Forgotten by Marc Liebman

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Marc Liebman received his Navy commission in 1968, and became an aviator the following year. He retired as a Captain after serving for twenty-four years in the Navy. His military career took him all over the world, and included service in the Vietnam War and the Persian Gulf War. During that time he also worked with the armed forces of Australia, Canada, Japan, Thailand, South Korea, the Philippines, and with the British Royal Navy.

His novel, Forgotten (Deeds, 594 pp., $25.57, paper), deals with six men who did not come home when the North Vietnamese returned the American POWs in 1973. The men had never been reported as POWs, but were listed as missing in action. The Vietnamese, in the person of NVA Lt. Col. Pham, use the Americans as laborers in a heroin factory. The colonel’s goal is to keep the men alive and ransom them for millions.

Back in the U.S., Janet, the wife of one of the POWs, is an strident antiwar activist. She fills her waiting time and sexual needs by becoming a highly paid assassin, taking on high-value targets around the world.

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Marc Liebman

Often this book read like a pop culture inventory. Jane Fonda, Tom Hayden, Sam Peckinpah, The Bridge over the River Kwai, Almond Joy, SDS, Pabst Blue Ribbon, Rolex, Carlos Hathcock (the famed Vietnam War sniper) get more than a mention.

This is a giant whopper of a sex thriller with violence and bloodshed on most pages, along with that nymphomanical ex-antiwar activist turned assassin. If you love books like this, it’s the one is for you. It is predictable, however, as I was not surprised when Janet, the hit woman, was contracted to kill her own husband.

Forgotten is well written and held this reader’s attention throughout.

—David Willson

For No Good Reason by Steve Banko

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Steve Banko dedicates his firs novel, For No Good Reason (No Frills Buffalo/Amelia Press, 318 pp., $14.95, paper), to the 1st Cavalry Division Garryowen troopers of Company D, 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry who fought and died on December 3, 1968. Banko served sixteen months in Vietnam where he was wounded six times and received the Silver Star in addition to his four Purple Hearts.

For No Good Reason is a blood and guts Army infantry novel. My impression is that Banko drew heavily on his own wartime experiences for the narrative. In the acknowledgements he informs the reader that John Holcomb, his good friend, died saving Banko’s life on December 3, 1968, and that Holcomb was awarded a posthumous Medal of Honor. Banko made it home to grow old and bald.

For No Good Reason namechecks both the usual and the unusual, including John Wayne, Audie Murphy, Sgt. York, Racquel Welch, Goldie Hawn, and Superman. Shit is burned in the rear and we are admonished to get the hell out of Dodge, and that we “gotta get out of this place.” The place is Indian Country where Pancho Villa is also making a stand. The “hurting kangaroo” I encountered was new to me. I predict I’ll not see him again.

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Steve Banko

The writing is made up of short sentences and punchy expressions. Here is a typical example:

“I was thinking of our next move when some screaming and shooting came from our right. Our two buddies got a bead on the machine gun when he opened fire on us and assaulted from behind it. It was like John Wayne and Audie Murphy came flying to our rescue. They were shooting and screaming and acting all kinds of crazy. When one gook fell from the tree, we got the message and started shooting too. When we stopped to reload, everything was quiet.”

Banko’s prose hooks the reader and never lets go.

I recommend this war thriller to those who have not overdosed on infantry action books.  It moves right along, never stopping for idle moments.

—David Willson

Arizona Moon by J.M. Graham

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J. M. Graham enlisted in the U. S. Navy in 1965 and served as a corpsman in Vietnam with the 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines in 1967. His novel Arizona Moon (Naval Institute Press, 320 pp., $29.95), tells an exciting combat story of three men whose lives are intertwined in Vietnam.

In the course of this well-written, involving Vietnam War in-country combat novel we get to know these three men well—Cpl. Raymond Strader, a Marine Corps squad leader who has just a few days left in his tour of duty; Lance Cp. Noche Gonshayee (Moon), an Apache warrior caught between two cultures; and the “enemy,” Truong Nghi, who is involved in a pre-Tet Offensive munitions transfer and who is a patriotic zealot.

Cpl. Strader has two days and a wakeup left in country when the helicopter he’s on goes down with Moon on board. They are taken captive by Truong Nghi and the three end up playing a game of cat and mouse in the Ong Tu Mountains. The NVA desperately tries to protect its cargo. The Marines, who never leave a comrade behind, try to retrieve their brothers-in-arms.

I agree that, as the cover claims, this novel is “compelling and relentless.” This is one of the best of the Marine Corps Vietnam War thrillers I’ve read, and I highly recommend it.

We get lots of cowboy and Indian imagery, a debunking of John Wayne, the myth of the Island of the Black Clap, much ham-and-motherfucker talk, rear echelon bashing, seeing of the elephant, and Iwo Jima references. ARVNs are bashed, too.

All the usual stuff, that is, plus an exciting thriller that kept me on the edge of my seat.

If you are looking for a Marine Corps thriller, make this your next one.

—David Willson

Secret Choices by Tom Puetz

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Tom Puetz’s Secret Choices (Dragon Tale Books, 232 pp., $14.95, paper; $3.99, Kindle) is a book of fiction. But Puetz draws heavily on his own personal history for the meat of his narrative. He grew up on a farm in Indiana, served as an infantry sergeant in the Vietnam War, and was honorably discharged in December 1969.

He shares with the main character, Tom Warden, an employment record of twenty years of random jobs of all kinds, until he found stability. The book alternates chapters between his time in South Vietnam and 1984 in Fairhaven, Massachusetts, at his high school reunion. The book ends in 1970 in Freeland, Indiana, when Tom has been back from Vietnam for two months and attending Indiana University in Bloomington.

He’d made this plan because that was what he was going to before he got drafted. But Tom can’t stick to a plan made when he was a very different man. Then comes twenty years of trying to find himself. The black dog of rage follows him everywhere. He keeps a sidearm with him at all times and an ice cooler of beer in the back of his pickup truck.

This is one of the rare Vietnam War infantry novels in which the return-home section is well developed. Tom Warden gets involved in an interesting and believable subplot involving numbers running and murder. He handles himself well and does not become a patsy. I won’t become a spoiler and say any more.

Secret Choices is a worthy, well-written novel. Both male and female characters are fleshed out and engrossing to read about. This reader cared about the people on these pages.  The cover—which is misleading to say the least—is striking nevertheless.

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Tom Puetz

Secret Choices explores serious issues such as the treatment Vietnam veterans received when they returned home and realized that their country was lost to them. I remember the aloneness I felt when I returned to Seattle from Binh Hoa—something Puetz effectively evokes in the last chapters of the book. This makes Secret Choices much more than just a thriller, which it also is.

Thanks to Tom Puetz for a very good first novel.

His website is secretchoices.homestead.com

—David Willson

Dead Dog Tales and Devil’s Breath by William Fick

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Fick served with the First Marine Air Wing in Da Nang and Chu Lai in Vietnam in 1967-1968.  Dead Dog Tales and the Devil’s Breath (CreateSpace, 268 pp., $14.95, paper; $4.99, Kindle) is Fick’s first novel, and is quite experimental in narrative.

How experimental? For one thing, large parts of the novel are told by Conan the Wonder Dog. The main character is Garbot Fastman. We are introduced to him by finding out about his childhood as an overprotected asthmatic who needs an inhaler and shots to keep breathing.

Even though he has a childhood that seemed designed to preclude service in the military, Fastman ends up serving as a Marine in the Vietnam War, assigned to an A-6 squadron. Lance Corporal Fastman works twelve hours on, twelve hours off, doing drudge work.

“Once, Garbot and one of his favorite crane drivers laid down, fuzed and racked 84-500 pound bombs in thirteen minutes, a record he could never match again.”  That quote gives an idea of his military job and the attitude he brought to it.

Fastman is transferred to Chu Lai in time for the 1968 Tet Offensive . I encountered in this novel something unnerving that I have seen before in Marine Corps books, that Marines often liked to fly as door gunners in Army helicopters during what time off they could find. They did it for fun.

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Lots of other usual Vietnam War novel stuff enriches this book: “We Gotta Get Out of This Place, “it’s the only war we got,” “Good Morning Vietnam,” the smell of Vietnam being “jet fuel, garbage and human waste,” John Wayne, Iwo Jima, the concept of avoiding the draft by joining the Marines, and being spat upon in airports by hippies.  Garbot also gets accused of being a baby killer.

Garbot comments about missing the 1967 “Summer of Love.”  I missed it, too.  Many of us did.

The VA is never mentioned positively. The VA policy in the late 60s—that a veteran student had to be in college for three months before any money was sent—is criticized, and for good reason. One more bad thing our fathers, veterans of WWII, did not have to deal with.

The question actually gets asked: “Hey, what are they going to do, send me to Vietnam?” After Garbot is home, the novel becomes an adventure tale of sorts involving drug smuggling, diamond smuggling, and other escapades.

This statement that sums up this interesting book: “Just as the Depression and World War II had defined his father, so Garbot slowly came to understand that, like it or not, he was defined and dominated by Viet Nam. He thought about it every day.”

Like Garbot, I think about Vietnam every day, too. I hope that war has not defined and dominated my life. If you think it has, please don’t tell me.

—David Willson

Primary Candidates by Mike Sutton

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Mike Sutton’s experiences in the Vietnam War are the basis for his first novel, No Survivors (2004). Henry Small Deer was a primary character in No Survivors and returns in Primary Candidates (War Zone Press, 308 pp., $35.99, hardcover; $19.99, paper) as an authority on armaments.  All of the characters of Sutton’s second novel, High Order (2009), also have returned. The author informs us that the novel is inspired by historical events.

As the title implies, this novel is about politicians who want to be president. Three senators are featured doing what senators do when they think they should have their party’s nomination to the nation’s highest office.

The poisonous worm in this political apple is a shipment of Stinger missiles from Arizona to Fort Hood, Texas. At this point the book becomes a hijack novel in which law enforcement agencies scramble to retrieve the missiles and kill the hijacking criminals. Something serious always goes wrong in a scenario of this sort. If it doesn’t, there is no story to hold our attention.

Detective Hunter Morgan is one of the law enforcement people who goes after the missiles. Naturally, he did three tours in Vietnam. One is never enough for a character of this sort. He’s a glutton for punishment.

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Mike Sutton

Many more things go awry in this thriller: snipers in Baltimore, railroad catastrophes, terrorist strikes on major American airports. Then one of the senators “turns up missing.”  That’s one of my favorite all-time clichés.

This book is a rouser, though. I highly recommend it to those who enjoy thrillers and to those who enjoyed Sutton’s previous novels.

Sutton, a witty author, also provides my favorite Jane Fonda quote out of many hundreds I’ve read in Vietnam War books. In this case the words come from a senator speaking to the President:

“Jane Fonda,” the senator says, “has a better chance of becoming the National Commander of the Vietnam Veterans of America than the Desert Fox does winning in November.” This caught me by surprise so late in the book, and caused me to laugh aloud, something I rarely do when I read Vietnam War thrillers.  Congrats to Sutton for his wit and wisdom.

—David Willson

Shell Shock by Steve Stahl

Former UCLA and Stanford University psychiatry professor Stephen Stahl is an expert on PTSD. The hero of his novel, Shell Shock (Harley House Press, 448 pp., $17.95, paper; $5.99, Kindle), Dr. Gus Conrad, discover a covert “diabolical” military faction called The Patrons of Perseus, which was “formed during the First World War to celebrate heroism and eliminate cowardice.” The novel deals with Conrad’s attempt to fight the evil Patrons.

Blurbs compare this novel—a thriller—to those of David Balacci, Stephen Hunter, Dan Brown, and Lee Child. Having read thrillers by all of those authors, I agree. A book of this sort needs diabolical bad guys, and there are plenty.

Shell Shock covers events going back a century. World War I gets most of the attention, but recent wars also are given their due, including the Vietnam War. We get Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen as characters, with long conversations between them and a fictional character. I enjoyed reading those bits quite a lot. These conversations are set in remote Scotland at Craiglockhart, where the men were taken after being diagnosed with shell shock, the WWI term for what is known today as post-traumatic stress disorder.

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We read justifications of why shell shock, battle fatigue (the World War II term), and PTSD have been demonized by the military. It’s because, Stahl writes, they are “diverting resources for weapons to psychiatric care and pensions for those injured with PTSD by these wars.”

We’re told that a ploy of claiming the men had “pre-existing moral deficiencies” would discredit these men and save a lot of money.

There’s a lot of serious stuff going on in this thriller. But there also is plenty of action to hold the interest of a reader. I recommend it to those who want to read a thriller dealing in a serious way with PTSD. The author’s website is http://stevestahl.com

—David Willson