Darker Than Dark by John Admire

Retired Marine Corps Major Gen. John Admire in his novel, Darker Than Dark (Yorkshire Publishing, 412 pp., $19.95, paper; $7.99, Kindle), wanted to pay special tribute to the men with whom he served in Vietnam in 1966 and 1967. He more than accomplished his mission by creating four main characters to tell the story of courage and compassion of young Marines in the Vietnam War. In this book we see the darkest side of war, and hear the thoughts and discussions that took place away from the battlefield.

These young Marines formed a very effective fire team, but they also formed a family that shared suffering, support, and good-natured bantering. Thanks to Admire’s writing skill, I could sense the fear of ambushes and nightly patrols. The heat, the cold, and seemingly constant rain were almost palpable on the pages. At one place, I found myself blinking to clear my eyes in the dark jungle. Only a man who had been there could bring such realism to the page.

This story contains more than action-packed scenes. The fire team holds bunker talks on a regular basis to discuss the war and events back home. Through these chats, we get a much clearer picture of what was on the minds of the Marines as they tried to make sense of a limited war.  One PFC says it best:  “It seems we gotta use enough power to make the NVA know we’re serious, but not so much power that the war goes too serious on us.”

Admire begins each chapter with a quote from one of the main characters. I found the quotes worthy of being placed in a separate addendum to the book. They keep the reader in touch with the thoughts of the men, and—amazingly—they also ring true about today’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I was impressed at the complexity and strategy involved in routine patrols and ambushes. A corporal would call the men together after an action and discuss what went right and what went wrong. To a battlefield veteran, this may have been normal procedure, but this noncombatant gained greater respect and appreciation for the Marines.

John Admire

The team operates in several areas near the DMZ, taking part in, among other fights, the Battle for Con Thien (the “Hill of Angels”). The story climaxes with the intense fighting for the hills surrounding Khe Sanh. Along the way the reader is exposed to firefights, river crossings, and deaths by friendly fire.

Admire includes the severe problems with the introduction of the M-16 rifle. It malfunctioned so easily and so often the men would look for AK-47s on the bodies of killed NVA soldiers to use.

The description of fighting at Khe Sanh was the most vivid this reader has ever seen in print. The horrors and heroism seemed unending. If the author wanted his readers to understand the sacrifices of men at war, he clearly succeeded.

To bring this book to its conclusion, Admire gathers the main characters in a reunion thirty years later. They still don’t understand everything that happened in Vietnam, nor why the American people turned against the war. But they still believe freedom is worth fighting for—and sometimes is the only way to keep it.

Thank you, John Admire, for this great read.

For more info, go to https://darkerthandarkbyjohnadmire.wordpress.com

—Joseph Reitz

Forces-at-Play by Daniel Refvik

I surmise from internal evidence in his book, Forces-at-Play (Outskirts, 550 pp., $25.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle) that Dan Refvik served in Vietnam in the Marine Corps, but nowhere in the book does he ‘fess up to that. The author’s note says that Refvik is a Chicago native and is currently writing a science fiction novel, Pete O’Day and the Android Sister.

Atticus, the main character of this fine novel, is drafted into the Marine Corps during the Vietnam War. This is one of the best novels I have read about a man who is drafted into the Marine Corps and makes the best of a bad situation. His gets the nickname, “Mr. Attitude,” in the Marines and that follows him for his entire two years.

Atticus expects to end up in the infantry, but is chosen to be a communications man. When he arrives in Vietnam, his job consists of being a message courier. He gets kicked around a lot, and becomes a wireman for a while, and then a radio man. He works in the rear in Phu Bai for much of his tour, but he also gets to be a part of nine-day jungle sweeps. So he is neither a pogue nor a grunt, but some of each.

He gets asked, “How’d you get a prime job like that? “  The answer: “Beats me.  It’s the job they gave me when I finished boot camp.”

I appreciate that the author lets us know that the myth that all draftees end up as infantrymen is just that—a myth.

                                                     Daniel Refvik

There is much rumination about Fate, Kismet, and Life and Love in this novel. We also get the usual Vietnam War-novel references to John Wayne, Baby Killers, fragging, jammed M-16s, trigger time, and how the VFW did not welcome Vietnam veterans to their ranks after we returned home.

Refvik gives us the best reference to ham and mother-fuckers I have ever read, and I’ve read hundreds. To wit: “The contents inside the can were held together by filaments of fatty strands suspended in a greasy liquid along with plump, green things.”

He also provides a recipe for making ham and mothers more tasty.  Useful.

There was the occasional word that sent me running to my dictionary, one of them being, “caliginous,” but I could use the exercise.

I loved this novel. For those looking for a very different Marine Corps novel of the Vietnam War, try this one out.

—David Willson

Brotherkeeper by Lawrence Winters

Lawrence Winters served as a U.S. Marine in the Vietnam War in 1969-70. The author of The Making and Unmaking of a Marine, he is a mental health counselor, and has returned to Vietnam to study PTSD in the Vietnamese people. He also has worked as Director of Veterans Treatment at Four Winds Hospital in New York.

Brotherkeeper (294 pp., $21.95, paper; $4.99, Kindle), Winters says, is a novel that explores “the relationship of veterans to their families and communities.” In 2013, Winters read the works of Jonathan Shay on Vietnam veterans and PTSD, and “realized moral injury had been the reason my soul would not return home.”  War’s affect on morality is a major theme in his book.

The main character is Jake Flynn, a Marine. He has not left his time in Vietnam behind and suffers from nightmares and flashbacks. He has a wife, Naomi, with whom he is not honest. Naomi wants Jake to be over the Vietnam War, which Jake cannot do. Naomi is very controlling on this issue. She allows Jake only “acceptable TV viewing, no VFW, no war discussion in his high school classes and no meetings with old Marine Corps buddies.”

Jake teaches high school, which seems a risky choice for a Marine veteran with PTSD. Disclosure: My father was a high school math teacher and a Marine Corps veteran—of Iwo Jima. He taught high school as a penance for having survived Iwo. I think perhaps Jake had similar motivations.

This is another book in which the characters keep secrets. “He’d been seeing Sam, the therapist, for three years, and hadn’t told him he was a Vietnam vet with a chest full of medals. All they ever talked about was his father.” I was so annoyed when I read that passage that I almost quit reading the book. But I persisted.

Another aspect of the novel that posed a serious problem for me was the frequent use of italics for no reason that I found justifiable. In Chapter 57, for example, there are twenty-three straight pages of italics. This is italics madness. A good editor would not have permitted this.

Larry Winters

One of Jake’s students wants to become a man by joining the Marines. He talks to Jake about that. Jake thinks that joining the Marines would be the worst decision he could make.

Another character dynamic is Howie Watkins, the Marine Corps recruiter in the small town. He’s so troubled by his job sending recruits into harm’s way that he attempts suicide. Howie says that his job makes him feel like a contract killer. Alma, Howie’s wife, is deeply concerned about Howie—for good reason.

A missing father, Shiloh, leaves behind a manuscript about his time in Marine Force Recon. That’s the 23-page section of the novel rendered in italics. Shiloh becomes an important part of the novel. Much is made of Indian sweat lodge ceremonies and their purification rituals. The sweat lodge ceremonies are accurately and respectfully portrayed.

Brotherkeeper is a complex novel dealing with war and moral issues. Aside from too much italics, there are also too many characters who smirk. And everyone in this novel seems to be related to a Marine, or was a Marine. I thought it was “the few, the proud.”

We get many of the usual clichés of Vietnam War novels: Marines don’t leave Marines behind, Agent Orange, Marines called baby killers, criticism of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial for being “an Asian design,” and others. But they are appropriate to the characters.

Those looking for a serious novel about dealing with the moral injuries of the Vietnam War—and perhaps fans of the works of PTSD expert Edward Tick—will benefit from this book.

The author’s website is http://lawrencewinters.com

—David Willson

Run Between the Raindrops by Dale Dye

Dale Dye served multiple tours in the Vietnam War between 1965 and 1970 as a Marine Corps combat correspondent. He rose through the ranks and retired as a Captain after putting in twenty-one years. In Vietnam, Dye survived thirty-one big combat operations—including the Battle of Hue during Tet ’68. In his novel Run Through the Raindrops (Warriors Publishing Group, 254 pp., $14.95, paper; $7.99, Kindle) Dye writes brilliantly about the long, bloody fighting in Hue City.

That battle is familiar to those who have seen the movie Full Metal Jacket or read the novel upon which the movie was based, Gustav Hasford’s The Short-Timers. It is almost as though the main character of Dye’s novel, also a combat correspondent, is a character from Hasford’s book.

The scenes, language, and action have much overlap with Full Metal Jacket. If you loved Hasford’s book or the movie, this new Author’s Preferred Edition of Run Between the Raindrops will please you on every page.

About a sixth of the way through, there is a friendly fire incident in which two Hueys roar up a canal and strafe Marines trying to cross on a makeshift bridge. The scene is described so cinematically it is hard to believe that I’ve not seen it in a movie. As a matter of fact, I’d like to see this book made into a movie.

Our hero carries an NVA pack crammed with the stuff he needs to be a combat correspondent—everything he owns, he tells us. There is room in there for canteens full of vodka. The vodka came from a trade with rear-echelon troops for war souvenirs.

Dye writes that REMFs would take bartered war materiel home and claim they got the stuff in combat. This is a universal trope in novels about the Vietnam War. I never met a valor-stealing REMF, but there must be one or two out there somewhere.

Dye fills his novel with memorable characters such as Philly Dog, his partner Willis, and Reb the Southerner. The action and the language are a delight, and I’ve read too many novels to be easily impressed. I wish all the Vietnam War writers who have come late to the game would read this novel and try to do as well as Dye does.

Dye wrote this novel long ago; when it was published in 1985, it was mostly ignored. I hope this new edition will get more attention. It deserves to be on the small shelf of classic books about Marine Corps battle action in the Vietnam War.

Run Between the Raindrops has a lot of dark humor. That makes it easier to read the many violent scenes and not wince too badly when characters suffer serious wounds.

Combat correspondents, Dye writes,  are “just glorified grunts, my man.  We go where you go and watch what you do, maybe even write a few stories, shit like that. When it gets messy, we add some firepower. No big thing.”

The book also contains trenchant observations on the nature of war.  Dye writes: “That’s what counts in a war of ideas. How the fight turns out is less important than the fact that you forced it on the enemy and made it as bloody as possible.”

Dye does not forget about John Wayne, “saddle up,” those “chicken-shit ARVN’s”, the Phantom Blooper, the problems with M-16s, and the Black Syphilis. But the freshness of his language elevates this book above 90 percent of Vietnam War novels.

When he tells us of “dragging the dead along like floppy pull-toys” and has his main character adapt a Bill Cosby riff on Custer and the Indians to Gen. Giap vs. General Westmoreland, the book enters new territory.  Also, this is the first Vietnam War book I’ve read that compares the look of worn out American troops to Coxey’s Army. I enjoyed that one.

Dale Dye

I loved the ironic lament near the end about “no parades, no free beers, nothing but pity which is worse than being ignored. There it is and thanks very much for your service.”

That ranks right up there with Dye’s comment on the Marine Corps: “That’s a lot of tradition but not much progress.”

Those who want to read more about the Marine Corps in Vietnam, especially in the Battle for Hue City, are advised to seek out and buy this fine novel most ricky-tick.

—David Willson

The Gunny, Master Guns, and Bullets and Bandages by Raymond Hunter Pyle

Raymond Hunter Pyle is a two-tour Vietnam veteran who served in Da Nang, Cua Viet, and Dong Ha in 1967 and in Da Nang from 1968-69. I suspect he was a Marine Corps NCO, perhaps a gunnery sergeant who did a lot of recon. Those suspicions are based on the extreme realism and wealth of believable detail that Pyle displays in these three fine and rousing action adventure tales of a Marine Corps NCO.

What are my qualifications for reviewing Pyle’s Marine Corps novels, all of which take place in the thick of battle and often deep in the jungle of Vietnam—all three of which I thoroughly enjoyed and highly recommend, with a few misgivings? I was not a Marine, and I never wanted to be a Marine, but my father was. He was a normal guy before he served in protracted combat in the World War II. For the rest of his life he was a bitter, difficult man who never talked about his war experiences.

To try to reach some understanding of why my father was the way he was, I have read hundreds of Marine Corps books, starting with his unit history. This was an enriching experience, but having a father who was present and communicative would have been much preferable.

Pyle is a great storyteller, and he presents us with flesh-and-blood characters we care about and get completely involved with. I would rank him right up there with Jack London and Edgar Rice Burroughs, two of my favorite action/adventure novelists. Long sections of The Gunny CreateSpace, 448 pp., $13.70, paper; $3.99, Kindle), in fact, in which the title character is alone in the jungle hunting the enemy with a knife reminded me vividly of similar scenes in a Tarzan novel in which the “King of the Jungle” killed Nazis with a knife.

Pyle’s scenes were every bit as thrilling and exciting as those of Burroughs’ Tarzan. That is high praise.

However, Pyle has not had the benefit of the editors that Jack London and Edgar Rice Burroughs had. The Gunny is the best edited by far of the three books. But even that book suffers from anachronistic rants such as: “During bull sessions between attacks, the Marines on the hill had talked about the hippies in California and how they would spit on military men coming back home from Vietnam and call them baby killers and worse.” That simply did not happen in 1967-68.

The other two books suffer from frequent dropped capital letters, missing prepositions, and erratic spelling. Pyle, for example, uses the term “nuke mom” for the common fish sauce (nuoc mam) of Vietnam. 

The Gunny also tests credibility with the meteoric rise to Gunnery Sergeant of Frank Evans, due to his saving the life of a Marine Corps general who demonstrates his gratitude by becoming Frank’s rabbi.  One of the most absorbing parts of the book is the lengthy section in which Frank is assigned to Khe Sanh to investigate the malfunctions of the M-16 for the general.  Pyle gets all of this right, and makes it interesting as well.

It’s mostly action with the occasional bit of reflection, such as: “Every man has a dark, violent spirit inside of him.”  Certainly Sgt. Frank Evans does.

Master Guns (376 pp., $3.99, Kindle) is a Marine recon novel and a fine one. Everything you ever yearned to know about Marine recon is in this novel and it all moves right along.

Rhodes, the main character, also rises rapidly in the Marine Corps. He makes the sudden jump from NCO to captain. I know a friend who managed to do that in the Marine Corps, so while it can be done, it is unlikely, but possible. The novel makes clear that the role of recon is to develop intelligence on terrain, enemy movements and numbers, and finding potential LZ’s for future operations, but there is no shortage of actual battle.

We get a long and educational disquisition on where the term “klick’ comes from as a measure of distance. There is also a great scene in which an artillery strike is called in on the Marines’ own position. We find out exactly why the 9th Marines were called “The Walking Dead.”

At Khe Sanh, the Marines were sitting ducks in a muddy pond, being hit with long-range artillery, mortars of all sizes, recoil-less rifles, 122 MM, 140 mm, and 155 mm rockets and even RPG’s fired by sappers just on the other side of the wire.

In Bullets and Bandages: A DMZ Story: Vietnam 1967 (BookBaby, 302 pp., $3.99, Kindle), two main characters’ lives are entwined by marriage, family ,and career: Staff Sergeant Marowski and Terry King, a Squid and a Navy Corpsman.

Marowski and King survive for weeks in the jungle near the DMZ after surviving a helicopter crash, evading the enemy, and undergoing just about every bad thing that can happen to someone in a jungle.

Pyle is a spell-binding teller of tales and he really knows the lives of Marine Corps professionals, and he has the writerly gifts to hold the attention of the reader.

The author avoids right-wing rants until the very end of the book. Vietnam veterans returned to a country, Pyle writes, “that didn’t care much about the war or its returning veterans.” The country “was mired in its own selfish and self-centered politics and social problems. The age of the spoiled brat society had begun.”

Pyle tells us that Marowski and King, “like thousands of others, got on with their lives and tried to make sense of it all. Few ever did.” That point is debatable, at best.

Based on my reading of many hundreds of Marine Corps books, I believe that some Vietnam veteran authors seem to feel sorry for themselves in a way that the authors of the World War II and Korean War Marine Corps books did not. Maybe that has something to do with Pyle’s reference to a “spoiled-brat society.”

I’m looking forward to Pyle’s fourth book in this series. I hope it will have a stern editor who will keep the faith on proper English punctuation and keep the rants out. Suggestion: Pyle could put his rants on a blog aimed at those who need them.

—David Willson