietnam: A Story of the Sixties (261 pp. Sticky Earth, $11.99, paper; $3.99, Kindle) is a quite enjoyable novel. The author, David Schwartz, served as a U.S. Army Czech language intelligence interrogator in Germany from 1969-72. The title comes from a 1971 Armed Forces Journal article by Col. Robert D. Heinl, Jr. in which he wrote that the morale of U.S. troops in Vietnam was lower “than at any time in this century and possibly in the history of the United States.” The colonel then added: “Elsewhere than Vietnam, the situation is nearly as serious.”

It’s the “elsewhere” that this story is concerned with, mainly antiwar protests on college campuses and underground resistance in the active-duty military, both in the U.S. and on bases abroad.

Schwartz’s main character Steven Miller is a student at Yale University in 1968 and, along with all the other young men on campus and around the nation, he finds that he is constantly thinking about the military draft.

“We knew the war was wrong,” we learn from Miller, “and we didn’t want to be involved in it.” Before long, though, he loses his student deferment and receives a draft classification of I-A, fit for service. “Fit to shoot people,” Miller thinks, “and fit to be shot at in return, simply because their ideas were not our ideas.” He begins attending meetings on resisting the draft. And then he gets a letter to report for induction.

Miller realizes he’s not brave enough to flee to Canada and wonders if his new girlfriend will wait for him for a couple of years. At Fort Dix he passes the stockade and hears another GI say, “The Army had to invent something worse than Vietnam to get people to go there.”

He begins “learning how to soldier. The soldier was the opposite of the student. The student should engage in critical thinking; the soldier should not question what he is told.” Miller’s goal is to avoid being sent to Vietnam. So he agrees to extend his service time a year in exchange for being sent to the Army’s Czech language school. Whenever possible, he goes off base to a local coffeehouse, the headquarters of a local radical newspaper and the scene of frequent antiwar discussions.

Miller graduates from language school and is sent to Fort Holabird in Baltimore for interrogation training. Here he learns that “it is a misconception that you need a cruel streak to excel as an interrogator. You just need to be a good actor.” Nothing is said about physical torture.

Miller’s then shipped to Germany where he works on developing intelligence reports. A German girl tells him that Americans are always immediately recognizable because they “all walk around loose and relaxed, like cowboys.” He continues to lead a double life: being a good soldier on-base while getting involved in resistance activities outside the gates.

The subtitle, A Story of the Sixties, is certainly accurate and everything in this novel rings true. This is a book about an honorable, conflicted man who gives his body and mind to the military, but not his heart and soul. It is a good story about a good man.

–Bill McCloud

Berserkley by Robert Roth

Many years ago through a haze that wasn’t particularly atmospheric in nature or origin, someone said to me, “If you can stand there, flat-footed, and tell me you remember the Sixties, man, you weren’t really there.” Turns out he was correct, on several levels.

Speaking of the Sixties, Robert Roth’s novel, Berserkley (The Periphery Press, 620 pp. $25, paper; $9.99, Kindle) begins and ends with the word “Unbelievable.” That just about describes this offering, which is constructed like a huge, feverish Jack Kerouac story—after being loosely introduced to Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style.

There are no chapters, per se. Roth, instead, gives us lots of words, separated by rows of five asterisks. We move from scene to scene, with the breaks coming just when the reader needs to take a breath. A series of cinematic scenes dissolve as we wade through the story. What a rush!

Roth has very skillfully assembled a covey of characters right out of central casting who personify, almost eerily, every type that we had on the scene at UC Berkeley in the mid-nineteen sixties. We get the dweeb from Cleveland (our erstwhile protagonist); the drug-addled Vietnam veteran; the effete snob from a waspish New England family; the oblivious Santa Monica cutie; the self-hating Jewish restaurant owner; the Chicano wanna-be radical; the wide-eyed rural Nebraska farm boy; the grizzled, old, radical newspaper publisher; the kidnapped newspaper heiress; the Hare Krishna background singers; and a huge herd of supporting weirdos.

Throughout the book I read about little things here and there that I’d forgotten over the decades. And I found myself thinking, “Oh, yeah, I remember that.”

The story propels us through a time-warped narrative that seemingly is unanchored. Roth rarely bothers to mention a day or time as the story just seems to waft along—kind of like the ever-present cloud of pot smoke that was Berkeley in those days. Roth presents more fiction on the back-cover blurbs, including words from the late Truman Capote calling the novel “far superior to To Kill a Mockingbird.”

I began reading Beserkley with a bit of trepidation, but was pleasantly surprised. It offers up memories of the Sixties, along with the love, hate, and angst that went with them.

I strongly recommend it.

–Tom Werzyn

Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio by Derf Backderf

Derf Backderf’s Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio (Abrams ComicArts, 288 pp. $24.95) tells in graphic novel form the true story of a massacre of four unarmed students by Ohio National Guardsmen on the college’s campus in May 1970. That bloody incident often is considered the end of the turbulent sixties, along with much of the promise that those years embraced.

I am in awe of what Backderf—a renowned cartoonist and graphic artist—has accomplished in this book, especially the massive amount of research he did and his ability to incorporate the results of that research into an artistic format. Following a brief Prologue, Backderf gives us four chapters, one for each of the four days of the Kent State story which played out from May 1 to May 4. He includes an Epilogue on the book’s very last page, following more than two dozen pages of endnotes. Placing the Epilogue there is akin to a director adding a scene in a movie following the credits.

Kent State is a dramatic recreation of the events based primarily on eyewitness testimony and official reports. I strongly suggest reading the 26 pages of endnotes, which provide source material for each scene and serve also to flesh out the entire story.

College campuses around the nation erupted when President Richard Nixon announced that his latest attempt to bring the war in Vietnam to an end was to officially expand America’s role beyond the borders of Vietnam and move U.S. troops into Cambodia.

At Kent State University in Ohio a student group reacted by publicly declaring the U.S. Constitution dead and burying a copy of it on campus on Friday, May 1. They also called for an antiwar rally for Monday May 4. That antiwar agitation made for an intense weekend, both on the campus and on the streets of Kent.

The book is pretty much a moment-by-moment telling of what happened over these few days, culminating in National Guard troops opening fire on students, killing four and wounding nine others.

This is not a comic book made up of mostly drawings. Plenty of words filll every page. Backderf, an Ohio native, includes boxes of text throughout, providing background information on such subjects as the military draft, Students for a Democratic Society, and ROTC.  

His illustrations are so vivid that I could almost hear the sounds of the weekend on each page: music blasting from stereos, the ringing of the campus Victory Bell, the marching feet of the advancing Guard troops, and then the screaming. 

The unfortunate highlights of this book are the violent, sickening pages (thirty-three panels) that show each student at the moment he or she was shot. It was a brave decision to illustrate these in such an explicit fashion—and it was absolutely necessary for readers to see the carnage in order to understand the horror unleashed on the students that day.

This is a marvelous historical account and artistic undertaking. Don’t question the depth and seriousness of this book because it’s in a graphic novel format. It’s appropriate as a college textbook, and for any others who wish to know about this episode into the darkness of the American soul.

Backderf’s website is www.derfcity.com

–Bill McCloud

Vietnam to Iran 1969 by James Ellenberger

51voscnxubl._sx331_bo1204203200_

James Ellenberger’s Vietnam to Iran, 1969 (Bowker, 197 pp., $30, paper; $3.99, Kindle) is unlike any other book I have read dealing with the Vietnam War. Fifty-one years ago James Ellenberger’s tour of duty in the Vietnam War ended. Instead of flying home to the U.S. on a military-provided plane and processing out of the army in California, he chose to take his Army discharge in Vietnam and travel from Saigon to Tehran via the vagabond route.

After being inducted into the Army in April 1967, Jim Ellenberger went to Officer Candidate School and was commissioned an infantry officer. When he arrived in Vietnam he was posted to the old Imperial Capital of Hue not quite a month after the big Tet 1968 battle. He headed a Civil Affairs platoon that worked with the refugees.

Ellenberger kept a journal during this time, which he sent home and his mother lovingly packed away. When he dug up the journal nearly fifty years later, he discovered that reading it brought back memories of that long-ago time. So Ellenberger decided to use the memories as the basis for this little book. He includes journal entries as he wrote them five decades ago with only minor edits. He writes that he enjoyed reliving those days—and I enjoyed reading the entries about them

I wrote a book, a novel called REMF Diary, based on my journals and diaries of this time. So I thought it would be fun to read this  book and make comparisons. It was fun, but this book is very different than mine. The biggest difference is that Vietnam to Iran contains a lot of small maps and many color photos.

The color photos of Thailand and the many temples and statues make his book seem like an issue of National Geographic. The photos are high quality and go well with the journal entries. The maps chronicle the areas he traveled. The adventurous Ellenberger wound up traveling to many places that are no longer possible to go to—or advisable to—including the Bamyan Valley in Afghanistan.

Vietnam to Iran is an artifact of a bygone age and deserves a place on the shelf of Vietnam War literature. I highly recommend it to folks who wish for a taste of the vagabond life.

–David Willson