Snapshots from the Edge of a War by John Buquoi

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John Buquoi was trained as a Vietnamese linguist at the Army Language School in Monterey, California, and then assigned to the Army Security Agency’s 3rd Radio Research Unit, a military branch of the National Security Agency in Saigon and its Detachment J in Phu Bai in Vietnam from 1963-65.  After separation from the Army he returned to Vietnam where he worked as a civilian for defense contractors for more than five years. During that time Buquoi traveled to virtually every province in South Vietnam.

Snapshots from the Edge of a War (CreateSpace, 138 pp., $9.95, paper; $4.99, Kindle) is a book of poems, written fifty years later—or, as Buquoi puts it: “This is a work of fiction.”  The back cover has a photograph of the author in the aftermath of the Brinks Hotel bombing in Saigon on Christmas Eve 1964. The photo and the poems demonstrate strongly that John Buquoi was a man who was there, “in the shit.”

The back cover blurb says it well: “The poems in this volume are, after fifty years, echoes of that experience in a series of reflective narrative vignettes which one critic has called, ‘first rate in every respect, resonating on all levels—emotional, personal, factual, historical, literary.'”

Buquoi’s six-page story poem, “The gifts of Christmas,” is the best piece of any kind I’ve read on the bombing of the Brinks Hotel, which served as a Bachelor Officers Quarters in downtown Saigon. Buquoi writes of “Mr. Xuan, the sapper santa” who  sat across the street and sipped coffee after the bombing, “Satisfied as he watched his plastique work explode.”  His 200-pound car bomb killed two and wounded more than 200 Vietnamese and Americans, civilian and military alike.

This story poem brings home the reality of a war that could kill you anywhere. You didn’t have to be “out in the shit.”  The shit could come to you—anytime, even on Christmas Eve.

This book also contains one of the best things written on Gen. William Westmoreland, whom Buquoi calls by his nickname, “Westy.” He was the general who seemed designed for photo ops and little else. He showed up after things calmed down for the heroic pictures that appear in most books and articles about him. Certainly the Westy I knew was a photo op general.

“Get a haircut,” he once told me.  I felt like asking, “Why?” since nobody was taking my picture.  I just said, “Yes, sir.”

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John Buquoi (in steel pot, center right) outside Saigon in 1963

The language of this poetry seems written to be read aloud, what this poet calls a “talkie poem.”  We encounter Terry Southern, Jack Kerouac, “john fucking waynes without no brains,” Wile e. Coyote, Bob Dylan, and in person, Raymond Burr, who shows up to buoy up the troops by out-drinking all of them.

I loved every page of this book of poems and highly recommend it to everyone not just to poetry fans.

—David Willson

Unlikely Warriors by Lonnie M. Long and Gary B. Blackburn

Unlikely Warriors: The Army Security Agency’s Secret War in Vietnam 1961-1973 (iUniverse, 490 pp., $39.95, hardcover; $29.95, paper) is the result of a twelve-year study by Lonnie M. Long and Gary B. Blackburn.  This book is a history of the Army Security Agency’s (ASA) involvement in the Vietnam War. It is a must-read for anyone interested in the role of secret communications in the war effort. There is so much well- documented information in here that I believe it could be used as a reference book.

This book has heart. While the authors lay out thousands of details, I also felt myself drawn into the personal lives of the combatants. The authors give brief histories of those men and include many photos of them.

In the Prologue the authors give a summary of the events leading up to the United States’ involvement in Indochina. That includes the fact that President Truman authorized funds and equipment to help the French in their 1945-54 losing effort to regain their Indochinese colonies after World War II.

The authors note that the United States should have learned something from the disastrous result of the French Indochina War. The Vietnamese, they point out, have a centuries-long history of fighting and defeating invading nations, along with a strong sense of patriotism that pervades every aspect of their lives

Long (who served with ASA from 1962-65) and Blackburn (who served with the Air Force Security Service) intersperse the chapters with descriptions of antiwar activities unfolding back home. At times the reader may be torn between supporting the men the field in Vietnam and the victims of violence back on the streets of America. The authors note that the war and political dishonesty in Washington tore the fabric of the United States apart.

During the war the ASA and the NSA were very successful in intercepting North Vietnamese military communications, and were able to send warnings about likely attacks. One such incident took place in the Ia Drang Valley.  ASA provided information to ground forces who were then able to decimate the NVA forces.  While mistakes were sometimes made in the exchange of information, overall the ASA proved its mettle.

Long and Blackburn provide the proof that the North Vietnamese Army was a very capable enemy by listing many of the ASA soldiers who were killed in action. Each time I read such a list, I felt like I almost knew the victims.  The sense of loss—along with the sense of pride—is almost palpable in the way the authors present these stories.

Several battle scenes are vividly depicted. The account of the Battle of Duc Lap, for example, was so intense and filled with heroic actions that I stayed up until 1:00 a.m. on a Saturday to finish it. The actions of the men involved showed once again that war—popular or unpopular—is about individuals performing almost unbelievable actions for their own survival and the survival of their buddies.

The authors conclude the book by giving their version of a part of the war that is the most difficult to read about: the end of South Vietnam in 1975.  While I was aware generally of what took place in that dark time, the specifics filled me with sadness.

If a person were to read only one book on the war in Southeast Asia, this would be one of the best.

—Joseph Reitz