Our Man by George Packer

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“Idealism,” writes George Packer, “without egotism is feckless; egotism without idealism is destructive.” This was the central tension of Ambassador Richard Holbrooke’s life and death, a struggle to balance a blinding ambition with American virtue.

Packer is a writer at The New Yorker and The Atlantic whose best-selling book, The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, won a National Book Award in 2013. Producing his latest book, Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century (Knopf, 609 pp., $30), was not a dispassionate undertaking for him. He starts Our Man with: “Holbrooke? Yes I knew him. I can’t get his voice out of my head.”

This initial conversational prose continues throughout the book, primarily in the first person by Packer, but occasionally by a third-person narrator. At times, Packer cedes narrative control to Holbrooke, using the former diplomat’s diary to fill an entire chapter.

George Packer’s simpatico relationship with Richard Holbrooke is underscored by their mutual support for the war in Iraq. That influenced Holbrooke’s third wife and widow to allow Packer unfettered access to her husband’s previously private papers and diaries. Packer also conducted more than 250 interviews for the book.

The brilliance of the end product is in revealing the essence of Holbrooke. He is not necessarily a likable figure, and Packer is unafraid to portray the more profane aspects of his personality. Yet Holbrooke’s ambition propelled him into achieving great things for his country, most notably negotiating a peaceful end to the conflict in Bosnia.

Richard Holbrooke arrived in South Vietnam in the spring of 1963 as a Foreign Service Officer in the JFK mold. He stayed for three years before leaving for Washington to work for pacification czar Robert (“Blowtorch Bob”) Komer. He would stay in Washington long enough to write a volume of The Pentagon Papers and participate in the Paris Peace Talks in 1968.

Under President Carter, Holbrooke became the youngest Assistant Secretary of State. He met his match in National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, though, who bested Holbrooke bureaucratically and consistently proscribed more-effective policies. Exiled during Reagan-Bush years, Holbrooke would fail in his life-long goal of becoming Secretary of State. He served in the Clinton and Obama presidencies in various roles, including as special envoy to the Balkans, and as special representative to Afghanistan.

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Holbrooke in South Vietnam in the early sixties

As it was during his time in Vietnam, Holbrooke’s ambition was sweeping and shameless, a characteristic Packer finds humanizing—but one that others may find revolting. Packer seemingly spares no salacious detail in the book. “He didn’t want to miss a minute of life,” Packer writes. He carried on many affairs (one famously with Diane Sawyer), played video games, watching an endless stream of movies, and wooed his best friend’s wife.

The journalist and biographer Walter Isaacson contends that if one was to read only one book about America’s foreign policy in the past fifty years, Our Man should be the book. This may be too sanguine, but it is not without merit.

Holbrooke’s perspective on foreign policy was forged by the Vietnam War, with its paradoxical mélange of exploited patriotism and sincere idealism, of earnestness and hubris, which has established the rhetorical framework for the use of American force since. His support for the war in Iraq showed that Holbrooke did not learn this lesson, allowing his egotism to destroy his idealism. When he tried to apply these lessons to his time as Special Representative to Afghanistan, he lacked the temperament to work with President Obama.

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Holbrooke at the table at the Paris Peace Talks

Our Man is a biographical masterpiece, but Packer’s history lacks a serious analytical framework. The second half of the title, “The End of the American Century,” seems to have been absorbed from others as a commentary about the current administration. In the scope of this magisterial effort, this seems like trifling criticism.

Our Man is captivating, infuriating, and engrossing. Much like Holbrooke himself.

–Daniel R. Hart

Hal Moore: A Life in Pictures by Mike Guardia

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The journalist and former Vietnam War correspondent Joe Galloway gave legendary status to Lt. Gen. Hal Moore by joining with him to write We Were Soldiers Once… and Young: Ia Drang – The Battle That Changed the War in Vietnam (1992). Hollywood turned the book into a popular movie starring Mel Gibson as the general and sanctified Moore’s leadership.

Military historian Mike Guardia, who serves as a Captain in the U.S. Army Reserve, further fortified Moore’s stature by writing  Hal Moore: A Soldier Once… And Always in 2014 and Hal Moore on Leadership: Winning when Outgunned and Outmanned in 2017. His latest book is Hal Moore: A Life in Pictures (Magnum, 192 pp. $27.95, hardcover; $25.95, paper; $7.99, Kindle).

Guardia calls his new book “the definitive biography of this revered leader,” who died in 2017, two days short of ninety-five years of life. With nearly three hundred photographs, many of them “never-before-published,” Guardia says, A Life in Pictures leads the reader through the stages of Moore’s life:

  • Childhood in rural Kentucky
  • West Point during World War II
  • Occupied Japan
  • War in Korean
  • The Vietnam War
  • Peacetime training supervision
  • Building a loving family with his wife, Julie and their five children

The nearly sixty photographs from the Vietnam War interested me the most. They primarily focus on the 1965 Battle of Ia Drang in which Moore led the 1/7th Cavalry. Captions provide concise accounts that show Moore’s commitment to his men. They also emphasize his remarkable ability of leading from the front, particularly throughout the 1966 search-and-destroy Bon Song Campaign.

The overall effect of the book created a strong admiration within me for Hal Moore’s life and career. Before opening the book, I anticipated seeing a bunch of pictures of soldiers standing around in uniforms. Instead, I met the memory of a man filled with compassion for his troops. Moore’s humility overwhelmed me. For example, the press’ comparing him to Gen. George Patton “horrified him,” according to Guardia. Perhaps best of all, Hal Moore had a sense of humor.

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LTC Moore at Ia Drang in November 1965 (U.S. Army photo)

Guardia is an avid fan of Hal Moore, but he portrays Moore’s behavior in war and peace with low-keyed vignettes that fully justify the general’s legendary recognition as a soldier’s soldier.

The author’s website is

—Henry Zeybel

An American Town and the Vietnam War by Tony Pavia and Matt Pavia

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Stamford, the anchor of Connecticut’s Gold Coast, is the “American Town” of Tony Pavia and Matt Pavia’s An American Town and the Vietnam War (McFarland, 273 pp., $39.95, paper).

Tony Pavia—a retired American history teacher and the former principal of Stamford High School—and his son Matt, who teaches American Studies and English at Darien High School in Connecticut, began work on the book in the summer of 2015. They spent countless hours over the next three years conducting research and interviewing Stamford’s Vietnam War veterans and the families of those who did not come home from Vietnam.

In addition to profiling the town’s war veterans, the authors also include information about the changes that occurred in the town from 1964-75. In doing so, they show  what the veterans missed and what they came home to after their deployments in the war zone.

This is a well-researched, well-constructed, and well-edited narrative that relies heavily on the local newspaper, the Stamford Advocate, as well on as those wide-ranging, face-to-face interviews. The result is a series of readable and fact-filled profiles of the twenty-nine men who died in the war, as well as what appears to be verbatim transcriptions of interviews with the men and women who returned home.

Each of the latter includes a short paragraph on the veteran’s post-war life. Some are quite compelling.

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Having lived in the Hartford, Connecticut, area for several years, the book was a pleasant return to those times and places for this reader.

An American Town is a good read and a commendable effort—a demonstrable labor of love for a home town and its Vietnam War veterans, some who soldier on today. And some who rest in peace.

The book’s website is anamericantownatwar.wordpress.com

—Tom Werzyn

Straining Forward by Michelle Layer Rahal

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Finding a niche in life might require a lifetime. Imagine the difficulty of that task for an adolescent woman suffering feelings of responsibility for her parents’ unhappiness; who sees her loving father and two siblings shot dead by a Vietcong soldier; endures war and the indignities of prison, torture, rape, starvation, and homelessness; and loses her mother to prostitution.

Michelle Layer Rahal accepts the challenge of unraveling such a life in the biography, Straining Forward: Minh Phuong Towner’s Story (Xulon Press, 374 pp. $19.49, paper; $9.99, Kindle).

Born in 1958 to an upper-class Vietnamese family in Saigon, Minh Phuong Towner attended a Catholic school that conducted lessons in French. When the communists won control of Vietnam in 1975, her world collapsed, and her mother ordered her to flee the country with her younger brother Thanh.

The escape of Minh and Thanh from Vietnam is a spellbinding story and sets the stage for all that follows. Searching for freedom and identity, Minh traveled through Taiwan, France, and Australia, ending up in the United States. Her life is a study in coping with emotional and physical trials by adapting to the demands of her environments.

Along the way, Minh experienced nearly every pain and privation that could befall a defenseless young woman. Her naivety led to repeated victimization. She suffered, but never gave up.

To win acceptance in each country, she learned the local languages and analyzed herself. At the end of a torture session in Vietnam, she thought: “God has abandoned me.”

In Taiwan, she decided: “I know how to care for others, I do not know how to care for myself.” France taught her that “Working to stay alive is not the same as working to live, and [she] wanted to live.”  In Australia, after becoming a registered nurse, she asked herself: “Who am I? What do I want out of life?”

She married an American in Australia, and had a son and daughter. Her brother Thanh’s death from cancer made Minh consider suicide: “Death would have been easy,” she says, “but I chose the harder route. I chose life.” When the marriage failed, she moved to the United States.

She married for a second time and evolved spiritually. Diagnosed with PTSD, she learned to manage. She earned a graduate degree and attained a satisfying life in ministry and became a United States citizen.

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Michelle Rahal

The pace of this uplifting book slows after Minh reaches Australia. Activities during her nearly thirty years in that nation relate mainly to repetitive domestic conflicts. Thankfully, Rahal’s fluid writing style sustained my interest.

Twenty photographs that perfectly span sixty years show Minh and her family from childhood to the present.

Mihn’s story reminded me of Thuhang Tran’s Standing Up After Saigon. Both books focus on young women facing life-changing challenges and provide information about the assimilation of Vietnamese people in other nations, as well as their acceptance into the United States.

—Henry Zeybel

John McCain: American Maverick by Elaine S. Povich

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Elaine S. Povich’s John McCain: American Maverick (Sterling, 208 pp, $24.95) is a coffee-table-like tome featuring large, glossy (and evocative) photographs on nearly every page. The photos are used to good effect to cover the many highlights of McCain’s notable life, including the five-and-a-half years he was held as a POW in the Hanoi Hilton.

Povich, a Washington, D.C. journalist who has covered the nation’s capital for UPI, the Chicago Tribune, and Newsday, wrote a conventional bio of McCain—John McCain: A Biography—in 2009. This go-round she mainly uses McCain’s own words, including more than a few pithy pull quotes, to accompany the bare-bones text and the great many photographs from throughout McCain’s eventful personal and political lives.

Ken Burns, Mr. Documentary, provides a Foreword that—like the book itself—is a paean to McCain’s heroism and service.

McCain is, “without doubt,” Burns writes, “a genuine American hero—complicated, brave, flawed, sacrificing, confounding, inspiring—and above all human. I have had the great privilege of spending time with him on many occasions over the last two-plus decades and each meeting has only reinforced my conviction about his unique and inspirational greatness.”

Povich agrees.

“Above it all,” in McCain’s life, she writes, there is “honor—the code by which he has always lived. The worst times of his life were when he felt that honor tarnished, yet they were rare. McCain tries to do what he feels is right. He doesn’t always succeed. But he surely has a hell of a time trying.

“If he is remembered for anything, McCain has said, he would like it to be that he ‘served his country. And I hope, we could add, honorably.’

“He has done so. And honorably.”

—Marc Leepson

Rear Admiral Larry Chambers, USN by Ric Murphy

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Ric Murphy’s Rear Admiral Larry Chambers, USN: First African American to Command an Aircraft Carrier  (McFarland & Company, Inc., 2017, 220 pp. $35, paper; $9.99, Kindle) tells the story of a poor African American boy who grew up in segregated America and through education, determination, and incisive decision-making advanced to the highest ranks of the United States Navy.

Murphy is an award-winning author and an avid genealogist and historian who specializes in African American history. Born in Boston into a family with lineage dating to the earliest colonial period in Plymouth, Massachusetts, and Jamestown, Virginia, he lives and works in Washington, D.C.

Rear Admiral Larry Chambers, USN presents the powerful story of Larry Chambers’s climb to the top, as well as the sociopolitical and global and military history surrounding his life. Reading this book raised my level of admiration, respect, and gratitude for Adm. Chambers, his family, his mentors, and for the author for his impeccable book.

Thanks to Adm. Chambers’s widowed mother and his grandparents, his school administrators, teachers and his other role models, he received a solid and formidable foundation and went on to live his life and make decisions supported entirely by that foundation.

More than once during his military career, Adm. Chambers realized that a decision—while being the correct one—might result in his court-martial. But these instances resulted instead in commendations and promotions.  Adm. Chambers’s dedication to his core beliefs and his devotion to protecting his men and assets far outweighed his desires to succeed.

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Ric Murphy

The results of these decisive actions are legendary and a part of U.S. Navy history. His crowning achievement after being the first African American to captain a Navy aircraft carrier, the USS Midway, was his stellar, heroic participation in the 1975 evacuation of Saigon during the final hours of the Vietnam War.

Whether you’re into military, global, or social history—or you just enjoy a very good read—I highly recommend Rear Admiral Larry Chambers, USN be placed high on your reading bucket list.

The author’s website is ricmurphy.com/

— Bob Wartman

Camp Frenzell-Jones by Ray Bows and Pia Bows

Ray Bows knows how to do his homework. Since retiring as a Master Sergeant from the U.S. Army in 1983, he has researched military records and written extensively about the Vietnam War.

Camp Frenzell-Jones: Home of the Redcatchers in Vietnam (Bows, 192 pp., $15, paper) is his eighth book. Pia, his wife, began collaborating with him in 2001. In their books the Bows’s pay tribute to people, events, and locales that otherwise might be forgotten. Ray Bows served with the Redcatchers of the 199th Light Infantry Brigade in Vietnam during 1967-68.

The book explains the naming of the main base of the 199th on the northern edge of Long Binh Post in honor of Herbert “Herb” Frenzell and Billy C. Jones, who died on January 21, 1967. The two infantrymen were the 199th’s first combat casualties in the Vietnam War.

The book tells their life stories. We learn that they became friends in the Army despite coming from drastically different backgrounds. Frenzell, an unmarried college dropout, had enlisted; Jones, a blue-collar husband with two children, was drafted. After reaching Vietnam, they developed negative feelings about the war, which are reflected in many letters they sent home. Nevertheless, they conscientiously spent their short in-country lives in the field on search and destroy missions. Both received posthumous Silver Stars for gallantry.

Many restored photographs, along with some taken from 8-mm film footage shot by Frenzell, fill out the book—and the personalities of the men.

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PFC Bows, 1953

Like good historians, the authors include a bibliography and index. Their  research also provides a 199th Infantry Brigade Order of Battle, which lists lineage, decorations, and awards for the brigade’s battalions and support units.

I recommend going to the authors’ website at www.bowsmilitarybooks.com where you can find book-ordering information. My visit gave me a broader appreciation of the depth to which self-motivated writers dig to prevent the price paid by those who took part in the Vietnam War from being forgotten.

—Henry Zeybel