Flying Into the Storm by Bill Norris

Bill Norris is a decorated veteran of the Vietnam War. The cover of his book, Flying Into the Storm (Nekko Books, 272 pp., $24, hardcover; $12.99, paper; $4.99, Kindle), makes it look as though it is about a helicopter pilot, but Bill Norris was not a pilot during the war. That came later, after Norris returned home and became a private pilot.

This novel is centered on Jared Christopher, a young man who leaves college during his first semester and volunteers for the draft. A year later, in January 1968, he finds himself in South Vietnam’s Quang Ngai Province “following orders and taking lives.” The enemy, Jared says, “proved to be a crafty, evasive and determined.” 

Jared is in the Americal Division and often patrols in an area known as Pinkville, which later was made infamous as the scene of the My Lai Massacre. Jared is not involved in that event, but he comments that he easily could have been.

Norris does a particularly good job evoking the everyday activities of an infantryman. “It was part of the Viet Cong master plan to hit us and disappear, ambush us and merge into the landscape and booby trap us relentlessly,”  he writes. “We seldom saw the enemy, no matter how thoroughly we searched.” This is the war that we see Jared and his platoon fighting.

The whole Quang Ngai Province is enemy infested. It is hard to take a step without fear of encountering a booby traps such as punji pits or bamboo spear racks hung in trees. “This was definitely Viet Cong territory,”  Jared says. “We decided that our job to ‘fight communism’ was a farce.”

Bill Norris

He encounters a desolate land, done in by what he calls “orange death”; that is, the widespread spraying of the extremely toxic herbicide Argent Orange.

“I had a bad feeling just walking through the area,” Jared says. “Even the air smelled musty and tainted.”

He prophetically wonders how these chemicals might affect him and the Vietnamese people who lived in the area.

Jared becomes close friends with a few of the locals. He befriends an orphan, Quang, and determines to adopt him and take him home. His comrades call him “gook lover” because of this. Jared’s request is approved by the U.S. Army, but turned down by the South Vietnamese who didn’t want to lose potential manpower for the war.

Jared returns to America and encounters demonstrators with signs at SeaTac Airport. Long-haired hippie-looking people scream obscenities at him and call him a baby killer. “We returned but the parades forgot to show,” Jared says.

Bill Norris, a member of Vietnam Veterans of America, has created a character in Jared Christopher who is a compassionate man, who is gentle with children, and who understands how the Vietnamese people were caught between forces they couldn’t possibly contend with.

Jared also is a fine leader of men in combat. He always does what he can to help his men stay alive and in one piece. He is a realistic character—despite all his good qualities. I enjoyed reading about him.

—David Willson

Kill for Peace by Matthew Israel

Matthew Israel’s Kill for Peace: American Artists Against the Vietnam War (University of Texas Press, 278 pp., $29.95, paper) fills the space that was left by Lucy Lippard’s A Different War:  Vietnam in Art and the National Vietnam Veterans Art Museum’s Vietnam: Reflexes and Reflections.

Much of the art in those two books is antiwar; in his book Matthew Israel focuses on that art to great effect. Israel is a New York art historian and author who has taught at New York University and the Museum of Modern Art. No information is given in the book on his military service.

The “baby killer” motif is prominent in Israel’s presentation and analysis of antiwar art. I’ve read hundreds of books by Vietnam veterans who say they are tormented by that appellation. This book has many references to the “baby killer” theme, although when I went to the otherwise fine index, that term was not there.

Korean War and World War II veterans got a free pass on the issue of killing innocent civilians, but Vietnam War veterans are held to account in a way that veterans of those wars were not. Was it that no women and children were killed in previous wars?  We know that is not true. Previous wars also drafted civilians to be soldiers, so that isn’t the variable either.  So what is it?

Israel addresses this question in a chapter entitled “AWC, Dead Babies, Dead American Soldiers.”  It contained an epiphany for me. First, Israel doesn’t say it straight out, but most home-front  Americans believed that all soldiers in Vietnam were in the infantry. Americans still tend to think this. But something like ninety percent of us were support troops who had little or no access to weapons—and if we had them, we would not have chosen to kill women and children with them.

The visuals in this chapter clearly show that the posters disseminated after the My Lai massacre focused on the notion that American soldiers were baby killers—that that, in fact, was their mission.

The most scurrilous image in the book is of a 1970 poster, Jeff Kramm’s “My Lai,” displaying a naked ROTC soldier as a muscular, smug rapist and murderer. The caption is “My Lai—We Lie—They Die.” As if young men were joining ROTC motivated by the urge to kill. Most men were in ROTC either as a way to get a college education or because we attended Land Grant colleges that required ROTC. That’s why I was in ROTC—no choice at all, just like when I got my draft notice in late 1965.

Leon Golub created a lot of art about the war: the Vietnam Series and later, the Napalm series. He later recanted. “I couldn’t blame the G.I.’s for the guys who were initiating all this,” he said. “The soldiers weren’t assassins. I became ashamed.”  Golub then destroyed most of those demonizing art works, but it was too late, the damage was done.

Tens of thousands of posters showing Vietnamese civilians—including the iconic photo taken by Ron Haeberle of My Lai (below)—did their work in demonizing American troops in Vietnam. That includes a poster that showed a Vietnamese mother holding her burned child with the words:“Would you burn a child? When necessary.”

These images became the defining visual myth that ruled the minds of most Americans, convincing them that we were all “baby killers.” The idea that Golub presents—that those who sent us to Vietnam are the real “baby killers”—escapes most Americans.

The entitled elite who used the term “baby killers” against us re-purposed the term from World War I, when the English used it to refer to what the German use of zeppelins did over English cities.

Matthew Israel

The World War II generation—the so-called “Greatest Generation”—punished Vietnam veterans for this sin when we returned home by not giving us much of a G.I. Bill, by not giving us jobs, and by not allowing us to join the VFW and similar old-line veterans organizations because we weren’t “real” war veterans.

Reading this book reminded me again and again of the questions I had in the eighties when I taught Vietnam War classes at a community college.  In a nutshell, students would ask, “Why did you go?  If you’d just refused to be drafted, there would have been no war, no dead Americans, no dead Vietnamese.”

My answer was: You are right, but young men don’t get to decide. Also, they don’t know what they knew later, and they don’t know what you know now. They just know that America was in a war against communism and that their dads wore the uniform and saved the world, and they now had the opportunity to do the same. Later, they know stuff that changes their point-of-view, and makes them very bitter at how they were taken advantage of. They knew then that if they hadn’t served, prison and infamy awaited them, and their families would disown them.

Anyone curious about how American soldiers who served in Vietnam became stereotyped as “baby killers” should read this fine book. Matthew Israel has done a brilliant job demonstrating the power of the media, both television and art. He shows how they worked together to foster the myth of American soldiers running amok in Vietnam.

The author’s website is www.matthewisrael.com

—David Willson

My Lai: An American Atrocity in the Vietnam War by William Thomas Allison

William Thomas Allison is the latest military historian to offer his take on the still-controversial My Lai Massacre. Allison is certainly qualified to do so. A Professor of Military History at Georgia Southern University, he spent an academic year as a Visiting Professor at the U.S. Air Force’s Air War College and a term as a Visiting Professor of Military History at the Air Force’s School for Advanced Air and Space Studies. In addition to his position at Georgia Southern, Allison is the General Harold K. Johnson Visiting Chair in Military History at the U.S. Army War College. He’s also the author of a 2012 book on the Gulf War.

In My Lai: An American Atrocity in the Vietnam War (Johns Hopkins University Press, 184 pp., $49.95, hardcover; $19.95, paperback), which was published in 2012, Allison provides a brief yet detailed look at the events before, during, and after what took place on March 16, 1968, in a small village in Quang Nai Province. A part of the “Witness to History” series, the book is aimed at today’s students, offering, Allison says, “a concise but thorough overview of the context, events, legacies, and principle sources” about My Lai, “in the hope of making them aware so that they, too, will remember.”

William Thomas Allison

His conclusion: exactly why the American troops under Capt. Ernest Medina and Lt. William Calley  ran amok at My Lai “will likely never be fully understood.” No “single thing caused My Lai,” Allison says, “just as no single thing caused the more recent atrocities committed by American military personnel in the Middle East.”

The book contains a very good account of the My Lai story. For the most part, Allison sticks to the facts, but he also offers some analysis, especially in recounting the tactics of the lawyers on both sides of the courts-martial of Calley and Medina.

–Marc Leepson

At the Crossroads of Justice by Paul Noto

Paul J. Noto’s At the Crossroads of Justice: My Lai and Son Thang: American Atrocities in Vietnam (iUniverse, 148 pp., $23.95, hardcover; $13.95, paper) sheds light on two of the most regrettable and disturbing incidents of the Vietnam War—the killing of innocent and unarmed Vietnamese civilians at My Lai and Son Thang by members of the U.S. military.

Noto, an attorney and historian, provides details about both of the incidents, for which only two U.S. soldiers were convicted. The overarching goal of his book is to evaluate why the killings took place, as well as to explain why understanding these incidents is important today.

In addition to exploring why U.S. military leaders at the time failed to properly punish those who committed the killings, Noto attributes the incidents to a breakdown in discipline that occurred as a result of “arrogant and inept civilian and military leadership.” The author concludes by pointing out that examining these tragedies could help prevent similar incidents from occurring today in Afghanistan and in other wars in the future.

—Dale Sprusansky