My Grandfather’s War by Glyn Harper and Jenny Cooper

My Grandfather’s War (EK Books, 32 pp., $17.99), tells a moving story (for six-to-nine year olds) that centers on a conversation between an eight-year-old girl and her grandfather after the child learns that he had been wounded in the Vietnam War. This picture book with minimal text is beautifully written by Glyn Harper, a post-Vietnam War veteran who is one of New Zealand’s best-known military historians. Jenny Cooper provides gentle, moving illustrations.

“Why did you go to fight in Vietnam?” the little girl asks. The grandfather’s answers are pitch perfect:

“My father and both my grandfathers had fought in a war and I thought that the war in Vietnam was my turn to go,” he says. “I thought the war would be exciting and that nothing bad would happen to me. I didn’t think I would get hurt.”

Those words capture the feelings that tens of thousands of young Americans, Australians, and New Zealanders had when contemplating what do do about the draft during the Vietnam War.

Grandfather did get hurt in Vietnam. The war he goes on to say, was “horrible.” The Vietnamese people “did not like us. They wanted us to leave. We were not really fighting the war for them. And we all knew we couldn’t win this war.”

He goes on to say that when the troops came home “no one thanked us for going to the war. They just wanted us to go away. Then a lot of us started to get sick from all the chemicals that had been used. Not just us; but our families, too. Some people have been so sick they can’t walk any more. Some have even died.”

Grandpa hits the nail on the head. And so does this gentle book, which has a post-script containing a very short and very good factual summary of the Vietnam War, concentrating on its legacy among Vietnam War veterans in Australia, New Zealand, and the United States.

—Marc Leepson

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Vietnam Remix by Jack Nolan

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Jack Nolan served for three years, from 1967-70, in Army intelligence. He was stationed at Fort Holabird in Baltimore, and then to Vietnam where he worked in bilateral operations  in Can Tho and Saigon before returning home to train others in that arcane craft.

His novel of civilian-cover espionage, Vietnam Remix (CreateSpace, 316 pp. $16, paper; $4.99, Kindle), takes place astraddle the 1968 Tet Offensive. It follows a team of young men, “The Greyhawk Six.” The group is made up of  “the feisty Irish kid who can sing like an angel; the big, plodding Southerner who can perform complicated math in his head; the rude, feral Cajun who learns compassion; the peace-maker turned warrior; the rich guy from Harlem forced to be what he isn’t; and the earnest Catholic forced to be what he is.”

This small group embarks upon one zany escapade after another. They are all bright guys who effortlessly take part in cockamamie adventures, misadventures, and civilian cover stories that boggle the mind. They dress civilians so they can pass as nonmilitary contractors.

This is a literate, smoothly written, well-plotted novel unlike any others I have read about the American war in Vietnam. I enjoyed it and highly recommend it to anyone who would like to read a book that is well-edited and that goes its own way to produce an entertaining read filled with surprises and many twists and turns.

That said, the book nods in the direction of the familiar a few times. For instance, the song “We Gotta Get Out of this Place” is genuflected to as it is in hundreds of other Vietnam War novels.  Fragging is also considered and the case is made that the war machine is run by a group called The Clerk’s Mafia. Army clerks like to kid themselves that they are the ones in charge of the war, but I (a former clerk) have my doubts.

For a different look at modern war—and for quite a few laughs—read Vietnam Remix. You won’t regret it.

—David Willson

Curse of the Coloring Book by Howard L. Hibbard

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Howard Hibbard quit college in 1967 to volunteer for the Army. He served as an infantry lieutenant in the Vietnam War, including a stint as a company commander.

Hibbard’s Curse of the Coloring Book: A Novel Inspired by a True Story (Ghost Dog Enterprises, 384 pp., $16.95, paper) is based on his combat and legal experiences, along with PTSD, which has been dominant in his life.

The novel, Hibbard’s first, is told in two back-and-forth sections: those dealing with the long ago past when main character Herald Lloyd was young and in Vietnam, and those recounting the recent, current life he is leading as an attorney who messed up some paperwork and whose career is in severe jeopardy. I found myself focusing more on the Vietnam War sections and being much less absorbed in the legal career Herald is fighting to hang onto.

When reading an infantry novel I tend to keep track of recurring motifs, and I did that with this book. The classic song for GIs of the Vietnam War, The Animals’ “We Gotta Get Out of This Place,” was referred to so many times I lost track of how many. That’s a first for me. The last reference takes up nearly an entire page and emphasizes the chaotic camaraderie of an entire platoon singing that song loudly and off key.

Another recurring motif—in this book and in many Vietnam War infantry books—is John Wayne, the man and the movie star. Not to mention REMFs, shit burning, fragging and western references such as Wild Bill Hickok, Custer’s Last Stand, “saddle up,” “died with his boots on,” and others. Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s poetry collection, Coney Island of the Mind, is the backbone of the book, as Hibbard includes many quotes and references to it.

Much is made of the “fact” that Vietnam was always hot and never cooled off at night. That may have been true in some places, but I got cold enough at night many times in Long Binh to need a wool Army blanket.

Howard Hibbert

Howard Hibbard

The two stories—the legal mess of Herald’s adult life and the youthful adventure in the Vietnam War—were absorbing to a degree. The Vietnam War episodes were what I enjoyed reading. I’ve never been a lawyer so that might be part of the reason.

I did tire of the wacky characters in Vietnam with wondrous nicknames such as Dogman. But I’ve learned that is the price a reader pays for choosing to read a Vietnam War infantry novel.

As for the coloring book in the title, it is easily ignored with no loss of meaning to the novel.

The author’s website is howardlhibbard.com

—David Willson

Best We Forget by Bernard Clancy

For much of Bernard Clancy’s novel, Best We Forget (Indra, 420 pp., $16.50, paperback; $7.99, Kindle), we are locked inside the head of a young Australian serviceman, Donkey Simpson, where we are never far from what Clancy calls “a slice of madness.”

Donkey Simpson is stationed in Saigon for a year. He spends much of that time swimming in beer, hoping and praying to survive. But it’s not just his life Simpson wants to retain. It’s his sanity, his sense of order and, perhaps, his patriotism.

It isn’t long before the wide-eyed Simpson comes to realize there is no order here, only chaos. As for the mission, it changes from day to day, depending on who’s giving the orders and what mood they’re in.

There is occasional violence and a backdrop of intrigue. But mostly there is gnawing heat and relentless boredom. Simpson struggles to pass the time and lusts for a young Asian woman who turns out to be a spy. Given what he will learn about the lives of the “nogs,” as he calls them, Simpson is torn between a sense of sympathy and one of betrayal.

So he swings between caring and hatred—for her and for all the faces he passes on the street. The solution: bar girls, beer and—when he can find it—air conditioning.

Best We Forget is fiction. But the author, who served in Vietnam in 1968-69, paints a realistic picture of the desolation of the country, the lack of clarity in the mission, and the uncertainty of the allies’ commitment.

Truth and clear-headedness often comes—not from the leadership—but from privates and corporals, as we see in an early exchange between two young soldiers talking about the Tet Offensive.

That will never happen again, one says. “Don’t bet on it,” comes the reply. “Charlie’s got nothing to lose and everything to gain.”

After months of duty, Simpson begins to wear down.

“He began going out more often, drinking more,” Clancy writes. “He even began buying Saigon teas for bar girls, anything to relieve the boredom, to escape the crushing reality of what, like so many before and around him, he was beginning to see as a complete and utterly pointless exercise. Worse, he felt chained into a madness which suffocated and choked. And the more he squirmed, the tighter the chains twisted.”

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Clancy

Clancy paints a vivid picture of life in Saigon.

“As Matthews weaved the Land Rover through millions of motor scooters and motorbikes, pushbikes and the clapped-out relics of French cars, he saw a huge, filthy, stinking slum. People wandered listlessly among roadside huts made from cardboard boxes and slabs of American beer-can stamped sheet metal; rubbish, filth, refuse, everything just dumped everywhere. Buildings, filthy, old, dilapidated, falling to pieces.

“The stench almost turned Donkey’s stomach inside out. Exhaust smoke from the motorbikes blued the air. And God it was hot.”

 

Clancy is at his best when he shows us what he’s seen. For that reason, some readers might wish for a bit more description and a bit less escapism.

The author’s website is bernardclancy.net

—Mike Ludden

Michael Ludden is the author of the detective novels, Tate Drawdy and Alfredo’s Luck, and a newly released collection of newspaper remembrances, Tales From The Morgue

Nightmare by Robert E. Ford, Jr.

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Robert Ford served in Army Intelligence in the Vietnam War. He’s another in a long line of American boys who enlisted in the Army to avoid serving in the infantry. Ford figured that if he got drafted, carrying a rifle would have been his fate. He deployed to Vietnam in April 1969 and volunteered to extend his term to serve a second tour.  Ford’s novel, Nightmare (Dorrance, 178 pp. $15, paper; $9.99, Kindle), is based on his real-life experiences.

Nightmare is the story of Army Staff Sgt. Jack Butler, who undertakes a dangerous mission into Viet Cong-controlled territory. Aside from the enemy, he must put up with “an inexperienced ‘cherry’ lieutenant” who always knows best because he’s a lieutenant and everyone else is enlisted scum.

I’ve read other infantry novels featuring green lieutenants who have instincts to do everything wrong,  such as insisting on being saluted in “Indian Country,” even though that makes them a prime target, and crossing rice paddies because the land is open and looks totally harmless. This LT places himself and everyone else at risk, which leads to his men considering the option of fragging him.

The novel is barely half over and this stupid lieutenant gets cut in half just above the waist by “a previously unseen machine gun.” At that point all of the conflict drains out of the book with the LT dead and gone.

I missed him terribly. I wished he or a substitute would have returned to give the novel some piss and vinegar. Didn’t happen.

Later in the book, Ford, a life member of Vietnam Veterans of America, has returning veterans getting spat upon in San Francisco—not just once, but five times. Ham and motherfuckers get star billing in this little book and REMF’s get the usual attention.

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Robert Ford, Then & Now

The novel centers on a Quick Reaction Force unit. Gen. Westmoreland ordered each unit in III Corps to create, train, and maintain a QRF for the direct defense of the Saigon area.

“One such platoon of rear echelon, clerks and jerks, was headquartered in a compound in the Saigon suburb of Gia Dinh,” Ford says in the book’s Prologue.

The book moves right along and has a useful glossary. It’s good that there is a novel dealing with a QRF. It’s the first I’ve stumbled upon.

–David Willson

Creatures Born of War by Bruce Taneski

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Creatures Born of War: A Novel about the Korean and Vietnam Conflicts (CreateSpace, 574 pp. $23, paper; $2.99, Kindle) is a continuation of Bruce Taneski’s first novel, Creatures Born of War: A Novel about the World Wars. Both books emphasize, Taneski says, a “depiction of the psycho-social impact of war; not only for the veterans who served during these wars, but also the lasting impact post war for the service member and their families.”

Taneski served in the United States Army during the Vietnam War with recon companies in the 199th Light Infantry Brigade and the 5th Infantry Division. Forty years later he is still living with the trauma he endured during that war. The writing of these novels became a way that the author coped with his symptoms. In some cases Taneski uses real-life experiences in this novel.

This massive book contains two not-so-small war novels—one about the Korean War and one set during the Vietnam War. Taneski struggles mightily with apostrophes and commas in this novel, and the apostrophes and commas win the battle. Or they lose, depending on how you look at it.

Taneski’s strength lies in his ability to tell a story. He’d be better off telling tales around a campfire and letting errant apostrophes and commas fly off into the night sky like fireflies or sparks from the campfire. He lists two editors in the front of the novel; it would appear that too much escaped their editorial attention.  

In the first book in this series, the Bataan Death March was an important part of the story. In this novel, the Tet Offensive gets thorough coverage. The characters we’ve grown attached to in the hundreds of pages of narrative get worked over in a serious way by the Viet Cong and the many enemies who rise up to run Americans out of their country.

Walter Cronkite’s famous statement about the war being lost is echoed by characters in the novel. Their opinion is that the country should be given back to the peasants in the rice fields.

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Bruce Taneski

John Wayne gets several mentions and even the actor Aldo Ray gets a shout out. Ham and motherfuckers are mentioned, but the characters seem to think they are canned ham and eggs, rather than ham and limas. Hippies are busy cursing returning troops and even spitting on them, and the epithet “Baby Killers” is bandied about.

The only time I’ve ever been exposed to any of this is in novels and memoirs. And I returned home from Vietnam to Seattle, which is often figuratively spat upon for being a hotbed of liberalism.

This book contains the Korean and Vietnam War novels that the first book paved the way for, and it does not disappoint as a panoramic tale tracing the history of war trauma and PTSD.

Taneski has skill at showing young men in the context of war, and this novel continues that saga.

—David Willson

To Any Soldier by G.C. Hendricks & Kathryn Watson Quigg

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Any nineteen-year-old woman who can think and write like the character Ashley Beth Justice in To Any Soldier: A Novel of Vietnam Letters (iUniverse, 259 pp.; $17.95, paper; $5.99,Kindle) should have been scooped up and cherished for a lifetime.

Her letters comprise half of the book, which begins with one addressed “To Any Soldier” in Vietnam. She is in her first year of college. Lt. Jay Fox plucks her letter off his squadron’s bulletin board at Da Nang and answers it.

A Marine Corps A-6 pilot, Fox intellectually trails a step behind Ashley. Of course, bombing “Northern Gooks” (as he calls the enemy) and avoiding ground fire consume most of his attention. Ashley and Jay exchange letters throughout 1968.

The two fictitious characters evolved through a collaboration between co-authors Kathryn Watson Quigg and G.C. Hendricks. Back in the day, the authors filled roles similar to those of their fictional characters: Quigg attended college and Hendricks flew more than two hundred combat missions. The book includes lots of pictures of them and their surroundings at that time.

The letters exchanged between Ashley and Jay deal with subjects that stretch from war, destruction, and death to love, creation, and life. Despite the physical distance and opposing views they had on many topics of the era, the two fell in love. But that’s not how the story ends.

I enjoyed the book because Ashley and Jay address controversial arguments in a rational manner. With time to reflect between letters, their discussions lead them to learn from each other.

The authors’ backgrounds give the romance authenticity with which many veterans might easily agree.

They hit home with me.

—Henry Zeybel