Team 19 in Vietnam by David Millie

Team 19 in Vietnam: An Australian Soldier at War  (University Press of Kentucky, 411 pp., $40) is an Australian army officer’s (and pilot’s) account of his year (1968-69) of service in the Vietnam War in Quang Tri Province in the northeast corner of the former South Vietnam near the DMZ.

Millie was an advisor to ARVN troops, and effectively became a liaison to American army units as well. A point he makes repeatedly is that the ARVNs could be an effective force, despite what American grunts thought. Difficulties in communications often were the true reasons for ARVN ineffectiveness when working alongside Americans.

Millie tells of many ARVN engagements in his detached, after-action style. The South Vietnamese troops come across as heroic, unwilling, and foolhardy—much as any group of conscripts.

Conscription was universal for males who were of age, but often you could get out of it by joining local militia or police forces. Also, if ARVN soldiers lacked motivation, it may have been because of the corrupt bureaucracy that ran things. For one thing, they often served without pay. Their pay went to officials in their villages or provinces who were supposed to pass it on, and often didn’t. As a writer, Millie is pretty dry, reflexively insisting on the passive voice. Here he is describing his return to Quang Tri Province in 2012: “The tour objectives were centered on friendship, pilgrimage, and veteran curiosity.” This, in fact, was an exhilarating personal trip, not a cautious diplomatic probe. It’s as though Millie can’t break the habit of impersonal after-action reports.

                                           David Millie

Millie’s comments on the legacy of the Vietnam War are conventional, but deeply felt, and contain some striking insights. He feels that the struggle between communism and democracy in Vietnam took all the oxygen out of fighting elsewhere in Southeast Asia, allowing fledgling democracies to stabilize and put down their own insurgencies. Presumably, he’s referring to Thailand or the Phillipine, or even Indonesia. It’s an interesting thought.

David Millie emerges as a devout Catholic, a dedicated family man, and a principled officer who believed in his mission. As a commander, he sometimes had to discipline fellow Aussies with drinking problems, or those who had broken down under the stress. Millie’s remedies went by the book, but also were thoughtful and compassionate. He seems like a commander any soldier would be glad to have. In the 1970s, Millie became active in the settlement of Southeast Asian refugees to Canberra, of which he is justifiably proud.

In the end, despite his dry style, Millie has given us penetrating insights into the ARVN side of the Vietnam War, and into Australia’s unique contribution.

—John Mort

Assignment in Samarra by Frank M. Smart

22222222222222222222222222222Frank M. Smart was drafted into the Army in 1964 and served on active duty for seven years. He arrived in Dong Ha in May of 1968, and was assigned to the First Cavalry Division’s 42nd Public Information Detachment. His MOS was 71Q20, Combat Reporter. He had received his military education at Fort Benjamin Harrison, Indiana, the same place I learned to be an Army stenographer. 

Smart’s Assignment in Samarra (Tate Publishing, 192 pp., $12.99, paper) “is a work of fiction,” the author says. It’s a handsome little book, with a title that echoes that of John O’Hara’s first novel, Appointment in Samarra. That echo is all that Smart’s novel has in common with O’Hara’s book, however, other than it also is set in the Middle East. On the first page, the hero gives a short speech about the deja vu of being in another “God forsaken hell hole,” and how he doesn’t want to die to make Islamic fanatics free.

He then expresses disgust for South Vietnam’s ARVN troops, who, he says, were “perfectly willing for me and my fellow soldiers to die to make them free, but they were not necessarily willing to die for it.” The implication is that ARVN troops avoided casualties in South Vietnam. I checked the statistics, and ARVN troops did die, in at least three times the numbers as American troops did.

Frank Smart

I’ve read criticisms elsewhere about the bravery of ARVN troops, but one cannot question their fatalities. Brave or not, they died. Maybe they died hiding under their mothers’ beds, but they did die. It’s a myth that they did not.

Jack Spraggins, the hero of this book, is a Vietnam veteran who gets picked, at a handsome fee, to go to Iraq with a seven-member fact-finding group. They go there to investigate allegations of bribery, graft, and poor workmanship. He and his committee are ambushed and Jack uses his Vietnam-War-honed fighting skills to defeat a large contingent of insurgents with weapons he obtains in a manner that can only be called divine intervention.

Jack is unsure if the cavalry will come in and save him and his cohorts in time. I won’t ruin the suspense, but will say that the reader is told that there will be a sequel with more of Jack’s derring-do. The next time it looks as though he will be going into Southeast Asia to rescue American POWs, which has been a life-long obsession. He knows they are there.

This short thriller will please those who agree with Smart’s vision of the world. He has a lot of positive things to say about Vietnam veterans, always a refreshing change. And he mentions a lot of American icons, including John Wayne, who is quoted non-ironically saying “Saddle Up.”

That’s always a good thing to do in times of crisis.

—David Willson