The Dreaming Circus by Jim Morris

The works of soldier-writer Jim Morris—who served three Army Special Forces Vietnam War tours of duty—have enraptured readers for decades. War Story, his Vietnam War memoir, and The Devil’s Secret Name, largely about his time as a combat correspondent for Soldier of Fortune magazine during the 1982 war in Lebanon, are but two examples.

With his latest book, The Dreaming Circus: Special Ops, LSD, and My Unlikely Path to Toltec Wisdom (Bear & Company, 288 pp. $20, paper; $13.99, Kindle), Morris proves to be an even more fascinating person than legend holds.

Morris feels bitter about the way the U.S. abandoned the Vietnamese people in 1975. He reveals just how bitter in the opening pages of The Dreaming Circus:

“When the U.S. bailed on the people it had sent me to save all that patriotism died. The U.S. toyed with those people’s lives for a decade and a half, and then casually abandoned them when the going got tough.”

Before he served in Vietnam, Morris patriotically supported the war. After being wounded four times, that patriotism evaporated when the U.S. failed to keep a promise to the beloved Montagnards with whom he fought. “When I retired from the Army, I had done all the right stuff,” he writes. “I had repeatedly put my life on the line [but was] abandoned by the people who sent me to do it. The basis on which I had built my life was destroyed.”

Back home, in late 1969, Morris’s consciousness was awakened after he read Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid and became aware of Ken Kesey and his frolicking busload of hippies known as the Merry Pranksters. “One thing I noticed is how many in Kesey’s group were ex-GIs. Not just ex-GIs, but former combat arms officers,” Morris writes.

Jim Morris In Country

In one of his own forays into the world of LSD, the lives of Jim Morris, soldier, and Jim Morris, acid imbiber, seem to collide. In The Dreaming Circus, he writes about “walking into his soul.” That is precisely what he did in finding “the path to Toltec wisdom.”

The Toltecs, who flourished from the 10th to the 12th centuries, were the predecessors of the Aztecs. For Morris, their wisdom was channeled through two people he writes extensively about: mystical historian Carlos Castaneda, author of The Teachings of Don Juan, with whom Morris seems to have connected in a deeply spiritual sense, and author-shaman don Miguel Ruiz, whom he interviewed.

From their teachings, Morris learned “spells, prayers, and ceremonies are ways of focusing intent to create what you want. That means the world you experience is part of you, as much as the other way around. You are a wave in a vast ocean, but the ocean is you. Claim it all. See what you want to see. You have eternity to complete this task.”

The Dreaming Circus: Special Ops, LSD, and My Unlikely Path to Toltec Wisdom is a book that could well help readers do so.

–Marc Philip Yablonka

Marc Phillip Yablonka is a Burbank, California-based military journalist and author. His book Hot Mics and TV Lights: The American Forces Vietnam Network, will be published in 2023 by Double Dagger Books.

In the Mouth of the Dragon John B. Haseman  

Retired U.S. Army Col. John B. Haseman served 18 of his 30-year career in Asia. That included two and a half years in Vietnam during the war. He tells the story of his second Vietnam War tour in his new memoir, In the Mouth of the Dragon: Memoir of a District Advisor in the Mekong Delta, 1971-1973, (McFarland, 277 pp. $29.95, paper; $13.49, Kindle).

Haseman served his first Vietnam War tour in 1967-68 with the 9th Military Intelligence Detachment in the Army’s 9th Infantry Division in relative security at Bearcat Base, Dong Tam, and My Tho. In his second tour he served as a District Advisor, a task for which he volunteered and extended.

He returned to the combat zone at a time when the drawdown of American military units was well underway. Most of the time Haseman, his boss, and one enlisted man were the only Americans working for a South Vietnamese Army commander in charge of Popular Force and Regional Force soldiers—men, as Haseman puts it, “fighting for their family, for their friends, for their neighbors” against the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army. No regular force ARVN units operated in their area.

His ability to befriend officers and enlisted men brought Haseman success as an advisor. He was an eager student of Vietnamese culture and shares what he learned by taking part in the everyday lives of everyday soldiers. Best of all, he developed close ties with U.S. Air Force Covey Forward Air Controllers and successfully coordinated air support strikes, which made him popular among the men.

Haseman worked for twelve months at Ham Long and six months at Mo Cay, both located in the Mekong River Delta southwest of Saigon. The whole time he slogged through patrols alongside PF and RF troops.

Following his first fight, Haseman wrote: “Cordite from my M-16, fired in anger for the first time at an enemy. Relief when the firing stops and the wonderful, sensual feeling of adrenaline still pumping. And the feeling of savage delight at learning we killed four VC and suffered no friendly casualties.”

As time went on, friendly casualties increased. After two superiors were wounded, Haseman became head of his district. The operational pace increased and on most days Haseman was either on a field operation, coordinating air strikes, or both. One afternoon he coordinated 26 separate air strikes. 

In analyzing events surrounding the Spring Offensive and a three-week Battle for Tan Loi, Haseman discloses bits of information new to me and far too surprising to spoil by mentioning them here. Suffice it to say, they make up the best part of the book.

I recommend In the Mouth of the Dragon to anyone who believes the Vietnam War was worthless. As Haseman shows, the U.S. chose to help people who desperately needed and wanted our help; there just weren’t enough of them.

—Henry Zeybel

Vietnam Beyond by Gerald E. Augustine

Stories from two wars dominate Vietnam Beyond (Dorrance Publishing, 226 pp. $40, paper; $35, Kindle), a memoir by Gerald E. Augustine. In it, Augustine emphatically damns his year as an infantryman in the Vietnam War. He then recounts the incalculable price paid by his three sons, his wives, and himself a decades-long war with the physical and psychological effects they suffered because of his exposure to Agent Orange and wartime stresses.          

The U.S. Army drafted Augustine in 1965 when he was “enjoying the best of times” during summer break from classes at the University of Connecticut, he says. Shortly after training, he went to Vietnam and served with the 196th Light Infantry Brigade and the 4th Infantry Division as a machine gunner and rifleman operating out of Tay Ninh and Dau Tieng during his 1966-67 tour of duty. After first building a base camp at Tay Ninh, his brigade underwent an almost nonstop cycle of ambush patrols and search-and-destroy missions.

Augustine repeats bits of what others have said about the Vietnam War, but his writing style’s directness and youthfulness freshen the topics. In a chapter titled “The Daily Grind,” he succinctly sums up the pros and cons of infantry life: the M16 rifle (absolutely new to him), jungle rot (on his private parts), humping equipment (he was his platoon’s pack mule), dealing with the locals (be kind to children), fire ants and snakes, and operations Attleboro, Cedar Falls, Gadsden, and Junction City. 

He sums up his combat experiences by noting that he and his fellow troopers were “performing the tasks at hand in order to bring each other home alive. Individually we became extremely cautious.”

Augustine does not dwell on close calls. He does not labor over points of controversy; he states his opinions and moves on. He shows surprise and regret when men of authority misuse their power. He resignedly endured that type of exploitation in the Army and later in civilian life.

The second half of the book deals with Augustine’s post-war life. Except for his twenty-two months in the Army, he has lived for 76 years in Middletown. Again in a straightforward manner, he spells out exactly how marriage, parenthood, and financial responsibilities frequently overwhelmed him.

Marriage failures turned him into a workaholic. Eventually a series of hobbies provided touches of normalcy: bodybuilding, street rodding, running races, biathlon events, scoutmaster duties, veterans groups, and kayaking.

Gerald Augustine dedicates Vietnam Beyond, which includes many photographs he took in Vietnam, to all the recipients of the Combat Infantryman Badge.

—Henry Zeybel

We Had to Get Out of That Place by Steven Grzesik

“I was young and lived by impulsive decisions, Steven Grzesik admits midway through We Had to Get Out of That Place: A Memoir of Redemption and Betrayal in Vietnam (McFarland, 215 pp. $29.95, paper; $13.49, Kindle). Grzeski served two tours in the Vietnam War as a Light Weapon Infantryman at Dau Tieng, a Ranger with the 25th Infantry Division at Cu Chi, and a helicopter door gunner at Chu Lai. The book reflects the torturing of human spirit as revelatory as any I have read.           

With the concentration of a clinical psychiatrist, Grzesik analyzes his youthful exposure to warfare. As a skinny and bullied New York City kid, he escaped tough guys, uncaring parents, and poverty by moving to Greenwich Village and joining the counterculture until he suffered a psychotic reaction to LSD. On being drafted in 1967 at age 20, he says, “I was rescued by the Army. The rigors of basic training hardened me mentally and physically.” Outshining his draftee peers instilled him with confidence.        

Grzesik challenged many of his officers and NCOs. With an outsider’s mentality, he says, “I just was never in well enough to be buddies with any superior.” Nor was he subtle about displaying his feelings. He once aimed his M16 at a sergeant who treated him unfairly and pointed an unsheathed machete at another sergeant who physically threatened him. Later, Grzesik punched a lieutenant who insisted on making him obey a regulation overlooked by virtually everybody else. In lieu of a court-martial, he accepted a second tour of duty in Vietnam.

Despite the conflicts that Grzesik instigated, he was a conscientious soldier. He hated officers and NCOs because of the way they treated new personnel, particularly in Vietnam War field operations. He despised the FNG label. He felt that officers had the rank, but enlisted men did the work. He believed that superior rank provided no excuse for taking advantage of lower-level soldiers and called it out.     

The sincerity with which We Had to Get Out of That Place looks back on the Vietnam War overwhelmed me. Grzesik wanted to be a good soldier, but found it difficult as he was trying to survive the war. In the book, he repeatedly emphasizes that he did not want to be killed in a war that had no meaning. He switched jobs in hopes of surviving the war but ended up performing more dangerous duties. At times, his actions ignored reason and resulted in near disaster.

25th Infantry troops in-country

Grzesik’s desire for fairness from sergeants led him to all-but-escape infantry duty on his first Vietnam War tour, but not on his second.Taking advantage of his previous in-country experiences, he joined the Rangers. When his unit disbanded, he found himself jobless and went on a pharmacological spree while whoring his way around Saigon.

His descriptions of the drug and prostitution scenes make compelling reading. Arrested and again facing a court-martial, he showed his warrior mentality by volunteering to be a Huey helicopter door gunner, which turned out to be a mind-boggling experience. At that point in the book, I could not put it down and read far into the night.

Grzesik provides heartfelt insights into his passage into adulthood. Of his time in the counterculture, for example, he says, “The Age of Aquarius was not coming. It was a lie.” Recalling the war, he says, “Vietnam was a National Geographic moment gone terribly wrong.” Walking on patrol, he thought, “I felt like a man new to prison.” After the fact, he writes, “I cried because the greatest effort in my life meant nothing.”

We Had to Get Out of That Place informed and entertained me in many ways as it resurrected memories of my own similar thoughts and behavior. Grzesik sums up much of his existence by telling his reader, “I was fifty-seven years old before I mellowed enough to be a great husband to anyone.”

—Henry Zeybel

Smallwar by Larry Kipp

Larry Kipp’s Smallwar: My Twenty-Seven Months as a Medic in Vietnam (Hellgate, 262 pp. $12.95, paperback; $5.99, Kindle) is a wonderfully written and crafted book. This memoir from the first-time author is informative, personal, and heartwarming.

Kipp enlisted in the U.S. Army in March 1967 because, he says, he “wanted to help people” and being a medic seemed to be the best way to go about doing that. After training, he went to Vietnam and became an airborne medic for more than two years with the 44th Medical Brigade as part of a Dustoff helicopter crew.

The book’s 70 free-standing mini-chapters are presented in loose chronological order and resemble a long, informative conversation taking place over an extended period. Some are simply a few paragraphs on a single page; others are multiple pages in length. Some are informative; some are deeply personal; some are observational. The entry describing Doc Kipp’s R&R during which he met his Peace Corps-serving brother in Borneo was particularly well done.

Smallwar is a page turner that invites the reader go on to the next vignette—and the next one. Kipp—who earned a PhD in Biology and taught at several universities and colleges in the U.S. and Canada after the war—provides a close look at what his airborne war was all about. He tells of the daily grind of flights to retrieve the wounded and dead from the battlefield, but without angst and drama that so easily could have slowed down his story.

His “Afterthoughts” section alone is well worth the price of admission. In it, Kipp writes from the heart about the changes he went through as he served his country in the Vietnam War.

I highly recommend this book to everyone, even those only casually interested in the Vietnam War.

–Tom Werzyn

An Army Firefighter in Vietnam ’70-’71 by Michael Kuk

Michael Louis Kuk’s An Army Firefighter in Vietnam, ’70-’71 (Christian Faith Publishing, 278 pp. $30.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle) is an unexpected offering. Fires in a war zone are expected as acts of war and byproducts of fighting. Fighting and containing fires in-country, on the other hand, is a relatively little-known part of war, unless they occurred in rear areas.  

Kuk’s memoir tell the story of his 1970-71 Vietnam War tour of duty as an E-4 who was the Station Chief of the U. S. Army Firefighters’ USARV Detachment at Long Binh Post. He and his 21 soldier-firefighters reported to Pacific Architects and Engineers, a shadowy government services contractor that ran large-post engineering units throughout the war theater in a convoluted command structure in a convoluted war.

The book reads like a long interview or a series of conversations over a longer time period. Kuk—the retired Fire Chief at the Joint Readiness Training Center and U.S. Army Garrison at Fort Polk—tells his wr story using more than 80 “headings” and “topics” that range from a mere two or three  paragraphs to four-to-five pages.   

He devotes the first 50 or so pages of the book to describing the types of fire-fighting equipment on the base, including old French fire trucks and self-constructed pieces that were custom made for use in a war zone. Scavenging and trading was a way of military life and a way to get the parts needed to build the custom fire-fighting rigs.

Kuk includes lots of interesting vignettes from a man in a singular location on a singular mission fighting a singular war. He use his own reminiscences without identifying many people, places or things, including fellow fire-fighters.

The book includes about sixty pages of evocative color photos Kuk took during his year in Vietnam that provide deeper insight into his story.

In all, this is an interesting book—a work from the heart about an unsung part of the Vietnam War.

Kuk’s website is combatfirefighter.com

–Tom Werzyn

From the Rice Paddies to the Jungle by Ed Dull

Ed Dull’s memoir, From the Rice Paddies to the Jungle (Author House, 133 pp. $21.95, hardcover; $12.99, paper), is a small book filled with a big heart and lots of love.

Dull, a member of Vietnam Veterans of America, has constructed a different sort of a memoir. It doesn’t focus on battles, bullets, troops, planes, helicopters, but is built around his letters home and their “messages from the front.”

After his 1968-69 tour of duty as an infantry platoon leader with the 199th Light Infantry Brigade in South Vietnam, Dull plugged back into society, went to law school, and made a life for himself and his family. And he said little about his year in the Vietnam War.

After his parents died, Dull came across a box containing all of the letters he’d sent home, along with letters he had sent to friends and neighbors in his small hometown of Mt. Vernon, Illinois—letters his parents had collected and stored. The book began with finding that cache of letters.

Each chapter of the book tells the story of a month of Ed Dull’s year in-country. He starts them with a sketch of that month’s experiences and then adds the letters he sent home.

In August 1968, as a newly minted Army ROTC infantry lieutenant, Ed Dull took command of a 199th platoon in Long Binh. In his book, Dull takes the reader through the locations, missions, and actions of his unit. The letters home frame his feelings and responses to the events of each month; some positive and motivating, others,not so much.

This book is an offering born of family love and loyalty and is refreshing to read.

The book’s website is fromthericepaddiestothejungle.com

–Tom Werzyn

Once We Flew Vol. II by Joseph Michael Sepesy

Joseph Michael Sepesy’s Once We Flew, Volume II: Aftermath (Lulu.com, 306 pp. $24.95, paper; $10, Kindle) is the sequel to the author’s memoir detailing his experiences as a Huey helicopter pilot with the 1st Cav and the 1st Aviation Brigade flying some 2,200 combat hours during his three years in the Vietnam War. This volume focuses on the Sepesy’s life and times after coming home and leaving his Army service behind.

The book is uniquely constructed; the chapters are chronological and are titled as such. At the top and at the bottom of each chapter—before and after the copy—are epigraphs, a series of shorter paragraphs pushed to the margin. They’re informational items that expand on the words in the chapters and also relate to Sepesy’s post-military PTSD challenges. The format at first appears disjointed and cluttered, but as we read on, what Sepesy is doing becomes evident and the book reads well.

After coming home from the war, Sepesy became a special-education teacher in some of the rougher areas of his native Northeast Ohio. He takes the reader through his preparation for teaching, and details some of his classroom and administrative adventures. The epigraphs explain developments that will, in later years, prove to be symptoms and manifestations of his as-yet-undiagnosed PTSD.

Through the years, health issues developed directly related to injuries suffered in a crash landing in Vietnam. Sepesy describes his challenges and continually fills in bits of information with the epigraphs.

During is counseling sessions with VA therapists he was introduced to ballroom dancing.  As his PTSD became more evident and his medical issues more acute, ballroom dancing became very effective therapy. On the dance floor his pain falls away and his balance issues fade as he concentrates on the mechanics of the dance.

Some chapters are almost stream-of-consciousness narratives, another interesting, non-standard construct. A reader might profit from first reading Volume I as there are references in this book that would be clearer with the first book under your belt. Perhaps a short Glossary of military terminology would be good as well.

This is a good telling of one Vietnam War veteran’s efforts to rise above the PTSD gripping his psyche and his world.

Sepesy’s website is booksbyjmsepesy.com

–Tom Werzyn

Bravo Troop by William Watson

In William Watson’s Bravo Troop: A Forward Observer’s Vietnam Memoir (McFarland, 278 pp. $29.95, paper; $13.49, Kindle), actions explode out of nowhere without a visible enemy as vehicles and men detonate mines; RPGs blast tanks and APCs; napalm and flame baths obliterate the landscape; and Lt. Watson is in the midst of it all.

Watson served as an artillery forward observer with armored Bravo Troop of the 3rd Squadron, 4th Cavalry in the U.S. Army’s 25th Infantry Division from January 10 to July 18, 1969. The book deals with his six months in Vietnam without referencing the rest of his life, although Watson tells us he received a commission through ROTC at Princeton and earned a law degree from Harvard prior to going on active duty.

Bravo Troop primarily conducted road sweeps of highways used by convoys that hauled supplies from Cu Chi near Saigon north to Tay Ninh City and points between. That task included finding mines and protecting trucks from ambushes by NVA and VC troops. Bravo also searched out enemy soldiers and bunkers in surrounding forests and inserted and extracted LRRP teams.         

In recounting what he saw and did, Watson tells enlightening stories about large battles. He writes in a style that coolly reports vivid actions with minimal emotion. In describing his first full-scale firefight, for example, he says, “It was a noise that I had never imagined.”

At times, the narrative held my attention because Watson used an authoritarian voice that said, “Here is what we did and what you should know. Take it or leave it.” Units Bravo operated with suffered heavy casualties and were grossly undermanned. The NVA usually set the pace for encounters.  

Watson’s recalling of events from each and every day of his tour of duty risks boring a reader with details of unproductive exercises and mundane activities. As he puts it: “The real ratio of routine to excitement involved much more routine than I have reported.”

But those short descriptions create a strong feeling for his overall adventure—good and bad. For example, he says, “At the morning briefing Headley said today would be a lot like yesterday, and it was,” and later admits that it “is clear now that I was often unaware of much that was going on around me.”

Personal notes, maps, and cassette tapes from back in the day combined with newly found copies of the Squadron Duty Officer’s Log from the National Archives provided the material for the day-by-day accounts. Although Watson received a Purple Heart and eight Bronze Stars (five for valor), he downplays his heroics.

I don’t know how much information about the Army has slipped my mind during the past fifty years, but Watson taught me more than I thought I knew about being a soldier in the Vietnam War. His recollection of an in-country 25th Infantry new-guy course is eye-opening and excellent. His flowing accounts of maneuvers in the field taught me new knowledge. I frequently referred to the book’s excellent map of Bravo’s operating area.

The young lieutenant’s behavior and subtle reactions to war in general emphasize the shortcomings of the entire Vietnam War effort without a word of preaching. 

—Henry Zeybel

From Vietnam to the Arctic Circle by Jack Whitehouse

The subtitle of Jack Whitehouse’s From Vietnam to the Arctic Circle (McFarland, 267 pp. $29.95, paper; $17.99, Kindle), Memoir of a Naval Officer in the Cold War, is a reminder to those of us who served in-country during the Vietnam War that much of the rest of the world continued to be embroiled in the Cold War. 

Whitehouse has created a nicely crafted book. It begins with his high school years and includes how he choose a naval career. With a family history of military service, it was an easy decision.

As his memoir unfolds, there seemed to be almost an On The Road urgency to it as the pace of the writing picked up markedly as Whitehouse moved into the details of his Navy tour of duty. To do so required good notes and a yeoman’s effort at research. Whitehouse gives credit to his wife Elaine for reviewing and correcting the manuscript “numerous times.”

Beginning in 1968, Whitehouse served on the USS Buck, a World War II era destroyer, for two tours on Yankee Station in South China Sea off the coast of Vietnam. In 1971 he became the commanding officer of a gun boat, the USS Chehalis, which operated out of the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay. Later he became the first U.S. Navy exchange officer with the Royal Norwegian Navy.

Whitehouse tells many stories involving all of his duty stations, on the water and behind a desk. It seems as though there was always something going on worth writing about. Of particular interest was his time with the Royal Norwegian Navy; his stories of cruises and patrols above the Arctic Circle are well told and quite interesting.

At the end of the book, as he resigns from the Navy, Whitehouse moves on to a second career as a case officer in the Directorate of Operations at the CIA.

The book includes an Appendix titled,  “Soviet Socialism and its Influences Today.” It alone is worth the price of the book.

From Vietnam to the Arctic Circle is a good read. I highly recommend it.

–Tom Werzyn