Fighting the Cold War by John R. Galvin

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Gen. John R. Galvin subtitled his 2015 book, Fighting the Cold War, with A Soldier’s Memoir. The title tells only half of the book’s story. Along with recalling his life, Galvin offers a world history lesson that spans his eighty-six years on earth from 1929-2015. He also provided hard-earned practical knowledge about leadership by citing good and bad events and decisions related to his forty-four year military career.

Originally published in 2015 and reviewed here, the memoir now is available in paperback (University Press of Kentucky, 517 pp. $29.95).

Galvin’s accounts of his two tours in the Vietnam War offer grim lessons in leadership. During his initial tour as a brigade operations officer with the First Infantry Division, Galvin was relieved of duty and sent to a staff job in Saigon. He served his second tour with the First Cavalry Division mainly as an infantry battalion commander. He flew low in helicopters and frequently landed in the field alongside his men in combat.

Comparing Galvin’s two tours gives the reader a short but concise study of the subtle variations that constitute acceptable combat leadership. Putting his men’s welfare first brought Galvin both failure and success.

The book’s thirty-two page collection of photographs that span Galvin’s lifetime could almost serve as a memoir by themselves.

—Henry Zeybel

 

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Gen. Galvin in Vietnam in 1970 during his second tour of duty, with the First Cavalry Division

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  Other Dreams by Marc Levy

Former Vietnam War Army Medic Marc Levy’s Other Dreams (Telegraphos Press, 361 pp., $18, paper; $4.99, Kindle) is another amazing book from the author of Dreams, Vietnam and How Stevie Nearly Lost the War. I never figured that Levy would produce a dream record to top his first book in this series. But he has done it—in spades.

“You are about to read a rare and valuable gift to human understanding and to dream research,” G. William Dormhoff, the author of The Emergence of Dreaming, says of Levy’s new book.

This is an understatement. Levy has endured PTSD for most of the last fifty years. I can’t help but think of something my mom told me thousands of times when I was growing up. “If life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” If Marc Levy has done that here by writing about some 250 of his dreams, this lemonade is the best drink ever created from the swamp water of war.

The best friend any survivor of war can have is a dog, and Levy’s first book presented dogs in that loving context. This book, though, boggled my mind with dog references: dogs in general were encountered dozens of times, but also specific dogs—pit bulls, talking dogs, three-hundred-pound dogs, German Shepherds, Golden Retrievers, Shepherd-setter mixes, Huskies, a big blue dog, Siberian Huskies, seal pups, a Degas dog, a huge shaggy dog, a Weimeraner, a black lab, and more.

The poet makes the statement at least once in a recorded dream, “I love dogs, too.”

My only complaint about the book is that it lacks Levy’s fabulous drawings. His word images compensate for this. But still…

Other Dreams benefits from slow, careful reading, like difficult modern poetry. Not since I read Saul Bellow’s Henderson, the Rain King, have I been so struck by the recurring motif of animals in a work of modern literature. Dogs, certainly, as mentioned above, but also cats, seals, a bull with no ears, hawks and eagles, ducks, cattle, horseshoe crabs, polar bears, foxes, butterflies, water bugs, swans, rabbits, mice, a beast man, kittens, goats, rats, ticks—and Jane Fonda.

On December 8, 2016, Levy tells us, he dreamed:

“I’m in a war zone with another person, possibly my brother, walking along a moonlit, snowy path. We pass a wide-open, snow-covered field. I say to the other person, ‘Hey buddy… hey buddy… just keep walking.’ I’m aware that at any moment we may be shot. Each time I say, ‘Hey, buddy…’ the other person tries to crowd me off the path. ‘Hey, buddy… Hey buddy,’ I say, pushing back, ‘Just keep walking.’”

This dream has elements of poetry, story, and song, and I feel fear in every line. Also, mystery and malice.

It was brave of Marc Levy to commit this dream to print, and I honor that bravery. Levy is always just one short dream away from being back in the jungles of Southeast Asia. I thank him for sharing the war he survived in that jungle. It is a scary place. 

Once you have read Marc Levy’s dream books, I recommend his classic volume of short stories, How Stevie Nearly Lost the War and Other Postwar Stories.

Stay tuned for his next work. I’ve been informed it is coming soon.

–David Willson

The Mad Fragger and Me by Tom Dolan

Tom Dolan begins his 2013 memoir,The Mad Fragger and Me: Leading an Infantry Rifle Platoon in Vietnam (Booklocker.com, 378 pp., $18.95, paper; $4.99. Kindle), with a twelve-page forward chronicling the U.S. military history of the Dolan clan going back to the Revolutionary War. This sets the table for Dolan’s decision to enter the military after college graduation in 1968 at the height of the Vietnam War.

Was it a need to prove? To carry on the tradition? His enlistment, Dolan he tells us, was more a matter of “getting it over with,” not having to deal with the inevitable questions regarding his 1-A draft-board status from potential employers. He also felt the tug of the generations who served before him.

In this very readable book, Dolan steeps us into the Army’s process of bringing a raw civilian into its world of recruitment, testing, schooling, and branch selection. That includes the trip to the reception center to begin Basic Combat Training and Advanced Individual Training for this bright, young Officer Candidate School wannabe.

He relates, again with good detail–and here and there some rancor and relish—what it was like to go through eight weeks of Basic Training and eight more of infantry AIT in the New Jersey woods at Fort Dix.

The people he meets and deals with—as well as the locations and training situations—are fleshed out with enough detail to keep the reader interested in continuing the story without getting bogged down in the minutia that seems to weigh heavily in many Vietnam War memoirs.

Dolan takes us through an almost rollicking chapter detailing his OCS training. The Tactical Officers seemed to take great pleasure in inflicting discomfort on the candidates. However, on some occasions, some quite humorous, the same measure was returned to the faculty.

Dolan devotes eight chapters to his in-country experiences as leader of Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment in the 11th Light Infantry Brigade of the Americal Division. The unit operated with distinction during his leadership. He tells of friends made and lost, of soldiers he commanded, of other commanders he shared the battlefield with, and of the all-pervasive enemy.

In his final chapters and epilogue Dolan describes returning to “The World.” He refrains from deeply political rhetoric, but does state his feelings and convictions.

He dedicates his book to the five men lost during his command and to Gary Smith, “The Mad Fragger,” who died of Agent Orange-related illnesses in 2011.

—Tom Werzyn

Boots and the Law by Samuel T. Brick

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Samuel T. Brick is a lawyer. He tells the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth—”for the most part” and except for the names of the innocent and guilty—in Boots and the Law: A Story of Army JAG Service in Fort Polk and Vietnam (iUniverse, 244 pp. $26.95, hardcover; $16.95, paper).

The book’s subtitle explains its storyline, which is based on Brick’s experiences on active duty in the late 1960s. Brick fictionalizes his tale by giving everybody an alias—to protect those who went through the military judicial system. Samuel Brick becomes Gregg Thompson.

The Army permitted Thompson to finish law school and pass the Delaware bar exam before herding him through Basic and into AIT as an infantry draftee. The Pentagon then dragged him from the middle of Tigerland at Fort Polk, tested him, and promoted him from E2 to O3. When unexpectedly offered a commission to captain, Thompson barely managed to croak, “Let’s get on with it,” and a major immediately swore him in.

Like most JAG newbies, Thompson started his courtroom career on defense, something that tilts the scales of military justice in favor of prosecutors who theoretically have the more difficult job and require greater experience. That supposition brings us to what I liked most about the book, traits that from here on I will credit to Sam Brick, their practitioner.

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Over a century ago Georges Clemenceau said, “Military justice is to justice what military music is to music.” The quote’s subtext says, “It suffices to add ‘military’ to a word for it to lose its meaning.”

People cite Clemenceau’s idea to defame military justice, arguing that it provides officers with unquestionable authority to punish subordinates. Neither Brick nor I see it that way.

In Vietnam, Sam Brick defended, prosecuted, or sat as a judge in many types of cases: murder, desertion, rape, disobedience, armed robbery, black market activities, and various lesser crimes. Regardless of his role, he sought to see into the minds of defendants by investigating their histories in depth.

Generally, Brick uncovered evidence that showed defendants were immature men without a viable value system. The possibility of dying in the Vietnam War and their unwillingness to being there often overrode any other thoughts.

Pre-trial research guided lawyers in formulating a strategy for defending or prosecuting a case and determining appropriate punishment. In that regard, Brick carefully explains the pros and cons of military courts relative to a crime. Most of his JAG cohorts used the same approach.

The detail with which Brick explains trial and administrative procedures makes the book an outstanding read for anyone with even the slightest interest in justice. As he puts it: “Some of the sentences for serious crimes, usually more lenient than one would suspect, are a consequence of military juries weighing the need for discipline while bearing in mind the environment in which our men were thrust.”

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Sam Brick

Brick shows that not every offense went to trial. In-country transfers provided equally effective methods for changing behavior. Gen. Creighton Abrams himself once sent a popular but recalcitrant AFVN disc jockey “up north” to a little mountain just outside the A Shau Valley where the 101st Airborne Division could “teach him to soldier,” Brick writes.

During the early 1970s I found a similar degree of leniency among peers with whom I sat as a juror. I came to believe that being in a war expands one’s tolerance for lesser evils.

Brick wraps up several of his stories with twists. In summarizing one case, he says, “Nothing in this country is ever what it seems.” That conclusion fits just about every issue he writes about .

My verdict for Boots and the Law: Sam Brick is guilty of clearly explaining the fairness of military law during the Vietnam War.

Brick is a member of Vietnam Veterans of America,serves as VVA’s South Carolina State Council President, and took part in this year’s Leadership & Education Conference in Palm Springs. He retired as an Army reserve JAG colonel after working for CENTCOM during the Persian Gulf War.

I believe that he should write a sequel to show if the righteousness of military justice still prevails.

—Henry Zeybel

Virginity Lost in Vietnam by David Lange

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David Lange, the author of Virginity Lost in Vietnam (Act 3 Publishing, 460 pp., $34.25), has made a successful post-military career of wordsmithing. That fact is evidenced by his book’s dust-jacket accolades, comments, and author profile that  highlights his forty-year journalism career.

The book feels heavy on minutiae—both geographic and personal—of Lange’s early years in Ohio. He brings us meticulously from his birth to his arrival in-country, filling perhaps half the book. The same attention to detail continues throughout. The research is well done, and the book is great fodder for the hometown crowd, although is frequently a bit tedious for the casual reader.

Lange—a long-time member of Vietnam Veterans of America who has written widely about Vietnam War veterans’ issues—cites sources in the text for his frequent references, as well as for some quotes and additional material. This saves the reader the need to leaf back and forth to footnotes.

Lange’s experiences as a disbursement clerk with the Brown Water Navy in Vietnam in 1969-70 makes for interesting reading. He functioned in a necessary support role, getting troops paid. He filters his service story through the lens of current (2000-18) events and personalities, even more so than dealing with the folks who peopled the halls of power during his time in Vietnam. You could say this is an almost fifty-year-old story anchored in today’s headlines.

Dave Lange’s “virginity” on several levels is a theme throughout much of the book. And, yes, Lange loses it in Vietnam—on several levels.

This reviewer served in Vietnam a year earlier than Lange did. But he had me nodding affirmatively while reading some of his experiences, and he did a good job conveying the ambiance of his Vietnam War experience.

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Lange’s 1967 high school yearbook photo

Lange lets politics invade his stories too frequently, though, with unfortunate name-calling and invective. I expected better from a noted journalist.

Lange also writes about his deployments after coming home from Vietnam. This detracts somewhat from the book’s premise, but surely illustrates the formative aspects of his military service. In his post-military adventures Lange reboots Jack Kerouac’s On the Road with tales of hitchhiking here, there, and everywhere to visit and party with former shipmates. Liberal use of marijuana and alcohol lubricated those wanderings.

He completes this book with a rather detailed, German-rooted family history, as well as an extensive recitation of “WW II Winners and Losers” in the old-world geography his family called home.

Lange describes his Vietnam War story as a “coming of age memoir.” In that regard, he fulfills his mission.

His website is virginitylostinvietnam

—Tom Werzyn

51-50: The Book by Ron Irwin

Ron Irwin, a former USMC Corporal, has written a pocketbook-size, mini-memoir in which he addresses himself in the third person. He calls it 51-50: The Book (Lulu, 148 pp. $7.98, paper). The numbers represent police code for “crazy.”

Everyone has a story to tell with a special angle. Irwin finds humor in the craziness he encountered as a misdirected child and then as a United States Marine. In both cases, his stories rank well above the ordinary.

Pessimism enhances their telling. When searching for a post-high school job, for example, Irwin recognizes that he would earn “just about enough for him to be homeless.”

Ron Irwin traces his youth with wonderment heightened by distance and age. He reflects a brashness that serves as a defense mechanism to compensate for the innocence that once controlled him. Yet it also freed him to attempt the extraordinary.

Irwin’s 51-50 episodes began with his mother, a woman lacking even a hint of self-control. She wrecked her marriages with his father and a second husband, a man who stole Irwin’s “modest coin collection” to buy beer. Following 51-50 parental guidance, Irwin failed to capitalize on excellent opportunities as a student.

At the age of eighteen, he enlisted in the Marine Corps and his 51-50 experiences multiplied. He encountered the madhouse tempo of boot camp and the illogical luxuries he savored as an enlisted man in Okinawa and aboard the USS Valley Forge. Then came thirteen months of frantic Vietnam War duties in 1966-67 with a Marine air wing in Chu Lai.

One life-changing fact Irwin learned while FACing (yes, he voluntarily flew Forward Air Control operations with a Korean Marine major in a Bird Dog) was “napalm is totally indiscriminate.” It convinced him to hate warfare.

In Vietnam, tragedy continually overwhelmed humor. “Too many examples of 51-50 behavior that may have started with good intentions ultimately fell straight into hell,” Irwin writes.

Irwin’s 51-50 USMC events culminated with buying a couple of beers for two North Vietnamese soldiers and sharing the favors of— Wait: rather than spoiling an audacious scene, I suggest you read the book for yourself.

Ron Irwin

Written in a freestyle conversational voice, 50-51: The Book held my interest because of its undercurrent of turbulence. Editing purists might be turned off by the book’s lack of punctuation beyond sentence-ending periods and an abundance of typographical errors.

More than likely, few people will read this small book, but its messages about life are as pertinent as those found in scholarly tomes.

Irwin is donating a portion of the book’s proceeds to Vietnam Veterans of America. His website is ronirwin.net

—Henry Zeybel

Grunt by Larry Kuykendall

A two-year draftee, Larry Kuykendall excelled in training and went to Vietnam as an Army staff sergeant where he lead a platoon of other draftees during his 1969-70 tour of duty. Kuykendall’s memoir, Grunt: A Tale of Men and War (BookLocker, 230 pp. $15.95, paper) tells the story of his life with the 3rd Brigade, 22nd Regiment of the 25th Infantry Division operating mainly out of Fire Support Base Washington near Tay Ninh in III Corps.

Kuykendall touches on many topics recorded in other Vietnam War memoirs. For example, he discusses alcohol and drug use among his men, race relations, fear, close calls with death, and death itself. He describes monsoon rains, heat, hydration, and off-duty interactions with Vietnamese civilians beyond the wire.

Interspersed with this common knowledge, however, Kuykendall also teaches the leadership lessons he learned as he led a constantly undermanned platoon of twelve-to-twenty men. Sergeants led all platoons in his Delta Company, as his company commander determined that newly minted lieutenants were incompetent.

Honesty and fairness comprise the core of Kuykendall’s leadership philosophy. Furthermore, he believed that mission ranked secondary to safety. He made sure that his men understood those beliefs. As a result, Kuydendall lost only one man, and he was hit by friendly fire. Still, he writes, “every third man would be wounded in some way,” including himself.

The best lesson Kuykendall learned was to distrust authority. Decisions of officers under whom he served convinced him that authority was motivated by its own agenda for personal success, a conclusion he held fast for decades after the war.

By recreating two major operations involving his company, Kuykendall shows the great distance between the goals of upper-echelon Army officers and grunts. He led his platoon on a deployment up Black Virgin Mountain and in the invasion into Cambodia in 1970. Planners for each operation had minimal understanding of the situations. The results were exercises in futility, he says. In both cases, the NVA chose not to fight because its leaders envisioned an end to the war, which U.S. Army leaders refused to consider.

Nevertheless, Kuykendall projects a broad cultural personality that enlivens his story telling. He separates right from wrong and communicates his beliefs logically.

25th Infantry Division troops checking out a wounded NVA soldier for concealed weapons outside Fire Support Base Washington in 1969 (Photo by Spec 4 K.C. Cullen)

I believe that Larry Kuykendall should have titled his book Coping in a World of Disillusionment. He begins with a twelve-page preface that is an editorial denouncing America’s obsession with maintaining a strong military and employing it to support worldwide wars. Throughout the book, much shorter commentaries offer similar arguments.

Although Grunt repeats information covered in many other Vietnam War veteran memoirs, Kuykendall provides a fresh, front-row view of how a platoon of two-year draftees survived in a war with a questionable purpose.

—Henry Zeybel