What So Proudly We Hailed by Marc Leepson

Marc Leepson is a Vietnam veteran, historian, journalist, author of eight books, editor of this web page, and arts editor of The VVA Veteran. With What So Proudly We Hailed: Francis Scott Key, A Life (Palgrave Macmillan, 256 pp., $26), Leepson has used his research, his clear prose style, and his story-telling talent to produce a brilliant book that brings history alive.

I learned everything I ever wanted to know about Frank Key (as he was known) and his song. Key was an important and contradictory figure in the Jackson years—involved in “Indian Removal” and on both sides of the slavery question in his private legal practice and as U.S. Attorney for Washington from 1833-41.

He believed slavery was evil, but he was also against Abolitionists. He was a slave holder and a very religious man who found nothing in the scriptures against slavery. He thought the solution was to send free blacks to Africa.  But he did not commit himself to the program to the extent of accompanying them. Most white men who did died of fever.

When he observed the shelling of Fort McHenry by the British Navy during September 1814 Battle of Baltimore in the War of 1812, Key was not a part of the battle, but safely observing at a distance. So he had the time and presence of mind to compose on the back of an old letter the deathless words that became our national anthem.

A romanticized painting of Francis Scott Key in Baltimore Harbor on the night of September 13-14, 1814

Leepson’s use of quotes is stunning and effective. Sometimes he is even funny, as when he includes an advertisement for a lost black and white cow for which Key offers a reward of $5.

I’m sure it wasn’t funny to Frank, though. He was a sober and pious citizen who dedicated himself to his family and to his church. He was also a gifted orator and a compulsive amateur poet who seemed to never stop scribbling.  He gave speeches “filled with biblical, patriotic, historical, and literary allusions.”

His success with parenting was hit and miss. Leepson’s details about Key’s children and their various foibles humanizes Key and helps make him more sympathetic.

Most men who could owned slaves in those days. Although it is hard not to judge him for his inconsistency, Key rode in a funeral procession in Washington, D.C., for a prominent African-American citizen—the only white man to do so. At the heart of Key is a great but not uncommon mystery, and Leepson has brought that mystery alive.

Marc Leepson’s website is www.marcleepson.com

—David Willson

Not a Gentleman’s War by Ron Milam

Ron Milam’s Not a Gentleman’s War: An Inside View of Junior Officers in the Vietnam War (University of North Carolina, 236 pp., $36.95), which was published in 2009, was written in reaction to the widespread belief that infantry lieutenants, such as the infamous William Calley (who presided over the My Lai Massacre), performed so badly in the field that they were one main reason for the outcome of that war.

Milam—a history professor at Texas Tech University who served as an Army infantry adviser with the Montagnards in Vietnam—combed through Army and civilian reviews of junior officers’ leadership, conducted extensive interviews with former Vietnam War infantry lieutenants, and read many oral histories and diaries. That research, which Milam used as the basis for this book, brought him to a different conclusion.

As he puts it: “the lieutenants who served in combat performed their duties with efficiency and aplomb, and the criticism afforded them after the war contrasted with the reports and evaluations made during the war.”

Author Ron Milam

Milam’s thesis puts him squarely in the camp that believes that the Calley-led My Lai Massacre was not the norm in the Vietnam, but was an egregious aberration. The “evidence,” Milam says, “shows that there was not ‘a thousand Calleys’—there was only one.”

Among other things, Milam writes about Vietnam War junior Army officers who were very un-Calley-like. That group includes Chief Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson, the helicopter pilot who landed amid the carnage of My Lai and saved the lives of a group of Vietnamese women and children; Lt. Robert Ferguson of the 101st Airborne Division, who received a posthumous Distinguished Cross for his courage under fire in 1967; and Lt. Rick Rescorla, one of the heroes of the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley.

—Marc Leepson

MH/CHAOS by Frank J. Rafalko

Frank J. Rafalko’s MH/CHAOS: The CIA’s Campaign Against the Radical New Left and the Black Panthers (Naval Institute, 352 pp., $32.95) is an insider’s account of the CIA’s 1967-73 secret domestic spying program started by President Lyndon B. Johnson during the height of the Vietnam War. Rafalko went to work for the CIA’s Special Operations Group (SOG), known around the agency as MHCHAOS or Operation CHAOS, soon after joining the agency in July of 1967. He went on to put in a twenty-four-year CIA career.

During the late sixties and early seventies Counterinsurgency Officer Rafalko’s job was to help uncover foreign influences on the antiwar movement. Part of that effort included undercover agents who spied on U.S. citizens abroad and infiltrated antiwar groups such as SDS and the Black Panther Party at home, looking for connections to operatives from the Soviet Union, China, and North Vietnam. Operation CHAOS also spied on a wide range of left-of-center activists and other groups that had little or nothing to do with opposing the Vietnam War. The latter included women’s groups. All in all, CHAOS maintained files on some 7,000 individuals and 1,000 groups and organizations.

Operation CHAOS became extremely controversial after its domestic spying came to light in 1974 through an article by Seymour Hersh in The New York Times. That led to congressional hearings and then a federal investigation by the Rockefeller Commission that looked into the legality of the domestic spying. Many were outraged after the congressional hearings and Rockefeller Commission’s final report revealed the details of the operation.

Rafalko, though, believes that what he and his undercover colleagues did—including spying on the antiwar movement—was legal and correct.

“In my personal view,” he writes, “these American students carried placards and banners that said ‘Peace,’ and raised their voices to cry ‘Peace,’ but they either did not understand or refused to acknowledge that ‘Peace’ to a Communist meant Communist world control. In effect, the North Vietnamese manipulated them into a kind of fifth column for the sole purpose of stage managing U.S. public opinion.”

—Marc Leepson


Sisterhood of War by Kim Heikkila

Kim Heikkila’s Sisterhood of War: Minnesota Women in Vietnam (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 232 pp., $19.95, paper) looks at fifteen women from the Land of 10,000 Lakes who served as nurses in the Vietnam War. She melds their stories into six chapters that look at the nurses’ relationship with the troops, their war-zone experiences, their homecomings, and their postwar adjustments to life back home.

“It is a story of venturesome women who chose to practice their traditionally feminine career in a decidedly masculine setting,” Heikkila says. The collective stories in the book rise “to heights of adventure,” fall to “depths of despair as they experienced the carnage of war,” ascend “again as they eagerly left the war zone and returned home, only to descend once more as they encountered public hostility, institutional indifference, and psychological stress in the aftermath of war.”

Heikkila, who teaches U.S. history, U.S. women’s history, the Vietnam War, and the 1960s at St. Catherine University, found that the women’s experiences in Vietnam “were both similar to and different from men’s.” Their stories, she says, “are not merely interesting additions to men’s stories of the war—though they are that. They are also part and parcel of the war story itself.”

The group of women includes Diane Carlson Evans, who went on to spearhead the effort that led to the creation of the Vietnam Women’s Memorial in Washington, D.C. Several other Minnesota women nurses, including Donna-Marie Boulay, also worked to build the memorial—which is the subject of the book’s final chapter.

—Marc Leepson

The Vietnam War Debate by Louis B. Zimmer

When you think of the most influential voices in the antiwar movement during the Vietnam War, the names Dr. Benjamin Spock, David Dellinger, Phillip and Daniel Berrigan, Abbie Hoffman, Rennie Davis, Daniel Ellsberg, Jerry Rubin, Joan Baez, Jane Fonda, Tom Hayden, Eugene McCarthy, George McGovern, Norman Mailer, I.F. Stone, and J. William Fulbright go to the top of the list.

According to Louis B. Zimmer, a professor emeritus of history at Montclair State University in New Jersey, another name belongs in the group: the legal scholar and activist Hans J. Morgenthau of the University of Chicago. In The Vietnam War Debate: Hans J. Morgenthau and the Attempt to Halt the Drift into Disaster (Lexington Books, 430 pp., $85), Zimmer details Morgenthau’s extensive anti Vietnam War activism. Zimmer, as the subtitle indicates, also strongly condemns those who took America into the Vietnam as well as those who prosecuted the war.

The book, Zimmer says, “is the story of a great man who first established the specialized study of international relations with the publication of his earliest book and who then applied the principles contained in those studies that appeared in hundreds of articles and public forums in the attempt to alter American policy in Vietnam.”

Morgenthau, Zimmer argues, made the case that the the communist insurgency in Vietnam was never a threat to American national security and that the war should never have been fought.

Morgenthau is Zimmer’s hero in the book. As for his villains, they are the usual suspects: the government officials and journalists who supported the war. That list includes Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon, as well as top Vietnam War presidential advisers Henry Kissinger, McGeorge Bundy, Dean Rusk, Walt Rostow, and Robert McNamara, and the journalists Leo Cherne, Norman Cousins, and Joseph Alsop.

—Marc Leepson

So, What’s a Nice Girl Like You Doing in A Place Like This? by Sandra Lockney Davis

Sandra Lockney signed up for the U.S. Army’s Special Services Program in 1964 when she was twenty-three. She did a one-year tour in South Korea with the U.S. Army’s Special Services, and a second tour in Vietnam in 1967-68. So, What’s a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This? Seoul to Saigon: Personal Essays (CreateSpace, 330 pp., $21.95, paper) is Sandra Lockney Davis’s memoir that centers on those two tours of duty.

As for Vietnam, she writes: “Regardless of how you felt about the war, we were all in this together; everyone focused on getting the job done and going home, ‘back to the World.’ We all worked for the same boss, the U.S. Army, and everyone worked 12- to 18-hour days. Any time off was spent frantically trying to have fun, to forget where we were, and how long we had to be there. No one talked about not making it home. Everyone just lived as though we might not. I didn’t want to get too attached to anyone because one of us might not be there the next day and others felt the same way.”

This is a readable, dialogue-filled book, replete with lots of photos of the author in Korea and Vietnam, along with cartoon illustrations by Terri Zuber. Ann Kelsey, who also served with Army Special Services in Vietnam in 1969-70, provides a short introduction and, in a postscript, a longer look at  women volunteers in civilian-staffed recreation programs in Vietnam.

—Marc Leepson

David & Lee Roy by David L. Nelson and Randolph B. Schiffer

David Nelson and Lee Roy Herron were high school buddies in Lubbock, Texas. They joined the Marines together after college in 1966. They both became officers. From that point on, though, their paths diverged.

Lee Roy Herron became an infantry officer, went to Vietnam, and was in the  thick of things with A Company, 1st Battalion, 9th Marines. He was killed in action on February 22, 1969, while charging an enemy machine gun bunker in the A Shau Valley during Operation Dewey Canyon. His commanding officer, Wesley Fox, later received the Medal of Honor for his courage under fire in that engagement.

David Nelson took a different path in the Marines. “I would not go into the infantry. I would not go to war. I was going to law school,” he says in David and Lee Roy: A Vietnam Story (Texas Tech University Press, 288 pp., $29.95), which Nelson co-wrote with Randolph B. Schiffer.

After law school at SMU, Nelson put in his three years in the Marines as a JAG officer. As he predicted, he never made it to the war zone. For decades after his friend was killed, Nelson harbored a nagging case of survivor guilt.

After meeting Wesley Fox by chance in 1997, Nelson went on a quest to learn more about Herron’s death. Nelson delved deeply into the voluminous files at the Vietnam Center at Texas Tech University in his hometown. He interviewed men who served with his old friend in Vietnam. He even made a trip to Vietnam.

After returning home in 2001, Nelson set up the Lee Roy Herron Endowed Scholarship at Texas Tech. That scholarship funds research trips to Vietnam for students studying the war through the Vietnam Center.

Another result of Nelson’s quest to honor his friend is this book. It is partially written in the first person by Nelson, telling his own story, and in the third person telling Herron’s story. In both sections the authors tell their tales very readably, using a great deal of reconstructed dialogue.

The book’s website is www.davidandleeroy.com

—Marc Leepson

The Nam ‘Doc’: A Navy Corpsman’s Story by Stan Gerding

VVA member Stan Gerding’s memoir, The Nam “Doc”: A Navy Corpsman’s Story (CreateSpace, 158 pages, $16.95, paper), focuses on his 1968-69 tour of duty in Vietnam with D Company, 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines.

Gerding, who was born and raised inBellevue,Kentucky, joined the Navy after graduating from business school. “My life took a complete turnaround after I joined the Navy,” Gerding says. That included a difficult tour of duty as a corpsman inVietnam, during which Gerding saw more than his share of the worst war has to offer. He went on to serve for twenty-three years in the Navy.

—Marc Leepson

Black Ops, Vietnam by Robert M. Gillespie

The latest book-length look at MACVSOG, the U.S. military’s clandestine Vietnam Studies and Observations Group, is Robert M. Gillespie’s Black Ops, Vietnam: The Operational History of MACVSOG (Naval Institute Press, 320 pp., $41.95).

Gillespie, a former teacher, delivers a well-researched, cogently written operational history, beginning with the secret unit’s antecedents in the 1950s and early 1960s in Vietnam, and continuing until SOG ceased operations in March of 1973. The author chronicles many individual operations carried out by the unique unit’s components: Army Special Forces, Navy SEALs, Marine Force Reconnaissance units, along with personnel from the Air Force and the CIA.

“In retrospect,” Gillespie concludes, “MACSOG and its operations failed to achieve the goals that its masters set for it. This occurred not because of a lack of effort or initiative on the part of the unit or its personnel, but because of the inherent flaws in U.S. political/military strategy during the conflict.”

—Marc Leepson

Soldier/Many Wars by Suzanne Opton

Soldier/Many Wars (Decode Books, 104 pp., $60) is a book of stark, close-up photographs of active-duty service personnel and veterans divided up into two sections by the photographer Suzanne Opton. One section (“Soldier”) is made up of tight shots of young Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans laying their heads before the camera. Many were displayed publicly in cities across the nation in 2008.

The other section (“Many Wars”) is made up of tight portraits of war veterans draped in rough-cut cloth. Most of these powerful photographs were taken at a VA clinic in Vermont of veterans being treated for post-war emotional problems. Several in this group are Vietnam veterans.

Each of these photos contains a one-paragraph description person in the shot, along with longer quotes from the veteran about his or her war experiences. The “Soldier” photos contain only the last name of the veteran and how many days he or she served in Iraq or Afghanistan—and in some cases both.

Opton “cleverly co-opts conventions from the commercial world” in these photographs, Phillip Prodger, the Head of the Photography Department at the Peobody Essex Museum, writes in the book’s introductory essay. “Her pictures resemble fashion shots more than traditional war photographs….”

“The concordance with fashion photography contributes to the work’s equivocal air, portraying serious subject matter with techniques normally identified with comparatively cheerful publications.”

Opton’s web site is http://suzanneopton.com

—Marc Leepson