Inheriting the War edited by Laren McClung

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Laren McClung is a poet and the author of a book of poetry,  Between Here and Monkey Mountain  (2012) Her father served a 1968-69 tour of duty in the Vietnam War with the 173rd Airborne.

In Inheriting the Wind: Poetry and Prose by Descendants of Vietnam Veterans and Refugees (Norton, 400 pp., $19.95, paper) McClung has included the work of a fair and balanced assortment of forty-four veterans’ descendants. The list of familiar and non-familiar Vietnam War veteran writers and poets’ surnames includes Lily Katherine Bowen, Linh Dinh, Heinz Insu Fenkle, Adam Karlin, Elmo Keep, Ada Limon, Bich Minh Nguyen, Andrew X. Pham, Monica Sok, and Hanh Nguyen Willband.

The book—with a Foreward by the acclaimed poet (and Vietnam War veteran) Yusef Komunyakaa—is arranged alphabetically by author’s last name. McClung gives a brief bio at the beginning of each section, providing just the right amount of information iabout the authors and translators. McClung does a commendable job digging up new and different writers representing all the groups that made the Vietnam War possible by their participation and those who now have a life of suffering due to that war.

We’re told early in the introduction that the United States sprayed 5.5 million acres of land in Vietnam with Agent Orange. This toxin sickened both Western troops and Vietnamese, and is a theme throughout the book in poems and stories.

Hoa Nguyen, for example, writing after Emily Dickenson in “Agent Orange Poem”:

 

What justice foreigns for a sovereign

We doom in nation rooms

Recommend & lend resembling fragrant

Chinaberry spring

Here we have high flowers  a lilac in the nose

“The Zeroes—taught us—Phosphorus”

and so stripped the leaves to none

Thanks to Hoa Nguyen for this fine poem. The quality of work in this book is always high and always thought provoking, as this poem was to me.

This isn’t a book to read a bedtime.  At least it wasn’t for me. I found it seriously disturbing on almost every page.

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Laren McClung

My favorite prose piece is “The Gangsta We Are All Looking For” by Le Thi Diem Thuy. My favorite sentence in the essay is: “When we moved in, we had to sign a form promising not to put fish bones in the garbage disposal.”

I laughed, out loud, when I read that sentence.

The author’s family had moved into old Navy housing in Linda Vista, California. I thought about the tales the garbage disposal could tell if it could talk. I guess it’s just as well it can’t.

A huge amount of work went into the success of this book, and I thank Laren McClung for it.

—David Willson

 

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What Now, Lieutenant? by Robert O. Babcock     

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The book title’s question recurs throughout Robert O. Babcock’s What Now, Lieutenant? An Infantryman in Vietnam (Deeds, 422 pp., $19,95, paper; $4.99, Kindle), an incident-jammed memoir that links a stream of anecdotes—some gruesome, some humorous—that highlight the kaleidoscopic tour of a young, proud, and impressionable Army infantry officer in the early days of the Vietnam War.

Bob Babcock’s memory swarms with “alarms and diversions” as the old officer’s training manual put it. He presents these through excerpts from his letters home and adds extended commentary on the day-to-day operations while he served as leader of Bravo Company of the 1st Battalion/22nd Infantry Regiment in the 4th Infantry Division.

What is striking about this memoir is the degree to which—despite his experiences with friendly fire, obtuse and careless orders from the higher ups, and even a bout of malaria— Babcock “keeps the faith,” maintaining his respect for his fellow company officers, his troops, and the overall mission.

This is a record of the early days (1966-67) when the Vietnam War was being fought as crisis management and the main goal of the generals seemed to be publicizing (and often exaggerating) the daily enemy body count. Though Babcock and his men see little evidence of progress toward achieving any strategic goal, they continue to follow orders with courage and honor—though, of course, not always without grumbling.

Endemic command SNAFUs notwithstanding, the author repeatedly asserts he was proud to have served and, most importantly, to have won the respect of the men of Bravo Company. During his tour, the company lost only three (two to friendly fire) of the 180 who served in the unit.

Babcock quotes, apparently without irony, Gen. William Westmoreland’s Thanksgiving Day message from the back of the 1966 holiday menu sent to the troops in the field: “May we each pray for continued blessings and guidance upon our endeavors to assist the Vietnamese people in their struggle to attain an everlasting peace within a free society.”

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Bob Babcock

These words may have rung stirringly back at headquarters. But Bancock records his unit’s day-to-day operations in the field as a kind of endless rushing about to suppress enemy brushfires.

The memoir also reminds us that the war tactically changed year-by-year. For instance, the men of Bravo Company, serving in the Central Highlands in 1966, viewed the impoverished indigenous Montagnards with a mixture of pity and contempt. On the other hand, the increasingly guerrilla-savvy Army Special Forces at the same time were beginning to employ these very pro-American natives as trusted warrior-guides.

Aside from offering insights into the daily grind of a field unit in an early phase of the Vietnam War, the author describes what it was like to arrive back in The World after this tour of duty.  Babcock recalls that in 1967 there were neither welcome home celebrations nor antiwar protests. His discomforting conclusion at the time was that most Americans just didn’t care much one way or the other about the war that had drastically altered his life and the lives of his fellow Bravo Company infantrymen.

Babcock supplements his memoir with mini-bios of many of those men, tracing the survivors’ post-war careers and current status in civilian life. He also includes a chapter titled “Advice for Today’s Lieutenants.”

— Paul Kaser

Note: Babcock’s memoir—first published in 2008 and re-issued in 2014—should not be confused with Marine Corps Gen. Richard Neal’s 2017 Vietnam War memoir of the same title.

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

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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

 

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

Mission of Honor by Jim Crigler

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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.

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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