One Degree by Gus Kappler

Gus Kappler’s One Degree: An Historical Medical Mystery (BookBaby, 262 pp. $13.95, paper; $2.99, Kindle) is a mix of fact and fiction with a strong Vietnam War theme. Dr. Kappler did a tour of duty in the Vietnam War as an Army trauma surgeon at the 85th Evacuation Hospital in Phu Bai in 1970-71.

In this novel, after Pfc. Richard Burrows is wounded, he is treated at a field hospital in Saigon, then medevaced to Japan, and later sent to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington D.C. After a few months at Walter Reed Burrows seems to be improving, but then suddenly takes a turn for the worse and is in danger of losing both his legs. He then dies of cardiac arrest. When he does, one of his doctors wonders, “What did we miss?”

A lab technician at Walter Reed, Matt Rogowicz, blames himself for Burrows’ post-op death because of what happened a few weeks earlier. Rogowicz had examined a slide of Burrows’ blood and detected an abnormality in a white cell. But there were no reports in the medical literature about such a distortion in infection-fighting white blood cells. Rogowicz could not convince his superiors that this was something that required further investigation and then his patient died.

After leaving the military, Rogowicz becomes obsessed with the tragedy and decides to spend however long it takes to get to the bottom of it. He learns about two more seemingly similar deaths and cover-ups of the circumstances surrounding the deaths. He blames himself even more, and soon exhibits PTSD symptoms, as do others he interviews. There’s a question of whether exposure to Agent Orange could be an issue, and there is a rumor that a Vietnamese worker may have placed a Russian-made toxin in the food in American mess halls.

Then China comes into the picture and things really pick up. There’s a possible connection to Big Pharma, a pharmaceutical conglomerate that had, Kappler writes, “allied with giants in other industries to create and sustain a consortium of players that, in the real sense of the word, ruled the world economically and politically.” This “ruling class” decided to try to control the most powerful man in the world and began grooming a corrupt U.S. senator for a run at the U.S. presidency.

As Rogowicz’s mission drags on for years, it becomes a life-changing experience. He’s not going to stop until he gets this particular monkey off his back. He joins with a handful of other Vietnam War veterans who bring in others who have experience with the mystery disease.

Dr. Kappler, fourth from left, with other 85th Evac surgeons in Chu Lai

Kappler’s dialogue does not come off as natural. He often uses what his characters say as a way of providing information for the reader as characters spit out facts. The brief section of the book that takes place in Vietnam includes several tropes. The VC, for example, turn Claymore mines around to face the GIs; there is a “newbie” First Lieutenant; and pilots survive “several crashes.”

Overall, though, the medical mystery part of this hybrid novel kept me engaged.

Kappler’s website is guskappler.com

–Bill McCloud

Snow in Seattle by Amy M. Le

snowinseattle

Amy M. Le’s Snow in Seattle (Quill Hawk Publishing, 262 pp. $16.99, paper; $3.99, Kindle), hardcover; ) is a work of fiction based on a true story that continues the tale she began in her very enjoyable debut novel, Snow in Vietnam. The adventures of members of her family serve as the basis for both novels.

Snow is the name of the main character. Along with her young daughter and teenage nephew, she fled Vietnam a few years after the takeover of the south by communist forces. Snow in Seattle begins about six months after the end of the previous book.

Snow relocates to Seattle after being sponsored by Skyler Herrington and hosted by the First Evangelical Presbyterian Church. Herrington was the best friend of Cpl. Sam Hammond, the American soldier Snow loved in Vietnam. Hammond was killed in action in 1972.  Herrington and Snow are both dealing with PTSD as a result of their experiences in Vietnam. Different ghosts haunt them. As Snow puts it: “I am tired of living within my memories.”

It’s early 1980 and people are still talking about the recent eruption of Mt. Saint Helens. Snow has lots of adjustments to make. There are cold mornings, and for a while she notices she is continuing to eat the plentiful food at the family’s table even after she is full. She eventually needs to get a job and learn to drive so she can get the independence she longs for.

Raising her young daughter and teenage nephew in the U.S., sending them to local schools and watching them play with neighborhood kids, she’s determined to try to instill Vietnamese values, beliefs, and identity into them. “We may be living among the Westerners,” Snow says, “but we must never give up our roots.”

While reading Snow’s story of learning to make a new home in America we have a chance to see the many things that we take for granted. It’s especially notable as the family experiences new foods, American holidays, and sayings that are commonplace but require a serious familiarity with the language to understand. After a year, the family is speaking two languages at home while constantly keeping the television on to continue to learn English.

619savdhz-l._us230_

Amy Le

What I especially enjoyed about Le’s two novels is her literary mastery of real life. As you read the book’s dialogue it’s as if you’re actually hearing the words with your ears instead of reading them with your eyes. That is a true gift.

Too often, even today, when people say the word  “Vietnam,” they are referring to the Vietnam War. Le’s novels, based on her family’s true story, help American readers see that Vietnam is a country, not a war–and one that many of its people felt forced to flee. It’s the amazing strength of those people that Le illustrates so well in these novels.

The author’s website is amy-m-le.com

–Bill McCloud

Who’ll Stop the Rain by Doug Bradley

If there is someone who knows more about popular music and the Vietnam War than Doug Bradley does, please come to the head of the class. Bradley has immersed himself in what he and other troops listened to since he set foot in Vietnam in 1970. For years he taught a class at the University of Wisconsin called “The Vietnam Era: Music, Media, and Mayhem.”

What’s more, Bradley co-wrote, with Craig Werner, We Gotta Get Out of This Place: The Soundtrack of the Vietnam War (2015), a compendium of all things Vietnam War-era music. “For anyone who wants to know about music and the Vietnam War, this is the book to read,” David Willson wrote in his VVA Veteran review of that book. Bradley and Werner “have given us a gift, a compendious book that looks at the music we rock-and-roll-generation Americans who served in the Vietnam War listened to.”

Doug Bradley’s latest book, Who’ll Stop the Rain: Respect, Remembrance and Reconciliation in Post-Vietnam America (Warriors Publishing Group, 258 pp. $34.99, hardcover; $14.95, paperback; $5.99, Kindle) picks up where the previous book left off—but also expands the subject broadly. The heart of Who’ll Stop the Rain is a detailed report on more than 100 book-and-music presentations around the country that Bradley—who was drafted into the Army in March 1970 and served for a year as an Army journalist at USRV headquarters in Long Binh—and Werner hosted following publication of their book.

What they found time after time at their presentations was that popular music bound together Baby Boomer Vietnam War veterans as well as those who did not serve—no matter what their political persuasions. “The music of the era,” Bradley writes, “can help ground us, get us out of the quagmire, by moving us away from [political] polarizations. Music truth is complex, an implicit recognition that no one voice can tell the whole story, that our public memory is inescapably plural.”

That became especially clear during the Q&A sessions following the presentations. His audiences, Bradley says, “didn’t do the usual griping or head shaking; instead, they listened, intently and respectfully, to what all sides had to say.” Nearly “every conversation eventually moved to somewhere in the middle, and, in the end to some type of communal healing, with every person who stood up and shared—veteran and non-veteran—feeling as if they had been heard.”

Doug Bradley on the job at USRV HQ

The issues that came up during the presentations ran the gamut of Vietnam War and postwar subjects. They included Agent Orange, PTSD, veterans’ homelessness, the VA’s Vet Centers, wannabes, Veterans’ Courts, The Wall and other Vietnam veterans memorials, and Vietnam War movies and books. Throughout the book Bradley intersperses first-person sections, told mainly by Vietnam War veterans, about those and other aspects of the war and veterans issues.

Along the way, Bradley takes care to highlight the postwar accomplishments of many Vietnam veterans, including writers and Vietnam veterans advocates. That group includes W.D. Ehrhart, Alfredo Vera, Karl Marlantes, Steve Piotrowski, Shad Meshad, Bob Fraser, John Ketwig, Kimo Williams, Chuck and Tom Hagel, Sue O’Neill, and Mary Reynolds Powell.

Their words are varied, powerful, and important. As is this book.

–Marc Leepson

Club Saigon by Martin Robert Grossman

Martin Robert Grossman’s Club Saigon (Koehler Books, 412 pp. $30.94, hardcover; $21.95, paper; $3.99, Kindle) is a brutally violent murder mystery set in Los Angeles nearly two decades after the end of the Vietnam War. The story line goes back and forth between late-sixties South Vietnam and early-nineties L.A. This is ingeniously represented by the fact that a bar in Pleiku and one in L.A. both share the name, Club Saigon.

The story begins in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam early 1968 when a Special Forces compound is overrun by forces of the North Vietnamese Army. Grossman—who served in the Green Berets himself—writes that six good men died on that night while back home “the hippies were burning the flag.”

The next thing we know it’s twenty-two years later and Jerry Andrews is a detective with the LAPD. He left the Army after three tours in the Vietnam War and is now basically killing time while he waits for his retirement in three years.

He’s investigating the murder of a Vietnamese man in an alley in Little Saigon, a one-square mile area in the City of Angels. One of the dead man’s his ears had been removed by his assailant. That bit of information causes Andrews to recall an incident from his time in Nam.

Andrews lives in a one-room efficiency apartment. His “last wife” had left him, he hasn’t attended church in over ten years, and he spends a great deal of his time at a cop bar called 44 Magnum. Sometimes he has nightmares based on his combat experiences in the Ia Drang Valley. He also suffers from migraine headaches, which are coming more frequently and more painfully.

Additional dead bodies begin showing up in the alleys of Little Saigon. All Vietnamese, each missing an ear. Andrews somehow doesn’t consider the possibility that there’s a serial killer on the loose until after the sixth death. This is also a guy who seems surprised to walk into a men’s room in a bar and notice that it “smelled like piss.”

As he continues his investigation, Andrews comes across evidence that could involve a few of his Special Forces buddies—guys he’s had no contact with since the war. Then one of them becomes his main suspect. There’s a problem though: the man has been dead for years.

Martin Robert Grossman

Andrews and his buddies don’t seem to be a very enlightened bunch. They’ve apparently always harbored prejudice against Vietnamese. As Andrews puts it: he’s still “slightly racist when it came to Vietnamese.”

During the war Andrews and company spoke of “ARVN assholes” and “fucking farmers,” and were known to urinate on dead enermy bodies. More than twenty years later they wonder why Vietnamese refugees in America can’t “learn proper English,” and think of them as people who typically “eat dog meat.”

Grossman’s novel explores some interesting concepts such as astral projection, dreamscapes, shapeshifters, and “counting coup.” As brutally told as this story is, it’s light reading, falling into the area of testosterone-driven revenge fantasy.

Grossman’s website is martinrobertgrossman.com

–Bill McCloud

A Backseat View from the Phantom by Fleet S. Lentz

   

I did time at Ubon, U-Tapao, Nakhon Phanom, and Don Muang Royal Thai Air Force bases during the Vietnam War. And I knew guys from Takhli, Udorn, and Korat. But I never heard of Nam Phong RTAFB until I read A Backseat View from the Phantom: A Memoir of a Marine Radar Intercept Officer in Vietnam (McFarland, 229 pp. $29.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle) by Retired Marine Corps Col. Fleet S. Lentz, Jr.

As part of the wind down of the Vietnam War, the Marines moved the F-4 Phantoms of the VMFA-115 Silver Eagles from Da Nang in South Vietnam to Nam Phong in Thailand. From there, the squadron bombed targets in Laos, North Vietnam, and Cambodia for 15 months from 1972-73. Never completed for its original purpose, Nam Phong had been a “bare base” used by the CIA to support the dispersal and staging of theater forces.

Lentz served as a Radar Intercept Officer with the Silver Eagles. “To my knowledge,” he says, “no one has written of the Marine aviation effort during those final months.” By the time he arrived in Southeast Asia, Lentz writes, “Marine infantry had been pulled out of Vietnam, as had Army infantry. We were the last Marines in combat in Southeast Asia.”

Lentz wrote the book primarily from memory, but also used information from conversations he had with others stationed at Nam Phong, his Aviator Flight Log, and a Silver Eagles Cruise Book reminiscent of a high school yearbook. He identifies people by title, call sign, or nickname.

Lentz tells his tale in four acts from the viewpoint of a 26-year-old first lieutenant. The first—”My New World”—concentrates on the wealth of privations at Nam Phong, which Marines called the Rose Garden. The base featured a 10,000-foot runway that Lentz says resembled “a long hazy gash or a dirty flesh wound with a faint gray line down the middle.”

The living and working areas consisted of canvas tents above plywood floors on hardened dirt. The tallest building was “the shortest control tower I had even seen,” Lentz says. It looked like “a wooden water tank on stilts or maybe a deer blind.” The facilities, in other words, were deplorable. On the plus side, the Silver Eagles had an unparalleled commander.

Lentz plays a hyper-positive role in Act Two—”Hops”—the Marine term for a takeoff and landing. He learned by doing and tells all about perfecting Phantom crew skills: air-to-air re-fueling, in-flight emergencies, bomb runs, night operations in absolute darkness, missiles, air-to-air combat tactics, and frags (self-inflicted damage caused by flying through your own bomb shrapnel pattern).

“Air crews didn’t have much true intelligence as to their targets,” Lentz says. Generally, a crew flew to a designated area in Laos or Cambodia, hooked up with a forward air controller, and went after the targets the FAC designated. “We assisted allied ground forces, but we never knew for certain who they were,” Lentz says. After American combat troops pulled out of Vietnam in January 1973, bombing was limited to Cambodia.

Lentz carefully analyzes relationships between pilots and RIOs, who very much needed each other. Because the same pilot and RIO did not commonly fly together, irregular teaming up occasionally caused personality problems, and Lentz’s stories on the subject provide excellent entertainment.

His narrative style has a matter-of-fact quality that is more lesson-like than adventure-packed. Of course, the facts of combat and flying beyond Mach 1 need no hyperbole. His stories satisfyingly recollect good and bad times, and he sometimes even pokes fun at his own naiveté.

Act Three—”Special Times, Special People”—continues his dive into the psyches of fellow flyers. He offers insider views of combat pilot behavior that defy understanding and yet produce admiration. An underlying theme in most of his stories is the willingness of one man to help another. To improve a unit, “salts” (older Marines) shared their knowledge and experiences with new guys. “Unit loyalty in the Marine Corps was and is paramount,” Lentz says.         

The final act—”Things Changed”—discusses Operation Sunset, the departure of the Silver Eagles from the Rose Garden. Lentz moved to the higher echelon of Marine Air Group 15 as a supply and then an embarkation officer. He disliked the supply job until he was allowed to act independently. Some accounts of his cumshawing (scrounging) gear for Marines border on legend. For embarkation, Lentz directed 23 days of “shipping everything out,” he says, and was one of the last men to depart from Nam Phong, leaving the base either to the Thais or the jungle.

Visiting Officers’ Quarters as Nam Phong Air Base in Thailand

Scattered photographs dress up the book. A series of appendices add perspective about the war and Lentz’s squadron’s history and leadership.

Operation Sunset provided the final lesson in Fleet Lentz’s wartime career, but what he learned at Nam Phong impelled him to stay in the Marine Corps and make it a career. The men with whom he flew provided outstanding role models. Several pilots at the Rose Garden became generals.

The book’s most significant lesson is the importance of learning from one’s superiors and modeling one’s behavior accordingly when in a leadership role. Lentz mastered that task.

The book’s Facebook page is facebook.com/fleetlentz

—Henry Zeybel  

American Dreamer by Tim Tran

Tim Tran’s American Dreamer: How I Escaped Communist Vietnam and Built a Successful Life in America (Pacific University Press, 390 pp. $18.99, paper; $12.99, Kindle) is an engaging and very readable book. Tim Tran is the Americanized version of the author’s Vietnamese name, Tran Manh Khiem. A first-time author, he has delivered a nice tale.

Tran begins his story—written with Tom Fields-Meyer—as a four-year-old on a U.S. Navy boat with his parents as they fled the North Vietnam in 1954. The family eventually settled in Saigon in South Vietnam.

We move with the author through a series of short chapters, few more than four or five pages long, all divided up into eight parts that signal important changes and developments in his life. Each of the chapters could almost stand alone. They are presented as if they were transcribed from a series of after-dinner reminiscences by the author. Tran’s memory of names and dates and places translates into a pleasant progression.

We follow Tran as he moves through school in Saigon with stories about his student shenanigans, then on to a prestigious high school. He applies and is selected for a USAID scholarship to attend college in the U.S. Tran and the woman who would later become his wife were sent to Forest Grove, Oregon, to attend Pacific University.

Tran portrays his life and times as an American university student wonderfully, even with difficulties dealing with cultural and language issues. He transferred to the University of California at Berkeley, and earned a degree in Economics.

Upon his return to Vietnam in the early 1970s, Tran author went to work for Shell, the worldwide oil company. He rose steadily through the ranks, and had attained a good position when the communists took over South Vietnam in 1975. His chapters on life under the communist regime are very revealing to those do not know the harsh deprivations many South Vietnamese were forced to endure under the new regime.

Tim Tran

Tran describes many attempts to escape from Vietnam. He and his family eventually fled by boat to Indonesia in 1979. His stories of the pirates who pillaged the group are particularly graphic.

From an Indonesian refugee camp, Tran Manh Khiem, with his family, was finally able to return to the U.S., where he began life anew and become a successful businessman. He and his wife Cathy (her Americanized name) became U.S. citizens and prospered. In Tran’s final chapters, he writes of his deeply held love for the U.S.

American Dreamer is a well-written memoir that deserves a place on your book shelf.

The author’s website is timtranamericandreamer.com

–Tom Werzyn

The Cost of Freedom edited by Susan J. Erenrich

“Tin soldiers and Nixon’s coming.” That refrain from Neil Young’s song “Ohio” about the shootings at Kent State on May 4, 1970, is embedded in the nation’s collective memory. The lesser-known song on the B-side of that record, Stephen Stills’ “Find the Cost of Freedom,” may have inspired the title to Susan Erenrich’s elegy to the victims of that day, The Cost of Freedom: Voicing a Movement after Kent State 1970 (Kent State University Press, 336 pp. $34.95, paper; $24.99, Kindle).

The book is an assemblage of genres—including a single photograph, a short song, and a 37-page treatise on the historic preservation of the site—dealing with the violence at Kent State University that May day, its aftermath, and its influence on the community and the nation. Erenrich thoughtfully divides this anthology into ten accessible sections.

Susan J. Erenrich is a professor at American University and a social movement documentarian. She previously edited Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: An Anthology of the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement and Grassroots Leadership & the Arts for Social Change. The Kent State story is a personal one for Erenrich. She was a Kent State student in the late 1970s and was deeply involved in the May 4 Task Force, the student organization responsible for commemorating the anniversary of the shootings.

The fiftieth anniversary of the shootings has brought no less than ten recent books on the events that add to an already robust bibliography of the episode. Erenrich’s book seeks to differentiate itself by its focus on justice issues and its call for the future. The books is a collection of primary source material, though it does not focus on contemporaneous accounts of the events, but rather on the later reflections of students and administrators.

There is a palpable catharsis in many of the accounts, and though the reflections are heartfelt and earnest, many were written 20, 30, 40, and even 50 years after the fact. The essays can veer to the polemical and the writers to self-indulgence, which is entirely understandable as many of their lives are divided in half—one before May 4, 1970, and one after. There are entries that are not directly Kent-related by Patricia Mosley and the former Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and Weatherman Mark Rudd.

The one contemporaneous account of the events, by then Kent State senior Constance Nowakowski, describes protestors on acid throwing bottles at the police, breaking windows indiscriminately, burning the American flag, burning the ROTC building, and cutting hoses firefighters tried to use to douse the flames. This provides context for the tragedy that would ensue, but does not explain or excuse the senseless killings. The Scranton Commission was correct in finding the shootings “unnecessary, unwarranted, and inexcusable.”

From a historical perspective, the pieces on post-facto legal activities are compelling and informing. William Whitaker, an Akron trial lawyer who represented the Kent 25—the moniker given to the protesters indicted for criminal activity in connection with events leading up to the shootings—offers an excellent one, as does Sanford Jay Rosen, the lead civil attorney for the dead and wounded students.

Noteworthy among the essays from the students directly affected by the shootings is the piece by John Cleary. An amateur photographer, Cleary, a freshman, was not part of the protests. He was observing and photographing the days’ events when he was shot in the chest. Cleary had a quiet determination not to allow May 4th to define his life. He finished his studies at Kent and went on to a career in architecture.

The shootings at Kent State still reverberate. This collection is a written monument, a fitting memorial to all those killed, wounded, or scarred by the events of May 4, 1970.

–Daniel R. Hart

Bleeding Spirits by Robert E. Jewell

91knedbb2ol

Robert Jewell’s memoir, Bleeding Spirits: A Combat Soldier’s Memoir of the Vietnam War (Sweetgrass, 189 pp. $19.58, paper), is an exceptional look at the effects of fighting in a war have on a combatant’s personality and behavior. Jewell’s directness when writing about the men he killed overwhelmed me for a short time. Then his attitude confirmed a self-evident truth: No apology is ever necessary for killing an enemy in war.

In this book Bob Jewell tells a deeply reflective and therapeutic story of his 416 days as a Vietnam War grunt with the Americal Division near Chu Lai. His reflexive talent for shooting enemy soldiers caused him consternation, which resulted in repeated personal re-evaluations. Despite self-punishing introspection, Jewell’s physical strength and mental acuity turned him into a consummate warrior.  

In telling his story Jewell wastes no time with writing about his Army training. He takes the reader directly into combat and describes his first kill in minute detail—a North Vietnamese soldier who looked like a 15-year-old boy.   

Draftee Jewell arrived in-country as a replacement at the onset of the 1968 Tet Offensive. Shortly before that, his company of 120 men was reduced to 17. He soon saw several  killed and horribly maimed, he says, and “quickly morphed into a rage-filled savage.” Jewell describes this transition as “an automatic, almost normal change” that made him “lust for killing.” Grossly undermanned, his company nevertheless spent inordinate time in the field. One mission lasted 52 days.

Two of Jewell’s many battlefield experiences reached historic proportions. In the first, 10,000-15,000 North Vietnamese soldiers surrounded and captured Kham Duc in May 1968. In the second, his company walked into an overwhelming large NVA force and fought a night-long battle that devolved into “a firefight in an artillery barrage” with “gunfights at a range of four feet,” as Jewell puts it.             

Wounded three times and hospitalized once during his 14-month tour, Jewell had dozens of other close calls. When facing what appeared to be imminent death, his mind all but shut down and recorded no memory of the event’s outcome. Those experiences created “fragments of mysterious free-floating images” that drifted in and out of his mind, he writes, “no more than mere ‘snapshot photos’ of faces or scenes providing me with no before-or-after context.” Those images lasted for decades.

What he experienced was too profound to ignore. The images created confusion that defied logic and reality, he says, and burdened him with post-traumatic stress. Despite living with PTSD, Bob Jewell enjoyed a distinguished thirty-year career as a teacher and counselor in Helena, Montana. In 2003, after a series of personal tragedies, he began a six-week inpatient program of “long, intense days and nights to reconcile critical secrets.”

Jewell’s analysis of his treatment for PTSD concludes that combat-induced trauma contains more questions than answers, and the restorative power of treatment has limitations. He accepts that many of his important experiences in the Vietnam War are lost to repressed memories.

“Rather than fight the memory,” he says, “I now try to accept is as a friendly reminder that I was one of the lucky ones to survive some of the worst combat shit possible.”

5dacfd72dff51.image_

Bob Jewell in country, 1968

Bleeding Spirits contains 33 pages of Jewell’s letters that spoke truths to family members. In one, for example, he wrote:

“The gooks shot down a plane nearby, and we had to go to the rescue. We found the plane burning and exploding. The pilot was dead, cooked in fact, and we had to pull him out in pieces.”

Throughout the book, Jewell’s other stories are equally candid. They parallel the insanity of moments when, as he says, “Every rule of war, religion, and humanity was instantly obliterated. The non-rules of total chaos took over!!!”

He overlays this candidness with a thin coating of detachment that validates what he saw and did. I greatly admire him.

Robert E. Jewell died of cancer in 2017. His memoir is perfect testimony to warfare’s limitless destructiveness of body, mind, and spirit.

—Henry Zeybel

 

Set the Night on Fire by Mike Davis and Jon Wiener

81x0buteo6l

Set the Night on Fire: L.A. in the Sixties (Verso, 800 pp. $34.95) is a history of the social and political struggles of the 1960s unlike most others. For one thing, Jane Fonda is mentioned only six times in 640 pages of text. What authors Mike Davis and Jon Wiener do, instead, is probe and dissect diverse communities in Los Angeles deeply below the surface of the usual panorama.

A special ideological perspective or historical interest is needed to read it. Even its vocabulary is different. Davis, an author and MacArthur Fellowship recipient, and Wiener, a history professor and longtime contributing editor to The Nation magazine, for example, write about “uprisings” against “grinding forces of oppression.”

Black revolts against racism and inequity are at the book’s core, but the authors also cover “reciprocal influences and interactions.”  Formal and informal alliances include the Vietnam War antiwar movement. There are competing or conflicting cultural outlooks, strategies, tactics, and agendas.

In 1965, Los Angeles’ police chief compared a Black uprising in Watts, one of the poorest sections of the city with 8,000 people and 20 percent unemployment, to the fighting in Vietnam. Thirty-four people died. More than 1,000 suffered major injuries. A National Guard report claimed that the Viet Cong were involved. (In fact, the “bungled” police arrest of a drunk driver on a hot summer’s night sparked the violence.)

In June 1967, President Lyndon Johnson arrived in L.A. for a $1,000-a-plate Democratic Party fundraising dinner at the Century City Plaza Hotel. A thousand police officers faced off outside against 10,000 protesters. Ensuing violence caused the Secret Service to prepare—if necessary–to evacuate the president by helicopter from the roof of the hotel. The organizers had a legal march permit, but some sat down and halted it in a show of civil disobedience.

11young061817

Antiwar protesters in front of the Century City Plaza Hotel

Century City was a turning point. White middle class participation in the protest convinced Johnson he was unlikely to win the 1968 presidential election. In March he announced he would not run after Sen. Eugene McCarthy’s strong showing in the Democratic primary in New Hampshire was followed by Sen. Robert Kennedy’s entry into the race.

McCarthy and Kennedy had similar plans to end the war, premised on negotiations, but the Left wanted an immediate American military withdrawal. By 1967, its leaders already had launched a third-party strategy, organizing the Peace and Freedom Party.

Their desired presidential candidate was Martin Luther King, Jr., who declined the honor. The Black Panthers and White radicals then went after comedian and Civil Rights activist Dick Gregory. Black nationalists wanted Eldridge Cleaver, a former convict and author who called for “a second front” on the West Coast to support the Viet Cong.

Cleaver was two years short of the U.S. Constitution’s minimum age requirement to run for president, but in August 1967, the PFP state convention in L.A. voted 161-54 to endorse him. On Labor Day the national convention nominated him.

In April 1968 Cleaver was involved in a shoot out with Oakland police, and charged with attempted murder. Protests by leading liberal writers and intellectuals led to his release on bail. Cleaver then “lost interest.” On Election Day, he endorsed a pig whom protesters at the Democratic National Cconvention in August had nominated as their candidate. Three weeks later he fled to Algeria.

Bitterly critical of Eldridge and the PFP division, Set the Night on Fire nonetheless heralds the registration drive to get the party on the ballot in California as “a triumph of historic proportions.” The PFP become the first left-wing party to win official recognition in 20 years.  The authors credit it as “the first evidence anywhere in the country of LBJ’s vulnerability to an electoral challenge.”

The book has eight sections and 36 chapters. Overlapping events make the chronology difficult to follow. Mexican Americans and Chicano Moratorium demonstrations are covered in the seventh section. Asian Americans and “other liberations” in the last. One of the most interesting chapters deals with draft resistance and the sanctuary movement.

Occasionally, police, prosecutors, or judges sympathized with draft resisters and deserters. One soldier from Fort Ord asked his girlfriend to marry him while taking refuge in a Quaker meeting house. Their wedding took place during a recess in his later court-martial for desertion. The Army prosecutor spoke at the ceremony. He wished the bride and groom happiness, and said he had “nothing personal” against him. The deserter received a dishonorable discharge, but no prison time.

Set the Night on Fire is a valuable doorstop reference book, but will never reach a popular audience. Which is perhaps unfortunate. Insights and lessons are buried in its many pages. Some would be useful to recall as resurgent waves of Black and White protest today seek to overcome fault lines in the American Dream.

–Bob Carolla

The Wars Among the Paines by John M. Millar

619ks8efbzl-550x830-1

The Wars Among the Paines (KoehlerBooks, 616 pp., $39.95, hardcover; $26.95, paper; $7.99, e book) is a work of historical fiction by John M. Millar, who served as a first lieutenant with the 1st Infantry Division in Vietnam in 1968-69. The novel looks at the effects that fifty-five years of war (1918-1973) had on the nation as seen through the eyes of one family, the Paines. They are proud citizen-soldiers who served when called to wars. They haven’t missed one, reporting for duty in World Wars I and II and the Korean and Vietnam Wars.

The main character, Treat Paine II, refers to his younger sister as “the martyr,” while his older brother is “the prick,” his mother “a drunk” and his father “a bastard.” For decades the family has famously owned several non-union munitions plants. Paine says his family seemed to have it all, yet ended up being dysfunctional, and he wonders how much the pressure of family members fighting in four wars contributed to that.

Within the first few pages we learn that Treat’s brother was killed in Vietnam in 1965 in the Ia Drang Valley and his sister was a leader in the antiwar movement who died by carrying a hunger-strike to its fatal conclusion. After that, his mother went into a catatonic state from which she never recovered. His father, a World War II veteran, would die from a heart attack.

A grandfather survived World War I and the 1918-19 flu pandemic. An uncle was killed in Korea. “We were a family that answered our country’s call every time,” Paine says, “right or wrong.” He tells the stories of his relatives by using journals each kept during their time in service.

After Treat Paine graduates from college in 1966 he volunteers for the Army because he wants to fight in the Vietnam War. Why? Not because of his brother’s death there but because, as he says, he “worshiped Hemingway.” His “purpose for going was complicated by my desire to be a famous writer. I knew that, if I did not go to Vietnam, I would not have the grist to create meaningful stories.”

He volunteers for Army Officer Candidate School and arrives in Vietnam in early 1968. He left the war after serving two tours, with a promise to himself that his writing would never glorify the things he witnessed there.

author2bphoto

John Millar

In preparing to write the historical parts of this novel Millar used an impressive amount of reference materials that are listed on three pages at the back of the book. For the ficttion parts we get a ton of details about Paine’s school years—all of them: subjects he studied, classes he took, his thoughts about his instructors, and final grades he made.

The fact that Millar makes those parts nearly as interesting as military combat shows what skills he has as a writer.

Considering a nation’s history by looking at the personal history of generations in one family is not a new idea. But John Millar has done it as well as anyone.

The book’s website is thewarsamongthepaines.com

–Bill McCloud