Busted by W.D. Ehrhart

Busted: A Vietnam Veteran in Nixon’s America (McFarland, 173 pp. $19.99, paper), originally published in 1995, is a reissue of the third volume of W.D. Ehrhart’s three-part memoirs. That is good news, since Bill Ehrhart is one of the most significant American poets of the war in Vietnam, and it’s important to keep all of his works in print.

The first books of the series are Vietnam-Perkasie: A Combat Marine Memoir (1983) and Passing Time: Memoir of a Vietnam Veteran Against the War (1989). Ehrhart also has written many books of poetry and essays dealing with his Vietnam War service—and with war in general.

While you might think it’s best to have read the first two books in a series prior to reading the third, in Busted Ehrhart fills in all the backstory you need. The book begins just a few days after the end of the previous one. It’s not divided into chapters or broken up in any way. It just starts and goes in pretty much of a stream-of-consciousness style.

After completing his Marine Corps service and graduating from college, Bill Ehrhart took a job as a seaman on an oil tanker. He was busted by the Coast Guard for possession of pot, was fired, and faced federal charges unless he agreed to give up his seaman’s card, which he had no plans to do. In the book Ehrhart describes what he was thinking then and comments on the House Judiciary Committee’s hearings on the impeachment of Richard Nixon.

Ehrhart says his first night at boot camp on Parris Island was “the most terrifying experience of my life,” due to the harassment of the drill instructors. It didn’t help that a DI told him he was “going to die on this island.” That’s a lot to handle for a seventeen year old.

Then came orders for Vietnam. “What I found in Vietnam bore no resemblance to what I had been led to expect by Lyndon Johnson and Time magazine and my high-school history teachers,” Ehrhart writes (he would later become a high-school history teacher himself.). Because of his Vietnam War service, he says, “I had become something evil, but I did not know what it was or how it happened or why.”

Bill Ehrhart back in the day

He later joined the antiwar movement, then decided to go to sea in an attempt to escape the political and social chaos in the U.S.A. That’s how he ended up in his cabin in port at Long Beach, California, when his door banged open.

“I was scared shitless” are the first four words in the book. He later told his mom, “I’ve been smoking dope ever since Con Thien.” Then said, “So marijuana is illegal, but it’s okay to drop napalm on gooks.”

From time to time, Ehrhart—who received the Vietnam Veterans of America Excellence in the Arts Award in 2008—writes about Vietnam War atrocities and his visits from the hallucinatory ghosts of men killed in combat. The book ends with the conclusion of his trial.

Bill Ehrhart thinks like a poet and writes like one. And what he has to say is important. That’s why all of his books no longer in print should also be re-issued.

–Bill McCloud

Thank You for Your Service by W.D. Ehrhart

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W.D. Ehrhart joined the U.S. Marine Corps right after he graduated from high school in 1966 and served on active duty for three years. He arrived in Vietnam in February 1967, and went on to experience an eventful thirteen-month tour of duty. He was awarded the Purple Heart for wounds received in action in Hue City during the 1968 Tet Offensive, among other decorations.

His service in the Marine Corps in the Vietnam War became grist for the poetic mill that enabled Ehrhart to produce hundreds of fine poems dealing that subject. Of course, talent and hard work combined with Ehrhart’s experiences to come up with the collection of poems that fills most of the pages of his latest book, Thank You for Your Service (McFarland, 310 pp., $35, paper)

I tried hard to select a few lines from this group of chronologically arranged poems to convey the totality of Ehrhart’s talent, but I failed in that attempt. It was just too difficult to choose among so many outstanding poems.

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Bill Ehrhart in County, 1967

If I had to list his best work (if, that is, an editor asked me to do so), I would name the following poems: “Scientific Treatise for My Wife,” “More Than You Ever Imagined,” “Afraid of the Dark,” “Waking Alone in Darkness,” “Desire, “The Fool, “ “Sins of the Fathers,” “Letting Go,” “Golfing with My Father,” “Home on the Range,” What Keeps Me Going,” and “How History Gets Written.”

If I had to choose a poem to quote some of Bill Ehrhart’s best poetic lines, I would go with “What Keeps Me Going”:

Pressed down by the weight of despair, I could sit for hours idly searching the ashes from my cigarette, the darkness of silos, the convoluted paths we have followed into this morass of disasters just waiting to happen,

But my daughter needs to sleep and wants me near.  She knows nothing of my thoughts.  Not one missile mars her questioning inspection of my eyes; she wants only the assurance of my smile, the familiar places just so:

Brown Bear, Thumper Bunny, Clown.

These are the circumference of her world.  She sucks her thumb,

Rubs her face hard against the mattress

And begins again

The long night dreaming

Darkness into light.

Ehrhart’s book is filled with such poems and I delighted in them.

Thanks, Bill, for another great collection.

—David Willson

W.D. Ehrhart in Conversation edited by Jean-Jaques Malo

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W.D. (Bill) Ehrhart enlisted in the United States Marine Corps on April 11, 1966, while still in high school. He left for Vietnam on February 9, 1967, after receiving combat training at Camp Pendleton. When he arrived in Vietnam, Ehrhart served with the 1st Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment as an intelligence assistant and later as assistant intelligence chief.

He took part in many combat operations including Stone, Lafayette, Early, Canyon, Calhoun, Pike, Medina, Lancaster, Kentucky I, II and III,  Con Thien, Newton, Osceola II, and Hue City. Ehrhart was promoted to lance corporal on April 1, and to corporal on July 1.

Bill Ehrhart is the author and editor of a long list of poetry books, memoirs, essays, translations, and chapbooks. Eight of his poems were included in the pioneering 1972 book, Winning Hearts and Minds: War Poems by Vietnam Veterans. He edited two important and excellent poetry collections: Unaccustomed Mercy: Soldier-Poets of the Vietnam War and Carrying the Darkness: Poetry of the Vietnam War. His books of essays include Dead on a High Hill and In the Shadow of Vietnam.

Ehrhart is considered to be one of the major authors of the Vietnam War. I am on record as calling him a “master essayist,” which he is.

W.D. Ehrhart in Conversation: Vietnam, America, and the Written Word (McFarland, 236 pp., $39.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle), edited by University of Nantes English Professor Jean-Jacques Malo, is a companion volume to Malo’s The Last Time I Dreamed about the War: Essays on the Life and Writing of W. D. Ehrhart.

In Conversation contains nineteen interviews of varying length and sophistication with Ehrhart done by folks from many walks of life. I enjoyed reading all of them, and was surprised how much I learned about Bill Ehrhart and his writing. I thought that after reading The Last Time I Dreamed and (full disclosure) having known him for decades, there would be no surprises in this new book. I was wrong.

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Bill Ehrhart

These interviews cover many subjects and three decades of Ehrhart’s life and career. Parades, Jane Fonda, being spat upon, Agent Orange, and many other subjects are covered. Ehrhart is not a cliché Marine. He didn’t want a parade; he was never spat upon; he has nothing bad so say about Jane Fonda.

Agent Orange is covered and in one of the interviews Ehrhart mentions that I am dying of multiple myeloma which the VA believes came to me via exposure to dioxins in Vietnam

If you have the slightest interest in Bill Ehrhart or the Vietnam War, buy this book and read it.  I read it in just a few hours and loved it.

—David Willson

Dead on a High Hill by W.D. Ehrhart

W. D. Ehrhart served as a U. S. Marine in Vietnam with the First Marine Battalion, First Marine Regiment in 1967, first as an intelligence assistant, and later as an assistant intelligence chief. He took part in his share of combat operations, including at Con Thien and Hue City, and received the Purple Heart after he was wounded at Hue City.

Ehrhart’s new book, Dead on a Hill: Essays on War, Literature and Living, 2002-2011 (McFarland, 204 pp., $38, paper) proves once again that he is the finest poet/memoirist/essayist of the Vietnam Generation. The truths that  Ehrhart—who received the VVA Excellence in the Arts Award in 2008—tells in these essays are often sad and always powerful.

The book is a classy production, well-edited, and contains more than two dozen excellent essays. The cover alone is worth the price of admission. It shows the author and a buddy, Corporal Takenaga, filling sandbags near Quang Tri in October 1967.

My favorite among the uniformly superb essays in the book is “Carrying the Ghost of Ray Cantina.”  Ray Cantina is really Alan Catlin, who was anthologized as “Ray Cantina” in Ehrhart’s book Carrying the Darkness.

The first thing I did after reading this essay was to dig out Carrying the Darkness to read the two poems by one more guy who pretended to be a Vietnam veteran for obscure reasons of his own. I didn’t remember the poems from a few months ago when I most recently reread this anthology when I was searching for the best overlooked poets of the Vietnam War.

Did I like the poems?  Does it matter that he is a fake and phony?  The proof of the pudding is in the eating, my grandpa always told me. So I read the poems again. They are not gems, but perhaps my appreciation of them was colored by my knowing the poet faked his Vietnam War service. The poems are good enough and specific enough that when I read them without inside information, no red flags went up.

What this fine little essay brings up for the reader is the question: What constitutes a Vietnam veteran? There is a great debate about that. Some folks believe that a Marine Corps combat veteran is the ultimate Vietnam veteran. Others make the case that the common experience for most Vietnam veterans was in the rear with the beer and gear, so that means that REMFs are the ultimate Vietnam veterans.

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Most folks seem to agree that if a poet was never in Vietnam in any capacity at all, he or she is stretching the truth to claim to be a Vietnam veteran. But I read somewhere in a classic Vietnam War book that “Vietnam, Vietnam, Vietnam…we’ve all been there.”

So where does that leave us?  One of the great beauties of Ehrhart’s book is that it provokes the reader to think, to contemplate, to re-examine long-held beliefs and prejudices.

My second favorite essay  is “Good Fences Make Good Neighbors,” which I wish every American man, woman, and child would read. This piece was delivered as a speech at Clarion College. I have no idea how it was received, but I know that if Ehrhart delivered it at our local community college near Maple Valley, Washington, he would be lucky not to be tarred, feathered, and ridden out of town on a rail. This speech argues that historical facts are more important than patriotic myth, superstition, and legend.

The third essay I recommend highly is “They Want Enough Rice.”  This is the essay that, if read, should shut up every die-hard Vietnam veteran I’ve ever argued with when I’ve heard him claim, “I don’t know what happened in Vietnam after I left. When I came home we were winning that war. The media and Jane Fonda sold us down the river.”  Ehrhart explains what really went wrong with that dirty little war and why.

Buy and read this book if you are up for being provoked to think, and perhaps abandon, some of your closely held preconceptions.

—David Willson