Syllables of Rain By D. S. Lliteras

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Syllables of Rain (Rainbow Ridge Books, 152 pp., $16.95, paper) is a poetic novel of pure genius by the novelist and poet D.S. Lliteras. A former Navy combat corpsman with the First Recon Marines in the Vietnam War, Lliteras received a Bronze Star for his courage under fire.

This work surpasses his earlier books that dealt with the Vietnam War: 613 West Jefferson, in which a returning Vietnam veteran tries to make sense of the terrible world he has returned to, and Viet Man, which shows what veterans dealt with while serving in Vietnam. Both are master works.  But neither book grapples with the things that Syllables of Rain takes on.

Syllables of Rain should be placed on the book shelf next to Karl Marlantes’ novel Matterhorn as an antidote to giant books that seem to last as long as the war itself did.  Syllables of Rain lets the reader know what happened to Marines after the war, experiences weighed down by great sadness—as Matterhorn is burdened with blood, thunder, and death.

Llewellyn and Cookie, the friends at the heart of Syllables of Rain, are easily imagined in the world of Matterhorn and it is easy to imagine them buoyed up by Jansen, a larger-than-life Zen master who influences the rest of their lives. Llewellyn and Cookie had intersected years before, but their lives were ordained by fate to become intertwined yet again.  They stand, confronting each other on a street in Baltimore, face to face with their mortality and with assessing what their lives have measured up to.

Will they have a future with the women they love? Will they come to terms with their shared past and go on to deal successfully with their war and their emotions? They and we can only hope.  Some of us will even pray that they will. Llewellyn asks the question, “Is it wrong to be lost?”

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D.S. Lliteras

My favorite kind of Vietnam War book is short, poetical, and filled with hard-fought truths.  Every page would be purest poetry, quarried from the marble of experience. This is that book. D. S. Lliteras brings his unique genius to bear on the world of the Vietnam War veteran, sometimes homeless, often heartsick from love lost.

Viet Man is a gritty in-country novel; Syllables of Rain is the poetic novel of a lifetime of coping with war, of struggling “to make peace with Vietnam” with the war that “separated us from everybody else.”

I’d thought that D. S. Lliteras’ previous book, Viet Man, was un-toppable, but I was dead wrong.

—David Willson

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Before We Sleep By Jeffrey Lent

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Jeffrey Lent has written a lot of serious literary novels, including In the Fall (2000) and A Slant of Light (2015), both of which deal with war and relationships. That’s also true with his new novel, Before We Sleep (Bloomsbury, 385 pp., $28).

In it, seventeen-year-old Katey Snow leaves her parents’ home in Vermont in the dead of night, carrying a packet of letters from an old World War II Army buddy of her fathers, which she hopes will provide information about who she is and where she came from. She’s recently been told that Oliver Snow, whom she has thought was her father, is not her biological parent, and she’s now driven to find answers.

This large novel deals mostly with the Greatest Generation as the 60s brings the trauma of a new war down upon them. The novel is heavy going. I found the prose excessively poetical and sluggish—and not just because of Lent’s lack of finesse with commas. I grant that other readers might well bask in his prose ponds, which seemed to me to be a Saragossa Sea of verbiage.

When Katey leaves, sneaking off without any formal farewell, I thought it likely that terrible things would happen to a girl who had never been away from home. I was not wrong. Terrible things do happen, but Katey bounces back from them much faster than I thought was likely or possible, given what Lent lets us know about her character.

The novel goes back and forth between Katey’s adventures on the road and her mother Ruth’s point of view and memories. We learn a lot about Oliver and Ruth, and about their marriage at the beginning of  World War II. Lent expends much prose (and energy) giving the reader a picture of Vermont, and showing us how the state changes through the seasons and through the years.

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Jeffrey Lent

This novel is more about mothers and daughters than it is about men and war. But there is enough to justify calling it a Vietnam War novel—in the larger sense. There’s even a rant about what napalm will be used for after the war “once this shit runs out of steam.”

Will the sender of the letters Katey is seeking answers from have the answers Katey needs or wants?  That is the central mystery of this novel, and I won’t answer it here. Read the book and discover for yourself.

You’ll either love this weighty novel and its special poetical language, or you will not. Good luck with it.

—David Willson

Norwegian by Night by Derek B. Miller

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Derek B. Miller’s Norwegian by Night (Mariner Books, 304 pp., $14.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle) is a novel that features Sheldon Horowitz, an 82-year-old Jewish Korean War veteran. His Jewish identity is important to the book and to the plot. Horowitz uses his ancient military skills to pursue a vicious killer after the guy murders a small boy’s mother by strangling her.

The novel takes place in Oslo and its environs. Best-selling American novelist Miller lives in Norway with his family, so the picture he draws of Oslo is totally believable. Horowitz’s wife has died, and his children wrongly think he is slipping mentally, which is why he was brought to live with them in Oslo.

His main demon is that his son, Saul, died in the Vietnam War, and Horowitz blames himself as he encouraged his son to join the military. He was a much-decorated sniper, a hero of the Korean War.

The son spent an R&R with his wife where they conceived Horowitz’s granddaughter Rhea. The next day he went back to Vietnam, “where two months after he landed, a Vietcong booby trap blew off his legs while he was looking for a downed pilot on a routine search-and-rescue. Saul bled to death on the boat before reaching the hospital.”

This beautiful book uses some magical realism to bring alive the wars of father and his son, but does not go overboard with it. Even though Horowitz’s relatives suspect he is slipping mentally,  the author makes it clear that he is not. He does battle with Serbian bad guys and is able to hold his own. He is physically weak, although mentally still strong. The little boy, Paul, whom he protects from further evil, is well characterized.

Sheldon Horowitz’s secret is that he told his family he was an Army clerk who sat out the Korean War at a desk. So when he confesses he was a sniper, they take that that as further evidence of senility.

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Derek Miller

Although this is a literary novel, Miller still manages to mention Jane Fonda and war demonstrators spitting on Vietnam vets and calling them baby killers. He refers to a hippie planting “a wet one on Jane Fonda’s misguided ass.” I hadn’t heard that one before.

This book is one of the best novels I’ve read during the many years I’ve been reviewing Vietnam War fiction for The VVA Veteran. It may be the best one. It’s certainly the only Norwegian Vietnam War novel I’ve read, and was originally published in Norwegian. Imagine that.

I highly recommend Norwegian by Night. Read it. You won’t be disappointed.

—David Willson

Dragonfish by Vu Tran

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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

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

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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

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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.

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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