Fire to Light by Charles Malone

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Charles Malone was drafted into the U. S. Army, and served a tour of duty in the Vietnam, War with the Provost Marshall’s Office in Saigon. Malone got nowhere near the jungles or rice paddies of Vietnam—along with most of the rest of us who served in Vietnam.

He spent his 1971-72 tour, Malone writes in Fire to Light: A Memoir of Family, Race, and War (Paramount Press, 316 pp., $13.99, paper; $5.99, Kindle), on “the streets of wild and woolly Saigon—a place of crazy traffic, drugs, women, music, graft and tension among the troops as America’s role in the war was winding down.”

This memoir is written like a novel, complete with elaborately reconstructed conversations from decades ago. The country was in the throes of Vietnamization, an ordeal that President Nixon claimed to place a lot of faith in. Those of us who had served in South Vietnam placed no faith in it at all. To most of us it was a con job—another way to bilk money out of the American taxpayer.

Charles Malone grew up in North Carolina in a small town where Jim Crow was a way of life. In the U. S. Army, however, there was no segregation or institutionalized discrimination against African Americans.  Thousands of southern white soldiers had to adapt to that. It wasn’t easy.

Malone includes many anecdotes in his memoir related to the struggle to accept the coming of a new age of race relations. He often marvels when he witnesses African Americans in positions of power, such as master sergeants bossing around white soldiers.

Many statements in the book rankled me, such as “the guys that wound up in Vietnam tended to be those with the least means or smarts to get out of it.” That rankled because I didn’t (and don’t) want to think of myself as that guy.

On the other hand, a few sentences later Malone writes that “None were craftier in figuring out how to stay out of harm’s way than the future chickenhawks, neoconservatives and other ferocious noncombatants who would in the future have no problem pushing other people besides themselves—or their own kids—into the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.” No way I’d argue with that.

Charles Malone

Charles Malone

This is an enjoyable, readable book that could have benefited from some judicious editing. Malone says some things twice and some three times. Once was enough.

Still, it was pleasant to encounter a mention of Arlo Guthrie, and also a frank admission that Saigon was “the rear” and a far safer place to spend the war than in the field. It’s brave to say that straight out.

So thanks for this book and thanks for a look at Vietnam War as it wound down.

Early on, Malone makes the point that Vietnam is a stinky place. But to his credit, unlike most authors, he goes on to say that the Vietnamese no doubt thought of Americans as stinky, too.

I’m sure they did, and not just in the way he means.

Malone’s website is charlesmalonewrites.com

—David Willson

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Shot At & Missed By Neal E. Morgan

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Introducing his book of thirteen and a half months of memories about his time in the Vietnam War, Neal E. Morgan writes: “This story revolves around the perspective of a payroll clerk doing a mundane job in insane circumstances. If you are expecting an action-packed battlefield diary or intense account of heroic exploits, you will have to look elsewhere.”

Morgan goes on to temper his warning by saying, “We were all in harm’s way.” A somewhat innocent draftee, Neal Morgan learned to hate the war back then and still does so today.

Morgan, a member of Vientam Veterans of America, writes that he spent “7 days a week in the ‘office’ for 8 to 12 hours” at Di An, the headquarters of the Big Red One, the 1st Infantry Division. When outside the office, he experienced “a lifetime of memories” as he writes in Shot At & Missed: Vietnam October 1967 to November 1968 (CreateSpace, 294 pp. $12.95, paper; $4.99, Kindle).

Morgan’s tour exposed him to the rigors of grunt life starting with the Tet Offensive when admin personnel manned the base perimeter (but remained unscathed) while, within their sight, Saigon and an ARVN camp went up in smoke.

He offers an insightful thesis on his love-hate relationship with guard duty based on unpredictable dangers inherent in a relatively routine task. He validates his emotions by recalling a morning base perimeter sweep as the point man who confronted two NVA soldiers, practically face to face. He also describes his one mission as a door gunner on a UH-1.

Morgan tells equally good stories about unusual actions such as a Rome plow leveling a town’s black market and red-light district, and a lightning strike that detonated every hard-wire device around him—including “foo gas” [fougasse] cannons.

Adding to the lore of Vietnam War oddities, he describes thirty fellow REMFs who, in response to Tet, formed a volunteer search-and-destroy team—”The Admin Badmen.” They trained during off-duty hours and eventually conducted night patrols, but never engaged in a firefight.

“I thought they were nuts,” Morgan says, “but admired their courage and dedication.”

Morgan intersperses entertaining stories with accounts of day-by-day routines that include detailed explanations of things that are now common Vietnam War knowledge, such as Claymore mines, C-rations, pink malaria pills, and ao dai dresses. That writing slows the pace of the book.

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First Infantry Division HQ at Di An, 1967

He adds historical perspective with chapters about Vietnamese history from 500,000 B.C. to 1975. In his epilogue, Morgan says he is “not a historian,” and excuses himself for including “names, events, and references [that] are exaggerated or incorrect, [because] none of those things were the real goal of this work.”

Morgan says that his “real purpose” was “a need to reveal the sad history that dragged America down a spiraling path into the painful and deadly bedlam that resulted in the Vietnam War.”

All things considered, Neal Morgan presents an interesting view of his involvement in the war as a twenty-two-year-old. His sincerity and his message’s relevance are unquestionable. Plus, he knows how to tell a story.  His focus and organization, however, blur at times.

Still, Shot At & Missed is his first book, and as he says, “This chronicle was simply something I needed to do for and by myself.”

—Henry Zeybel

Big Guns Firing by Patrick Goodrow

Patrick Goodrow is a great raconteur. The stories he tells about his two tours in South Vietnam’s I Corps in Keeping the Big Guns Firing: The Vietnam Story You Do Not Know (History Publishing, 239 pp. $8.99, paper and Kindle) fascinated me from start to finish—and what a finish.

In 1965 Goodrow was among the first Marines on the scene at Da Nang. In his memoir, Goodrow first details his duties as an E-4 Section Head in a 9th Marine Expeditionary Brigade Ordnance Maintenance Company in 1965-66. He then recreates events from his 1969-70 tour as an E-6. He kept everything from 4.2-inch mortars to 8-inch SP howitzers operational by solving nightmarish problems, sometimes with disasters included.

The book lives up to its title: It told me everything I did not know about maintaining big guns in a combat arena. Occasionally, Goodrow slips in what appear to be passages from tech orders, but does so in an easily understandable manner. These details enhance the impact of his stories and should connect with artillery aficionados.

His descriptions of events are both serious and funny and often come with unexpected twists. Early in the book, he resembles a babe in the woods. At the same time, though, he is the cleverest kid on the block. On his second tour, which is the best part of the book, he is a savvy, team-oriented pro. His flashes of comedic insight, coupled with a subtle, smart-ass attitude when confronted by irrational or misdirected leaders, scored smiles from me. At all times, he is highly likable.

Goodrow saw his share of needless death. He often ponders the fragility of life and the inevitability of death in combat, deliberate or accidental. His work took place mostly behind the lines, but he frequently went into the field to service guns.

“Many support troops faced just as deadly dangers as the grunts did,” he writes, “maybe a little more subtle and a little less obvious, but whatever position you held in Vietnam was just as deadly as the other.”

In his book Patrick Goodrow delivers worthy messages about war, duty, and leadership. He deserves to be read.

—Henry Zeybel

  We Few by Nick Brokhausen

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Nick Brokhausen’s We Few: U.S. Special Forces in Vietnam (Casemate, 360 pp. $32.95) reminded me of Dale Dye’s Run Between the Raindrops and Hunter Thompson’s Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga. Brokhausen mixes irreverence, perversity, and sarcasm with touches of gonzo journalism to recreate his 1970 tour with the Military Assistance Command Vietnam Studies and Observations Group (MACV-SOG), his second  of the war.

Guided by a captain company commander (a former E-7), Brokhausen, Mac, and Cookie (three sergeants) led Recon Team Habu, which was made up of Montagnard fighters. They helicoptered into areas controlled by the NVA, most frequently near Quang Tri and Phu Bai.

They also worked Laos, targets north of the DMZ, “and a few other places best left unmentioned,” as Brokhausen puts it. Primarily, Habu conducted secret missions to observe or disrupt operations behind enemy lines. Their most anticipated but unfulfilled goal was to capture a high-ranking NVA officer.

Brokhausen and his men considered themselves above the normal rules of social behavior. In the field, Habu displayed “pure aggression and murderous efficiency,” he says. Off duty the sergeants acted like members of an outlaw motorcycle gang. According to Brokhausen, they regularly got drunk; stole Jeeps and other equipment; outsmarted or bribed people; and fought or bullied drunken outsiders, MPs, rear echelon personnel, officers,  Air Force “zoomies,” drug users—and even Donut Dollies.

From its opening, the book’s negative intensity irritated me. Consequently, I read only a few chapters a day over the course of a week—cover to cover. Brokhausen provides a constant flow of outrageous figures of speech, quips, one liners, and bitches, along with lots of reconstructed dialogue. He leans heavily on superlatives. He categorizes people, places, situations, and events as the best or the worst with little middle ground.

Nevertheless, Brokhausen draws convincing pictures of his fellow Green Berets’ combat skills and idiosyncrasies and the areas in which they operated. He taught me lessons about Special Forces tactics and weapons—more than I learned from Ken Burns’ television saga on Vietnam, which I never finished watching.

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Brokhausen, third from left, with his Recon team

“A war zone encourages the eccentricities in all of us,” Brokhausen says. Overall, he recreates what he did and saw back in the day—for good and for bad, and far beyond bad.

Since his Army service, Brokhausen has had a successful civilian career in security and military-related businesses.

We Few was originally published in 2005. According to Brokhausen, “This [edition] is the first of two” detailing SOG operations.

—Henry Zeybel

 

Reflections on the Vietnam War by Warren E. Hunt

Former Army draftee Warren E. Hunt’s Reflections on the Vietnam War: A Fifty-Year Journey (CreateSpace, 142 pp., $12.95, paper; .99, Kindle) records his views of military life. It’s based on a questionnaire he received from a high school history class project.

The questionnaire motivated Hunt to recall “how he joined the military, his duties in Vietnam, his impressions of the Vietnamese, his typical day, his frightening experiences, his leisure time, and his postwar adjustment to civilian life.” Hunt’s concentrated view from fifty years after he went to Vietnam gave new meaning to the war, he says, along with his role in it—and its influence on him.

These thoughts in the book’s forward and introduction made me eagerly anticipate a flow of Hunt’s profound thoughts about war and life in general.

Initially, my expectations were too high. Hunt starts by presenting a litany of info on the draft, training, travel to Nam, assignment to a unit (in his case, the Big Red One at Lai Khe as a radio teletype operator), and the unit’s history. He also provides time-worn history lessons about how the U.S. became involved in the war and compares American military tactics to those of the North Vietnamese Army.

At best, the beginning of this book is a primer for readers uninformed about the Vietnam War.

Approaching the midpoint of this “remembrance,” as he calls the book, Hunt shifts gears and talks about the drama of the war as he saw it during his July 1968 to July 1969 tour of duty. Although he did not experience face-to-face combat, Warren Hunt went through more than enough danger to hold my attention. His duty area stretched beyond Lai Khe to what he calls the “hellhole” of Quan Loi, five miles from the Cambodian border.

Hunt’s perspective is infused with naiveté enhanced by empathy and compassion. What he did and saw registered deeply. He tells interesting and informative stories about mortar and rocket attacks, the Nui Ba Den massacre, Lai Khe race riots, fragging and associated threats, drugs, and other incidents. He explains how each event influenced his attitude toward life.

Hunt closes with a heartfelt recollection of attending the 1982 dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., when he renewed friendships with men he had expected never to see again. The ceremonies made him more active in Vietnam Veterans of America and with projects to benefit veterans.

Warren Hunt

In this slim book, Hunt repeats what has been written before. But at the same time he reconstructs events that provide fresh looks at military life under combat conditions.

One could call Hunt’s work a prequel to Steve Atkinson’s one-thousand-page Liberating Strife: A Memoir of the Vietnam Years, which focuses on Big Red One desk duty at Lai Khe in 1969-70 and includes letters from a long-distance love.

Warren Hunt’s Reflections on the Vietnam War: A Fifty-Year Journey tells a better story.

The book’s Facebook page is facebook.com/rvw50

—Henry Zeybel

In Liberating Strife by Steve Atkinson

“Love and war happened simultaneously for me” in the 1960s, Steve Atkinson writes in Liberating Strife: A Memoir of the Vietnam Years: Vol. 1, The Track of a Storm (City Limits Press, 395 pp. $29.95, paper; $7.99, Kindle). This declaration sets the stage for Atkinson exhuming his memories, from a highly personalized perspective, about how that decade’s dynamics influenced him while he was a high school senior and college student from 1963-69. At that time the Vietnam War, he says, “was the root cause of most of the domestic disturbances.”

Atkinson analyzes the pros and cons of the disturbances—communism, thermonuclear weapons, racial conflict, women’s rights, Selective Service practices, illegal drug use, and the antiwar movement—along with trying to find a lifelong mate—in this memoir. He digs up minutia that ought to register a touch of nostalgia among those who lived through the era, and his thoughts might teach a lesson or two to people unfamiliar with those years.

A week after completing graduate school finals, Atkinson became an Army draftee. The book’s second half describes his military training (nothing new here except a drill instructor who becomes a friend) and gives equal time to his relationship with wife-to-be, Bev Minear. He quotes from their letters and spends a lot of time on how they opened each other’s eyes to the enjoyment of intellectual pursuits. He convinced me that they definitely were made for each other.

Suffice it to say that Atkinson did not enjoy Army life. In October 1969, three weeks after finishing AIT, Atkinson went to Vietnam. In Liberating Strife, Vol. 2  (631 pp. $36.99, paper; $7.49, Kindle) he tells the story of his role in the war.

Trained as an infantryman, Atkinson ended up as a clerk typist. During his year in-country, he served at Lai Khe with the 1st Infantry Division Adjutant General; at Di An in the Message Center; and at Long Binh with the 16th Public Information Detachment.

Initially, he worked a twelve-hour, seven-day-a-week schedule. As American units deactivated because of Vietnamization, his workload diminished to an hour a day. He filled his free time by writing letters, reading, watching movies, and listening to music. By mail, Bev and he doted over classical literature and music.

His vices were drinking beer and limited dope-smoking. He describes his gun-toting duties as follows: “Standing guard on the rear perimeter [at Long Binh] is among the experiences that I remember most vividly. I knew it was highly unlikely there would be any trouble, yet there was still the remote possibility that I might be called upon to kill a man that night—an agonizing decision.” Atkinson puzzled over how fate had put him “in this strange little corner of the world,” but was pleased that it played out as it did.

Actually, Atkinson’s heart and mind never left Minneapolis. He intersperses accounts of his activities in Vietnam with information from Bev’s letters and other hometown sources. As he did in Volume 1, he analyzes historical events pertaining to the war and the strengthening of antiwar sentiment. He frequently writes more about problems regarding Bev, his family, and Minnesota than those of the war.

“The most important and beneficial lasting legacy of the Vietnam War was the abolition of the military draft,” he writes. “The draft is both an unwarranted imposition on individual liberty and too powerful and dangerous a tool to put in the hands of our elected leaders.” He labels it “involuntary servitude.” Throughout both volumes, he offers other controversial pronouncements.

With almost the same breath, however, he says, “I can honestly affirm that I do feel a certain pride in my service. I answered my country’s call to duty amid a time of strife and ambiguity. These pages have made it clear that I arrived at that decision in the face of considerable misgivings.”

In Atkinson’s case, love conquered all: Bev and he have been married since he returned from Vietnam. Atkinson, a member of Vietnam Veterans of America, focuses his book on their long-distance romance and underplays the war angle. That choice—and his job assignment— eliminated suspense and drama from his story.

The two volumes contain nearly 400 photographs, most taken by Atkinson, and illustrations, all of which were new to me. He shot large batches of pictures on R&Rs to Tokyo and Hong Kong. The collection includes more than two hundred pages made up on three scrapbooks that partially tell his story by themselves.

—Henry Zeybel

Sadec Province: by Gordon Bare

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Gordon Bare’s Sadec Province: A Memoir of War and Reconstruction in the Mekong Delta (Politics and Prose, 160 pp. $17.95, paper) is based on a journal the author kept during his two tours of duty in the Mekong Delta of South Vietnam. Bare served with U.S. Army as an Assistant Province Adviser with Army Advisory Team 65.

A retired Army Reserve Colonel who also worked in middle and high-level positions in the State Department, Bare now devotes time to Team River Runner, an organization dedicated to helping wounded veterans through whitewater kayaking. The proceeds of this book go to that worthy organization.

Sadec Province was initially a slow and laborious read mainly because of the scores of end notes. The reader would have been well served had these notes been embedded in the text or placed as footnotes on their associated pages. That said, this was a very good book for me to read

The first chapters set the stage with history, organizational structures, policy evaluations, and the like, and paint a fairly good picture of a part of the Vietnam War of which not too many of us are aware. The book is more than Bare’s memoir of his time in a small area inside the Delta. It’s a melding of those experiences and what he has learned about the war since then.

He has assembled a trove of information that brings to light obscure information about the war, the mindset of the Viet Cong, hidden successes of Vietnamization, mistakes of American strategists at the highest levels, how the war’s lessons learned are being applied today in the Middle East, and much more.

The final two chapters contain Bare’s afterthoughts and evaluations. Of particular interest to me was that as awful as the Vietnam War was on the people of South Vietnam, no one fled the country by boat. It took a communist regime to accomplish that.

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Also, that it has been suggested that the American war gave the rest of Southeast Asia time to get its act together and limit the falling dominoes to Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. And that there has been no recognition of the culpability of Americans who denounced the war in Vietnam and then denied that a bloodbath occurred. These statements, and others, have given me a more secure feeling that our involvement in Vietnam was necessary and to a certain extent, successful.

I recommend Sadec Province to anybody who served in the Vietnamization programs—Phoenix, CORDS, USAID, MAGG, MACV—as well as to anybody who served in the Delta or to those simply interested in learning more of behind-the-scenes military activities in Vietnam during the war.

I am glad I read the book. I was truly enlightened.

— Bob Wartman