Dragonfish by Vu Tran


Vu Tran’s first novel, Dragonfish (Norton, 298 pp., $26.95, hardcover; $15.95, paper; $15.95, Kindle), presents many voices, and every one is interesting. Born in Saigon and raised in Oklahoma, Vu Tran today teaches creative writing at the University of Chicago. He has maintained his Vietnamese heritage despite absorbing Western culture, ethics, and style, particularly regarding crime fiction.

Tran knows noire. He alternates view of cops, crooks, and gamblers in Las Vegas with memories that go back to the days when his characters fled Vietnam following the end of the American war. The drama centers on Robert—an American cop—and his search for Suzy, his Vietnamese wife who left him for Sonny, a Vietnamese tough-guy gambler.

Tran infuses three Vietnamese female characters—a mother, daughter, and a close friend—with enough ambivalence and mystery to more than justify the men’s longing for them. In doing so, he provides a clear picture of refugee life.

At the end of many plot twists, Robert survives physical and psychological battles with Sonny and his henchmen, but pays a heavy toll.

Several times the story’s moods, scenes, and vocabulary flashed me back to the pulp fiction crime magazines I read as a kid. This made Dragonfish an especially enjoyable read.

–Henry Zeybel


Aid Under Fire by Jessica Elkind


Nearly half a century after the fact historians face the formidable task of finding a way to analyse the Vietnam War from new perspectives. Several recently written books have approached the war by examining the political climate during the years between France’s departure from Indochina and the start of the American war there—approximately 1954-65.

Jessica Elkind’s Aid Under Fire: Nation Building and the Vietnam War (University Press of Kentucky, 310 pp., $45, hardcover, $45, Kindle) fits into this category. A San Francisco State University history professor, Elkind teaches and writes about American foreign relations, the Cold War, and Southeast Asia. Her next book will examine U.S. involvement in Cambodia in the 1970s.

Elkind bases parts of Aid Under Fire on interviews with civilian aid workers that offer new conclusions about old discussions concerning the effectiveness of non-military nation building. Elkind provides a long introduction that includes other historians’ perspectives of the world’s political picture pre-1965. The consensus is that nation building failed to make South Vietnam independent because of misconceptions regarding historical, political, and social conditions. This background material is exceptionally helpful for following Elkind’s subsequent arguments.

The nation-building effort in South Vietnam failed, according to Elkind, because the Vietnamese did not support American geopolitical goals. That is, Americans confronted problems by applying western practices while overlooking the reluctance of recently decolonized Asians to accept them.

By dissecting five assistance programs, Elkind explains nation building setbacks in Vietnam. The five are: refugee resettlement, public administration standardization, land reform and agricultural development, police force modernization, and the creation of an educational system to advance counterinsurgency aims. Atop everything else, the U.S. supported a repressive regime. Consequently, the South Vietnamese rural population did not devote its hearts and minds to supporting an anti-communist cause, Elkind says.

At length, she delves into controversies such as “The Legacy of Colonialism” that segues into “The Political Burden of Being American,” which deals with Americans being stereotyped as “a rich man with a head full of race prejudice” who puts the government ahead of the people. Two of Elkind’s closing subtitles—”From Enthusiasm to Defeat” and “Ears of Stone”—indicate that the nation-building experiment might have been doomed from the start.

When President Kennedy issued an executive order creating the Agency for International Development (AID) in 1961, American leaders eagerly supported nation building, according to my memory. Almost immediately, my Air Force friends delivered supplies country-wide in C-123 Providers during six-month deployments. As the 1960s wore on, however, war demands consumed almost all other such USAF efforts. In 1968, my C-130 crew flew nearly eight hundred in-country support sorties. Only two in one afternoon questionably helped nation building when we relocated women, children, and old men who did not want to be uprooted.


Refugee resettlement from North to South Vietnam in 1954

Elkind describes similar patterns of activity and points out that, in all the intervening years, “nation building” has been thought of as “military modernization” for programs in Indonesia, Brazil, Iran, El Salvador, Iraq, and Afghanistan. The outcomes have been the same, she says.

Aid Under Fire is part of the “Studies in Conflict, Diplomacy, and Peace” series of books that examines—and mostly criticizes—the United States’ engagement with the world. The series includes the work of nineteen historians and other academics who think alike.

But to what purpose? I wonder why these folks do not organize and protest America’s endless involvement in the Middle East.

—Henry Zeybel


Who is a Hero by Donald E. Pearce, Sr.



Donald E. Pearce Sr.’s Who is a Hero: A Collection of Patriotic Poems (CreateSpace, 34 pp., $10.99, paper; Kindle, $3.49) is more a pamphlet than a book. It is an aggregation of reproduced Vietnam War artifacts such as manipulated images of a folded American flag in a triangle box with a rose on the top, similar to the one I was given after my father was consigned to the ground in the National Cemetery in Arizona. The image is accompanied by the words to a verse entitled “Lament for a Hero.”

I asked myself what my parents would think of it. Easy answer: They would have liked it. The words “God keep you in his loving arms forever” would have had a huge impact on them.

Every verse in this colorful, mostly red-white-and-blue pamphlet is supported by a full page of artwork.  “Heroes,” for example has an image retrieved from the internet of the POW/MIA flag.  “Heroes” ends with the line, “For we will never, never, ever, forget!!!

I am remiss for not mentioning the color scheme of this book again as it overwhelms the reader. Red, white, blue—and black. The theme, though, is not forgetting, but the fear that we will forget if we are not constantly reminded.

Late in this small book protesters are called out. As in: “Their families we vow, we will protect, from protesters who don’t, have any respect.”

“Who is a hero?  My Dad.  If Hitler had won that terrible war, you’d now be a slave, and nothing more.  So the next old man, that you see, don’t forget, He might be a hero, an American vet.”

This small work powerfully expresses fear of forgetting the dead. In fact, it practically creates a cult of the dead. It’s difficult o know what to do with this work, but I believe it expresses the thoughts of many veterans.


The author, a life member of Vietnam Veterans of America, was born and raised in Massachusetts and is the fifth child of nine. His family has a proud history of military service. Three brothers served during the Vietnam War. Donald Pearce is Assistant State Captain for Massachusetts for the Patriot Guard Riders, which helps him express his patriotism and his love of motorcycles.

Books don’t get more sincere than this one.

The author’s website is whoisahero.com

—David Willson

My Confessions from Vietnam


Mark Miller led a 4th Infantry Division squad in Vietnam for seven months in 1969-70. His men called themselves the Garbage Squad, adopting the nickname Miller had earned as a collegiate basketball player who excelled at rebounding. The squad had one strategy, Miller says: “We just wanted to stay alive.”

Based on a journal kept while in Vietnam, Miller recreates his war experience with the help of Brooke Miller Hall in My Confessions from Vietnam (CreateSpace, 123 pp., $5.80, paper). Inducted into the Army shortly after graduating from college, Miller opted to attend NCO school to delay going to Vietnam. It appeared to him that the war would soon end. It didn’t, and he went to Vietnam as an E-5.

Miller definitely lacked a desire to lead. “I never wanted to be in the Army in the first place,” he says. Sixteen years of Catholic-oriented education had taught him to love other people, and he believed that killing was a sin. “I certainly didn’t want the responsibility for the lives of the guys in my squad,” he says.

A willing student, Miller easily bonded with his men, most of whom were fellow draftees. Initially, as a leader, he constantly feared for his life. After surviving his first sapper attack, he writes, he “couldn’t stop shaking. I’d never been so scared in my life.” The experienced grunts taught him how to control fear. After three weeks in the field, he says, he felt “like a seasoned veteran.”

Defending themselves against what they considered unreasonable orders, Miller and his men sometimes chose to hide from the enemy rather than go out to search and destroy. Those tactics required them to outwit their platoon sergeant and company commander—and occasionally backfired. Nevertheless, all of Miller’s squad members survived combat under his leadership.


Mark Miller in Vietnam


Miller, a life member of Vietnam Veterans of America, briefly talks about subjects mentioned in most Vietnam memoirs: helicopter airlifts, rain, malaria pills, C rations, punji sticks, R&R, and Kit Carson scouts.

At the age of seventy, Miller broke a personal vow of silence and summarized his wartime experiences. As he puts it:

“I never talked about my year in Vietnam. How could I explain to people what it was like? This was not a war I had chosen. I felt I had been a disgrace as a soldier: I had disobeyed orders, given false reports, gotten malaria on purpose, gotten a rear-area job because a friend found a way around the system, and had gotten a medal for killing a woman and a child. I would feel guilt for the rest of my life.”

That’s some confession, that confession by Mark Miller. I admire his honesty.

The author’s website is confessionsofsergeantgarbage.com

—Henry Zeybel

Tragedy at Chu Lai by David Venditta


David Venditta’s Tragedy at Chu Lai: Reconstructing a Deadly Grenade Accident in a U.S. Army Classroom in Vietnam, July 10, 1969 (McFarland, 212 pp., $29.95, paper; $17.99, Kindle) is the story of the author’s hunt to find out exactly what caused the death of his cousin, U.S. Army Warrant Officer Nicky Venditti.

David Venditta, a retired journalist, conducted a twenty-one-year investigation, wading through official misinformation and uncovering hitherto unknown facts. The two men were cousins, but the spelling of their last names differs because part of the family reverted to the original spelling—Venditti—that officials at Ellis Island had altered two generations earlier.

In 1969, The Daily Local News of West Chester, Pennsylvania, attributed Nicky Venditti’s death to “wounds suffered in action about a week after he arrived in the war zone.” The assumption was that “a rocket got him,” David Venditta says. In 1994, curiosity led him to contact the newly organized Friends of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and ask about his cousin’s death. The Friends told him the death was listed as a “non-hostile” casualty. That motivated David Venditta to try to find out exactly what happened.

The book’s first half recreates Nicky Venditti’s life through childhood, elementary and high school, military training as a helicopter pilot, and arrival in Vietnam. The last half reveals his cousin’s extensive research into the matter from the time he contacted the Friends in 1994 until he wrote the book in 2015.

The author learned that an “instructor unknowingly discharged a live grenade” during classroom instruction and that was what killed Nicky and two other soldiers. Slowly but methodically, David Venditta looked through paperwork from virtually every available government source and interviewed one hundred thirty people from all levels of command, as well as friends of those who died.

Most significantly, the author learned that no meaningful investigation or conclusive report had resulted from the incident. Repeatedly finding the Army remiss in its approach to the three deaths, David Venditta tried to find a guilty party worthy of punishment. Eventually he found and interviewed the instructor who had detonated the grenade. His confrontation and conversations with the man constitute the climax of the book.


The author, a pic of his cousin, and his pilot helmet

Guilt for what happened is never clearly established. The possibility of sabotage existed. David’s relations with the instructor provide an excellent psychological study about the acceptance of responsibilities related to war. “What if?” and “Stuff Happens” influenced the thinking of both men.

When I finished reading the book, I had mixed feelings about David’s investigation and his conclusions.

I intend to pass the book on to my brother-in-law, who (like David Venditti and unlike myself) did not serve in the military. I look forward to hearing his opinion. To me, many of the author’s questions are unanswerable—perhaps even unnecessary. But I’m still thinking about them.

David Venditta’s encounters with military personnel and military procedures steered him toward another project, interviewing more than a hundred veterans of both World Wars, the Cold War, and the Korean and Vietnam Wars. He published accounts of these men in another book, War Stories:  In Their Own Words.

—Henry Zeybel

Reaching by Allen Dorfman


Allen Dorfman was drafted into the U.S. Army and served a 1967-68 tour of duty as an infantryman in Vietnam. He wrote Reaching (CreateSpace, 278 pp., $11.99, paper; $3.99, Kindle)  in the early 1970s. It is a decent in-country infantry novel that seems more like a thinly disguised memoir.

The cover blurb does an excellent job of encapsulating the novel. To wit: “In the spring of 1967, Hal Patsin receives his draft notice as the Vietnam War escalates. He plans to register as a conscientious objector—until his father says, ‘I’ve never asked for anything, Patty, but now I ask this: Serve your country.’”

So the oddly named Patty goes off to Vietnam a grunt determined never to fire his M-16. During the 1968 Tet Offensive, however, Patty is where the action is, and his resolution does not last long. He fires that M-16 because he doesn’t want to let down his friends Mac, Italy, Doc, and Timmy.


The author in Vietnam

A lot of the usual Vietnam War combat novel things happen to Patty and his friends. They complain that they don’t get to fight Hitler like their fathers did. They talk about going back to The World.  They sing “Green, Green Grass of Home.” They get into a mess of red ants and have conflicts with a green LT. Friendly fire takes its toll. They envy Bonnie and Clyde after they see the movie. Leeches get them; Humphrey Bogart and “The African Queen” come up.

This group of grunts—like so many of us in the Vietnam War generation—has been much affected by boyhoods spent watching movies and television and reading comic books. John Wayne, strong silent cowboys in white hats, and western saloons have filled their brains.

But their war does not measure up to that preparation. They want to get out of Dodge. Who can blame them?

Buy his book. I suspect it is the only one that Allen Dorfman—who today enjoys a nice life in Spokane, Washington, with his beautiful family, including two granddaughters—will ever write.  It’s a miracle he lived to write this one.

The author’s website is allendorfman.blogspot.com

—David Willson


The Emperor of Water Clocks by Yusef Komunyakaa


The Emperor of Water Clocks (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 128 pp., $23, hardcover; $15, paper), Yusef Komunyakaa’s new book of poetry, contains no mention of the poet’s service in the Vietnam War. The only clue that Komunyakaa is a Vietnam veteran is that his book  of Vietnam War-themed poetry, Dien Cai Dau, is mentioned in the front of this book.

I have a copy of Dien Cai Dau (“dinky dau”) on my shelf. Yusef Komunyakaa signed it for me back in 1990. He dedicates that book to his brother Glenn, “who saw The Nam before I did.”

There are many allusions to war in The Emperor of Water Clocks’ almost sixty poems. But only one long poem confronts and dwells on the Vietnam War, and it’s buried under the title “Torsion.”  The poems in Dien Cai Dau don’t have to be ferreted out—they have straightforward titles such as “Tunnels,” “Sappers,” “Tu Do Street,” and “Saigon Bar Girls.”

nov-banner_03Some of the titles in the book under review are also straightforward. For instance, “The Day I Saw Barack Obama Reading Derek Walcott’s Collected Poems” is precisely about that. Even “the haze of Wall Street” gets a mention in this two-page poem. From Pussy Riot to Grand Master Flash, to the Great Ooga-Booga, Komunyakaa ranges through high, low, and popular culture to forge fine poems dealing with all aspects of life.

Komunyakaa has long since moved on from being the Vietnam War poet of Dien Cai Dau. He received a Pulitzer Prize of his book, Neon Vernacular. His fellow Vietnam veterans must resist trying to contain a poet who “soars to dizzying intellectual and poetic strata.”

Yusef Komunyakaa cannot be contained or stunted. He will go where he will, and his journey will always astonish the reader, yet carry him along in the momentum of music that he hears and puts down on the page with language we will never encounter elsewhere.

I highly recommend this latest volume by our finest poet.

—David Willson