Song I Sing by Bao Phi

Bao Phi, the author of Song I Sing: Poems (Coffee House Press, 170 pp., $16, paper) was born in Saigon in 1975. He was raised in the Minneapolis suburbs and today Minnesota is his home base. Bao Phi’s poetry kicks ass; I have not read a more powerful book about the individual Vietnamese-American experience.

This is the guy I’d like to sic on the authors of Vietnam War books filled with name-calling of Vietnamese and Asians. I’d like him to shout his great poem “Vu Nguyen’s Revenge—Nguyen, Vu-Sacramento” at them. It begins: “Fuck you, Chavis Johnson, for pushing me down in ninth grade and calling me gook.”

The book is filled with references to Agent Orange, Oliver Stone, and other Vietnam War icons such as Senator John McCain. Bao Phi’s three-page poem, “Dear Senator McCain,” is a classic. It starts off with two quotes from McCain: “I hate the gooks. I will hate them as long as I live.”

The poems do not pull punches— in fact, they are punches, right in the face to those who have scorned and vilified Asians of all stripes and types. Bao Phi bravely calls out those who have sinned with their mouths and acts, and holds them accountable.

Some lines—among many—that stood out: “I write this letter on jungle leaves/and the skin of a white man”  and “I am gook,/I ate your motherfuckin cat.”

Bao Phi

Bao Phi’s CD’s are Refugiography and The Nguyens EP. They show off his abilities as a performance artist of what is called slam poetry. He is a two-time Minnesota Grand Slam champion and a National Poetry Slam finalist, and he appeared in the HBO series Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry.

The blurb on the back of the book tells us that the poet performs across the country and works as an Asian American community organizer. That job is a known springboard to the presidency, so I have hopes Bao Phi will be our first Asian president.

Anyone curious about how Vietnamese Americans are getting along in America should buy this book. The answer is here.

The author’s website is www.baophi.com

—David Willson

Thirteen Soldiers by John McCain and Mark Salter

War is its own reward for people who kill the enemy (the more, the better) and survive whole. At the same time, war is horrid, but can bring out the best qualities in people, according to former Navy aviator, U.S. Sen. John McCain of Arizona, and Mark Salter, who served on McCain’s staff for many years and has co-written several other books with him.

In their new book, Thirteen Soldiers: A Personal History of Americans at War (Simon & Schuster, 384 pp., $28.00), the authors identify a single soldier, sailor, airman, or Marine from each of America’s thirteen major wars to eulogize for courage under fire. The eleven men and two women, they write, sacrificed for “something greater than self.” In essence, the book offers short biographies told with admiration, but without embellishment.

I first turned to the chapter on Vietnam—my war. It relates the exploits of  F-105 Wild Weasel pilot, prisoner of war, and Medal of Honor recipient Leo Thorsness. His exploits offer classic examples of courage, disregard for personal safety, and suffering.

The chapter follows the book’s basic format: setting the world stage, recalling the principal person’s pre-war life, and then describing that person’s performance of duty.

Overall, the book briefly reviews American military history from the Revolution of 1776 to today’s conflict in Afghanistan. It describes often-ignored engagements, such as the Spanish-American and Philippine Wars.

John McCain during the Vietnam War

The tale of the latter is highly enlightening: intended to depict the actions of Marine officer Littleton Waller “Tony” Tazewell Waller as one of the few compassionate leaders in the war, it portrays other American leaders and soldiers as racist murderers of Filipinos. The chapter offers a strong lesson in the misapplication of power.

In contrast, the World War II chapter focuses on Guy Louis Gabaldon, who wanted to save, rather than kill, his Japanese enemies. A Hispanic youth from East L.A., Gabaldon grew up around Nisei, first generation Japanese Americans, who taught him their language.

During the battle for Saipan, Gabaldon captured more than fifteen hundred Japanese, but also was forced to kill thirty-three who refused to surrender. While the fighting raged at night, he ventured behind enemy lines and talked Japanese soldiers into surrendering. After the island was secure, he convinced Japanese soldiers hidden in caves to become his prisoners rather than commit suicide. He was eighteen years old at the time. A Navy Cross recipient, Gabaldon forever blamed his failure to receive a Medal of Honor on racism.

The book’s other subjects comprise a diverse group. Two women are the most contemporary: Mary Rhoads from the Persian Gulf War, and medic Monica Lin Brown from Afghanistan. Two are black: Charles Black, a seaman and gunner in the War of 1812, and Edward Baker, a Buffalo Soldier cavalryman who received the Medal of Honor for his actions during the 1898 Spanish-American War.

The others range from familiar Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. in the Civil War to little-known Elton “Lucky” Mackin, who fought in every Marine Corps battle in World War I.

—Henry Zeybel