Promise Lost by Dan Moore

Witnesses and their testimony form the foundation for good reporting. Former Marine Dan Moore presents a wealth of both as he reconstructs the meritorious life of his friend, Lt. Stephen Joyner, who died in action near Khe Sanh in South Vietnam in 1968.

Moore interviewed more than a hundred people who knew Joyner during his twenty-four years on earth. Moore has collected his research in Promise Lost: Stephen Joyner, the Marine Corps, and the Vietnam War (CreateSpace/Hidden Shelf, 212 pp. $16.95, paper; $5.99, Kindle), which he calls a long-delayed “memorial to a beloved friend.”

The book has three observers: Joyner, through letters he sent home; the interviewees Moore spoke to; and Moore himself, who recollects time he spent with Joyner.

Steve Joyner possessed an all-American boy image with his positive attitude, football prowess at San Diego State, and physical strength. He bypassed a possible professional football career after becoming “the man of the family” following his father’s death at age forty-seven. Instead of playing pro football, Joyner enlisted in the Marine Corps after he graduated from college.

Joyner and Moore became friends while serving in Vietnam at the same time in different divisions, which adds credence to Moore’s analyses of events that challenged the emotional stability of both of them. Moore draws vivid pictures of action involving Joyner in and around Leatherneck Square in I Corps as a member of the Third Marine Division.

The discussion of relationships between officers and enlisted men should be required reading for new lieutenants—and perhaps certain captains, majors, and colonels, as well. Moore also dissects relations between new and experienced officers. He explains how the enthusiasm that made Joyner a leader on his college football team did not work as successfully for him as a platoon leader in combat. Moore’s analysis of repetitive operational tactics provides more lessons in leadership.

Moore writes about new lieutenants’ lack of political understanding about South Vietnam’s “corruption” and “support for reunification.” These shortcomings, he says, clouded their approach to the war and reduced their effectiveness.

Dan Moore

Overall, he clearly shows the good and bad aspects of leadership among Marines in I Corps during the height of the Vietnam War in 1967-68.

Several segments of the book focus on Moore’s life more than Joyner’s. Moore served with the First Marine Division. Following active duty, he remained in the Marine Reserves and earned a doctorate in history. He then had a career with the CIA until retiring in 2014.

—Henry Zeybel

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A Walk in the Park by Odon Bacque

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A question from one of Odon Bacque’s daughters opened the floodgates of his memory.  It seemed an innocuous question, “Daddy, who are you?” As he reflected on his civilian career and successes, Bacque’s mind kept wandering back to his Army days and how they shaped his entire life—as military service has done for most of those who served.

In his case, he wrote a memoir, A Walk in the Park: A Vietnam Comedy (CreateSpace, 200 pp., $14.95, paper; $3.49 Kindle). The book gives an honest look at a side of the Army Special Forces in the Vietnam War that most never saw or even knew existed.

Bacque, a native of Louisiana—or more properly, a Cajan—entertains the reader with bits of humor as he recounts his time as a soldier and the innocent beliefs in the system that led him naively into Infantry OCS, jump school, the Green Berets, and a tour of duty with the 5th Special Forces Group in Vietnam. As Bacque walks the reader through his year in Vietnam, he realizes he could not have had an easier or more choice job.

It turns out that not all Green Berets were “snake eaters.” Bacque reveals another side, replete with administrative chores and payouts that seemed to have become a major part of Special Forces by 1969 when he was in country. Reading this book, we realize that the Green Berets had REMFs. And, as it turns out, lucrative post clubs featuring a variety of entertainment and “palace guards.”

Bacque gives a very honest assessment of his own role as a lieutenant in the Special Forces, a non-combatant who spent his year doling out funds to the A Teams assigned to his B Team area. As he progresses through the year, Bacque sees more and more things he doesn’t quite understand or believe were right. He becomes increasingly disenchanted as he is forced to administer payouts with no accountability to the mercenaries operating with the SF teams. However, like most of us, he soldiers on, focusing on how much time he has left in his tour of duty.

Bacque is brutally honest in shining light on the U.S. government’s lack of oversight into operations such as those he was involved in—as well as the corruption caused by throwing millions of dollars into black holes with little or no expectations of a return. It is refreshing to find a man willing to admit that his time in Vietnam with the Special Forces was less-than heroic when so many exaggerate their wartime roles.

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Odon Bacque

This is a true book with a story that needed to be told. Bacque is honest with the reader and himself, as he shows that not all of those who served in the war were trigger pullers.  He did his job honorably. In the end, it is apparent that his life was shaped and his character molded by overcoming the obstacles he confronted in the military.

The book is an easy and entertaining read—especially for those have never seen Don Bacque’s side of the Vietnam War.

—Bud Alley

The Lice: Poems By W.S. Merwin

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W. S. Merwin is well known for his Vietnam War poems. He was was born in 1927 and has been awarded pretty much every possible prize given to a poet, including a Pulitzer prize, a National Book Award, and the Bobbitt Prize from the Library of Congress. He also served two terms as U.S. Poet Laureate.

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Merwin’s The Lice, the poet’s 1967 response to “the atrocities of the Vietnam War and the national unrest of the Civil Rights Movement.”  Or so a blurb on the back cover of the latest edition of the book (Copper Canyon, 96 pp., $15, paper) tells us.

The book’s most important poem, “When the War is Over,” is printed on the back cover, following the blurb, so that the dullest reader will not miss it.

When the war is over

We will be proud of course the air will be

Good for breathing at last

The water will have been improved the salmon

And the silence of heaven will migrate more perfectly

The dead will think the living are worth it we will know

Who we are

And we will all enlist again

Not all of us. I was asked to re-enlist. My response was unequivocal. Not me, Sarge.

W.S. Merwin, at 90, is alive and living on Maui in a nature conservancy of rare palm trees that he planted. The cover of this beautiful book is a Larry Burrows Vietnam War photo showing smoke rising from a cluster of thatched Vietnamese hooches, following bombing and resulting fire from napalm in Viet Cong territory (a so-called free fire zone).

31iv0jleqbl-_ux250_“The Asians Dying” and “For the Anniversary of My Death” both seriously hit home.  “The Asians Dying,” for reasons I don’t feel like explaining, and “For the Anniversary of My Death” because my doctors told me that 2017 I’d have been dead for at least five years due to the effects bone cancer caused by being exposed to Agent Orange. I don’t plan to live as long as W. S. Merwin, but one never knows.

As Merwin warns us in his poem “For a Coming Extinction,” “One must always pretend something among the dying.”  We can’t deny the obvious; we are all both the dying and among the dying.

This is the most beautiful book of Vietnam War poetry published in 1967—and again in 2017.  Buy it and read it.

—David Willson

The Good Governor by Mathew Walsh

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Among the tens of thousands of refugees who needed resettling after the fall of the Saigon government on April 30, 1975, were the members of the Tai Dam people, also known as “Black Tai” because of the color of their clothing. Originally from northwestern (North) Vietnam and Laos, the Black Tai had their own language and system of writing.

During the French War the majority of Tai Dam sided with the Viet Minh, though some fought with the French against the insurgents. When the French were defeated at Dien Bien Phu the Tai Dam who fought with the French fled to Laos. By the mid-1950s most had secured work as domestics, bureaucrats, and soldiers. In April 1975, Tai Dam and other ethnic groups who had worked with the French or Americans feared for their safety and streamed into Thailand looking for sanctuary.

A campaign to bring them to this country began in the summer of 1975; letters were written to thirty U.S. governors seeking help. Only Iowa’s Republican Gov. Robert D. Ray agreed to resettle the Tai Dam in his state. Today more Tai Dam live in Iowa than anywhere outside of Asia. AThere have been expected (and unexpected) adjustment problems on all sides.

Matthew R. Walsh’s The Good Governor: Robert Ray and the Indochinese Refugees of Iowa (McFarland, 244 pp., $35, paper; $9.99, Kindle) includes interviews with dozens of refugees and resettlement officials who paint a picture of struggle and resistance, but also of hope and promise.

Ray was alone in his compassion among sitting governors in his efforts to welcome a group whose 12th century lifestyle was bound to conflict with 20th century America. He was determined to build a workable program that would integrate the two cultures in a way that preserved both without diminishing either.

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Tai Dam women

Ray also was involved with Cambodian refugees after he and a delegation of governors visited Tai Dam and Cambodian refugee camps in Thailand in 1979.  While there he watched as men, women, and children died for lack of food and medicine.

Working with Iowa SHARES—a program that brings people together in response to humanitarian needs without respect to ideology, ethnicity, faith traditions, or other ism’s and ology’s—the needs of Cambodian refugees were also met.

As we have witnessed over the generations, our rich national fabric is strengthened and enriched by the frequent incorporation of those fleeing oppression and hate and those looking for better opportunities for their families. Now, nearly 50 years later, the Tai Dam of Iowa are no different thanks to a caring army of volunteers aided by government and non-governmental agencies moved to action by Robert D. Ray, a United States Army veteran who served as Iowa’s Governor from 1969-83.

That is the uplifting story told in his worthy book.

—Jim Doyle

 

Grunts Don’t Cry by Richard Charles Martinez

For thirty-four years Richard Charles Martinez kept a journal dealing with his experiences as an infantryman in the Vietnam War. He recently published the journal as a memoir called Grunts Don’t Cry (Village Books, 191 pp. $12.95, paper).

Martinez writes in a style that conveys awe regarding what he saw and did. At times, he also projects an air of innocence that lifts him above the moment.

Becoming part of the war machine practically without warning, Martinez says, “It took about five months from the time I walked into the induction center till I set foot in Vietnam. It’s hard to believe it even now.” Actually, it took five months and two days for him to be inducted, complete basic and advance individual training, thirty days leave, and shipping out to Vietnam.

A twenty-year-old college dropout draftee, five-ten, and a hundred twenty-five pounds, Martinez found infantry duty difficult, but he performed as demanded. One day, weighed down with extra gear and breaking trail on a flank, he “passed out for a few seconds or longer,” he says. “When I came to, the file to my left was still moving and nobody noticed that I had gone down. So I walked fast to catch up and moved back into the file with my squad.”

Martinez served with the 1st Battalion/26th Regiment of the Army’s 1st Infantry Division stationed at Quan Loi and Lai Khe in 1968-69. He fought alongside Dave Wright who wrote a warm memoir called Not Enough Tears, from which Martinez quotes extensively when describing the most challenging actions of their unit.

“The first six months that I was in country, I seem to recall that on every operation we made some kind of contact with the enemy,” Martinez writes. “Either we ambushed the enemy or they ambushed us. This meant that we either had friendly KIA or WIA or we killed the enemy.” After three months, Martinez became an M-60 machine-gunner and a weapons squad leader.

He frequently reminds the reader about losing his memory. “There were many operations but I can’t remember them all,” he says. “The only operations that I remember were because someone got killed or wounded or something else that triggered my memory.” Later he explains, “I don’t remember very much of this operation after we had lost so much. My platoon took the worst of it. There were 22 to 24 people wounded or killed.”

Regarding a morning when his company helicoptered into a fire support base that had been overrun the previous night, he says: “With all that I saw that day, my mind must have gone into overload. Sometime during this time my mind just shut down. I just can’t seem to remember much about the horror that I saw that day.”

Martinez does not hesitate to spell out the high degree of fear he felt throughout his tour. As a leader, however, concern for his men came first, a practice also displayed by Dave Wright.

Although Martinez does not say so directly, Wright and a Sergeant A-hoe appear to have been his role models. He cites their leadership skills several times. When a new “lifer” platoon sergeant failed to act at a critical moment, Martinez says, “Sergeant A-hoe ended up calling for a Dust-off. Sergeant A-hoe always seemed to be in the right place at the right time.”

Fifteen pages of photographs help to bring to life many of the people mentioned in the text.

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Near the end of the book, Martinez’s style shifts gears for four short chapters: “Sights, Smells, and Sounds;” “Medics;” “Friends;” and “Dying and Killing.” In those chapters, he summarizes his Vietnam War tour with definitive pronouncements about each topic.

Some conclusions sound self-evident, but considering them in context with what he wrote earlier, his words profoundly summarize a lifetime of thought. The shock of combat and its aftermath “stays with you forever,” he says, “in memories and nightmares.”

I appreciate everything he says in those chapters. I especially admire one paragraph:

“I have laughed and cried the hardest in my life while in Vietnam. I have been so scared I could hardly move. I have done things that I can’t even believe I was capable of doing. War changes the person you are. I’ve asked my sister and anyone else that knew me before Vietnam, how much have I changed? I really don’t know. I hope I changed for the better.”

Reading the works of Richard Charles Martinez and Dave Wright provides a distinct lesson regarding young men who faithfully served their nation despite reservations.

—Henry Zeybel

Not Enough Tears by Dave Wright

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I try to read a Vietnam War memoirs as if it was the first book I’ve read on the subject. Despite that, I recognize similarities from previous books. Consequently, the depths to which a writer reveals personal experiences influences my reaction to a book. In other words, I often judge a book based on the writer’s willingness to share his or her most horrific war stories and reactions to them.

In Not Enough Tears (Author House, 277 pp. $14.95, paper; $4.99, Kindle), Dave Wright generously opens his mind and heart to tell what he did and saw as a twenty-three-year-old Army infantryman. He was assigned to the 1st Battalion/26th Regiment of the First Infantry Division at Lai Khe during his 1968-69 Vietnam War tour.

Wright took part in two encounters that wiped out his squad, but left him unscratched. He justified—but at the same time questioned—surviving those and other traumatizing events as the result of his faith, which began when he was eleven.

“God let me ‘sense’ when we were walking into trouble,” he says.

Draftee Wright hated the war. “By three months,” he writes, “I was sick of life as a grunt.”

Yet he strove to keep others safe, choosing to walk point to protect new guys after watching too many of them get killed too quickly. Because he was a few years older, his fellow soldiers called him “The Old Man” or “Father.” They admired his good luck.

A natural leader, Dave Wright developed a philosophy whereby, when possible, he bypassed the enemy. His rationale centered on the certainty that his men would suffer casualties regardless of how many VC they killed, wounded, or captured. So avoiding firefights protected them from harm.

Wright discusses progressive mental and physical problems that made him resort to a “sham” and other schemes to get an easier job after eight months in the field. “I needed someone to recognize that I had done all I could, for as long as I could,” he says.

He was reassigned to a newly formed recon platoon made up of twenty-five “eight balls from the whole battalion,” as he calls them. The job was safer, but he started having “anxiety attacks just hours before it was time to go out into the jungle,” he says, and “was getting closer and closer to becoming a mental casualty.”

Despite his covenant with God, Wright worried about the future: “What if I screwed up and made Him mad,” he thought. “Would He stop protecting me and all those around me?” Eventually, Wright ended up in a support company where he felt relief. But he also felt guilt for “getting off line almost two months early,” he says.

You don’t have to be Sherlock to figure out the cause-effect of Wright’s PTSD. He provides the facts of his experiences and the effects naturally follow. For example, he reached “a new low,” he says, when he ripped open a dead VC’s face to help another soldier extract a gold tooth. He acted atrociously and no punishment followed, which complicated his “Why me, Lord?” puzzlement.

Back home and newly married, Wright slowly recognized that he had little control over his life compared to the control he felt when walking point. Depression, anguish, and pain followed. Work and church became the foundation for his life.

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Dave Wright

By writing Not Enough Tears, Wright was able to examine the changes in his personality that had resulted from war experiences. God provided salvation. As he puts it: “My stories are certainly not of biblical quality, but they are a true record of what Jesus has done in my life.”

Originally published in 2004, Not Enough Tears was recently re-released with revisions and photographs.

Richard Charles Martinez, author of Grunts Don’t Cry, served in the same 1st Infantry Division platoon as Wright in 1968-69. Their books complement each other.

—Henry Zeybel

 

The Smell of Light by Bill McCloud

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Bill McCloud dropped out of college in his second semester and volunteered for the Army. He entered the service on the ninety-day delay program, and was in uniform from September 1967 to September 1970. He served in Vietnam from March 1968 to March 1969 as flight operations coordinator with the 147th Assault Support Helicopter Company (the Hillclimbers) on the airfield at Vung Tau.

McCloud—who teaches U.S. History at Rogers State University and is best known for his book, What Should We Tell Our Children about Vietnam?—arrived in Vietnam just as I was leaving. He was stationed in a spot I thought of as an in-country R&R center for Americans—and for the enemy.

I wondered as I started reading his new book of poetry, The Smell of the Light: Vietnam, 1968-1969 as Told through Personal Poems (Balkan Press, 158 pp., $14.99, paper; $4.99, Kindle), how long I had to wait before there was a mention of John Wayne. Page sixteen rewarded my patience with an entire John Wayne poem, one of the best poems of the Vietnam War and certainly one of the top two poems I’ve read dealing with John Wayne

I present Bill McCloud’s “John Wayne” here because it will give you an idea about the high quality of the poetry in this book and because it is pithy and well worth reading.

 

We keep hearing rumors

That they’re currently filming

A John Wayne movie about Vietnam

Everyone’s excited now about John Wayne

Everyone’s excited now about going to Vietnam

Now it’s a John Wayne war

 

That’s a hard poem to top.

51abellxphl-_sx314_bo1204203200_1McCloud, a member of Vietnam Veterans of America, used his letters home as source material for many of these poems. I believe he was writing better and higher-quality letters home than many of us. Mining my letters for poetic nuggets would be a painful task, fraught with horror.  Not something I’m tempted to do.

McCloud deals with other universal Vietnam War experiences such as shit burning, but he does not weigh his poems down with this stuff. That is a  strength of these fine poems.

This book of Vietnam War poetry sits very near the top of the heap. Right up there where the star would go if this were a Christmas tree.

Thanks, Bill McCloud, for this beautiful book.

—David Willson