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

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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

Bringing Vincent Home by Madeleine Mysko

Reviewing a book this long after it was published (in 2007) is unusual. But Bringing Vincent Home (Plain View Press, 2007; 182 pp., $14.95, paper) is an unusually compelling novel, and letting readers know about it ten years late still seems a lot better than not letting them know at all.

Author Madeleine Mysko has written a Vietnam War story that is remarkably true to life— but just as remarkably different from the conventional fiction of that war. Mysko served as an Army nurse whose wartime service was not in Vietnam but at the Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas—specifically in the center’s burn ward, then and now the Army’s main facility for treating soldiers with severe burn injuries. The burn unit is the setting for her novel, which is narrated by the middle-aged mother of one of the casualties being treated there.

Both the setting and the narrative voice are not the familiar ones in Vietnam War novels. The story takes place in a Texas hospital, not on the battlefields of Vietnam. It’s not told from the viewpoint of the generation that fought the war (or avoided it or protested it— that is, the author’s generation), but by a member of the previous generation, a woman who reached adulthood in the very different wartime America of World War II. For both those reasons Bringing Vincent Home reflects a different angle of vision, putting a new and illuminating light on the Vietnam War for today’s readers.

In the novel’s opening sentences, the narrator, Kitty Duvall, answers the phone in her modest home in Baltimore one day in August 1969 and is told by an Army casualty officer her that her son Vincent, the youngest of her three children, was wounded in Vietnam and will be evacuated to Japan and then to Texas. Three short paragraphs later, Kitty is walking off a plane in San Antonio, hoping to stay as close to her son as she can during his treatment.

In the 170-plus pages that follow, through Kitty’s eyes we witness Vincent’s physical and emotional ups and downs and are introduced to nurses, doctors, and chaplains who care for him through those swings. We meet her older son and her daughter, who has become an antiwar activist and whose certainties about the war clash with Kitty’s deep confusion about it.

We see relatives and girlfriends visiting other patients and glimpse their anguished efforts to deal with their men’s pain and disfigurement. We share Kitty’s memories and feelings, too, including the comfort she gets from her deep Catholic faith and her conflicted feeling about the same faith because it will not let her end her marriage to the abusive, alcoholic husband who abandoned the family many years before.

All of this comes across with perfect-pitch authenticity. Details of time, place, perspective, and emotion are all completely plausible. Kitty Duvall is as real as any fictional character I remember.

Madeleine Mysko

If I hadn’t known that the author was not a burn patient’s mother or anywhere close to Kitty’s age, I would have been certain I was reading real-life memories, not fiction—a narrative that is all the more powerful when we remember that nearly half a century after this story takes place, wounded American troops are still arriving in the burn unit from distant and controversial wars.

Madeleine Mysko has crafted a novel that is as believable as it is moving. I hope it will continue bringing Vincent home to readers for a long time to come.

The author’s website is mmauthor.com/bringing-vincent-home

—Arnold R. Isaacs

Arnold R. Isaacs, a former Vietnam War correspondent, is the author of Without Honor: Defeat in Vietnam and Cambodia; Vietnam Shadows: The War, Its Ghosts, and 
Its Legacy; and, most recentlyFrom Troubled Lands: Listening to Pakistani Americans and Afghan Americans in Post-9/11 America.

Firebase by Mark Anthony Sullivan

Mark Anthony Sullivan served in an Americal Division field artillery unit in Vietnam. In Sullivan’s Firebase: A Novel of Wartime Suspense and Romance (306 pp., $14.75, paper; $5.99, Kindle) the main character, Mike Ward, also serves with that unit at a forward firebase.

Ward arrives in the Vietnam War zone as troop withdrawals are in full swing with the Nixon administration’s policy of Vietnamization. It’s May 1970 and Ward is in the middle of a breakup with his longtime girlfriend who thinks that he should have stayed home and been a good boyfriend. That’s how she sees life.

Mike Ward had the option of serving in an Army Reserve appointment. His high morals caused him to see that as a copout, so off to Vietnam he goes.

He gets assigned to the 23rd Infantry Division (the Americal) out of Chu Lai. He doesn’t realize until later that that’s the Americal’s numerical designation. The book provides much detail of what the life of a Spec. 4 assigned to field artillery in the Vietnam War is like.

There’s also a lot of detail about the girl he left behind and her anger at him for choosing the Army over what she saw as his obligations to her. The entire novel is told in letter format and Sullivan makes it work well. He tells us that he had plenty of letters to work with and that he relied on them for information, tone, and other details.

His evaluation of our efforts in Vietnam is simple: “We’re going absolutely nowhere.” The difference between the Vietnam War and World War II makes it difficult for the characters to see progress. No land is captured and held. A war measured in body counts seems to be a war with no progress.

The Paris Peace Talks are discussed and dismissed as pointless as the participants could barely decide on the shape of the table, let alone on anything of importance.

John Wayne gets a mention or two, and shit burning is discussed, as does Agent Orange. My Lai also comes up, as it was attached to the Americal Division in peoples’ minds. Even though it took place when our main character was home in law school, he somehow gets blamed.

There is a lot of ill feeling aimed at soldiers serving in the war. The notion seems to be that if they only chose not to go into the Army, there’d be no Vietnam War. As if it was that easy.

Sullivan in country

This is a serious novel, well-written and well-organized. It has an ending unlike any I’ve encountered  before in Vietnam War fiction. Mike Ward’s girlfriend manages to redeem herself, at least in my eyes, by doing something that doesn’t just border on magical realism, but tests my brain in all possible respects. I won’t spoil it for the prospective reader.

Suffice it to say that the ending took my breath away. I read it over and over again, trying to get it straight in my mind. I never did manage to wrap my mind around it.

That’s my fault, I’m sure.

—David Willson