Donut Dollies in Vietnam by Nancy Smoyer

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“I’d rather be heard than comforted,” Nancy Smoyer writes near the end of Donut Dollies in Vietnam: Baby-Blue Dresses & OD Green (Chopper Books, 250 pp., $15.00, paper). By that point in the book, Smoyer has fulfilled that goal in this memoir that looks at her time in South Vietnam during the war and its aftermath.

The core of Smoyer’s book describes the pride and dedication she developed toward servicemen as a Donut Dolly in Vietnam in 1967-68. “I still refer to it as the best year of my life,” she writes, “and the worst.”

Smoyer was one of 627 women in the Red Cross Supplemental Recreation Activities Overseas program, which lasted from 1965-72. The largest number of women in-country at one time, she tells us, was 109 in 1969. All of them were college grads and volunteers. They inherited the nickname “Donut Dollies” from Red Cross workers who performed similar duties in Europe during World War II.

The women worked throughout South Vietnam. They took helicopter to the most forward positions. Their chores varied from serving 3:00 a.m. breakfasts to men girding for at-dawn assaults, to organizing C-ration picnics, to playing made-up games. Talking to the troops for any length of time, Smoyer says, “is the most satisfying part of the job. When we go to the field we just talk to the guys as they work.”

She was twenty-five years old. “We were there to boost the morale of the troops, plain and simple,” Smoyer explains. “Everything I did revolved around the men, and I don’t regret a minute of it.”

Being in-country and exposed to the same threats as the men in uniform, Donut Dollies encountered common war and post-war problems. After coming home Smoyer suffered PTSD, predicated on survival guilt, which was compounded by her brother’s death in action a few months after she returned to the United States.

On a visit to Vietnam in 1993, Smoyer says she overcame her PTSD by learning compassion for the Vietnamese—something that she had not allowed herself to feel before.

The second half of the book deals with post-war events. Many scenes involve emotional encounters at The Wall where Smoyer began serving as a volunteer guide shortly after its 1982 dedication. “Those days when emotions were raw, none of us knew how to act,” she says, “but we connected on such a deep and immediate level.”

Over the years, Smoyer extended her volunteer work to many other areas dealing with veterans. Serving in Vietnam gave her life its ultimate purpose.

111111111111111111111111111111111She closes the book with letters in tribute to her brother—a Marine lieutenant—from his teachers, coaches, and friends.

While telling her story, Smoyer makes references to the experiences of many other former Donut Dollies. She has maintained contact with them through email, letters, tapes, reunions, musings, and conversations.

Like Nancy Smoyer, they have a lasting commitment to helping veterans.

Smoyer is donating proceeds from the sale of her books to the Semper Fi Fund.

—Henry Zeybel

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Nothing Ever Dies by Viet Thanh Nguyen

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Wars are fought twice, first on the battlefield and second in memory. A war is not just about shooting, but about people who make bullets and deliver bullets and, perhaps most importantly, those who pay for the bullets. Each ethnic group in the United States gets its own notable history by which Americans remember it: Vietnamese get the war.

That just about sums up the core of Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War (Harvard University Press, 384 pp., $27.95, hardcover: $12.58 Kindle), an examination of the possibility of overcoming the residual scourges of war through discussing ethics, industries, and aesthetics. The book contains a continuous flow of truths and suppositions that merit support—or beg challenge.

From the opening pages, I recognized that Viet Nguyen’s philosophy of life differs markedly from mine. Consequently, I found the book difficult to read. However, I surrendered to the strength and persistence of his arguments and read every page. Throughout the book, I detected different voices in his style. Deep into the book, the voices grew more convincing. By the end, I felt loosely bonded with Nguyen’s arguments, but had reservations about what comes next.

Viet Nguyen was born in Ban Me Thuot in 1971. His parents had moved south from North Vietnam in 1954. His family came to the United States as refugees in 1975. He grew up in San Jose, California. At UC Berkeley, he earned degrees in English and ethnic studies and a Ph.D. in English. He teaches English and American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California. His much-heralded Vietnam War-heavy novel, The Sympathizers, won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

Nothing Ever Dies focuses on the Vietnam War, but the arguments extend to the war’s repercussions in Laos, Cambodia, and South Korea. Viet Nguyen has traveled extensively across the areas he analyzes. His observations are eye opening, such as when he compares cemeteries of Vietnamese war casualties buried in Vietnam with American names on The Wall in Washington, D.C. His message is that nations tend to remember their own losses and forget the deaths of their opponents, with military casualties taking precedence.

Nguyen says that remembrance of war is a debt fully paid only when soldiers and civilians from both sides are included in recollections of good and evil events. That process allows a war to truly end and peaceful relations to ensue. Without reconciliation, war’s truth will be impossible to remember, and war’s trauma impossible to forget.

He chooses sides, favoring poor and weak nations that are victims of industrialized nations with more powerful armies. He stresses, however, that both sides overlook their ability to hurt others, which often results in inhumane actions. Forgiving inhumanities with emotions above the level of mere resignation is part of the remembrance process. In this regard, he analyses “the most horrific of horrors” inflicted by the Khmer Rouge on the Cambodian population, citing its difficulty to reconcile because “few are willing to acknowledge themselves as victimizers.”

Nguyen expands his idea of erasing the stigmas related to war by discussing war literature written by Vietnamese Americans. “Literature can raise the troublesome past of war and even the difficult present of racial inequality,” he writes, “so long as it also promises or hopes for reconciliation and refuge.”

He illustrates the benefits of war by explaining how participation by the South Korean army—and its 5,000 men killed in action in the Vietnam War—gave the nation a new role in global capitalization. He analyzes Korea’s post-war movies, masculinity, exploitation, and submission to “the American giant who has never learned to live outside his own world,” which has resulted in the “giant” recreating his environment wherever he goes. Faithful to his land of birth, Nguyen recalls the cruelty inflicted on Vietnamese when Koreans ran prison camps under Japanese occupation during World War II.

The description of visiting Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum flashed me back to the awe I felt in 1987 while walking through Lenin’s Tomb in Moscow. Seeing Ho’s body as either “a heroic statue or a gruesome zombie,” Nguyen belittles the legendary leader as a “stage prop for the Communist Party.” Comparatively speaking, seeing Lenin’s body produced a quasi-religious experience within me, making me nod in appreciation of a man who changed a nation and the world. Of course, neither man had stolen my country from my me and my family.

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Award-winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen

One disappointment was Nguyen’s reliance on analyses of Vietnam War films. Basing conclusions on directors’ interpretations of the war left me less satisfied than, let’s say, using memoirs of participants from both sides. But it is what it is.

Nothing Ever Dies is a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in General Nonfiction. The book was also a finalist for the National Book Award in Nonfiction. Nguyen also has earned several teaching and service awards.

—Henry Zeybel

Fallen, Never Forgotten by Ronny Ymbras, Matt Ymbras, and Eric Revelto

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Fallen: Never Forgotten: Vietnam Memorials in the USA (RU Airborne, 268 pp., $34.95) is a large-format book put together by Ronny Ymbras, Matt Ymbras, and Eric Rovelto that devotes one chapter to a Vietnam veterans memorial in each state.

“We sought to choose the state memorial, a memorial closer to people’s hearts, or a new memorial,” Ronny Ymbras, who served with the 101st Airborne Division in the Vietnam War, writes in the book’s Foreword.

Each state’s page contains photos of a memorial or monument, along with a brief history, and an alphabetical listing of the names of those from that state who died in the Vietnam War.

The authors include iconic state memorials such as the unique and powerful Kentucky Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Frankfort, which contains a sundial that places a shadow on the name of each that state’s Vietnam War KIA on the anniversary of the death.  There’s also the eight-acre Vietnam Veterans Memorial of Oregon, also known as the “Garden of Solace,” located in an arboretum in Portland, which includes a 1,200-foot walking path surrounded by pine trees.

Not to mention the iconic Angel Fire memorial in Northern New Mexico and the New Jersey Vietnam Veterans Memorial and its Vietnam Era Museum & Educational Center in Holmdel.

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The “Garden of Solace” Oregon Vietnam Veterans Memorial

There also are lesser-known memorials, including the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Lasdon Park in Westchester County, New York. Using that memorial in the book, Ronny Ymbras says, “is personal for me. I was there for its dedication, carried the 101st chapter flag in the parade and honored three guys I went to school and played ball with. May they rest in peace, Pete Mitchell, Peter Bushey, and Jeff Dodge.

Altogether, this coffee-table book is a top-quality tribute to American service personnel –living and dead—who served in the Vietnam War.

For more info and to order, go to fallenneverforgotten.com

—Marc Leepson

Creating the Vietnam Veterans Memorial by Robert W. Doubek

Robert W. Doubek says he is “blessed and cursed with a sharp memory.” I totally believe him after reading his Creating the Vietnam Veterans Memorial: The Inside Story (McFarland, 324 pp., $35, paper).

Bob Doubek tells the story from his recollections and personal notes, calendars, photos, and news clippings, supplemented by material from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund Collection archives, as well as public records including those from the Library of Congress. Consequently, the depth of his account appears limitless.

After much controversy involving Maya Lin’s design, the Wall was dedicated in 1982. The book is a good read because Doubek, who was an important player in the Memorial’s early history, describes the fervor, as well as the pettiness and rancor ,displayed by those for and against the design, himself included.

As executive director of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, Doubek was “in charge of building the Memorial,” he writes, “participated in every major decision and event.” Differences of opinion between him and co-VVMF founder Jan Scruggs, as well as with another early proponent of the Wall, Jack Wheeler, were practically a daily occurrence. All of the men were Vietnam War veterans; each had a highly personalized perspective of the Memorial’s purpose.

The biggest problems during planning and building were finding sponsors, raising money, and determining the Memorial’s design. The earliest sponsor was Sen. John Warner of Virginia, who later played a crucial role in resolving many stalemates. H. Ross Perot also took an early interest in the project. The Memorial’s most important boost came from President Jimmy Carter when he signed into law a bill that provided a site on the Mall for the Wall in Washington, D.C. Money accumulated slowly but at an ever-increasing pace of public contributions.

In the book’s longest chapter, “Our Opponents Take the Field,” Doubek objectively presents the opposition’s resistance to the design. James Webb and Thomas Carhart were the major voices against the design. They enlisted the support of Perot, who had changed sides. Targeted were Maya Lin and the jury that selected her plan for the Memorial during a nationwide contest. Opponents tried to discredit them with false accusations and prejudicial arguments.

The media split on the topic. Doubek likens a face off between Lin and Perot to Bambi Meets Godzilla, but for once Bambi survived. Throughout the dispute, by the way, Vietnam Veterans of America endorsed the Memorial’s design.

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Jan Scruggs, Maya Lin, and Bob Doubek with a model of Lin’s design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial

Doubek, Scruggs, and Wheeler stood together against the opposition. After the compromise of adding a statue and a flagpole to the site, groundbreaking proceeded as planned.  Nevertheless, the design debate raged until the dedication ceremony. Even after the dedication, there were disagreements about where to place the statue and flagpole.

One factor not discussed by Doubek is the tremendous psychological and spiritual impact the Memorial has exerted on Vietnam War veterans. In dozens of memoirs I have read, veterans cite visits to the Wall as turning points in their lives. In a somewhat magical way, the sight of the Wall and the visitors surrounding it gives many veterans a clearer understanding of the war and their involvement in it.

To me, this effect above all else validates the construction of the Memorial.

—Henry Zeybel