The Vietnam War in Popular Culture, Vols. I & II, edited by Ron Milam

vietnamwarpopularculture

Ron Milam, a Texas Tech University history professor who served in the Vietnam War and has written widely about it, has done an excellent job putting together the two-volume The Vietnam War in Popular Culture: The Influence of America’s Most Controversial War on Everyday Life (ABC-CLIO/Praeger, 772 pp., $164), a valuable collection of wide-ranging essays by more than three dozen contributors.

The first volume’s entries focus on aspects of popular culture (primarily movies, music, television shows, magazines and newspapers, and fiction and nonfiction literature) that hit the scene during the war. The second volume looks at the same areas in the years since the war ended in 1975. Nearly all the essays are from university professors; more than a few teach at Texas Tech. The noted Vietnam War historian George Herring contributes an excellent introduction.

Highlights in Volume I include Beverly Tomek’s hard-hitting essay, “‘Hanoi Jane’ and the Myth of Betrayal: The Cultural War on the Home Front,” and Roger Landes’ “Barry Sadler and ‘The Ballad of the Green Berets.'” As the author of the first biography of Barry Sadler (Ballad of the Green Beret: The Life and Wars of Staff Sgt. Barry Sadler), I am pleased to report that Landes—a music professor at Texas Tech who teaches the history of rock and roll—presents an excellent, in-depth look at Sadler’s song, which sold nine million copies and was the No. 1 single of the year in 1966. He used the best sources and his conclusions about why the song went viral twenty-five years before the birth of Internet are right on the money.

The essay that stood out for me in the second volume is Lindy Poling’s insightful (and cleverly titled) “Encouraging Students to Think Outside the ‘Box Office,'” which reports on a survey of students who took her innovative one-semester elective class, “Lessons of Vietnam.” Poling created that course and taught it from 1997-2011 at Millbrook High School in Raleigh, North Carolina.

 

r-1472846-1266535399-jpegIn her essay, Poling reports on what her former students told her about their knowledge of the war before taking the class and how what they learned (from studying a wide variety of perspectives on the war, hearing from Vietnam War veterans, and visiting The Wall in Washington, D.C.) changed their perceptions of the war and those who took part in it.

Poling found that 55 percent of her students “entered the course with Hollywood film and popular media-based preconceptions” of the war and its veterans; 25 percent had learned about the war mainly from their parents or other adults; and the rest knew “very little” about the war.

After immersing themselves in learning about the war in her class, Poling found that many of them were motivated “to personally investigate and gain a better understanding of what was happening during the Vietnam era, both at home and abroad. In addition, these students come to sincerely appreciate the tremendous sacrifice of our veterans, as well as those who fought for South Vietnam.”

What’s more, she writes, most of her former students no longer rely on Hollywood movies for their understanding of the Vietnam War.

That good news led Poling to her conclusion: “Yes, they truly have learned to think outside the box office!”

—Marc Leepson

 

Advertisements

Syllables of Rain By D. S. Lliteras

518fuks3tdl-_sx328_bo1204203200_

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?”

facebook_photo_400x400

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

Mission of Honor by Jim Crigler

51vhpigadtl-_sx322_bo1204203200_

Jim Crigler, author of Mission of Honor: A Moral Compass for a Moral Dilemma (Panoma Press, 326 pp., $21.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle), was drafted into the Army and served as UH-1 helicopter pilot in the Vietnam War.  A Warrant Officer, he was assigned to the 129th Assault Helicopter Company, and distinguished himself during thousands of combat missions. He has also distinguished himself in many ways as a civilian.

Throughout history, fighting men have been known as warriors. Recently, the term “Air Warrior” has emerged. This book is a great depiction of the men who wore Air Warrior wings in the Vietnam War, and the many challenges they faced every day in all aspects of their lives—before, during, and after their military service.

Crigler writes about being in high school, trying to find his niche in life. He notes the humility needed to admit failure and continue to strive for greatness. He had a moral compass, being true to doing what is right because it is right. He writes of finding a “right direction,” then following that direction, making adjustments along the way as he gained more knowledge in the course of his life.

An important aspect of this autobiography is Crigler’s realization that slowly but surely an emotional “coldness” has to be achieved in order to survive in war. This coldness is something that is achieved slowly enough that a person has little awareness that it is happening. In that regard, Crigler brings out memories of war in an eloquent manner.

He also shows very clearly that achievements in war require great tenacity and courage, but once that level achievement is reached the honors of life begin to be bestowed. I have always had great respect for those who have done this.

jim-crigler-headshot

Jim Crigler

Crigler writes of achieving a “oneness” with his mission, something that bestows honor. Honor has to be earned by a person’s actions, not words. Crigler notes this in repeated references to the commitment of his brother warriors, and through his paying tribute to those men.

I wholeheartedly recommend this book to veterans, and also to Gold Star families and the families of those who have endured the ravages of war.

The author’s website is missionofhonor.org

—Edward Ryan

Nam: The Story of a Generation by Mel Smith

Mel Smith was born in Helena, Montana. He joined the Naval Reserves in 1966 and went on active duty in July 1968. He served on the destroyer U.S.S. Taylor out of Pearl Harbor as a member of the deck force, the tough ship maintenance division. This crew is sometimes referred to as deck apes. He transferred to the U.S.S. De Haven on a West Pacific tour and got an early out in April 1970.

Smith’s novel, Nam: The Story of a Generation (First Steps, 360 pp., $33.64, hardcover; $24.95, paper; $6.99 Kindle), follows the lives of three young men—two Americans and one North Vietnamese, a starry-eyed patriot.

The main character, Mark Cameron, has a best friend named JT, who does not make it. Their counterpoint character, Dat, becomes a general on the other side. Cameron spends his tour of duty in Vietnam in the Brown Water Navy, on a PBR.

His backstory is based on that of the author. The book jumps around chronologically, but the sections are clearly labelled as a kindness to the reader. The book starts in 1948 and 1998, and then leapfrogs back and forth through time to give a full picture of the Vietnam War Generation. The story ends in California, in August 1998.

Mark Cameron intersects with Dat, who had been a North Vietnamese general, and is now a civilian wearing a $600 suit. Dat is now known as Van and owns a string of convenience stores. The encounter is totally friendly and rings true to this reader’s ears.

As is not unusual in such a book, John Wayne’s name pops up more than once. Plus,  there is a big stateside scene in which one of the characters returning home from the war is called a baby killer and has eggs tossed at him.

Mel Smith

This is one of those rare semi-autobiographical American Vietnam War novels that includes a substantial cast of well drawn and realistically portrayed Vietnamese characters. In one realistic scene among Americans in Vietnam, the main character confronts a c-ration can of ham and limas and is warned off. He winds up being served a ham sandwich instead by a minor character who has access to the mess hall.

I highly recommend this well-written book.  It held my attention and more.

—David Willson

A Loving, Faithful Animal by Josephine Rowe

Josephine Rowe was born in 1984 in Rockhampton, Australia, and lives in Tasmania. I wouldn’t be surprised if her father served during the Vietnam War. Certainly the way she characterizes the people in her novel, A Loving, Faithful Animal (Catapult, 176 pp., $16.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle), indicates she knows about Vietnam War veterans. Or she is a damned good researcher. Either way, her characters ring true.

I was relieved to read that the characters in the book are fictitious as I would hate to blunder into any of them in real life. Or in my dreams, for that matter.  Especially Uncle Les “who seems to move through their lives like a ghost, earning trust and suspicion.”

The backbone of A Loving, Faithful Animal (the only book I’ve read that presents the Australian ruins of the Vietnam War) is the fact that Ru’s father, an Australian conscript during the Vietnam War, has turned up missing, this time with an air of finality. This makes Ru think “he’s gone for good.” Or for evil.

One blurb writer says the book’s “astonishing poetic prose left me aching and inspired.”  I got half of that—unfortunately, the aching part.

I don’t know if the greeting, “Have a few bottles of Tiger Piss and get defoliated,” was invented for this book, or if it is a common one in Australia’s legacy of their involvement in the Vietnam War. I hope it is just particular to this novel.

A character cuts off both trigger fingers to avoid being drafted. That seems extreme to me. But the book reminds me that a prevalent attitude during the war was that if you were drafted you would be sent to Vietnam and if you were sent there, you would die there. I never understood that, but I did encounter it.

John Wayne does get a mention, so do Audrey Hepburn, Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, LBJ, and Ho Chi Minh. One of the comments a character makes about being the offspring of a Vietnam veteran is that she’s spent her life “trying to lead [her] father out of the jungle.”

The question gets asked, “Why are we in Vietnam?”  The answer is that Ho Chi Minh kicked over LBJ’s trike. I’d say that’s as good a reason as any.

Josephine Rowe

Early in the novel we are told that all chemical agents used in Vietnam “have been fully exonerated from causing veterans’ subsequent ill health, with the partial exception of the antimalarial drug Dapsone, whose status has not been resolved.”

That makes me feel better about the Multiple Myeloma that is killing me by degrees. The question about how many Vietnam vets it takes to screw in a light bulb gets asked. No answer is given.

If you feel the need to read a book about the impact of the Vietnam War on the people of Australia, start with this one.

You could do worse. I did.

—David Willson

W.D. Ehrhart in Conversation edited by Jean-Jaques Malo

51hze3f7mul-_sx331_bo1204203200_

W.D. (Bill) Ehrhart enlisted in the United States Marine Corps on April 11, 1966, while still in high school. He left for Vietnam on February 9, 1967, after receiving combat training at Camp Pendleton. When he arrived in Vietnam, Ehrhart served with the 1st Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment as an intelligence assistant and later as assistant intelligence chief.

He took part in many combat operations including Stone, Lafayette, Early, Canyon, Calhoun, Pike, Medina, Lancaster, Kentucky I, II and III,  Con Thien, Newton, Osceola II, and Hue City. Ehrhart was promoted to lance corporal on April 1, and to corporal on July 1.

Bill Ehrhart is the author and editor of a long list of poetry books, memoirs, essays, translations, and chapbooks. Eight of his poems were included in the pioneering 1972 book, Winning Hearts and Minds: War Poems by Vietnam Veterans. He edited two important and excellent poetry collections: Unaccustomed Mercy: Soldier-Poets of the Vietnam War and Carrying the Darkness: Poetry of the Vietnam War. His books of essays include Dead on a High Hill and In the Shadow of Vietnam.

Ehrhart is considered to be one of the major authors of the Vietnam War. I am on record as calling him a “master essayist,” which he is.

W.D. Ehrhart in Conversation: Vietnam, America, and the Written Word (McFarland, 236 pp., $39.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle), edited by University of Nantes English Professor Jean-Jacques Malo, is a companion volume to Malo’s The Last Time I Dreamed about the War: Essays on the Life and Writing of W. D. Ehrhart.

In Conversation contains nineteen interviews of varying length and sophistication with Ehrhart done by folks from many walks of life. I enjoyed reading all of them, and was surprised how much I learned about Bill Ehrhart and his writing. I thought that after reading The Last Time I Dreamed and (full disclosure) having known him for decades, there would be no surprises in this new book. I was wrong.

ehrhart_bill20serious20123

Bill Ehrhart

These interviews cover many subjects and three decades of Ehrhart’s life and career. Parades, Jane Fonda, being spat upon, Agent Orange, and many other subjects are covered. Ehrhart is not a cliché Marine. He didn’t want a parade; he was never spat upon; he has nothing bad so say about Jane Fonda.

Agent Orange is covered and in one of the interviews Ehrhart mentions that I am dying of multiple myeloma which the VA believes came to me via exposure to dioxins in Vietnam

If you have the slightest interest in Bill Ehrhart or the Vietnam War, buy this book and read it.  I read it in just a few hours and loved it.

—David Willson

Dreams, Vietnam by Marc Levy

41fe3i6qn2l-_sx331_bo1204203200_

Former Vietnam War Army medic Marc Levy’s Dreams, Vietnam (Winter Street Press, 112 pp., $12, paper; $2.99, Kindle) is the most amazing and surprising book to come out of the Vietnam War. That is my opinion based on having read thousands of books related to the war.

I completely agree with the blurb on the back cover, which notes that the book “is a rare gift.” It goes on: “Using a spare style that startles with its directness, Marc Levy transforms the dreams of almost forty years into what often feel like surreal prose poems, with disturbingly realistic details of war juxtaposed with domestic details of childhood and civilian life. One minute the dreamer is in Vietnam, the next he’s in a childhood park; he’s a schoolchild, an adolescent, but simultaneously a soldier.”

The writer of the cover blurb, Martha Collings, gives profound thanks to Marc Levy for his trust in sharing these dreams with strangers. They show us how deep the wounds of war go. They cut very deep.

One example, this quote from a dream from February 22, 1999:

“I’m in a war. A plane of unknown origin flies overhead. It’s identified as hostile and anti-aircraft guns open up. The plane circles in the cloudy sky; it begins to drop bombs. The sharp explosions create fountains of earth that shoot up and fall to ground. There’s a firestorm of smoke and flame. I run but get caught in the haze. I find a clearing. I find my dog.”

I find many of the details of this dream interesting, but what intrigues me most is that it ends with Levy finding his dog. I am a dog lover, and my little dogs bring me much comfort. My dog Arlo often slumbers on my lap and enables me to get an hour or so of much-needed shut-eye despite the intense bone pain that usually prevents me from getting any deep sleep. Levy’s dreamer finding his dog brought tears to my eyes.

517g8sv8ql-_uy200_

Marc Levy

I found this book of dreams to be as beautiful and moving as I did the stories in Marc Levy’s book How Stevie Nearly Lost the War and other Postwar Stories.  Both are powerful and deserve to take a place among the best books of our war.

Thanks to Marc Levy for being brave enough to put these visions in print and to make them available to us in beautiful editions. His dream book also includes his excellent drawings. I would have liked to see more of them.

Marc Levy’s website is medicinthegreentime.com

—David Willson