Daughters of the New Year by E.M. Tran

Daughters of the New Year (Hanover Square Press, 314 pp. $27.99) is a beautifully written work of literary fiction by E.M. Tran. A Vietnamese American writer from New Orleans, Tran holds an MFA from the University of Mississippi and a PhD in Creative Writing from Ohio University. This novel, her first, centers on five generations of Vietnamese mothers and daughters and how their readings of the zodiac guide their lives.

It’s 2016 in New Orleans. Xuan Trung is obsessed with divining her daughters’ fates through their Vietnamese zodiac signs. Every Lunar New Year she gives her daughters horoscopes she has prepared from a book. She draws charts on old paper, writing them in an almost secret language. She wears multiple “jangling jade bangles” on her wrists to ward off evil. “Twice she abstained from wearing white for the entire year because it was unlucky for her sign.”

Xuan has been in the United States since 1975, yet she wears her American citizenship “with discomfort, like a pair of shoes half a size too small.” She sometimes wonders what happened to old friends in the former South Vietnam, but doesn’t really want to know. She is divorced from her husband, but still helps him run a local Vietnamese newspaper.

She recalls how happy she was when they had bought a new house in New Orleans. “In Vietnam, if you had something new, it meant you were rich. If you had something old, it meant you were poor. If you had nothing at all, it meant you were nothing. Simple as that.”

We read about the dragon dance and Vietnamese American funerals. We read about how the houses in South Vietnam had seemed to mourn the losses of their families who fled during the tumultuous events of 1975. We learn of someone claiming to be the last man to leave Vietnam, only to discover, according to Xuan, that “every man had been the last man to leave Vietnam – God forbid a man just admit he had been one of many to leave, driven out like common cattle.”

This story moves backward in time, all the way to ancient Vietnamese legends. At that point, we realize that time might not be moving at all, but is standing still.

When you finish this book, you may discover you’re reading a more serious story than you expected. Then again, maybe this is a book you were destined to read—as written in the stars.

–Bill McCloud

The Dreaming Circus by Jim Morris

The works of soldier-writer Jim Morris—who served three Army Special Forces Vietnam War tours of duty—have enraptured readers for decades. War Story, his Vietnam War memoir, and The Devil’s Secret Name, largely about his time as a combat correspondent for Soldier of Fortune magazine during the 1982 war in Lebanon, are but two examples.

With his latest book, The Dreaming Circus: Special Ops, LSD, and My Unlikely Path to Toltec Wisdom (Bear & Company, 288 pp. $20, paper; $13.99, Kindle), Morris proves to be an even more fascinating person than legend holds.

Morris feels bitter about the way the U.S. abandoned the Vietnamese people in 1975. He reveals just how bitter in the opening pages of The Dreaming Circus:

“When the U.S. bailed on the people it had sent me to save all that patriotism died. The U.S. toyed with those people’s lives for a decade and a half, and then casually abandoned them when the going got tough.”

Before he served in Vietnam, Morris patriotically supported the war. After being wounded four times, that patriotism evaporated when the U.S. failed to keep a promise to the beloved Montagnards with whom he fought. “When I retired from the Army, I had done all the right stuff,” he writes. “I had repeatedly put my life on the line [but was] abandoned by the people who sent me to do it. The basis on which I had built my life was destroyed.”

Back home, in late 1969, Morris’s consciousness was awakened after he read Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid and became aware of Ken Kesey and his frolicking busload of hippies known as the Merry Pranksters. “One thing I noticed is how many in Kesey’s group were ex-GIs. Not just ex-GIs, but former combat arms officers,” Morris writes.

Jim Morris In Country

In one of his own forays into the world of LSD, the lives of Jim Morris, soldier, and Jim Morris, acid imbiber, seem to collide. In The Dreaming Circus, he writes about “walking into his soul.” That is precisely what he did in finding “the path to Toltec wisdom.”

The Toltecs, who flourished from the 10th to the 12th centuries, were the predecessors of the Aztecs. For Morris, their wisdom was channeled through two people he writes extensively about: mystical historian Carlos Castaneda, author of The Teachings of Don Juan, with whom Morris seems to have connected in a deeply spiritual sense, and author-shaman don Miguel Ruiz, whom he interviewed.

From their teachings, Morris learned “spells, prayers, and ceremonies are ways of focusing intent to create what you want. That means the world you experience is part of you, as much as the other way around. You are a wave in a vast ocean, but the ocean is you. Claim it all. See what you want to see. You have eternity to complete this task.”

The Dreaming Circus: Special Ops, LSD, and My Unlikely Path to Toltec Wisdom is a book that could well help readers do so.

–Marc Philip Yablonka

Marc Phillip Yablonka is a Burbank, California-based military journalist and author. His book Hot Mics and TV Lights: The American Forces Vietnam Network, will be published in 2023 by Double Dagger Books.

In the Mouth of the Dragon John B. Haseman  

Retired U.S. Army Col. John B. Haseman served 18 of his 30-year career in Asia. That included two and a half years in Vietnam during the war. He tells the story of his second Vietnam War tour in his new memoir, In the Mouth of the Dragon: Memoir of a District Advisor in the Mekong Delta, 1971-1973, (McFarland, 277 pp. $29.95, paper; $13.49, Kindle).

Haseman served his first Vietnam War tour in 1967-68 with the 9th Military Intelligence Detachment in the Army’s 9th Infantry Division in relative security at Bearcat Base, Dong Tam, and My Tho. In his second tour he served as a District Advisor, a task for which he volunteered and extended.

He returned to the combat zone at a time when the drawdown of American military units was well underway. Most of the time Haseman, his boss, and one enlisted man were the only Americans working for a South Vietnamese Army commander in charge of Popular Force and Regional Force soldiers—men, as Haseman puts it, “fighting for their family, for their friends, for their neighbors” against the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army. No regular force ARVN units operated in their area.

His ability to befriend officers and enlisted men brought Haseman success as an advisor. He was an eager student of Vietnamese culture and shares what he learned by taking part in the everyday lives of everyday soldiers. Best of all, he developed close ties with U.S. Air Force Covey Forward Air Controllers and successfully coordinated air support strikes, which made him popular among the men.

Haseman worked for twelve months at Ham Long and six months at Mo Cay, both located in the Mekong River Delta southwest of Saigon. The whole time he slogged through patrols alongside PF and RF troops.

Following his first fight, Haseman wrote: “Cordite from my M-16, fired in anger for the first time at an enemy. Relief when the firing stops and the wonderful, sensual feeling of adrenaline still pumping. And the feeling of savage delight at learning we killed four VC and suffered no friendly casualties.”

As time went on, friendly casualties increased. After two superiors were wounded, Haseman became head of his district. The operational pace increased and on most days Haseman was either on a field operation, coordinating air strikes, or both. One afternoon he coordinated 26 separate air strikes. 

In analyzing events surrounding the Spring Offensive and a three-week Battle for Tan Loi, Haseman discloses bits of information new to me and far too surprising to spoil by mentioning them here. Suffice it to say, they make up the best part of the book.

I recommend In the Mouth of the Dragon to anyone who believes the Vietnam War was worthless. As Haseman shows, the U.S. chose to help people who desperately needed and wanted our help; there just weren’t enough of them.

—Henry Zeybel

What a Trip by Susen Edwards

What a Trip (She Writes Press, 424 pp. $17.95, paper; $9.49, Kindle) by Susen Edwards is a coming-of-age novel set during the Vietnam War. Edwards is the author of a young adult novel; this is her first fictional offering for older adults.  

The story is set in the late 1960s and centers on red-haired Fiona, who is just one year out of high school. She and her best friend Melissa are “smitten with Janis Joplin,” drink Southern Comfort, and smoke cigarettes and pot.

Melissa believes in black magic and thinks her pregnancy was caused by a spell a girl put on her so her boyfriend would break up with her. Meanwhile, Fiona breaks up with her boyfriend and wishes she had “a writer boyfriend who adored her.”

Fiona lives on the East Coast and is in her first year of college. She’s concerned that her new boyfriend Jack might bea more pro-military than she is. On the other hand, she says that he’s “great in the sack.” Then she meets Mike, who tells Fiona: “You’re one far-out chick,” and brings her antiwar thinking into sharper focus.

The two girls get Tarot readings, leading them to buy their own decks and start giving readings. At a party Fiona meets a guy just back from Vietnam. She and Jack break up and she hooks up with Reuben, who wants to be a writer. In typical sixties drugs, sex, and rock ‘n roll fashion, it doesn’t take long for these young women to move from one man to another.

Reuben opposes the war in Vietnam and he and Fiona take part in big antiwar demonstrations. Reuben becomes more and more certain that when the time comes he will slip into Canada instead of reporting for military service. He expects Fiona to go with him.

The novel takes place during a time when popular music played an especially important part in the lives of young people. At the back of the book Edwards includes a playlist of songs she mentions in the story—tunes by Joan Baez, Country Joe and the Fish, the Rolling Stones, and others.

What a Trip seems to be aimed at a female readership. It’s deserving of an audience of people who want to know more about what it was like to come of age in America in the late 1960s and early 1970s, AKA “The Sixties.”  

–Bill McCloud

Vietnam Beyond by Gerald E. Augustine

Stories from two wars dominate Vietnam Beyond (Dorrance Publishing, 226 pp. $40, paper; $35, Kindle), a memoir by Gerald E. Augustine. In it, Augustine emphatically damns his year as an infantryman in the Vietnam War. He then recounts the incalculable price paid by his three sons, his wives, and himself a decades-long war with the physical and psychological effects they suffered because of his exposure to Agent Orange and wartime stresses.          

The U.S. Army drafted Augustine in 1965 when he was “enjoying the best of times” during summer break from classes at the University of Connecticut, he says. Shortly after training, he went to Vietnam and served with the 196th Light Infantry Brigade and the 4th Infantry Division as a machine gunner and rifleman operating out of Tay Ninh and Dau Tieng during his 1966-67 tour of duty. After first building a base camp at Tay Ninh, his brigade underwent an almost nonstop cycle of ambush patrols and search-and-destroy missions.

Augustine repeats bits of what others have said about the Vietnam War, but his writing style’s directness and youthfulness freshen the topics. In a chapter titled “The Daily Grind,” he succinctly sums up the pros and cons of infantry life: the M16 rifle (absolutely new to him), jungle rot (on his private parts), humping equipment (he was his platoon’s pack mule), dealing with the locals (be kind to children), fire ants and snakes, and operations Attleboro, Cedar Falls, Gadsden, and Junction City. 

He sums up his combat experiences by noting that he and his fellow troopers were “performing the tasks at hand in order to bring each other home alive. Individually we became extremely cautious.”

Augustine does not dwell on close calls. He does not labor over points of controversy; he states his opinions and moves on. He shows surprise and regret when men of authority misuse their power. He resignedly endured that type of exploitation in the Army and later in civilian life.

The second half of the book deals with Augustine’s post-war life. Except for his twenty-two months in the Army, he has lived for 76 years in Middletown. Again in a straightforward manner, he spells out exactly how marriage, parenthood, and financial responsibilities frequently overwhelmed him.

Marriage failures turned him into a workaholic. Eventually a series of hobbies provided touches of normalcy: bodybuilding, street rodding, running races, biathlon events, scoutmaster duties, veterans groups, and kayaking.

Gerald Augustine dedicates Vietnam Beyond, which includes many photographs he took in Vietnam, to all the recipients of the Combat Infantryman Badge.

—Henry Zeybel

America and Vietnam, 1954-1963 by Michael M. Walker

America and Vietnam, 1954-1963: The Road to War (McFarland, 391 pp. $49.95, paper; $22.49, Kindle) is an exceptionally well-researched and written history. It is an outstanding single-volume look at the Vietnam War’s origins, examining how and why America’s fate became entwined with the internal struggle between Vietnamese factions.    

The goals of this book are to identify the origins of the war, the nature of the adversaries, their capabilities, and the evolving commitment of the United States. In other words, what happened that led to America’s direct and overwhelming involvement in a war the country chose to fight, not one we fought out of necessity.  

In answering that question, Michael Walker explains the very complicated power struggle following the end of the First Indochinese War in 1954 in the South, after which Ngo Dinh Diem created a functional state (the Republic of South Vietnam) in an otherwise dysfunctional mess.   

Walker, a retired U.S. Marine Corps colonel, provides a complete picture of President Diem, who was a very complicated man, showing how he consolidated power. Walker claims that it was the one-sided and damaging treatment of Diem in the American press that contributed to the 1963 coup that resulted in his death.

Walker then explains how the North’s highly experienced and disciplined Worker’s Party quickly consolidated power after the French defeat in anticipation of future unification and the impact of the war in Laos on the conflict in Vietnam. The chaotic events of 1963–including a series a Buddhist-led protests against Diem, the U.S.-supported coup and Diem’s assasination, as well as Hanoi’s decision to exploit the post-coup instability in the South—changed the face of the war.    

To explain how a civil war between the northern and southern Vietnamese became a major part of American history Walker examines the decade immediately preceding the American war in Vietnam. He focuses on Resolution 15 issued by Hanoi in 1959, which formally began a second phase of the war, the first being the struggle for independence from the French.  

Walker addresses the creation of armies in both the North and South and provides insights into the professional and highly effective use of intelligence collection and signals intelligence by the North. Perhaps the most impressive success of the North was the placement of agents into the highest reaches of the South’s military and government.  One undercover agent who revealed his role after the war actually worked for American news correspondents and influenced their opinions about the war.  

This is an informative book that answers many questions about how the United States wound up fighting in Vietnam in a much-expanded conflict. It is well worth the time to read. 

–John Cirafici

Back in the Day by Steve Heuton

Back in the Day (Dorrance Publishing, 220 pp. $18, paper) is a coming-of-age novel set during the Vietnam War. It covers high school, the draft, the war, bar fights, and run-ins with the law. Heuton served in Vietnam in 1970 with the U.S. Army.  

It’s the late 1960s and Jimmy Reno is a high school student. The story begins a tad uncomfortably as Jimmy notices his younger sister’s “butt wiggle” as she runs, grins, and observers, “Little sister was growing up.” Before long Jimmy and his pal Stan go out looking for girls who “put out.” Jimmy is 17 and occasionally gets grounded. He has typical girlfriend problems.

Jimmy also is the center for the football team. One of the stars is John Milner, which I remembered is the name of the cool, car-racing fifties guy in American Graffiti. After they graduate from high school, Stan joins the Marines and Jimmy winds up in the Amy. His girlfriend Angie goes off to college.

Jimmy reports to Fort Lewis for eight weeks of Basic Training at the book’s half-way point. Then we follow him through eight more weeks of Advanced Individual Training. Next stop: Vietnam.

“It was hot, humid and it stank,” he says upon arriving in-country. “I could hardly breathe the first couple of days. What a shit hole!”

Arriving at his assigned unit, Jimmy learns that he is the new weapons man. His main job is to repair broken weapons. After seeing some early action, he thinks he’ll never see his girlfriend again.

Heuton is a fine writer and his story goes racing along. In the end, though, it winds up being nothing more than light entertainment. No harm, no foul.

–Bill McCloud

No Greater Love by John A. Siegfried and Kevin Ferris

The November 1968 Vietnam War battle for Nui Chom Mountain, in which PFC Michael Crescenz lost his life at age 19, lasted for a week. Midway through it, Crescenz’s Americal Division’s 4th Battalion, 31st Infantry company walked into an ambush and was pinned down. One G.I. was killed instantly and four wounded.

Chaos reigned until PFC Crescenz grabbed an M60 machinegun and advanced on the nearest machinegun bunker. He killed the men in it and disabled their weapon. He then attacked two more bunkers with the same result. Wounded in the thigh, Crescenz shielded a medic tending to a casualty under fire and said, “I got this, doc. No problem,” then advanced on a fourth bunker and was mortally wounded.

Military historian John A. Siegfried and former Philadelphia Inquirer editor and columnist Kevin Ferris tell the story of Michael Crescenz’s uncommon valor in No Greater Love: The Story of Michael Crescenz, Philadelphia’s Only Medal of Honor Recipient of the Vietnam War (Casemate, 190 pp. $26.86, hardcover; $20.95, Kindle).

Crescenz was the second of six brothers, all of whom grew up and attended the same Catholic schools in Philadelphia. The authors recreate the boys’ childhoods based on interviews with many of their neighbors. They flesh out Michael Crescenz’s two months in-country out with letters he sent home and interviews they did with his fellow soldiers.

While growing up, Michael and his brother Charles excelled in everything they tried. They were outstanding athletes, tough competitors, and protectors of the bullied. Their West Oak Lane neighborhood was the core of their world. After graduating from high school, Charles enlisted in the Marine Corps and served in Vietnam; Michael later joined the Army. Their father had served in World War II and their grandfather in World War I.

In parallel with Michael Crescenz’s story, the authors include an informative history of the Medal of Honor. A chapter on a 1970 posthumous MOH presentation by President Nixon for the families of 21 Vietnam War recipients—including Michael Crescenz—highlights the power the medal bestows today.

In 1968, he was buried in Holy Sepulchre Cemetery, a six-minute drive from where he grew up. Later his brother Joe replaced Michael’s plain gravestone with a government-issued white marble marker.

That change was not enough for Joe Crescenz, though, after he visited Arlington National Cemetery where more than 400 Medal of Honor recipients are interred. So he enlisted his brothers in a campaign to move Michael’s body to Arlington.

Initially, the plan met strong opposition from federal administrators. But a Catholic bishop intervened and made all the arrangements, from exhumation to reburial.

After more than a week of ceremonies that included motorcades and convoys, old comrades lay Michael Crescenz to rest in Arlington National Cemetery in 2008. The authors recreate these events with deeply moving recollections from the men involved.

Since then, many organizations have honored Michael Crescenz. Most notably, in 2014, the VA hospital in Philadelphia was renamed the Corporal Michael J. Crescenz Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center. A larger-than-life statue of Michael in full combat gear holding an M60 stands guard at the Philadelphia Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

The book’s array of excellent color photographs adds additional distinction to Michael’s short life.

—Henry Zeybel

Girl from the Racetrack by Robert Brundrett

Robert Brundrett enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1969. He was sent to South Vietnam, where he served as an adviser to the South Vietnamese Navy. He spent time at river and coastal-support bases and worked for the Navy Construction Bureau in Saigon.

Those experiences inspired his novel, Girl from the Racetrack (Orange Frazier Press, 254 pp. $22.95, paper).Joe Savage, who roomed with main character Charlie Strickland in college, tells the story of his buddy’s romance with a South Vietnamese woman after the men are reunited in South Vietnam in 1972.

Charlie, whose job is working with the South Vietnamese Navy on a design for a swift river craft, grew up with a love for horses, especially race horses. In Saigon, he goes to Phu Tho Race Track to take in the action. That’s where he meets a jockey named Kim and her trainer and father, Binh.

Charlie is invited to visit the family on their horse farm. Romance is in the air immediately, but first the bond must winds up being forged in adversity as Charlie and Kim get a friend out of jail and barely survive a mortar attack. Later, they hide in a barn during the NVA’s Easter Offensive. Their escape involves horses, naturally. The romance proceeds fairly smoothly, but there are snags below the calm surface. After all, this is a fictional romance.

Part of the intrigue is Kim’s brother Bao, who may be a Viet Cong operative, and Charlie may be spying on him. There’s also Charlie questioning what we are doing in Vietnam and wondering if South Vietnam wouldn’t be better off reunited. Although he doesn’t let his misgivings affect his relations with Kim’s family, an Ugly American character—Charlies’ racist superior—believes that the Vietnamese people are inferior and not worth the effort.

I assume this story of Charlie and Kim was either inspired by a romance that the author was involved in or that he knew the couple. Building on that, this is a rare time when I would have wished for a true story to be more enhanced for entertainment purposes.

I review a lot of war movies, some based on true stories. Usually, those movies are not good history lessons because they stray too far from their source material. In this case, I wish Brundrett had jazzed the story up a bit. The plot teases some espionage, but doesn’t deliver.

Aside from a couple of danger-filled moments, Charlie and Kim’s romance goes pretty smoothly. The greatest hurdle the couple have is navigating the red tape necessary to get Kim to America.

The war is on the periphery in this book; it seldom takes center stage. Charlie’s job is far from the jungle. Which makes Girl from the Racetrack an unchallenging story set in a war. But Brundrett is a competent writer, and if you are a romantic and don’t want death to seep into your novel reading, you might like this book.

–Kevin Hardy

We Had to Get Out of That Place by Steven Grzesik

“I was young and lived by impulsive decisions, Steven Grzesik admits midway through We Had to Get Out of That Place: A Memoir of Redemption and Betrayal in Vietnam (McFarland, 215 pp. $29.95, paper; $13.49, Kindle). Grzeski served two tours in the Vietnam War as a Light Weapon Infantryman at Dau Tieng, a Ranger with the 25th Infantry Division at Cu Chi, and a helicopter door gunner at Chu Lai. The book reflects the torturing of human spirit as revelatory as any I have read.           

With the concentration of a clinical psychiatrist, Grzesik analyzes his youthful exposure to warfare. As a skinny and bullied New York City kid, he escaped tough guys, uncaring parents, and poverty by moving to Greenwich Village and joining the counterculture until he suffered a psychotic reaction to LSD. On being drafted in 1967 at age 20, he says, “I was rescued by the Army. The rigors of basic training hardened me mentally and physically.” Outshining his draftee peers instilled him with confidence.        

Grzesik challenged many of his officers and NCOs. With an outsider’s mentality, he says, “I just was never in well enough to be buddies with any superior.” Nor was he subtle about displaying his feelings. He once aimed his M16 at a sergeant who treated him unfairly and pointed an unsheathed machete at another sergeant who physically threatened him. Later, Grzesik punched a lieutenant who insisted on making him obey a regulation overlooked by virtually everybody else. In lieu of a court-martial, he accepted a second tour of duty in Vietnam.

Despite the conflicts that Grzesik instigated, he was a conscientious soldier. He hated officers and NCOs because of the way they treated new personnel, particularly in Vietnam War field operations. He despised the FNG label. He felt that officers had the rank, but enlisted men did the work. He believed that superior rank provided no excuse for taking advantage of lower-level soldiers and called it out.     

The sincerity with which We Had to Get Out of That Place looks back on the Vietnam War overwhelmed me. Grzesik wanted to be a good soldier, but found it difficult as he was trying to survive the war. In the book, he repeatedly emphasizes that he did not want to be killed in a war that had no meaning. He switched jobs in hopes of surviving the war but ended up performing more dangerous duties. At times, his actions ignored reason and resulted in near disaster.

25th Infantry troops in-country

Grzesik’s desire for fairness from sergeants led him to all-but-escape infantry duty on his first Vietnam War tour, but not on his second.Taking advantage of his previous in-country experiences, he joined the Rangers. When his unit disbanded, he found himself jobless and went on a pharmacological spree while whoring his way around Saigon.

His descriptions of the drug and prostitution scenes make compelling reading. Arrested and again facing a court-martial, he showed his warrior mentality by volunteering to be a Huey helicopter door gunner, which turned out to be a mind-boggling experience. At that point in the book, I could not put it down and read far into the night.

Grzesik provides heartfelt insights into his passage into adulthood. Of his time in the counterculture, for example, he says, “The Age of Aquarius was not coming. It was a lie.” Recalling the war, he says, “Vietnam was a National Geographic moment gone terribly wrong.” Walking on patrol, he thought, “I felt like a man new to prison.” After the fact, he writes, “I cried because the greatest effort in my life meant nothing.”

We Had to Get Out of That Place informed and entertained me in many ways as it resurrected memories of my own similar thoughts and behavior. Grzesik sums up much of his existence by telling his reader, “I was fifty-seven years old before I mellowed enough to be a great husband to anyone.”

—Henry Zeybel