Wolf by the Ears By Alan Armstrong

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West Point graduate Alan Armstrong served in Cambodia during the last stages of the American war in Vietnam. He fought with the Cambodian government against the Khmer Rouge, and was particularly close to Gen. Lon Non, the brother of Cambodian President Lon Nol. Armstrong flew out of Pnom Penh in 1975 on the last helicopter with American Ambassador John Gunther Dean.

Alan Armstrong is a well-educated person. The title of his new novel, Wolf by the Ears (BookBaby, 338 pp., $16, paper; $6.99, Kindle), shows it. The words come from a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote John Holmes in 1820: “As it is, we have the wolf by the ears, and we can neither hold him nor safely let him go,”  Also, the first paragraph of the book contains two words—“absara” and “sampot”—I had never encountered before.

Armstrong tells a strong and interesting story, and his book was fun to read. The language is strong and very much in the vernacular. Expressions such as “shit weasel,” “whack a mole,” and “pseudo-analytical fartlets” are much in evidence. Shazam and Captain Marvel get a workout as well. Even Howdy Doody and Chief Thunderthud make appearances.

The Fog of War also comes at us like a platoon of spinning anvils, and one of the characters speaks in a Japanese-cum-John Wayne voice. REMFs take a beating in a long rant. I believe this is the most thorough beating we rear-echelon Remington Raiders have been subjected to in recent Vietnam War literature.

The most enjoyable aspect of this novel was the treatment of food and diet. Our hero, Maj. DeRussy is confronted at one point with a main dish of turtle at a state dinner. Most of an entire short chapter is devoted to dealing with DeRussy trying to get this dish down his gullet. DeRussy talks to himself as he tries to eat the dish:

“Get tough, Big Guy. Don’t flash in your plate. Pretend its pasta. DeRussy singled out a piece of something and tugged. He had to wrap his fork around whatever he had latched on to and tug more than once before it snapped up, looking like a piece of strozzapreti.

“It felt like a tapeworm sliding down his throat, the front gaining momentum, the end grudgingly going along. After he swallowed, it occurred to him that anything that fine probably wasn’t a part of the original turtle but was most likely some species of parasite. He hoped that none of it or any of its pals has survived the heat to set up housekeeping inside his head, heart or eyeballs.”

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U.S. Ambassador John Gunther Dean (carrying flag) arriving at Utapao AFB in Thailand, April 12, 1975

This passage evoked memories and fears that I’d brought back with me from Vietnam, where I’d been much more brave than smart when it came to enjoying the meals that were easily available at little sheds alongside backstreets. The food smelled so good, but we were warned that it was deadly. But here I am, more than fifty years later, still alive—not healthy, not even marginally well, but still alive and functioning. If I had it to do over again, maybe I’d be more safety conscious. Maybe not.

I highly recommend Wolf by the Ears to anyone who is curious about what life was like in Cambodia during the Vietnam War. The Khmer Republic of the 1970s comes alive on the pages of this novel. Armstrong has a rare gift for making alien cultures interesting and vibrant.

—David Willson

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The Life of an Airborne Ranger by Michael B. Kitz-Miller

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“I wanna be an Airborne Ranger; I wanna live a life of danger.” So cadenced our Basic Training Drill Instructor all those years ago. In The Life of an Airborne Ranger: Donovan’s Skirmish (Koehler Books, 332 pp. $29.95, hardcover; $18.95, paper; $4.99, Kindle) Michael Kitz-Miller presents us with what he calls a “work of fiction” that appears to rely heavily on the lives and stories of people he came in contact with during his time in the Army. A better description of this book might be “autobiographical fiction.”

The book follows protagonist Jack Donovan’s exploits from early childhood, through a stellar and bemedaled military career, to his quick marriage and his next assignments, which apparently will be chronicled in the next two offerings of Kitz-Miller’s proposed trilogy.

I was struck with the thought that young Jack Donovan may be the re-embodiment of Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy of the popular radio serial of the 1940s, in that he’s just too good to be true. He also could be the Audie Murphy of the Vietnam War. He has Dr. Ben Casey-style healing and recuperative skills, as well as just off-the-charts expertise in all things military, including being an expert marksman with every weapon he picks up and uses.

Donovan leaves high school, goes through dead-end jobs and a truncated college effort, and then joins the Army. He finishes at the top of his classes in Basic and AIT. And he does very well in Recondo, Ranger, and Airborne schools. He sees action in the decade prior to the run-up of the Vietnam War. Then Donovan earns a chest full of medals serving in Vietnam, including the Medal of Honor for heroic, life-saving actions during an engagement that becomes known as Donovan’s Skirmish.

He also plans and executes large-scale operations anhqdefaultd develops ARVN training programs during his first tour. After recuperating from many wounds, he takes time away from the military to complete college, and while he’s at it, joins an ROTC unit so he can graduate as an officer. And he meets his future bride, the wonderful Mary Clarke.

In his Author’s Note, Kitz-Miller suggests that “If there are mistakes, inaccuracies, errors they are certainly mine.” Disregarding the book’s literary qualities, this was a tough one to work through because of misspellings, incomplete or missing punctuation, incomplete sentences, and syntactical errors.

One hopes Michael Kitz-Miller will seek better editorial help with his next literary project.

–Tom Werzyn

Highway Thirteen by Denis ‘Mac’ McDevitt

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Denis McDevitt dropped out of high school and that was the end of his formal education. He received his draft notice in February 1968 during the height of the Vietnam War, and went on to serve in the U.S. Army’s 25th Infantry Division in Vietnam from 1968-69.

McDevitt’s autobiographical Highway Thirteen (Lulu.com, 184 pp., $14.95, paper) is written so far from the standard rules of fiction-writing that it has the feel of an experimental novel such as Death on the Installment Plan by Louis-Ferdinand Celine. But this is not an experimental novel; it’s a book in which an inexperienced author is doing the best he can to produce a book about his time in an infantry unit in the Vietnam War.

Hat’s off to Mac McDevitt for how well he does with his skills and with his adventures in the war. Don’t expect fancy things such as apostrophes to demonstrate possession or not quite getting words like “trepidation” right. Still McDevitt does pretty well at telling an interesting story. He has good material, and his novel is better than many I have slogged through in the past ten years.

There’s a useful glossary at the back; the definitions are rough and ready, but adequate. For instance, McDevitt says “hooch” refers to a native hut, but defines it as any place you hung your hat.

Most of the usual stuff a reader encounters in an Vietnam War infantry novel can be found in these pages. Shit burning receives an especially good treatment and is deemed “the stinky science.” Half of a fifty-five gallon drum filled with shit and maggots is not what I had to deal with when I burned shit, but it gets the point across. Wyatt Earp gets a mention on the same page as shit burning is explained.

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The author in country

A riot at Long Binh Jail (LBJ) is discussed. as are Bob Hope, leeches, Miles Davis, Rome Plows, C-ration peaches and pound cake, Janis Joplin and Joe Cocker, Eldridge Cleaver, REMFs, PTSD, Canned Heat (the rock group, not the fuel), Sharon Tate, the concept that war is money a-go-go, and “chairborne” rangers.

I enjoyed this short book and suspect that it wouldn’t be much better if it had received a rigorous editing.

But you need to read with a forgiving and uncritical eye to get full pleasure from this narrative.

—David Willson

Float by David Eyre

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David Eyre’s darkly comic 1990 Vietnam War novel, Float, has long been out of print. We just learned, however, that the book has been available in electronic form since 2017 (Shannon Eyre, 393 pp., $9.99, Kindle).

Float, Eyre’s first (and only) novel is very, very good. It’s a funny, well-crafted story centering on Navy Lt. J.G. John Paul Dubecheck, who finds himself lost in the moral and physical morass of the Vietnam War. Dubecheck is realistically portrayed as a cynical survivor who gets in over his head time after time in the war zone.

Among many other misadventures, he has not-satisfying sex with at least four women: a U.S. Marine nurse hooked on heroin; a stateside hippie during an LSD trip while on R&R; a South Korean singer; and a Vietnamese prostitute.

Eyre, who served as a Navy officer in the late sixties, pulls all this off splendidly—the characters, the physical places, and the dialogue. The plot is a tad thin at times, but the book is densely packed with weird, wired moments in the war.

—Marc Leepson

The Dancing Leaves Fort Hamilton Brooklyn By Pierre Gerard

Yakova Lynn, the widow of Pierre Gerard, has followed the wishes of her husband, a U.S. Army Vietnam War veteran, in dedicating the posthumously published  The Dancing Leaves: Fort Hamilton Brooklyn (Merriam Press, 416 pp., $22.95, paper) to disabled American veterans.

Pierre Gerard (a pseudonym) had a distinguished military history. He was raised an Air Force brat by his Strategic Air Command pilot father. His French mother, a native of Le Havre, was a war bride.  His uncle was a highly decorated Korean War veteran. We reviewed his first novel, Le Havre: A Riveting Expose for Our World Today, on these pages in 2015.

Gerard served in the U.S. Army Security Police at Soc Trang during his 1967-68 Vietnam War tour of duty. Afterward, his professional career, his wife tells us, was spent as a “dedicated librarian.”  The Dancing Leaves deals with Vietnam War veterans at the Brooklyn VA Hospital, along with espionage, the Mafia, undercover agents, and crime bosses. This is a complex story—and one that at times confused this reader.

The very first page of this long novel refers to “rear echelon crap” and to a lifer as being a “regular John fuckin’ Wayne.”  So from the start, the author flies the colors of the sort of novel it is likely to be.

Of course, the biggest clue about the nature of this novel is the title.  Dancing Leaves is not a title that made this potential reader eager to read a Vietnam War novel, or to even suspect that this was one. Luckily, the book is much better than the title. At least a thousand times better.

I highly recommend The Dancing Leaves to those who are jones-ing to read another Vietnam War novel—-one that walks down some paths than are usually not trod.

The book also contains some worthy poetry and a lot of images, which sets it apart from the vast majority of Vietnam War novels. Some of the photographs made me shudder, as they show Vietnamese prisoners blindfolded in those red and white napkin-like affairs that indicate these poor fellows are likely to be shot.

—David Willson

RVN by Tim Gingras

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Tim Gingras is a former U. S. Navy Corpsman who served on active duty in the 1970s.  In his novel, RVN (Outskirts Press, 156 pp., $28.95, hardcover; $14.95, paper; $8.99, Kindle) eighteen-year-old Charlie Kinane is drafted at the height of the Vietnam War. He avoids going into the Army by joining the Navy as a hospital corpsman. He chooses pharmacy tech training, thinking that would keep him out of blood-and-guts experiences.

Then Charlie goes to Vietnam and is send to the 3rd Marine Division at Khe Sanh, a base  infamous for being constantly under heavy attack. Charlie’s primary duty is to keep track of medical supplies, especially controlled medications used for the treatment of pain. When Charlie is sent as a replacement corpsman on an overnight search-and-destroy mission outside the wire, he confronts everything he had been working hard to avoid.

Charlie keeps close track of the days he spends in Vietnam. He had to put in a one-year tour of duty that it would end in August 1967, so if he survived, he would hold the military to “this one-year thing,” as he refers to it. (I believe that in the Marines the Vietnam War tour of duty was thirteen months.)

Charlie’s duties include dealing with malaria, trench foot, leaches, delousing, burns, nausea, and countless other medical things including suturing. He works with female personnel and feels so strongly about one nurse’s  bad qualities that he discusses fragging her. He ultimately decides that fragging is “basically murder,” which he was against personally.

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Tim Gingras

Movies were available for Marines stationed on base and they watched The Sand Pebbles, Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, The Dirty Dozen, and Charlie’s favorite, In Like Flint.

I recommend this small but interesting book to all who are curious about the life of a Navy Corpsman in the Vietnam War.

–David Willson

For Good Reason By James D. Robertson

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For Good Reason (Black Opal Books, 482 pp., $29.99, hardcover; $19.49 paper; $3.99, Kindle) is James D. Robertson’s debut novel. A Vietnam War veteran, Robertson edited two non-fiction books dealing with that war:  Doc: Platoon Medic (1992) and Steel My Soldiers’ Hearts (2002).

The plot of For Good Reason revolves around Danny Mulvaney, a Vietnam veteran who writes a best-selling memoir twenty years after coming home from the war. As a result of his notoriety, Danny gets an invitation from a mystery woman to return to Vietnam, where he had almost died. When he arrives, old nightmares return and his Danny’s past begins to unravel.

Danny had one of those mothers, common during the 1950s, who believed that everything happened for a reason. He didn’t know if that passed for wisdom or just pure poppycock, but he loved his mother, so he joined the military with the notion that bolting for Canada was wrong, and that he must do his best not to let down his family or his country.

In the course of his eventful Vietnam War tour of duty, Danny was wounded, decorated for heroism, betrayed, faced a court martial, and rescued an officer from his college town by disobeying orders and entering the enemy-infested U-Minh Forest.

This is a large, well-written book that has everything in it, including—figuratively speaking—the kitchen sink. REMF’s are castigated as “candy asses;” John Wayne and the Lone Ranger “saddle up;” and Vietnamese prostitutes have razor blades hidden in their vaginas from whence they emerge to do serious damage to American manhood.

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Robertson

VC territory is referred to as “Indian Country.” “The Green Machine” rears its ugly head, as do Bob Hope and Johnny Cash. Donut Dollies are relabeled “Biscuit Bitches,” a new one to me.  Tiger cages are used to torture captured Americans. Great expanses of the Vietnam countryside are defoliated.

The question is asked, “What are they gonna do—send me to Vietnam?”

This long book book requires a huge commitment of time and energy, but is one of the best written of the recent Vietnam War novels.

I am glad I plowed through the entire thing.

—David Willson