Snapshots from the Edge of a War by John Buquoi

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.”


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


ASA Trilogy by Robert Flanagan

Bob Flanagan served sixteen years in the Army Security Agency, which is the focus of his ASA Trilogy from Connemarra Press and AuthorHouse: Involuntary Tour (324 pp., $31.99, hardcover; $22.99, paper, 2009), Dragon Bait (336 pp., $28.95, hardcover; $19.95, paper, 2011), and Fall Off (392 pp., $31.99, hardcover; $23.95, paper).

Prior to his Army service, Flanagan had served in the Marines for seven years. “Though neither protagonist is Flanagan, the characters must, of necessity, embody much of his life, philosophy, experiences, and biases,” his publisher says.

Flanagan began keeping a journal in Vietnam in the spring of 1964, he says, “with the intent of producing a novel.” He continued that practice until late fall of 1969. I believe that his novels benefit from that journal keeping because he has come up with pages packed with telling details of military life. Other readers might disagree, as they might find the thicket of military jargon daunting.

Robert Flanagan

Flanagan anticipated that potential problem and addresses it: “If there is one element for which I feel some explanation is due, it is the heavy use of slang, military jargon, acronyms, and other terminology more familiar to military and military veterans than to the general public,” he writes. Flanagan says he wanted to portray “events and characters within a military world as truly as possible.”

He has done that. In fact, no one has done it better, not even James Jones in From Here to Eternity or his other masterworks. I was thrilled to read this trilogy, which is close to a thousand pages and deals with the life, loves, and military career of David Winter.

Flanagan presents us with three thick novels filled with memorable characters. Some we see off and on again throughout the entire length of the trilogy. Others we meet briefly and they are gone forever. I became so attached to the recurring characters, especially WO David Winter, that I was sad when I finished reading the third volume.

It took me a while to get into the rhythm of Flanagan’s writing. He is not writing for junior high school students—far from it. His writing is demanding, but rewarding. For instance: “The demand for bodies for that distant conflict was insatiable, swallowing them whole, ingesting, assimilating all into its bowels, converting into waste, vomiting out others in a partially consumed state, forever changed.” I’ve never read a better description of what the Vietnam War did to those of us it gobbled up.

David Winter is described as not being “a war junkie, a militant groupie,” and he wasn’t. But in the course of almost one thousand pages his part in the Vietnam War changes him in many painful ways—especially painful to those of us who have grown to love him. We root for him, and it is hard when he seems about to be crushed by the War Machine.

Winter is often on the edge of cataclysms that destroy others, but which spare him, or seem to. Winter’s dear friend Brenner at one point states his mantra: “There is no God but irony.” There is plenty of irony in these three novels. So if you are born deaf to irony, these books will be a challenge.

For those who don’t like to get your Vietnam War history by reading historical novels, I recommend that you read Unlikely Warriors: The Army Security Agency’s Secret War in Vietnam 1961-1973 by Lonnie M. Long and Gary Blackburn. That book offers an organized history of the ASA.

Flanagan’s books are not chronological and sometimes seem to be written to deconstruct any possible logical view of the military.  Also, Flanagan offers episodes of apparently supernatural events, or at least magical realism, in which the reader butts up against people who cannot be explained scientifically. I enjoyed those occurrences, but I can see where some might be hornswoggled or nonplussed by them.

Flanagan does a better job than most  in showing what he calls “the barricaded worlds” of Tan Son Nhut and Bien Hoa, Can Tho, Nha Trang, Plei Ku and other U.S. military installations in Vietnam. I spent a lot of time in three of those barricaded worlds, and attest to the truth of what he writes about life in those special military worlds.

Flanagan also does a brilliant job evoking the world of the sneakers and peepers of ASA, whose endemic motto was, “In God we trust; all others we monitor.” The world of military monitoring is nowhere more fully explored than in this trilogy. Probably the thing Flanagan does best is to show the effect on his main character of “what it would be like to suddenly know all you had believed in was a shopworn joke.”

We get references to John Wayne, Indian Country, My Lai, Terry and the Pirates, Operation Ranch Hand and Agent Orange, Graham Greene, Sergeant Rock, Hemingway, Robert Ruark, and Isak Dinesen.  Because I spent thirteen months in Vietnam working for the Inspector General, I especially enjoyed the rant about the “persnickety ways” of the I.G. Funny stuff.  Yes, we were a chicken-shit outfit; I don’t deny it. We reveled in it.

I loved these three books, “the whole phantasmagorical magilla,” to steal a phrase from Flanagan. If you loved Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 and John Ashmead’s The Mountain and the Feather, Flanagan’s books are for you.

If you want a challenge, if you want to immerse yourself in this military world, read these books. You will be rewarded beyond measure.

—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