The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Viet Thanh Nguyen was born in Vietnam and raised in the United States. He teaches English and American studies at the University of Southern California. He is the author of an academic book, Race and Resistance, and many short stories that have appeared in American literary magazines.

Karl Marlantes, the author of the Vietnam War novel Matterhorn, tells us that Viet Than Nguyen’s new novel The Sympathizer (Grove Atlantic, 284 pp., $26), is “easy to read, wry, ironic, wise and captivating.” I agree.

The book’s narrator, the unidentified “sympathizer”of the title, grabbed me with his voice and attitude. Plus, if he hadn’t already gotten my attention, his ironic comment abut “the awfulness of Jane Fonda,” won me over. I loved the irony of a Vietnamese-American saying that. And it was funny—which this book is.

Funny in a very dark manner. If a book about the Vietnam War is funny, it would have to be in a dark manner.

The main character’s voice, wit, and point-of-view make the book a total delight, especially if you are interested in the Vietnam War. There is a witty turn of phrase on just about every page. That includes this observation about American excess: “a sheet cake big enough to sleep on.” The last Vietnam War novel I read that was this funny was Catch-22, which some misguided folks say is about World War II.

There is a brilliant section in which the protagonist is an adviser for a big- budget Vietnam War film in the Philippines, a movie that resembles Apocalypse Now in virtually every respect. The delineation of the megalomaniac director is a non-stop hoot, as well as a critique of all that is wrong with America when things “Oriental” are confronted and portrayed artistically.

Viet Thanh Nguyen

The author’s American pop culture references are all spot on—except for his choice of dwelling on Nancy Sinatra’s very small success with the hit song “Bang, Bang, My Baby Shot Me Down.”  That song was written by Sonny Bono and sung by Cher (and by Nancy Sinatra) during the Vietnam War, but Nancy’s version didn’t get much attention till much later. She did get plenty of attention during the war for her 1966 song, “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’.”

The author pays tribute to Sgt Rock, dusty cans of Spam, Tarzan, dog eating, the Phoenix Program, hippies, Sophia Loren, John Wayne, Bob Hope, Agent Orange, getting outta Dodge, Alice in Wonderland, and many phrases and themes associated with the Vietnam War. He also comes up with a bunch of new ones: arthritic turtles, the Chinese acrobat of time, skunked by history, just to pick three good ones.

For those who have been waiting for the great Vietnamese American Vietnam War novel, this is it. More to the point: This is a great American Vietnam War novel.

I enjoyed every page of it. It is the last word (I hope) on the horrors of the Vietnamese re-education camps that our allies were sentenced to when we left them swinging in the wind. If the author wanted me to feel overwhelming guilt, he succeeded mightily.

The author’s website is http://vietnguyen.info

—David Willson

The Brightwood Stillness by Mark Pomeroy

Mark Pomeroy lives in Portland, Oregon, with his family. He was born in 1969, so he steered clear of service in the Vietnam War—but he was affected by it. The Brightwood Stillness (Oregon State University, 280 pp., paperback) is his first novel.

The book explores the legacy of the Vietnam War through the travails of two main characters: Nate Davis, who is on a quest to discover what happened to his uncle, a Vietnam veteran drifting around Asia since the war, and Hieu Nguyen, who fled the war with his family and came to the United State.

Nate and Hieu are good friends; they both teach at the same high school. Hieu’s crisis is that two of his female students have brought charges of sexual misconduct against him.

The book is set in 1996, so I guess it can be categorized as American historical fiction. This is one of those literary novels in which most of the main characters have secrets, refuse to speak their minds, and hold back vital information. Many misunderstandings take place.

We find out that Hieu, for example, had fought with the VC in his younger days. And that Nate travels around the world looking for his uncle only to learn that he had been hiding in the family cabin a short distance away from home.

When Nate’s uncle and Hieu confront each other late in the book, the uncle indulges in the usual trope about how ARVN troops were worthless. While the uncle is expressing contempt for the ARVN, all I could think of was that Hieu had been VC, not ARVN. Come on, Hieu, blow that bigot out of the water by telling him you were fighting for the ARVN’s enemy. But that doesn’t happen and Hieu’s secret is kept.

Mark Pomeroy

That incident brought me close to throwing the book against the wall in frustration. On the other hand, Hieu’s silence is consistent with the rest of the book. So not only were the ARVNs  “cowardly,” but I guess the VC were, too.

Pomery does a good job letting the reader know about the problems that Vietnamese refugees faced when they came to the United States: the stereotyping, name-calling, and difficulties in getting jobs and holding on to them due to cultural differences.

He has done a lot of research to produce this book, and uses what he found well. There, for instance, is the Coconut Monk, a hero of the Vietnam War who tried to set up a refuge from the war on an island. That only lasted so long, of course.

I recommend this book to those who love to read literary novels dealing with the Vietnam War. The characters are well-developed and believable, if difficult to empathize with due to their own stubbornness. I guess that makes them all the more human.

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

—David Willson

 

Last Plane Out of Saigon by Richard Pena and John Hagan

Regardless of a reader’s attitude about the Vietnam War, Richard Pena’s Last Plane Out of Saigon (Story Merchant Books, 136 pp., $12.95, paper), written with John Hagan, offers insights worth reflecting upon four decades after the fact.

Drafted into the Army out of law school, Pena served as an operating room specialist in Vietnam. He ended up among the last American troops to evacuate South Vietnam in 1973. Discharged upon his return to the States, Pena finished college and became a lawyer. During his Vietnam War tour of duty, Pena kept a journal that he stashed away for thirty years. That journal serves as the core of this concise flashback to the life of a wartime draftee.

Pena arrived in Vietnam amid the chaos of the 1972 North Vietnamese Easter Offensive. Upon deplaning at Tan Son Nhut, he wondered why he had been “sentenced to exile in this forsaken land.” He questioned whether America could win the war and worried about people “dying for a policy dictated out of ignorance and falsehood.”

Pena worked as a technician in the operating room of the 3rd Field Hospital in Saigon. Most of the patients came there straight from the battlefield, having received no treatment elsewhere. Pena therefore saw the results of war in human terms every day.

Throughout his tour, one question haunted him: “What does it mean?”

Richard Pena

He tried to answer that question in several ways, and suffered emotionally along with the bloodied, shattered, men he treated. In his journal Pena analyzed his relationships with fellow American soldiers and Vietnamese civilians, the latter of whom he strongly distrusted.

Pena put his thoughts and theories in his journal because “to speak out about the tragedy is said to be anti-American.” To him, Vietnam became a land of lies, betrayals, and corruption that left soldiers and civilians “angry and bitter all the time.”

Despite his emotional turmoil, Pena persevered in his duties. Near the end of his journal, he wrote: “In these last days before departing, I realize that the weight I have carried for the past eleven months will never be lifted from my shoulders.” In other words, his journal tells a story that must never be forgotten.

Having read this short book three times, I believe it has its greatest impact when read uninterrupted. The journal is divided into four parts that are interwoven with chapters by John Hagan that provide background information about the war. I therefore suggest that those familiar with the Vietnam War read Pena’s chapters first. Those unfamiliar with the war should start with Hagan’s chapters.

The collaborators reach two conclusions: First, they agree that wars such as Vietnam are destructive to America’s society and economy. Second, they emphasize the need to learn from foreign policy failures and mistakes.

Neither idea is new, but the thought processes the authors follow to reach them clearly exhume the intellectual conflict of the Vietnam War era.

The author’s website is www.lastplaneoutofsaigon.com

—Henry Zeybel

Not All heroes by Gary E. Skogen

Gary Skogen, who is retired from the L.A. Police Department, served with the U.S. Army’s Criminal Investigation Division in Vietnam from 1971-72. He considers his twelve months in Vietnam one of the best years of his life. Skogen’s Not All Heroes: An Unapologetic Memoir of the Vietnam War, 1971-1972 (Dakota Institute, 258 pp., $29.95) is what the publisher calls an “unconventional, un-heroic, and unapologetic memoir of his time in Vietnam.”

Skogen’s tour was devoted to dealing with the rampant drug use among the troops, primarily marijuana and heroin. His book focuses on the dark underbelly of the war in Vietnam. He makes the point that the stereotype seen in movies and television shows of all soldiers in Vietnam being out in the boonies covered with mud and in serious jeopardy day and night is far from the war that most of us experienced.

Eighty percent of those who served in Vietnam saw little or no combat. That includes many of those who died from mortar and rocket attacks, friendly fire, drug overdoses, Jeep accidents, or hundreds of other ways.

As the cover blurb tells us, Not All Heroes describes a U. S. Army in free-fall, corroded by two-dollar heroin, 33-cent prostitutes, tense race relations, and an epidemic of fraggings. We are told this book shows us the “real war” in South Vietnam.

Keep in mind, though, that this was the war that was real to Skogen, not the war hundreds of thousands of other Vietnam veterans experienced.  There were many experiences in the Vietnam War and this is just one of them. All of them, in fact, were “real.”

Not All Heroes is organized into eleven chapters and an afterword. All of the chapters contain material that left me scratching my head in wonderment. But chapter four— “Settling In: A .38, a Blowjob, A Hooch, and A Jeep”—took my breath away.

I highly recommend this memoir to those who spent a boring tour of duty typing and filing memos, and to those who never saw any excessive behavior of the sort that is displayed in chapter after chapter of this well-written and totally believable book. It’s very likely that Skogen kept detailed records of his time in Vietnam, as the facts of the cases he writes about are obviously not invented.

I am tempted to buy this book for my mother and sister, as this is how they thought I spent my tour of duty: chasing whores and surrounded by drug use. In fact, I never saw even one heroin vial—or received a single blowjob. Today, more than forty years after the fact, I sometimes wonder if I was even in Vietnam.

—David Willson

Hanoi’s Road to the Vietnam War by Pierre Asselin

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If you have any doubt that the war waged by North Vietnam against the Republic of (South) Vietnam and the United States was, above all, a political one, Pierre Asselin’s Hanoi’s Road to the Vietnam War, 1954-1965 (University of California Press, 319 pp., $55), should change your mind.

Asselin, a Hawaii Pacific University history professor who specializes in the Vietnam War, has come up with a well-researched, in-depth look at the decision-making process in Hanoi from the signing of the Geneva Accords in 1954 to the start of the American war in 1965. He makes a strong case that North Vietnam’s communist leaders—led by the General Secretary of the Vietnamese Communist Party, Le Duan, who wrested real power away from the slightly less doctrinaire nationalist/communist Ho Chi Minh—were dogmatic revolutionaries who shaped their war against the Americans in three “separate but related modes of struggle”: the political, diplomatic and military.

Several Vietnam War historians, including Lien-Hang T. Nguyen of the University of Kentucky in her book Hanoi’s War, have recently uncovered new evidence showing the prominent role of Le Duan (1907-2013) in the North Vietnamese hierarchy. Asselin, who also delved deeply into communist Vietnamese archives, comes to the came conclusion.

              Le Duan (left) and Ho Chi Minh in 1960

Asselin describes Le Duan (born Le Van Nhuan) as “a stern, dogmatic, and stoic revolutionary,” and writes that “other observers are more blunt, characterizing him variously as ‘violent,’ ‘authoritarian,’ ‘tough,’ and ‘ruthless.’” Le Duan was “fully determined,” Asselin notes, “to achieve reunification of Vietnam whatever the cost.”

That cost included sacrificing what turned out to be an almost unfathomable number of North Vietnamese lives in the American war. As the Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Ford administrations learned, fighting “relentlessly, sacrificing selflessly, and winning totally became the hallmarks of [Le Duan and the other communist bosses’] worldview, which shaped both the course and the outcome of the Vietnam War.”

—Marc Leepson

Loose Ends by Jim Zitzelsberger


Jim Zitzelsberger served as a Navy Seabee. The stories in his book, Loose Ends: Stories Started During the Vietnam War (Moki Lane, 210 pp., $19.95, paper: $9.99, Kindle), are mostly lighthearted, semi-autobiographical tales of Seabees in the Vietnam War.

Death, however, often intrudes.The hero, Henry James Barthochowski, nicknamed “Cow,” is a sort of stand-in for the author. He is stationed in Quang Tri. The book’s hero, like the author, did two tours in Vietnam before turning twenty-one.

This is that rare Vietnam War book of fiction that not only mentions General Westmoreland, but contains an entire story with the general as the main character—a story in which Westmoreland is making his exit from Vietnam after guiding the war since 1964.

Cow, our Seabee hero, is near the bottom of the military food chain. He realizes that his orders are to defeat the Viet Cong and stop the spread of communism, as the general points out to the troops, but he’s skeptical that “a difference was being made and the war was being won,” as Westmoreland wanted the troops to believe.

Cow’s enlistment begins in March 1966, under the Delayed Entry Program. He goes on active duty one week after graduating from Hilton High in Wisconsin.

The author assures us this book is a collection of fictional short stories. I believe him. In fiction is where the truth resides. And all of these short stories ring with truth.

The fictional main character is one of my favorite figures in the literature of the Vietnam War. He is mild, eternal, and as memorable as Yossarian in Catch-22. The stories in Loose Ends, in fact, teach us many of the same lessons about war that Catch-22 tried to teach us.

Americans seem to need these lessons taught over and over, and yet they still never seem to learn. I guess we are slow learners about the futility of war.

Loose Ends was an eye-opener. Until I read it, I knew little or nothing about the role of the Seabees in the Vietnam War. Now I know.

Every story brings home the daily life of a lowly enlisted Seabee in Quang Tri and Danang;  whether he is driving a truck, standing guard, welding a water tank, or doing any of the myriad crappy duties that the low-level Navy man must do. Many of them, of course, are chickenshit duties that put him in constant threat of conflict with lifers who are more an adversary than the VC or the NVA.

Much of the book involves “monkey business as only young men can make it.” Said monkey business is always fun to read about.

Henry James Barthochowski  will always live in my memory because the author brings him alive on every page. This Wisconsin farm boy in the Navy in Vietnam is ”a listener, observer, and anything but a cheerleader for military decorum.”  His observations lead him to conclude that “the theater of war is more the theater of the absurd.”

The story that makes this point best is the one in which Cow is showering and three pretty Vietnamese girls come in to clean the shower room. They giggle and pretend they don’t see him. Funny stuff. The same thing happened to me in Vietnam at Tan Son Nhut more than once.

Cow’s homecoming is also familiar. He comes back to his small town in Wisconsin and is castigated for his long hair, quickly grown when he returns to college. The local American Legion lets him know that they do not want him as a member as he had not been to a “real war.” Vietnam, to the members of the Greatest Generation, was merely a “conflict.” Guadalcanal was part of a “real” war.

We encounter Agent Orange, ham and lima beans, shit-burning details, and short-timers’ calendars. I was sad to learn that Navy guys did not have it as cushy as we Army guys always liked to believe they did.

They do have a commanding officer witty enough to use a recording of the Animals’ “We Gotta Get out of This Place,” for morning reveille. That beats anything in the Army I served in. But I would still rather do one tour in Vietnam with the Army than two with the Navy. I learned that much from this fine and funny book.

Read it, and you will learn plenty too, and have more than few laughs.

—David Willson

Redeployment by Phil Klay

Phil Klay is a former Marine who served in Iraq. He says the dozen stories in his new best-selling, critically acclaimed book, Redeployment (Penguin, 304 pp., $26.95), are partly autobiographical.

These are not Johnny-one-note stories, all using the same point-of-view, or showing us the same protagonist. These are stories about war told from many angles and with many different voices. All are convincing, interesting, and spell-binding. Klay is a master storyteller.

This is not an all-male war book. There are well-imagined female characters in the book, including a soldier who spent the war filling potholes until she got blown up and disfigured.

These stories make the innocent reader aware of the horrors of all wars—including the Vietnam War. In one story a female veteran who is severely injured  in Iraq, says, “My dad was in Vietnam.”  And her granddad was in Korea. She thought of Platoon and Full Metal Jacket when she went into the military. Her dad had been a REMF. But she was out in the shit.

Her friend comments about the films: “I’ll bet that more Marines have joined the Corps because of Full Metal Jacket than because of any fucking recruitment commercial.” He goes on to say that there is no such thing as an antiwar film. I agree. They all make war seem like an adventure.

We get the stories of a Lance Corporal grunt, a Mortuary Affairs Marine, a chaplain, and a young foreign service officer assigned to bring baseball to Iraqi street kids. Another story deals with veterans in a bar who take part in an interview for a school project, one of them so badly burned that he looks like a horror show villain.

In the story “Unless It’s a Sucking Chest Wound” there is a Fobbit, or REMF, who says:  “I went for an MOS that wouldn’t put me in harm’s way. My Iraq War was a stack of papers.”

Phil Klay

The Vietnam War continues to pop up. One of the best stories, in fact, is entitled “In Vietnam They Had Whores.”

The narrator tells us: “My dad only told me about Vietnam when I was going over to Iraq.”  The story “Psychological Operations” contains one of the funniest jokes about Vietnam veterans I have encountered, and I thought I had heard them all.

It starts with “How many Vietnam vets does it take to screw in a light bulb?” But I won’t ruin it by telling you the punch line. It is a good one, and true.

There is humor in the book, and I often laughed aloud. But it is dark humor. One example: the plague of herpes that infests a platoon where there are no whores available. Finally it is tracked to the serial use of an infected and unclean “pocket pussy.” Funny stuff, but very dark.

Redeployment has been compared by reviewers to Tim O’Brien’s The Things We Carried. That’s fair enough as a quality comparison, but the book is more like John A. Miller’s Jackson Street or John Mort’s Don’t Mean Nothin or even Robert Olen Butler’s A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain.

The great strength of the book—aside from the fine writing and the dark humor—is the honesty and how the stories are presented from a kaleidoscope of experiences. Klay generously thanks a long list of folks who helped him, but he must get the final credit for this powerful book of people at war who then try to survive after their war.

No book better makes us aware of the butcher’s bill of modern war.

—David Willson