Some Vietnam War veterans believe that you could count civilian war correspondents who supported the American war effort in Vietnam on one hand. Whether true or not, that group included AP photographer Eddie Adams and Peter Braestrup, the Washington Post’s Saigon bureau chief. And the novelist John Steinbeck wrote a series of positive dispatches on the war for Newsday in 1967 at the behest of President Lyndon Johnson.
Another prominent Vietnam War supporter was the famed World War II combat correspondent Richard Tregaskis, the subject of Ray E. Boomhower’s new biography, Richard Tregaskis: Reporting Under Fire from Guadalcanal to Vietnam (University of New Mexico Press/High Road Books, 356 pp; $34.95, hardcover; $19.22, Kindle).
Tregaskis, a fierce anti-communist, wanted “a firsthand, eyewitness look,” he said, “at the strange, off-beat, new-style war in which we find ourselves engaged in the miserable little jungle country called Vietnam, which our nation’s leaders have decided is pivotal and critical in our Asian struggle with Communism.”
Though he had been in Vietnam before—on assignment for True magazine in 1948, during which he covered the battles between the French and Viet Minh forces, and in 1957, during the Diem regime–Tregaskis got a third chance in 1962. His aim was to do research for a book to be titled Vietnam Diary, following in the tradition of his best-selling World War II book, Guadalcanal Diary.
While Tregaskis’ endeavors in Vietnam take up a small portion of his book, Boomhower does a very good job comparing the differences between war coverage during the Vietnam War and in World War II. The most famous WWII war correspondents were, most famously, Scripps Howard News correspondent Ernie Pyle, Stars and Stripes reporter Andy Rooney, and radio correspondent Edward R. Murrow. None of those journalists would have dared to criticize the American efforts during World War II.
Vietnam War reportage was very different. And Tregaskis didn’t like it, once telling New York Times correspondent David Halberstam, “If I were doing what you are doing, I’d be ashamed of myself.”
For his part, Halberstam “believed it was his job and the responsibility of other journalists in Vietnam to report on the news, positive or negative,” Boomhower notes. “We were finding out stuff we didn’t want to find out. We wanted the Americans to win,” Halberstam said.
The civilian press corps soon understood, though, that MACV wanted only good news from the press and, “any other interpretation was defeatist and irresponsible.”
Tregaskis’ spent much of his time in Vietnam in 1962 close to the action, as he did during World War II, flying on sixty assault missions on a variety of helicopters. Falling back on his memories of covering WW II, of Vietnam he wrote, “There was no one big D-Day; every day is D-Day and the front is everywhere.” No doubt the civilian press corps with which he was at odds and he could all agree on that.
Richard Tregaskis: Reporting Under Fire from Guadalcanal to Vietnam would make an excellent addition to the libraries of students of World War II and the Vietnam War.
The first time I interviewed the renowned French photojournalist Catherine Leroy for Stars and Stripes in 1997 she said, “When I photographed war, it went from dying soldiers to dead civilians. In the wars of one little world against another, one sees the senseless violence. It should be about being alive.”
Leroy’s stirring images, many of which appeared in Life and Look magazines, are alive in Mary Cronk Farrell’s new biography, Close-up on War: The Story of Pioneering Photojournalist Catherine Leroy in Vietnam (Amulet Books/Abrams, 320 pp. $22.99, hardcover; $9.99, Kindle).
In this biography for young adults Farrell tells the story of how Leroy had little to no photographic experience—little more than snapping photos of her cats in her Paris apartment—when she arrived in Saigon in 1966 with a one-way ticket, $100, and a Leica camera. Her dream was to capture images like the ones she saw back home in Paris Match magazine.
Her first stop was the Associated Press. “When Catherine walked into the AP office, the men all stopped work and turned to look at her,” Farrell writes. “She pulled herself up to her full height, not quite five feet, took a breath, and asked for Horst Faas.”
Faas, the famed AP war photojournalist, later said that Leroy was “a timid, skinny, very fragile-looking young girl who certainly didn’t look like a press photographer as we were used to arriving for assignment in Vietnam. She looked very young, had a nice pigtail on the back of her head. She came in, introduced herself as a photographer from Paris, and I looked her over like everybody else had in the office, and said, ‘My god, here comes another one.’”
Faas asked the young Frenchwoman if she had experience. Leroy lied and said she did. He then reached into his bottom drawer, she remembered later, and plonked three rolls of black-and-white film in front of her. “If you can get anything I can use,” he said, “I’ll pay you fifteen dollars a picture.”
Catherine Leroy had definitely infiltrated a man’s world in Saigon, and many male journalists resented her presence. Not the soldiers and Marines she photographed, however.
“When I got to Vietnam, I spoke three words of English. I slept in the same shitholes as the GIs,” Leroy told me in 1997. And, as Farrell recounts, she also managed to talk her way into parachuting into combat during Operation Junction City, in early 1967 with the 173rd Airborne Brigade.
One of the highlights of Farrell’s book is the fact that it also tells the story of the Vietnam War through Cathy Leroy’s story. An additional endearing highlight of the book is the fact that it is graced with English translations of many letters Leroy wrote home to her mother.
One example, from before the jump with the 173rd and before she was briefly captured in Hue by North Vietnamese Army troops when she was covering the 1968 Tet Offensive:
“Chère Maman, Talking about Saigon now. A very pleasant town that you would like. People are insouciant and smiling. Many Americans in civil dress. All this doesn’t give the impression of being in a country at war. You can write to me at the Continental [hotel], I go there every day to pick up my post. Love, Cath’.”
Of course, Vietnam was a country deep at war—a war that Catherine Leroy (who died in 2006) brilliantly captured. Those images and her story are also captured superbly in Close-up on War.
The question, “Where does America get such gallant men?” resonates repeatedly in Honor through Sacrifice: The Story of One of America’s Greatest Military Leaders (Koehler Books, 206 pp. $25.95, hardcover; $16.95, paper; $7.99, Kindle) by Robert E. Lofthouse. The answer focuses on Gordon Lippman, who fought in more than twenty battles in eleven campaigns in a twenty-two-year military career extending from World War II to the Vietnam War.
At the age of eighteen in March 1943 Lippman quit high school and enlisted in the Army. By the time he completed advanced training, Lippmann had been promoted to staff sergeant based on his leadership qualities.
In 1944, as a member of the 517th Parachute Regimental Combat Team, Lippmann saw action in Italy and, soon afterward, parachuted behind German lines into Southern France, a surprise operation that sent the German Army fleeing from the coastal region. Continually advancing northward, the 517th eventually fought in the Battle of the Bulge.
Lofthouse presents a great amount of historical detail in addition to telling the story of his first cousin’s life. After describing the turmoil of the pivotal Battle of the Bulge, for example, he analyzes events twenty-one miles north of Bastogne that Lippman took part in. For his leadership and daring under fire during the Battle of the Bulge, Gordon Lippman earned a battlefield commission to second lieutenant at the age of twenty.
In his account of cousin’s actions in the Korean War Lofthouse follows the same historical pattern, but tells more about the man who led the all-Black 24th Infantry Regiment platoon. Although Lippman unhesitatingly risked his own life, he always kept his men’s survival in mind. In Korea, he received a Distinguished Service Cross, Silver Star, Purple Heart, and a promotion to captain. Following the war, Lippman advanced through the ranks. As a lieutenant colonel, he joined the 3rd Brigade of the 1st Infantry Division at Lai Khe inside the Iron Triangle in 1965.
Lofthouse writes that political machinations led to the U.S. military failure in the Vietnam War. “Civilian control of the military does have its consequences,” he writes, noting that “the U.S. military had long been schooled in offensive warfare and was very good at it. Regardless of political policies, U.S. commanders were institutionally and psychologically unsuited to a defensive mission, which is what was called for in Vietnam by successive presidential administrations of Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson.”
In this “caldron of contention,” Gordon Lippman served mainly as a staff officer, although he occasionally joined troops in the field. Once, he even took a turn as a door gunner on a helicopter. He also was a believer in hearts-and-mind programs, especially helping school-age children.
On the night of December 11, 1965, following dinner with his fellow officers, Lippman announced that he was going to check on “the boys.” He donned his web gear, left the quarters, and was shot. A helicopter immediately medevacked him to Saigon, but he died during the night.
In concluding Honor through Sacrifice, Lofthouse examines Lippman’s legacy, along with those of other military heroes. He also includes “Memories from the Family,” a collection of remembrances about his cousin from the people closest to him.
Between wars, Lippman lived a model life. Following his strong Roman Catholic principles, he and his wife adopted three children. He earned bachelor and master’s degrees and wrote articles about leadership, a few of which Lofthouse summarizes in the book.
Honor through Sacrifice rightfully lauds the life of an exceptional citizen-soldier and simultaneously offers history lessons about American involvement in World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars.
I lived through those years and knew a lot about much of what Lofthouse writes in the book about those wars. On the other hand, he delved into minutia that reached a new and revelatory depth for me.
I highly recommend the book for anyone interested in infantry combat.
Carole Engel Avriett’s Under the Cover of Light: The Extraordinary Story of USAF COL Thomas “Jerry” Curtis’s 7 1/2 -Year Captivity in North Vietnam (Tyndale House, 320 pp. $24.99, hardcover; $15.99 paper; $11.99, Kindle) is, as the subtitle notes, the story of Cpt. Curtis’s POW experience in North Vietnam after the rescue helicopter he was piloting was shot down on September 20, 1965.
During that long period, Curtis was moved thirteen times. He was released on February, 12, 1973, a member of the first group of POWs to ride home in a C-141 Starlifter, AKA the “Hanoi Taxi.” He was a member of the group known in the camps as the “old heads,” the men who’d been there the longest.
Avriett, a journalist who specializes in religious themes, has constructed a very interesting book, detailing the saga of Curtis’ capture and imprisonment by the North Vietnamese. The story appears to have been developed entirely from Curtis’s memory and memorabilia, as there are no references, resources, or any other research items listed in the book. If that’s the case, Curtis has a prodigious memory.
We are taken into the solitary and communal cells and into the darkness that pervaded most of the places Curtis was held. Avriett explains the famed 25-position matrix tap-code—how it was initially developed in World War I, and it was used to communicate clandestinely in POW camps ever since.
The title of the book refers to Curtis’ deeply held religious faith. Frequently, prayer was the only thing he had available to turn to for solace and to muster the courage and strength to carry on.
Avriett details some of Curtis’ prayers and his conversations with God about his predicament. We see him asking for answers and strength and praying for the comfort of his fellow prisoners. Upon his repatriation, Curtis retired from the Air Force as a colonel.
This is a straightforward story without political rants or agendas. Curtis also speaks candidly, through the author, about conversations and disagreements with his wife about his re-entry into his family, including matters of child discipline, household chores, and things his wife had to do to keep the family going in his absence.
This is a good read; a well-constructed and edited presentation book.
Richard Camp’s Three War Marine Hero: General Raymond G. Davis (Casemate, 264 pp. $34.95, hardcover; $17.99, Kindle) is a biography one of the mostly highly decorated U.S. Marines. From humble beginnings in rural Georgia, we follow a young Marine through his early training and his service in World War II and the Korean and Vietnam Wars.
After graduating from Georgia Tech in 1938, Davis (1915-2003) received an Army ROTC commission as a second lieutenant—which he promptly resigned to accept the same commission from the Marines. After Marine Officers Basic School he met and married his lifetime companion, Willa “Knox” Heafner. They became inseparable, writing to each other daily whenever they were apart.
Camp devotes a great number of pages to meticulously recounting battles and encounters in which Davis was involved in the Western Pacific in World War II and later in Korea and Vietnam. Camp also covers Davis’ peacetime assignments and schooling.
As Davis’ career advanced, Dick Camp became his aide. They soon became confidants and now Camp—a military historian and the author fourteen books—has written Davis’ life story. His access to Davis has produced a detailed and comprehensive book that is long on battle scenes and minutia, but at times a bit short on details about Gen. Davis himself.
Davis went to Korea in 1950 as a lieutenant colonel. During his varied assignments, he planned, led, and successfully completed the rescue of a company of Marines from a perilous situation at Yudam-ni. For that action he received the Medal of Honor.
As the Vietnam War began to loom on the horizon, Davis became involved in the development of the air-mobile concept and its applications for the Marines. Davis later took command of the 3rd Marine Division in Vietnam, and served with distinction. In 1969, after his 13-month tour of duty, Davis returned to Marine Headquarters in Washington. He received his fourth star in 1971, served as the Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps, and retired in 1971
Three-War Marine Hero is a good book told by a competent author; it’s well researched and written. If you’re a Jarhead, it’s a must read.
Very few people know the burden of being born with a famous name. Some struggle with unfair expectations. Some shun the public and seek anonymity. Of those who enter the same field as their legendary predecessors, few reach the same levels of accomplishment.
Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. (1902-1985) was a three-term U.S. Senator, the longest-serving American Representative at the United Nations, as wall as U.S. Ambassador to South Vietnam (twice), West Germany, and the Vatican. He also advised five presidents and was continuously in public service for nearly five decades. As a young man with wealth, looks, and a Harvard degree, he made a curious choice to join the Army Reserve when the military was at its post-World War I nadir. He would serve his entire adult life in the Reserves before retiring with the rank of Major General.
Lodge, out of now-antiquated notions of probity, wrote two autobiographical sketches of his life, but no memoir. Luke A. Nichter’s The Last Brahmin: Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. and the Making of the Cold War (Yale University Press, 544 pp. $37.50, hardcover; $22.99, Kindle) is the first complete biography of this consequential American statesman. Nichter is a History professor at Texas A&M University–Central Texas and the co-editor of The Nixon Tapes, 1971-1972. In The Last Brahmin Nichter mines the wealth of secondary scholarship and Lodge’s archived material, as well as those of all the presidents from Eisenhower to Ford. The exhaustive nature of his research is evidenced by the book’s ninety pages of endnotes.
Lodge was the grandson—not the son—of Henry Cabot Lodge, the contemptuous Massachusetts Senator notorious for his stand preventing the United States from joining the League of Nations after World War I. The Cabots and the Lodges were the epitome of the Boston Brahmin aristocracy. Their forbearers gained wealth in shipping before turning to public service. Lodge’s forefathers included a Secretary of State, a Secretary of the Navy, and six U.S. Senators.
At age 42, Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. became the first sitting U.S. Senator since the Civil War to resign his seat and enter active military service and fight in a war. As it did for a generation of Americans, World War II changed Lodge from an isolationist (like his grandfather) to a zealous internationalist. He was re-elected to a third term in the Senate in 1946, but continuously clashed with the conservative Republican Old Guard. Determined to prevent another Republican loss in 1952, he convinced Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower to run. Lodge spent so much time working as Ike’s campaign manager that he neglected his own re-election campaign and lost his Senate seat to a young Congressman named John F. Kennedy.
After eight years at the UN, Richard Nixon tapped Lodge to be his running mate in the 1960 presidential election. They narrowly lost to the Kennedy-Johnson ticket. After the election Lodge considered himself too old to run for political office, but too young to retire. He crossed party lines and agreed to become Kennedy’s Ambassador to South Vietnam in the summer of 1963. It would seem a curious move for the patrician politician—working for a man who had defeated him twice in a remote, violent land with a fledgling government.
Despite an impressive career, the first three months Lodge served as Kennedy’s ambassador in Saigon are the most renowned of his life and the rightful cornerstone of Nichter’s work. A secretly recorded conversation implies that JFK gave Lodge approval to support a coup against South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem. Politically, Lodge was a nationalist in the best definition of the word; he valued loyalty and discretion, and did as well as he could in an extremely volatile situation. Lodge never explained his actions in Vietnam, but Nichter’s work is an important contribution in understanding America’s early involvement in what would become the nation’s most controversial overseas war.
In his effort to include as much as detail as possible, Nichter’s prose, though consistently accessible, can periodically be uneven. This is minor problem, though, given the scope of Nichter’s important work.
hgjkThe Last Brahmin is an impressive and authoritative account of a leading figure of the Cold War.
Every American should know the life story of former Green Beret—and Vietnam War Medal of Honor recipient—Gary Beikirch. It’s an admirable life filled with honor, valor, service, and humility. And with severe physical and mental pain and anguish.
Gary Beikirch was born and raised in Rochester, New York. He struggled through a rocky childhood after his father deserted the family when he was in first grade. When he was twenty, Beikirch dropped out of college and joined the Army in August 1967. He volunteered for Special Forces, made it through the physically, emotionally, and intellectually vigorous SF training, and opted to become a medic.
Gary Beikirch arrived in Vietnam in July 1969. He wound up serving with a 5th Special Forces Group A Team in a remote Montagnard village called Dak Seang about a mile from the Laotian border in the jungles of the Central Highlands.
Beikirch found his calling tending to the medical needs of Montagnard men, women, and children. Like other Special Forces medics, he treated a myriad of health conditions, from pulling teeth to delivering babies, treating tropical diseases, and removing shrapnel wounds. He bonded with—and came to love—the Montagnard people, especially a 15-year-old boy named Deo, who more or less became his bodyguard.
On April 1, 1970, an NVA force numbering in the thousands launched a surprise human-wave attack on the camp. Caught off guard, the Green Berets and Montagnard fighters (and their families), suffered huge casualties. Beikirch and the other Green Berets sprang into action, defending the camp. Not long after the battle began, as he ran into the teeth of the assault to rescue a wounded Green Beret, a shrapnel burst knocked him unconscious. When he came to, Beikirch couldn’t walk—the metal had lodged near his spinal cord.
He shook off the injury and ordered Deo to carry him back to the perimeter to continue fighting the enemy and treat the wounded. Somehow—without the use of his legs—he helped rescue wounded Americans and Montagnards and treat them in the medic shed. During that time he was shot a second time, in the side. Again, the young Green Beret was treated and Deo took him back to the fighting. Beikirch took another bullet, this time in the stomach, but he refused entreaties to get back under cover. He continued to fight, even with Deo and two other men carrying him on a litter.
Then NVA rockets started falling. Deo jumped on top of Beikirch during a barrage and paid for that selfless act with his life. Somehow, Beikirch continued to fight until he collapsed and was medevaced out. The fighting would go on for nearly a month.
Next came months operations in hospitals in Vietnam and back in the U.S.A. He had to learn to walk again. When he recovered, Beikirch asked to be sent back to Vietnam. Instead, he spent his remaining time in the Army at Fort Devens in Massachusetts. When he took his honorable discharge, Gary Beikirch enrolled in college again. That’s when life got really rough.
“The war injured me physically,” he said in a TV interview in 2019, “but it was my homecoming that destroyed me.”
Being all but shunned and scorned by antiwar college students, he dropped out and for the next few years fought what seemed a losing battle with severe PTSD. He tried self-medicating with drugs and alcohol. He tried turning to the Bible. To little avail. Beikirch wound up living in a cave in the White Mountains of New Hampshire for nearly two years trying to come to terms with the carnage he’d experienced in Vietnam and survivor guilt—even after receiving the Medal of Honor in 1973 in a ceremony at the White House.
When Beikirch met his future wife Lolly in 1975, his life began to turn around. Her love and attention (and their embrace of Christianity) eased much of the psychic burdens he wrestled with. He graduated from White Mountain Seminary in New Hampshire, and two years later earned a BA in Psychology and Sociology from the University of New Hampshire. In 1981, he received an MS in Education Counseling specializing in adolescent psychology, trauma, and PTSD, from the State University of New York at Brockport.
But during those years there were setbacks and backsliding. Soon after Vietnam Veterans of America was founded in 1978, Gary Beikirch joined the fledgling organization and became one of VVA’s early leaders. He helped form Chapter 20 in his hometown of Rochester, and served as its first president from 1981-84. He was elected the first president of VVA’s New York State Council in 1982, and served in that position till 1984, and also did a 1983-85 term on the VVA National Board of Directors.
In 1981, Gary Beikirch—who was running Rochester’s pioneering Veterans Outreach Center and serving as a team counselor there—joined a small group of VVA leaders including then-president Bobby Muller that made a controversial trip to Vietnam to work on POW/MIA and other issues with the former enemy.
In the summer of 1988 Beikirch began working full time as a school counselor at Greece Arcadia Middle School in his hometown. That’s when he overcame the worst of his PTSD and became a loving husband and father—and a caring mentor to countless young teenagers. He spent nearly 25 years at that job. Since his retirement in 2013 Biekirch has traveled the country speaking to students, church groups, veterans, and others about overcoming adversity through faith and what he has called “finding love and being able to experience it” and “loving others more than myself.”
Marcus Brotherton, who specializes in writing inspirational books about military men, worked closely with Gary Beikirch to put together Blaze of Light: The Inspiring True Story of Green Beret Medic Gary Biekirch, Medal of Honor Recipient (Waterbrook, 261 pp. $26). Brotherton uses much reconstructed dialogue to tell Beikirch’s story in a style that calls to mind books aimed at young-adult readers. He stresses positives, but Brotherton does not shy away from describing the many low points in Beikirch’s life.
There is a strong emphasis on religion, which is fitting giving how important becoming a Christian had in bringing Beikirch out from the depths of emotional despair.
Brotherton mentions Vietnam Veterans of America only once in Blaze of Light, in the final chapter. He provides no information about the nation’s only congressionally chartered veterans service organization that concentrates on working for Vietnam War veterans and their families—other than writing that we are “a group.”
There’s not a word in the book about Gary Beikirch’s important role in VVA’s early years on the local, state, and national levels.
Focusing on the concept that “sacrifice without remembrance is meaningless,” Craig Blackman enlisted students in his advanced placement American history class at Indian River High School in Chesapeake, Virginia, to study the lives of twenty-five local men who died in the Vietnam War. Twenty-three of them were killed in action. He had the students find and interview the men’s family members and friends, research their unit records, and write the stories of their pre-war lives and military service.
Sound historical scholarship forms the book’s roots. Page after page overflows with notes that validate the students’ findings. A bibliography is loaded with primary sources. Several of the students overachieved on the assignment and wrote longer-than-required accounts of their subjects, including their units’ activities. Some wrote wrote about in-country situations and locations previously unknown to me.
Despite growing up close together in Chesapeake, the men had diverse backgrounds: White, black, Native American; an only child; one of thirteen children; good guys and bad actors; draftees and enlistees. There’s an almost even split between those who were in the Army and in the Marines; only one officer is profiled. Their deaths stretched from 1966-70; fourteen took place in 1968. They shared a grim commonality in military assignments: straight from training to Vietnam in the combat arms. Nine died while still in their teens.
Each man’s story reveals a distinct personality. Photographs flesh out their personalities. A few experienced a rapid and perhaps premature transition from youth to adulthood. Determination to do the right thing prevailed among them. One definitely deserves his own book.
The students learned to appreciate the sacrifices made to American values by people barely older than themselves, even as a result of questionable diplomacy. “These high school students will never be the same,” Blackman says. “Interacting with the Gold Star families forever sculpted them emotionally and intellectually.”
The biographies are both sad and joyful. They brought unexpected resolution to some family members of the deceased by memorializing the deaths beyond a name engraved on a wall.
Blackman’s project peaked with a 2014 “special reception honoring Chesapeake citizens who made the ultimate sacrifice in the Vietnam War,” followed three days later by a Memorial Day ceremony. Relatives and friends of the men in the book attended both events.
Blackman also describes how he organized the project. In an appendix, he includes the worksheets he designed to guide his students’ research. Initially, his efforts produced spotty results, and he almost stopped the endeavor. Now he wants other educators to emulate this method for teaching American history.
Richard J. Flaherty was “the most unconventional man ever to serve in the U.S. military,” according to The Giant Killer: American Hero, Mercenary, Spy … The Incredible True Story of the Smallest Man to Serve in the U.S. Military—Green Beret Captain Richard J. Flaherty (Mission Point Press, 318 pp. $14.99, paper; $6.99, Kindle) by David A. Yuzuk and Neil L. Yuzuk.
Within the first six pages of this very interested book, Flaherty is killed by a hit-and-run driver in the wee hours of a hot May morning in a small Florida town near Miami. Earlier that evening he had told David Yuzuk that “if you ask too many questions, it could be bad for your career, and dangerous to my health.”
Yuzuk was a police officer in Aventura, Florida, who befriended Richard Flaherty and received his permission to produce a 2017 documentary about his life. With the help of his father, Neil, David Yuzuk tells Flaherty’s story in the film and this biography.
As the book begins to take shape, it traces Flaherty’s life from his high school days in Stamford, Connecticut. The bones of the story come from notes taken during lots of conversations David Yuzuk had with Flaherty, who was homeless—more or less by choice—for more than twenty years. He also interviewed many men Flaherty served with; his father did much of the behind-the-scenes research.
The title, Giant Killer, comes from a high school graduation yearbook entry referring to the nickname Flaherty earned after retaliating against a much larger classmate following a locker room prank. It stuck with him over the years.
The authors follow Flaherty through his enlistment in the Army, Basic Training, Infantry AIT, Officer Candidate School, Green Beret training, and his deployments to Vietnam with the 101st Airborne Division and the 3rd Special Forces Group. He was always the smallest man in the room—and in the field. Flaherty took the derision and ridicule heaped upon him as fuel to excel at everything he attempted.
After the war, Flaherty—by then a decorated Special Forces Captain—was riffed out of the Army. Feeling cheated by the military, he embarked upon a series of adventures, with different partners and clients, some of them covert, some of them with agents of the U. S. Government. There was a short prison stay.
This is a good, well-written book about a very interesting man.
“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.
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.
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.