The War I Survived Was Vietnam by Michael Uhl

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Michael Uhl’s The War I Survived Was Vietnam: Collected Writings of a Veteran and Antiwar Activist (McFarland, 300 pp., $29.95, paper) is a wide-ranging compilation of Uhl’s reviews and opinion pieces that will certainly generate responses. True to its subtitle, this collection has an antiwar agenda. It also covers issues other than the Vietnam War, including the plight of veterans exposed to atomic weapons and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As David Cline, the national president of Veterans For Peace says in the book: “There have always been veterans for peace. War makes veterans warriors for peace.”

A Vietnam Veterans of America member I served with once told me that his feelings about the Vietnam War took several drastic shifts as his circumstances changed. He focused on survival while in country. When he came home, he examined how the war ended, as well as the nation’s treatment of veterans, along with the controversy over the design of the Vietnam Veteran Memorial in Washington, D.C., and the POW/MIA issue. Uhl, who served as an intelligence officer in Vietnam in 1968-69, includes reviews and essays on these subjects and more.

They are sure to evoke strong reactions. As Uhl puts it: “If they provoke thought in whoever reads them, I will be profoundly satisfied.”

Uhl writes about many players involved in the Vietnam War, including some unheralded heroes, some famous and infamous people, and some who helped orchestrate the war’s strategy and tactics. Gen. Julian Ewell, the Ninth Infantry Division Commander in February 1968, is one of the key players Uhl credits with implementing the “body count culture,” which he says enabled American troops to hand out “candy to small children” one moment, then later to torch “a hootch or abuse a cringing papa-san.”

Uhl’s essays cover many topics, but I believe his essay on the Heinemann brothers succinctly represents the personal impact the Vietnam War has had on many people. “Three Heinemann brothers would eventually go into the military, two to Vietnam,” Uhl wrote in 2005. “Among them only Larry [the author of Paco’s Story] remains. One brother was a post-war suicide; the other left his family never to be heard from again.”

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Michael Uhl

Mentioning Robert Strange McNamara will liven up any discussion of the war. In 1995 in The Nation Uhl and co-author Carol Brightman wrote: “McNamara’s critics span the ideological spectrum, though the burden of their indignation differs according to whether they believe his moral failure lies in the past for not having spoken out sooner, or in the present for having spoken at all.”

This anthology is a valuable reference tool for anyone looking for scholarly and incisive writing on America’s most divisive overseas war. The fervor of those opposed to the war may have never been matched. Uhl includes essays by some of those who were dedicated to bringing the war to an end, such as David Harris, former Secretary of State John Kerry, and environmentalist and one-time presidential candidate Barry Commoner.

This anonymous excerpt written by a veteran quoted by Uhl may be the best summation of the Vietnam War legacy:

I carried the war in my blood

In or out of service

I was at war

Even today

Every day war explodes in my brain

—Curt Nelson

No Strings Attached by John W. Carlson

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John Bultman enlisted in the Marine Corps and arrived in Vietnam at age nineteen in 1967. He spent thirteen months as a courier for the First Marine Air Wing at Da Nang. He also helped defend the base perimeter as a rifleman during the 1968 Tet Offensive. Bultman’s courier runs to outlying posts by helicopter, Jeep, light aircraft, and river patrol boat exposed him to “war’s dreadful brutality,” he says. The sight of dead bodies, “especially women and children,” created his “most horrible memories.”

Later in life, Bultman talked fervently about the Marine Corps to John W. Carlson, a drinking buddy and a feature writer for The Star Press in Muncie, Indiana. Fascinated by what he heard, Carlson has written a book about Bultman’s life called No Strings Attached: John Bultman’s War as a Marine in Vietnam, and Its Aftermath (CreateSpace, 78 pp. $10. paper).

This short book provides a lucid image of Bultman’s personality, depicting his weaknesses as well as strengths. Best of all, Carlson shows that Bultman has a sense of humor about the world in general and an ability to laugh at himself when appropriate.

As the subtitle suggests, Bultman’s war experiences fill only half of the book. The “Aftermath” focuses on Bultman’s playing the banjo and battling PTSD.

After the war, John Bultman bummed around on beaches near San Diego, worked with Vietnam Veterans Against War, returned to college but dropped out, and then discovered and taught himself how to play the banjo. Love of music led him to the love of his life—Janan—who played the piano, flute, and mandolin. They married, had two daughters, and enjoyed success in the music business until PTSD overwhelmed him.

Bultman’s years of treatment for PTSD included two months as an in-patient at a VA hospital. Survivor guilt haunted him.

267x267-2d1fdaa5-3bb0-474e-8476f194863d8de0“When John describes his treatment, it takes on the aura of sweaty, physical effort,” Carlson writes, “’Oh, shit,’ he recalled. ‘It was hard, hard, hard work. My life changed dramatically,’ he said, though he noted his treatment wasn’t exactly a panacea. ‘I was not as angry.’ Still, even in the face of success, he doesn’t take such good news, such progress, for granted. He admitted, ‘I’ve never met a Vietnam vet that wasn’t grumpy. Every day, it’s always something. It’s just that now the level is different, of course.'”

To me, these four quotes quietly explain that PTSD is a lifelong problem. Along the way, a VA doctor declared Bultman one hundred percent disabled by the disorder.

Carlson’s No Strings Attached is what it is. Basically, he adds another witness to confirm the severe damage incurred by young minds exposed to traumatic situations.

—Henry Zeybel

A Long Healing Come Slowly by Jim Carmichael

 

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Jim Carmichael is a Marine who served a combat-heavy thirteen-month tour of duty in Vietnam in 1967-68. He survived the 1968 Tet Offensive and spent seventy-seven days at Khe Sanh. He was diagnosed with PTSD in 1997. A Long Healing Come Slowly: A Novel about PTSD and its Effects on Suffering Individuals and their Families (LifeRich, 536 pp., $44.95, hardcover; $33.99, paper) is his Carmichael’s first novel. He intends to write a sequel.

The Preface describes this book as a fast read which it really is not. It is a large book that gives the history of multiple generations of a family with much involvement in America’s wars.  Also, the book has some axes to grind. For instance, the author claims that “This country is also rapidly outlawing the mention or open display of God or his Law.”  If our country has, I’ve failed to take notice of it.

In a nutshell, this novel, Carmichael tell us, is about “a family living with a veteran who has PTSD.” That is no lie, and the author totally nails what that is like, missing no nuance in describing it. He traces the origins through multiple wars as the book’s veteran characters are still alive and involved in the family. Novelists have that control.

The veterans in this novel have experienced and survived, sort of, the worst of America’s modern wars, including the Bataan Death March, and they are available and willing to testify about their trauma. Spoiler alert: I was shocked when the novelist killed off his main character. I sat and pondered and reread the chapter to make sure that it really happened. First time for me to get hit with that in a Vietnam War novel. A member of the Greatest Generation shoots himself with his pistol.

He was one of those veterans who came back from World War II and chose to work his demons to death by making a good life for his family. I am familiar with that method as that was how my father dealt with his Iwo Jima Marine Corps demons. Repression and demanding control and a smooth peaceful life. Until his war came home. His wife thought the war was over. But was it?

111111111111111111111111111111111111This novel makes the point that the war is never over. The military was not into anger management, so veterans had no idea what to do about their anger. Then the real cost of war becomes apparent. And often veterans are thrown to the wolves.

Prison is full of them. So are cemeteries.

This is an engrossing novel and I look forward to the sequel, which will, I hope, address the many loose ends left hanging at the end of this book.

Carmichael has done a superb job of showing how a veteran with PTSD can masquerade as a perfect family man, and how his cover can get blown by a disturbing incident and knock the whole apple cart of a perfect American family totally out of kilter.

Read this book and weep. I did.

The author’s website is alonghealing.com

—David Willson

 

 

Grandfather’s Journal by Tom Maxwell

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In an autobiography written for his grandson’s edification, Tom Maxwell chronologically recreates his past in Grandfather’s Journal: A Grandson’s Journey into His Grandfather’s Life (WestBow Press, 140 pp., $28.95, hardcover; $11.95, paper; $3.99, Kindle). The book covers Maxwell’s childhood as he traveled the world with an Air Force father; his military experiences as a Navy pilot and commander; and his career as a highly successful business executive who also ministered to people he calls “the least of these in our prison system.”  Maxwell sets exemplary standards for perseverance and dedication in every pursuit.

His Navy career stretched from 1955-83. He filled all the right squares while rising to the rank of Captain and a posting as an attaché in West Germany where he helped gather Cold War intelligence from the Soviet Union.

In 1967 and 1968 during the Vietnam War, Maxwell deployed twice to the Gulf of Tonkin aboard the aircraft carrier USS Oriskany. He flew two hundred missions in the KA3 Skywarrior, receiving credit for eighty-five “saves” of aircraft in distress. A short time later on a two-month TDY to Danang Air Base, he flew an additional fifty combat missions.

For most of his military career, Maxwell put his job first, even ahead of family needs. Occasionally in times of trouble, he prayed for help, but mainly as wish-fulfillment rather than with confidence in the powers of an almighty deity. Nevertheless, his prayers brought positive results. Then, at the age of forty-two, motivated by intensely focused reading and urging from his wife Betty Ann, Maxwell “accepted Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior.”

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Tom & Betty Ann Maxwell

The closing fifth of Grandfather’s Journal describes a life dictated by guidance that resulted from prayer. For thirty years as a civilian, Maxwell produced excellent results in both business relations and in his prison ministry work.

He disappointed me, however, by including only ten pages on his Vietnam War experiences in this book, just half of which dealt with events in the air.

The author’s website is captaintommaxwell.com

—Henry Zeybel

 

 

 

 

Eternally at War by Robert Lathrop and Jeanette Vaughan

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Tragedy played a big role in the life of Robert G. “Gene” Lathrop. When he was two years old he witnessed a crashed B-17 engulfed in a tower of flames as high as he could see. The fire was “permanently etched into the synapses of [his] mind,” he said. In his early twenties as a Marine Corps pilot, he ejected from an F9F-8 Cougar fighter jet that disintegrated moments after takeoff. His parachute malfunctioned, and he landed in the airplane’s blazing wreckage. Suffering severe burns and multiple bone fractures, he barely survived. A year later, he arrived in Vietnam.

These scenes comprise the opening act of Eternally at War (Age View Press, 332 pp., $14.99, paper; $3.99, Kindle) by Lathrop and Jeanette Vaughan. The book is a memoir put together by Vaughan based on Lathrop’s writing about his past as part of a PTSD recovery program. The pacing of the writing brings events to life in an exceptionally vivid manner. Lathrop’s thoughts and behavior blend realistically, magnifying and complementing the other.

For most of his year in Vietnam, 1968-69, Lathrop flew F-4 Skyhawks with MAG 12, VMA-311 Tomcats at Chu Lai. The unit’s mission sent him into battle over I Corps, the DMZ, North Vietnam, and the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos. Primarily, he flew close air support for Marines fighting the North Vietnamese Army.

Chu Lai was the hub of Marine Corps flying in I Corps. While trash-hauling during the time Lathrop was in Vietnam, I crewed on C-130s that occasionally landed at Chu Lai. Everything on the base appeared constantly in motion, or as Lathrop said on his first day there, “It seemed like there was a plane taking off or landing every ten or fifteen seconds.” Judging by what I saw countrywide, Marines never rested.

“Overworked” and “overstressed” perfectly describe Lathrop’s experience with the Tomcats. At times, he flew as many as four missions in twenty-four hours. He took part in or witnessed events more devastating than his crash in the Cougar.

Lathrop saw death and destruction on a daily basis. These events tried his psyche, but his devotion to duty overrode doubts about his actions. “As far as I was concerned,” he said, “when I landed, I lived until I flew again. Nothing would impact me if I could help it. Once I learned to live only for the moment, the stress of war didn’t bother me.”

After seven months in the cockpit and against his wishes, Lathrop became commander of a company that guarded the perimeter of Da Nang Air Base, a move that again proved that every Marine is basically an infantryman.

A turning point in Lathrop’s life began when he returned home after thirteen months in country. “Being home was torture,” he said. He wanted to be left alone and avoided contact with people. After-effects of the injuries he received before going to Vietnam made it progressively more difficult for him to fly, so he resigned his commission in 1970.

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Gene Lathrop

Successfully employed as a forester, he grew increasingly restless and depressed. He divorced his wife, gained custody of the younger of his two sons, and remarried. But the bouts with depression came more frequently and lasted longer and longer.

In 1984 he began to suffer the full effects of PTSD. Flashing back to the war, he experienced mental and physical disorders that transcended the worst he encountered in his fiery crash or in combat. Counseling and hospitalization did not help. Anguish and guilt haunted Gene Lathrop until the day he died from heart failure in 2012.

As a victim of fire, Lathrop repeatedly delivered the same punishment to his enemies in the form of napalm, which formed the core of his guilt. At one point he tells us, “From my very first day in Vietnam, I was conscious of the continual emissions of fire.”

That war-induced recognition dictated the images in his mind and the course of his post-war life.

–Henry Zeybel

Witness to the Revolution by Clara Bingham

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Clara Bingham’s Witness to the Revolution: Radicals, Resisters, Vets, Hippies, and the Year America Lost Its Mind and Found Its Soul (Random House, 656 pp., $30, hardcover; $14.99, Kindle) is neither a polemic nor an unquestioning ode. Bingham uses oral histories of people who served in the Vietnam War, along with those who were involved in the political and cultural movements of the era, concentrating on the year of 1968. The individual testimonies are not long discussions or recollections; they are shorter sections interwoven into the narrative to make a complex tapestry.

The book is divided into sections such as the draft, Woodstock, My Lai, and Kent State. The chapters contain histories and the words of many of the movers and shakers of the day, including Mark Rudd and Bernadette Dohrn of the Weather Underground, Daniel Ellsberg, Timothy Leary, the journalist Seymour Hersh (who broke the My Lai story), and Oliver Stone. Bingham also makes good use of the voices of Vietnam veterans.

The Vietnam War was the cyclone around which most division centered during the 1960s and 70s. Questioning the most divisive overseas war in U.S. history made people question almost everything else, from feminism to government programs and policies to music.

The book contains two of the most famous and galvanizing photos of the Vietnam War: South Vietnamese Gen, Nguyen Ngoc Loan executing a VC prisoner in Saigon during Tet, and the naked Vietnamese girl running and screaming after being hit with napalm. Bingham also recounts the often-told tale of the My Lai massacre.

Bingham also deals with Vietnam War veterans’ post-war emotional adjustments, including these words from Vietnam Veterans of America’s founder Bobby Muller: “You come back, you’re in a normal place, you’re not in a war zone, you think about the shit you did, and you don’t believe that you fucking did this. And then you live with the memory.” He later says: “These are the good guys. We look at what goes on in the world and we think it’s a subspecies of human beings. It’s not. It’s us.”

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Clara Bingham

Nineteen-sixty-eight was the height of the war and the height of the protests at home, along with the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy and the police riot at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Many folks at home who had comfortable lives could not cope with the turmoil and our country suffered a huge divide. All these events are included in the book and all are told by the people involved at the time.

To read what those involved had to say—and still have to say—is to be transported back to that time. To those who lived through it, details return with clarity. For those who were not around in those days, their ideas and actions will arrive with clarity.

—Loana Hoylman

 

Confessions of a Surviving Alien by Jon Meade

 

As a raconteur par excellence, Jon Meade possesses a huge but tolerable ego because his interactions with other people aim at betterment for all. In Confessions of a Surviving Alien: A Memoir of a Life Defined by One Word—Vietnam (Trafford, 504 pp. $39.99, hardcover; $25.95, paper; $6.99, Kindle), Meade presents a long, highly detailed account of his first fifty years of life, four with the Marine Corps that included a 1966-67 tour in Vietnam.

The middle half of the book deals with Meade’s time in the Marine Corps. In it, he talks about many events that were new to me, such as a USO Nancy Sinatra performance for his unit that turned into a riot; the life and death of a nine-year-old Vietnamese prostitute; and a Marine killing another Marine, practically in front of him. Meade clearly distinguishes between what he saw and hearsay.

Meade wanted infantry duty, but instead was sent to Vietnam as a welder with the Ninth Engineer Battalion near Chu Lai. He did get to be a perimeter guard, but never engaged in the higher level of combat that he desired.

A twist of fate made Meade an orderly for disfigured combat casualties. Concurrently, he learned that many of his boot camp comrades had been killed in their initial combat encounters. A realization that luck had kept him alive created life-long survival guilt.

He spent his final two Marine Corps years as a military policeman at Lemoore Naval Air Station in California. Stories from that period center on his determination, along with Vietnam veteran coworkers, to maintain discipline among sailors, frequently through intimidation or force. What he saw as unnecessarily harsh punishment for twelve of his fellow Marines for drug use shrouded his honorable discharge.

Growing up in Minneapolis with parents who acted unpredictably, Meade found excellent role models among relatives and friends. Most of the stories from his teenage years involve mental and physical confrontations between males with overabundant testosterone levels. He boxed and lifted weights and grew quick and strong for his age.

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Jon Meade

A sort of controlled turmoil filled Meade’s post-Marine life: Marriage, journalism school, boxing, buying and selling houses, four children, separation from the woman he calls “MyWife,” changing jobs, a reunion with “MyWife,” Mr. Mom duties, divorce, more conflicts with “Ex-Wife,” many romances, good and bad jobs, absent-father guilt, minor roles in movies, and more romances, all amid commuting in California, Utah, and Minnesota.

Jon Meade offers more than his life story. He presents strong opinions about life and labor in an honest and orderly fashion. He also has a strong desire to help other people, despite the heavy demand required to help himself cope with guilt for living through the war.

All things considered, Jon Meade impresses me as a good guy to have on your side.

—Henry Zeybel