The Day I Died by J.R. Tuorila

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Shot down during his second tour in Vietnam, Marine helicopter pilot Paul Montague spent five years as a prisoner of war in four North Vietnamese camps. In The Day I Died: A True Story of Patriotism, Faith and Survival (Tate, 339 pp. $15.41, paper), J.R. Tuorila, a clinical psychologist, tells the story of those years based on his friendship with—and 700 pages of documentation given to him by—Montague.

Many former POWs—such as James Stockdale, Robinson Risner, and Bud Day—have written books about their ordeals. Montague’s highly detailed story provides insights equally as revealing and interesting as those others.

In 1968, Montague and his copilot Bruce Archer survived a crash landing after a “hailstorm” of bullets shattered their UH-34D Chinook cockpit. Abandoned in the wreckage by the recovery team they had been carrying, the two men managed to crawl free but then fell into the hands of the NVA. That started an arduous journey that took them across South Vietnam to a jungle camp, then north to Camp Farnsworth, Plantation Gardens, and the Hanoi Hilton.

Three episodes of prolonged torture and an entire year of isolation marked Montague’s first two years as a prisoner. He obeyed the Code of Conduct throughout. After he returned to the United States, Montague admitted that he had been mentally broken. “The communists could break anyone over time,” he said, “and they had plenty of time to find the key to each prisoner’s weakness.”

Nevertheless, Montague’s devotion to God and country helped him win psychological battles and even earn respect from his captors. His resistance to torture reflected near super-human dedication to sticking to giving only his name, rank, and service number. Eventually, his reputation made him a leader among the POWs. In that capacity, although his action almost cost him his life, he countermanded the NVA rule for prisoners to bow to their guards.

After he returned home in 1973, Montague worked to press charges against ten POWs who had violated the Code of Conduct “for a beer and a cigarette” at the Plantation and Hilton. Six days before the announcement that the men would be punished, one committed suicide. The charges were dropped against the remaining defendants. An appendix in the book lists the men’s names.

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Marine Maj. Paul Montague

The Day I Died is an excellent starting point for readers unfamiliar with the Vietnam War POW world, although the book covers Montague’s life before he was captured and afterward. The book also should interest those familiar with POW life because of Montague’s hard-core attitude. He displays an insurmountable stubbornness that resulted in behavior well beyond interesting.

—Henry Zeybel

Nothing Ever Dies by Viet Thanh Nguyen

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Wars are fought twice, first on the battlefield and second in memory. A war is not just about shooting, but about people who make bullets and deliver bullets and, perhaps most importantly, those who pay for the bullets. Each ethnic group in the United States gets its own notable history by which Americans remember it: Vietnamese get the war.

That just about sums up the core of Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War (Harvard University Press, 384 pp., $27.95, hardcover: $12.58 Kindle), an examination of the possibility of overcoming the residual scourges of war through discussing ethics, industries, and aesthetics. The book contains a continuous flow of truths and suppositions that merit support—or beg challenge.

From the opening pages, I recognized that Viet Nguyen’s philosophy of life differs markedly from mine. Consequently, I found the book difficult to read. However, I surrendered to the strength and persistence of his arguments and read every page. Throughout the book, I detected different voices in his style. Deep into the book, the voices grew more convincing. By the end, I felt loosely bonded with Nguyen’s arguments, but had reservations about what comes next.

Viet Nguyen was born in Ban Me Thuot in 1971. His parents had moved south from North Vietnam in 1954. His family came to the United States as refugees in 1975. He grew up in San Jose, California. At UC Berkeley, he earned degrees in English and ethnic studies and a Ph.D. in English. He teaches English and American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California. His much-heralded Vietnam War-heavy novel, The Sympathizers, won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

Nothing Ever Dies focuses on the Vietnam War, but the arguments extend to the war’s repercussions in Laos, Cambodia, and South Korea. Viet Nguyen has traveled extensively across the areas he analyzes. His observations are eye opening, such as when he compares cemeteries of Vietnamese war casualties buried in Vietnam with American names on The Wall in Washington, D.C. His message is that nations tend to remember their own losses and forget the deaths of their opponents, with military casualties taking precedence.

Nguyen says that remembrance of war is a debt fully paid only when soldiers and civilians from both sides are included in recollections of good and evil events. That process allows a war to truly end and peaceful relations to ensue. Without reconciliation, war’s truth will be impossible to remember, and war’s trauma impossible to forget.

He chooses sides, favoring poor and weak nations that are victims of industrialized nations with more powerful armies. He stresses, however, that both sides overlook their ability to hurt others, which often results in inhumane actions. Forgiving inhumanities with emotions above the level of mere resignation is part of the remembrance process. In this regard, he analyses “the most horrific of horrors” inflicted by the Khmer Rouge on the Cambodian population, citing its difficulty to reconcile because “few are willing to acknowledge themselves as victimizers.”

Nguyen expands his idea of erasing the stigmas related to war by discussing war literature written by Vietnamese Americans. “Literature can raise the troublesome past of war and even the difficult present of racial inequality,” he writes, “so long as it also promises or hopes for reconciliation and refuge.”

He illustrates the benefits of war by explaining how participation by the South Korean army—and its 5,000 men killed in action in the Vietnam War—gave the nation a new role in global capitalization. He analyzes Korea’s post-war movies, masculinity, exploitation, and submission to “the American giant who has never learned to live outside his own world,” which has resulted in the “giant” recreating his environment wherever he goes. Faithful to his land of birth, Nguyen recalls the cruelty inflicted on Vietnamese when Koreans ran prison camps under Japanese occupation during World War II.

The description of visiting Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum flashed me back to the awe I felt in 1987 while walking through Lenin’s Tomb in Moscow. Seeing Ho’s body as either “a heroic statue or a gruesome zombie,” Nguyen belittles the legendary leader as a “stage prop for the Communist Party.” Comparatively speaking, seeing Lenin’s body produced a quasi-religious experience within me, making me nod in appreciation of a man who changed a nation and the world. Of course, neither man had stolen my country from my me and my family.

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Award-winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen

One disappointment was Nguyen’s reliance on analyses of Vietnam War films. Basing conclusions on directors’ interpretations of the war left me less satisfied than, let’s say, using memoirs of participants from both sides. But it is what it is.

Nothing Ever Dies is a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in General Nonfiction. The book was also a finalist for the National Book Award in Nonfiction. Nguyen also has earned several teaching and service awards.

—Henry Zeybel

The War I Survived Was Vietnam by Michael Uhl

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Michael Uhl’s The War I Survived Was Vietnam: Collected Writings of a Veteran and Antiwar Activist (McFarland, 300 pp., $29.95, paper) is a wide-ranging compilation of Uhl’s reviews and opinion pieces that will certainly generate responses. True to its subtitle, this collection has an antiwar agenda. It also covers issues other than the Vietnam War, including the plight of veterans exposed to atomic weapons and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As David Cline, the national president of Veterans For Peace says in the book: “There have always been veterans for peace. War makes veterans warriors for peace.”

A Vietnam Veterans of America member I served with once told me that his feelings about the Vietnam War took several drastic shifts as his circumstances changed. He focused on survival while in country. When he came home, he examined how the war ended, as well as the nation’s treatment of veterans, along with the controversy over the design of the Vietnam Veteran Memorial in Washington, D.C., and the POW/MIA issue. Uhl, who served as an intelligence officer in Vietnam in 1968-69, includes reviews and essays on these subjects and more.

They are sure to evoke strong reactions. As Uhl puts it: “If they provoke thought in whoever reads them, I will be profoundly satisfied.”

Uhl writes about many players involved in the Vietnam War, including some unheralded heroes, some famous and infamous people, and some who helped orchestrate the war’s strategy and tactics. Gen. Julian Ewell, the Ninth Infantry Division Commander in February 1968, is one of the key players Uhl credits with implementing the “body count culture,” which he says enabled American troops to hand out “candy to small children” one moment, then later to torch “a hootch or abuse a cringing papa-san.”

Uhl’s essays cover many topics, but I believe his essay on the Heinemann brothers succinctly represents the personal impact the Vietnam War has had on many people. “Three Heinemann brothers would eventually go into the military, two to Vietnam,” Uhl wrote in 2005. “Among them only Larry [the author of Paco’s Story] remains. One brother was a post-war suicide; the other left his family never to be heard from again.”

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Michael Uhl

Mentioning Robert Strange McNamara will liven up any discussion of the war. In 1995 in The Nation Uhl and co-author Carol Brightman wrote: “McNamara’s critics span the ideological spectrum, though the burden of their indignation differs according to whether they believe his moral failure lies in the past for not having spoken out sooner, or in the present for having spoken at all.”

This anthology is a valuable reference tool for anyone looking for scholarly and incisive writing on America’s most divisive overseas war. The fervor of those opposed to the war may have never been matched. Uhl includes essays by some of those who were dedicated to bringing the war to an end, such as David Harris, former Secretary of State John Kerry, and environmentalist and one-time presidential candidate Barry Commoner.

This anonymous excerpt written by a veteran quoted by Uhl may be the best summation of the Vietnam War legacy:

I carried the war in my blood

In or out of service

I was at war

Even today

Every day war explodes in my brain

—Curt Nelson

Secrets and Lies in Vietnam by Panagiotis Dimitrakis

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“All’s fair in love and war,” Miguel de Cervantes once suggested, but he could have added “and in espionage.” Panagiotis Dimitrakis emphatically makes that point in Secrets and Lies in Vietnam: Spies, Intelligence, and Covert Operations in the Vietnam Wars (I.B. Tauris, 312 pp.; $57.14; $32,  Kindle). Dimitrakis examines the underworld of espionage in Vietnam by depicting the activities of agents and their masters from World War II to 1979.

An expert on intelligence and military history, Dimitrakis holds a doctorate in War Studies from King’s College London. Among a broad span of other work, he has written books on Afghanistan, the Cold War, and the Middle East.

Each chapter of Secrets and Lies in Vietnam focuses on individual spies and chronologically shows how North Vietnamese intelligence agents outwitted the French and more than held their own against the Americans. Dimitrakis heavily documents his writing with notes primarily from Western sources. He skillfully recreates stories that have been told before, but gives them new life by adding details that flesh out the people and events involved.

The first third of the book describes the turmoil in Vietnam from the end of World War II to the 1954 defeat of the French in Indochina. Dimitrakis writes about the intrigues among France, England, China, the Soviet Union, and the United States to influence the destiny of Vietnam. The country was rife with assassinations, bombings, sabotage, terrorism, raids, code breaking, theft of plans, signal intercepts, leaks, and duplicity. Dimitrakis weaves these factors together to present a succinct yet solid explanation for North Vietnam’s victory at Dien Bien Phu.

From there, he segues to the accomplishments of a Viet Minh mole who infiltrated the U.S. Saigon Military Mission in 1954. As North Vietnamese Gen.Vo Nguyen Giap put it: “We are now in the United States’ war room!”

Introducing the book, Dimitrakis says, “We will not analyze strategy, military operations, counterinsurgency, or international diplomacy.” Instead, “readers will witness events through the eyes of the spy.” Nevertheless, he provides a good deal of insight about military actions, much of which was new to me. For example, he describes United States-sanctioned black ops in the early 1960s against the Hanoi government. Similarly, he delves into the politics of leadership changes in South Vietnam.

The last third of the book provides the greatest enlightenment concerning espionage. The unpredictable interplay of personalities Dimitrakis unveils in the chapter titled “Molehunt and Spies in the Vietcong” shows the uncertainties of “the never-ending difficulty of intelligence gathering.”

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The author

He also follows the trail of lies and deception into the White House to assess Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger’s intrusion into intelligence work. The results of this research reminded me of The War after the War: the Struggle for Credibility during America’s Exit from Vietnam in which Johannes Kadura shows the president and his closest advisers colluding to mislead the entire nation for purely personal political reasons.

Books such as Secrets and Lies in Vietnam are important because they offer new perspectives about what happened in the war, both militarily and politically. Declassifying old government files and opening new sections of archives for perusal frequently reveal previously unobtainable facts. Even though the information is fifty or more years old, it is new to most people.

Panagiotis Dimitrakis—and similar scholars—merit praise for finding and presenting such facts in a highly readable format for the general public. More often than not, they permit veterans to validate complaints against leadership, especially inadequacies at higher levels.

—Henry Zeybel

Hornet 33 by Ed Denny

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We were flying south of Song Be in our C-130 the first time I heard a helicopter pilot in trouble. He came up on Guard and said, “I’m hit. Going down. Somebody come and get me,” with less emotion than I use to order breakfast.

Beginning with Bob Mason’s groundbreaking Chickenhawk in 1983, Vietnam War helicopter pilots have written memoirs that keep readers on the edges of their seats. Simply flying those cantankerous machines requires the best of anyone, but performing that feat in combat demands skills possessed only by pilots at a level higher than mere human beings. Of course, big balls help, too.

Memoirs by helicopter pilots who saw lots of combat such as Bill Collier, Robert Curtis, Tom Messenger, and Jim Weatherill rank as favorites. Ed Denny has grabbed equal billing with Hornet 33: Memoir of a Combat Pilot in Vietnam (McFarland, 296 pp.; $29.94, paper; $9.99, Kindle). This memoir tells the story of a draftee who volunteered for a helicopter training and went straight to Vietnam as a Warrant Officer.

Denny wastes no time with background. The book begins with his arrival in Cu Chi in March 1970. Assigned to fly the Huey UH-1H with the 116th Assault Helicopter Company, known as the Hornets, he became a leader within the group.

Denny’s word pictures of battles—particularly a large-scale friendly fire fuck-up during the opening day of the May 1970 Cambodian invasion—should erase any vestige of “the glory of war” from the minds of sane readers. He did and saw things that far exceeded normal levels of fighting, suffering, and killing, and describes many gory scenes. In one case, his description of a shattered and dying woman that he rescued reaches a graphic pitch almost beyond belief. Similarly, his actions during Operation Lam Son 719 in February and March of 1971 begin as a classic history lesson but evolve into another bloody and inhuman tale.

Denny’s imagination was his worst enemy. In daylight, because his commander taught him to “just take it” when the world exploded around his helicopter, Denny did not think past the moment. At night, however, he couldn’t ignore dreams flooded by gore. Predicated on the day’s latest horror, his imagination created nightmares that made Dante’s Inferno look like a Sunday school picnic. Despite therapy, imagination of his own painful death pursues him to this day.

Treatment for PTSD gave birth to Hornet 33. Denny wrote eighty-five true stories to expose the trauma of his war experiences for others to see. Guided by a desire to eliminate redundancy, he distilled those stories down to forty-five chapters, most of which concern combat and flying.

“How many times can a person say that the bastards tried to shoot me again and missed by a couple of inches one more time,” he rhetorically asks.

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Ed Denny in front of the Denton, Texas, County All-War Memorial – photo by Jeff Woo, Denton Record-Chronicle

Along with telling combat stories, Denny deals with with drugs, fragging, prostitution, Donut Dollies, R&R, PTSD, returning home, and Americal Division tactics. The Hornets flew with both the 25th Infantry at Cu Chi and 101st Airmobile Division at Chu Lai, thereby seeing first hand the difference between good and bad leadership. Denny’s opinions are highly personalized and do not follow the logic usually associated with these subjects.

Ed Denny has a way with words, using fresh similes and metaphors, few clichés, and conveying a sense of awe and wonder. The book tightly held my attention from start to finish.

The author’s website is hornet33.com

—Henry Zeybel

Lions and Tigers and Cong by Theodore Wild

Theodore Wild’s Lions and Tigers and Cong (Lulu, 398 pp., $28.96, paper; $8.99, e book) describes a variety of places, people, and events in the life of a 19 year old in the Vietnam War as he grew from boy to man. Ted Wild served with Charlie Company in the 5th of the 46th infantry Battalion and later with Bravo Company of the 4th of the 221st Infantry, aka Big Bad Bravo. Wild’s title comes from his newbie’s briefing on what he would find in the jungles of Vietnam.

The author draws on personal experiences as well as on stories, tales, legends, and remembrances of those who fought in the Vietnam War. Although Wild calls his book a memoir he changes all the names, so it is difficult to tell what is real and what is not. Many of the stories are raw and disturbing, but the book gives an excellent look at what life was like for a Vietnam War infantryman.

What struck me most was the quality of the writing. Here are a few passages that demonstrate Ted Wild’s literary talent:

“The heavens hid what we had done to the land. The craters and denuded fields marked our progress, and the land could not be re-farmed, rebuilt, re-tilled nor carted away to be buried.”

“He was a dilapidated alky blues singer, shuffling, carrying a weapon, heading to his janitor job at some midnight bus station to clean toilets used by homeless winos.”

“This acre of sand, this scant fathom of water, was ours, and we played and swam and splashed in it, children forever for a fleeting moment.”

“You have the drive, the passion, the love for a hundred people, and it is distilled by this sour, vile nightmare of war.”

Ted Wild in Vietnam

This book is the story of a group of men whose love for one another and need for one another were eclipsed only by the danger that shaped their lives.

The author’s website is tedwild.com/the-author

—Mark S. Miller

The Big Buddha Bicycle Race by Terence A. Harkin

Terence A. Harkin’s The Big Buddha Bicycle Race (Silkworm Books, 446 pp., $6.99, Kindle) and its sequel, In the Year of the Rabbit, are set in Ubon, Thailand, where Harkin served with the U.S. Air Force’s AAVS Detachment 3 during the Vietnam War. He’s currently at work on his third novel, Tinseltown Two-Step, set in Los Angeles and Chiang Mai. Harkin, a life member of Vietnam Veterans of America, spent twenty-five years as a Hollywood cameraman. His time in the Air Force well prepared him for that job.

Big Buddha is a work of fiction, but it often reads like a memoir of Harkin’s time in Thailand. He titles the book’s segment with dates such as “April 1970-March 1970,” and provides detailed place names, such as the 136th Photo Squadron at Norton Air Force Base, California, HQ of the Aerospace-Audio Base, California, Acronym AAVS, pronounced “Avis” in Air Force speak.

The main character, Airman Leary, failed to read his USAF enlistment contract closely, overlooking the words “Needs of the Air Force,” so he ended up closer to the war than his recruiting sergeant said he would. As a result, the reader learns a lot about the real-life duties and experiences of airmen in a photo squadron.

Airman Leary, a cameraman with the 601st Photo Squadron in Ubon, decides that it is a propitious time to put on a bicycle race “to keep up unit morale” because Nixon and Kissinger are going to visit. A bicycle race of “lovable Americans riding through the countryside to win Thai hearts and minds” would send a message to the world when featured in Life magazine and Stars & Stripes.

There is some resistance from the North Vietnamese 599th Transportation Group so things don’t go quite as planned. It turns out that the race didn’t work well as a celebration of the war winding down—or, more accurately, as the war began to fail to wind down as promised. Where is that light at the end of the tunnel?  Let’s pedal our asses toward it as hard as we can and see what happens.

Harkin has come up with an enjoyable read. The book, however, offers more information about the workings of a Photo Squadron in Southeast Asia than any of us will ever need. Or want. We get some of the same popular culture references we’d expect from such a novel: John Wayne westerns, John Ford, Babe Ruth, and Muhammad Ali. But there also are some not so likely ones:  Harmon Killebrew, Pinkie Lee, Guy Lombardo, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Suzy Wong, Wilfred Owens war poems and The Anderson Platoon. 

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Terry Harkin

This is a perfect book for a movie lover to read if he also wishes to get credit for reading a book about our war in Southeast Asia. Did I mention that Airman Leary is a white kid from the Boston suburbs who is a drummer in a band and that he loves the music of Otis Redding, Solomon Burke, and Sam Cooke?

That adds a layer of cultural meaning to the book. Probably the one thing this book does not need is another layer of cultural meaning. Consider it a bonus.

The author’s website is http://www.taharkin.net

—David Willson