The War I Survived Was Vietnam by Michael Uhl

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Michael Uhl’s The War I Survived Was Vietnam: Collected Writings of a Veteran and Antiwar Activist (McFarland, 300 pp., $29.95, paper) is a wide-ranging compilation of Uhl’s reviews and opinion pieces that will certainly generate responses. True to its subtitle, this collection has an antiwar agenda. It also covers issues other than the Vietnam War, including the plight of veterans exposed to atomic weapons and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As David Cline, the national president of Veterans For Peace says in the book: “There have always been veterans for peace. War makes veterans warriors for peace.”

A Vietnam Veterans of America member I served with once told me that his feelings about the Vietnam War took several drastic shifts as his circumstances changed. He focused on survival while in country. When he came home, he examined how the war ended, as well as the nation’s treatment of veterans, along with the controversy over the design of the Vietnam Veteran Memorial in Washington, D.C., and the POW/MIA issue. Uhl, who served as an intelligence officer in Vietnam in 1968-69, includes reviews and essays on these subjects and more.

They are sure to evoke strong reactions. As Uhl puts it: “If they provoke thought in whoever reads them, I will be profoundly satisfied.”

Uhl writes about many players involved in the Vietnam War, including some unheralded heroes, some famous and infamous people, and some who helped orchestrate the war’s strategy and tactics. Gen. Julian Ewell, the Ninth Infantry Division Commander in February 1968, is one of the key players Uhl credits with implementing the “body count culture,” which he says enabled American troops to hand out “candy to small children” one moment, then later to torch “a hootch or abuse a cringing papa-san.”

Uhl’s essays cover many topics, but I believe his essay on the Heinemann brothers succinctly represents the personal impact the Vietnam War has had on many people. “Three Heinemann brothers would eventually go into the military, two to Vietnam,” Uhl wrote in 2005. “Among them only Larry [the author of Paco’s Story] remains. One brother was a post-war suicide; the other left his family never to be heard from again.”

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Michael Uhl

Mentioning Robert Strange McNamara will liven up any discussion of the war. In 1995 in The Nation Uhl and co-author Carol Brightman wrote: “McNamara’s critics span the ideological spectrum, though the burden of their indignation differs according to whether they believe his moral failure lies in the past for not having spoken out sooner, or in the present for having spoken at all.”

This anthology is a valuable reference tool for anyone looking for scholarly and incisive writing on America’s most divisive overseas war. The fervor of those opposed to the war may have never been matched. Uhl includes essays by some of those who were dedicated to bringing the war to an end, such as David Harris, former Secretary of State John Kerry, and environmentalist and one-time presidential candidate Barry Commoner.

This anonymous excerpt written by a veteran quoted by Uhl may be the best summation of the Vietnam War legacy:

I carried the war in my blood

In or out of service

I was at war

Even today

Every day war explodes in my brain

—Curt Nelson

Witness to the Revolution by Clara Bingham

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Clara Bingham’s Witness to the Revolution: Radicals, Resisters, Vets, Hippies, and the Year America Lost Its Mind and Found Its Soul (Random House, 656 pp., $30, hardcover; $14.99, Kindle) is neither a polemic nor an unquestioning ode. Bingham uses oral histories of people who served in the Vietnam War, along with those who were involved in the political and cultural movements of the era, concentrating on the year of 1968. The individual testimonies are not long discussions or recollections; they are shorter sections interwoven into the narrative to make a complex tapestry.

The book is divided into sections such as the draft, Woodstock, My Lai, and Kent State. The chapters contain histories and the words of many of the movers and shakers of the day, including Mark Rudd and Bernadette Dohrn of the Weather Underground, Daniel Ellsberg, Timothy Leary, the journalist Seymour Hersh (who broke the My Lai story), and Oliver Stone. Bingham also makes good use of the voices of Vietnam veterans.

The Vietnam War was the cyclone around which most division centered during the 1960s and 70s. Questioning the most divisive overseas war in U.S. history made people question almost everything else, from feminism to government programs and policies to music.

The book contains two of the most famous and galvanizing photos of the Vietnam War: South Vietnamese Gen, Nguyen Ngoc Loan executing a VC prisoner in Saigon during Tet, and the naked Vietnamese girl running and screaming after being hit with napalm. Bingham also recounts the often-told tale of the My Lai massacre.

Bingham also deals with Vietnam War veterans’ post-war emotional adjustments, including these words from Vietnam Veterans of America’s founder Bobby Muller: “You come back, you’re in a normal place, you’re not in a war zone, you think about the shit you did, and you don’t believe that you fucking did this. And then you live with the memory.” He later says: “These are the good guys. We look at what goes on in the world and we think it’s a subspecies of human beings. It’s not. It’s us.”

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Clara Bingham

Nineteen-sixty-eight was the height of the war and the height of the protests at home, along with the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy and the police riot at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Many folks at home who had comfortable lives could not cope with the turmoil and our country suffered a huge divide. All these events are included in the book and all are told by the people involved at the time.

To read what those involved had to say—and still have to say—is to be transported back to that time. To those who lived through it, details return with clarity. For those who were not around in those days, their ideas and actions will arrive with clarity.

—Loana Hoylman

 

The American South and the Vietnam War by Joseph A. Fry

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I graduated from a Pittsburgh high school in 1951 and from Penn State in 1955. While talking about the American Civil War, my teachers inculcated me with the belief that the eleven states of the Confederacy were still a world apart from the rest of the nation. As northern liberals, my teachers had looked down on Southerners, disparaging their pride and dedication to the Confederacy and its lost cause.

Since 1956, except for overseas military assignments and extended vacations, I have lived in the South. I have encountered situations that confirmed or denied my teachers’ lessons. But long ago, I learned to accept each event according to its own merits.

Historian Joseph A. Fry resuscitated a few prejudices for me in The American South and the Vietnam War: Belligerence, Protest, and Agony in Dixie (University Press of Kentucky, 467 pp., $35.57, hardcover; $33.79, Kindle). The book describes the struggle between pro- and antiwar individuals and organizations, emphasizing the influence that like-thinking people from the eleven former-Confederate states (plus Kentucky) exerted on the Vietnam War and America at large.

Fry approaches this with a brief history lesson about Southerners and United States foreign relations from 1789-1973. Fry’s twelve southern states share a distinct regional perspective, viewing needs of the world as contrary to their domestic desires and favoring “unrestrained military intervention aimed at decisive victories rather than diplomatic negotiations.”

He next addresses Southerners’ opposition to the Vietnam War. As they do throughout the book, racism and other sensitive issues play a large part in the discussion. Ill will, anger, threats, violence, shootings, and killings frequently accelerated the dissension between opposing sides. Fry withholds judgment and allows facts to tell the story.

He astutely shows how powerful conservative Democratic Sens. Richard Russell of Georgia, John Stennis of Mississippi, and Harry Byrd of Virginia influenced the nation to minimize overseas military assistance from 1953-64. They contended then that intervention in South Vietnam would be too costly and its people were an inferior race unwilling to protect themselves.

Meanwhile, obsessed with a need to contain communist expansion, Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson gave aid to South Vietnam. A strong sense of honor and manhood made maintaining international credibility a necessity for Johnson. The 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident provided the impetus for him to gain a congressional resolution to prosecute war in Vietnam, Fry says.

Unfortunately, the resolution, which Congress overwhelmingly supported, did not solve the problem of how to run the war. Fry clearly shows that debates over the scale, pace, duration, and cost of the war never ended.

The book’s second half covers Southerners’ views on the war’s conduct, their contribution to the decision to withdraw from Vietnam (1968-70), and their views on ending the war (1971-73). Southern thinking seldom matched national attitudes about domestic policies, racial problems, military appropriations, foreign aid, and other contentious issues. Often, southern regionalism promoted self-serving behavior, which compounded disagreements. At times, racial assumptions and the quest to procure government military spending trumped party politics, Fry says.

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LBJ and Sen. John Stennis

Two sections—”Southern Soldiers” and “Southern College Students”—interrupt the book’s chronology. These chapters might hold the greatest interest for Vietnam veterans. “Soldiers” exemplifies southern manliness by describing horrific combat scenes in which Southerners engaged. But Fry’s argument here is weak because men from all sections of the country experienced similar horrors in Vietnam.

Much of Fry’s support material comes from books written by Southerners. Nevertheless, this chapter might educate readers unfamiliar with the war about death and destruction, leadership, religion, race relations, and post-war attitudes among fighting men.

The chapter focuses on the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley, including the fighting at Landing Zone Albany, all but glorifying them as engagements led by southern officers in which Southerners suffered the highest number of casualties. In fairness, Fry then cites the My Lai massacre, which was led by Southerners, as a failure in ethics. Later in the book, Fry reviews the political fallout from My Lai. He points out that it required “moral courage” by another Southerner to reveal the breadth of the massacre.

I disliked Fry’s long and emphatic references to characters from novels to “celebrate the South’s warrior tradition,”  even though one character reflects the thinking of former Marine and former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb, according to Fry. I believe Fry should have quoted Webb directly or quoted other courageous infantrymen—there are plenty of them—to make his point. As I see it, fiction is fiction and does not adequately serve a history book’s purpose.

“Students” does an excellent job reporting on the diverse antiwar activities by organized groups. Until the end of the war, University of Texas students, for example, led protests that unbalanced the South’s pro-war stance but never toppled it. Within Dixie, “antiwar students lost all the battles and the war for majority southern opinion regarding Vietnam,” Fry says.  He quotes fellow historian George C. Herring on the student issue: “The antiwar movement lost every battle but eventually won the war—the war for America’s mind and especially for its soul.”

Fifty-seven pages of endnotes support Fry’s study. Rather than listing sources alphabetically, he includes a bibliographic essay that relates sources to each other. Fry’s research included delving into oral histories, transcripts, interviews, memoirs, and letters by leaders, along with those from ordinary citizens, students, and military personnel.height-200-no_border-width-200

Andy Fry taught at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas for nearly forty years. His courses included U.S. foreign relations, the history of the American South after 1850, and U.S. involvement in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

At times I feel that Americans have overburdened themselves with their arguments about the Vietnam War. After fifty years of arguing, we should accept that we learned nothing from the war. Lyndon Johnson, a Southerner, tricked us into fighting in Southeast Asia, which we failed to recall when another Southerner, George W. Bush (aided by Dick Cheney’s misdirection), misled us into Southwest Asia.

In this election year, Fry’s book might best serve as a voters’ guide: Do not cast your ballot for anyone who professes a correlation between manhood and war.

—Henry Zeybel

 

Last Train Runnin by Ronnie D. Foster

Ronnie Foster sums up his opinion of the Vietnam War with words he attributes to his protagonist in his novel, Last Train Runnin (R.D. Foster, 415 pp.; $21.25, paper):

Oh the rich kids went to college

And the poor boys went to war.

They were soaking up the knowledge

Of beer and sex and cars.

We were shootin’ folks and dying,

Didn’t even know what for.

The rich kids went to college,

And the poor boys went to war.

Foster experienced his share of combat in Vietnam with the Marine Corps. In this novel of the 1960s, Foster tells his war story through the eyes of Everett Blalock, a Navy Corpsman with a serious case of fear. The young man was a renowned folk singer in Austin, Texas. After the wealthy parents of his sweetheart arranged for his induction into the Army through the draft, he enlisted in the Navy to avoid becoming an infantryman. That plan did not exactly work.

The story begins with Everett in bloody combat southwest of Da Nang. The sole survivor from an ambushed eight-man squad, he receives a Bronze Star and Purple Heart.

Thereafter, he watches many men die while he survives helicopter assaults, search and destroy missions, costly firefights, and rocket and mortar attacks. Homesick over his shattered relationship with his girlfriend, he writes songs—which are in the novel—about the good parts of life that he and the men around him are missing. Between battles, he teams up with a harmonica-playing sergeant and they create and perform music.

Alternating chapters present the life of David Duncan, an antiwar University of Texas rich kid in his sixth year of a college deferment. As a newspapers trainee, he receives an assignment to learn what became of Everett Blalock, who dropped out of sight after rock and roll took center stage from folk music. An out-of-control boozer and druggie, David staggers through a self-defeating series of life-changing events regarding protest, love, wealth, and war.

Ronnie Foster in 1987

His assignment takes him to Vietnam. The results of his quest and meeting with Everett have repercussions that extend decades beyond the end of the Vietnam War.

Along with writing books, Ronnie Foster has been a singer, songwriter, and musician since leaving the Corps. Foster’s One Day as a Lion is a tribute to twenty-one men from rural Collin County, Texas, who died in the Vietnam War.

Foster offers hundreds of pictures from Vietnam and a highly specialized brand of music and humor on his web at ronniefoster.com

—Henry Zeybel

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

Selma to Saigon by Daniel S. Lucks

On August 12, 1965, Martin Luther King, Jr., startled the Johnson Administration—and the nation—when he spoke out for the first time in favor of ending the American war in Vietnam. “Few events in my lifetime have stirred my conscience and pained my heart as much as the present conflict raging in Vietnam,” King said in an address at the annual convention of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. “The day-to-day reports of villages destroyed and people left homeless raise burdensome questions within my conscience.”

As Daniel S. Lucks points out in Selma to Saigon: The Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War (University Press of Kentucky, 394 pp., $35), even though King did not castigate the Johnson Administration (he called on all sides to “bring their grievances to the conference table”), the President and his allies were furious that the civil rights leader deigned to speak out against the war.

“Criticisms of America’s policy in Vietnam by civil rights groups,” George Weaver, Johnson’s African-American Assistant Secretary of Labor, said in a speech, “could lead the communists to make disastrous miscalculations in American determination.”

Then, in January of 1966, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) came out against the war—the first time a Civil Rights organization formally went on record opposing American policy in Vietnam. SNCC’s main argument was that African Americans had no business fighting for freedom in South Vietnam when they were still struggling for many of those same rights in the United States, especially in the South.

That’s one aspect of the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement that historian Luck analyzes in this deeply researched book. He also looks at the often bitter disagreements within the movement that the war caused, and the repercussions those disagreements produced.

“For African Americans,” Luck writes, “the emotional debates over the war aggravated fissures within the civil rights movement along generational and ideological lines.”  By 1966, he says, “the war had siphoned the moral fervor from the civil rights struggle, exacerbated schisms within the civil rights coalition, and cost the lives of thousands of young African American men.”

For African Americans, he concludes, the Vietnam War “had a tragic subtext. It divided African Americans and the civil rights movement more than any other issue in the twentieth century. It left painful scars, which burned with a unique intensity. Decades later, many of these scars have not healed.”

—Marc Leepson

Against the War by Roland Menge

Roland Menge informs us that Against the War (Amazon Digital Services, $9.99, Kindle) is a historical novel. It examines the response of the Vietnam War generation to the Vietnam War. The novel closely follows the lives of four young men who graduated from college in 1968.Two of them go off to take part in the Vietnam War; one becomes an Air Force pilot and the other an Army medic.

The other two chose to join one of the organizations set up by the government for white middle-class, educated young men to avoid military duty: VISTA. Each has a female companion or wife, all of whom are closely followed throughout this very long novel.

Menge’s novel reminds me of both Theodore Dreiser and John Dos Passos. The almost overwhelming wealth of detail, backed up by hundreds of end notes, is the Dreiser-like aspect. The use of newspapers, speeches, and magazine articles owes a debt to Dos Passos’s great USA trilogy.

Menge has composed a complex pastiche, a novelized history of the years 1968-71. Virtually everything that happened during these years is in this book, either by reference or stage center with one of the main characters in attendance,k Zelig-like. Woodstock, the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, and everything else of that magnitude is in the book. It’s a vast panorama with enormous attention to detail.

The great strength of the book resides in the sections that deal with VISTA. The conscientious objector, Tom Steward, could be the main character in a free-standing novel about him and his life as a CO.  As Menge writes: “My life of the time somewhat parallels the life of Tom Steward in the novel.” That novel could be mined from this huge book, leaving out the attempt to tell the stories of Matt Brandt, Jim Morris, and Bill O’Rourke as fully as Menge tells Steward’s story.

Menge does fine with the story of Matt Brandt, the other VISTA worker. But when he turns to the stories of Jim Morris, the Air Force pilot, and O’Rourke, the Army medic, he gets himself and the novel into trouble. I lack the space to detail all anachronisms and wrong notes in the military parts of the novel, so l will just focus on the O’Rourke character and his love interest. I could not figure out why the author did not emphasize the difficulties of their romance, one between an Army Spec4 medic and an Army nurse.

Very late in the book I figured it out. Menge was not ignoring the difficulties such a romance would pose. He was unaware of them. Very late in the story O’Rourke and his love interest, Barbara Carpenter, take R&R together. At last, Menge gives Carpenter’s rank, a Spec3.  Menge thinks an  Army nurse is an Spec3. For one thing, there was no such rank. For another, all nurses were officers. Menge also shows his ignorance of the vast gap between officer and enlisted when O’Rourke calls his lieutenant “Cubby,” and is similarly familiar with his captain.

Roland Menge

I am not saying that officer nurses never fraternized with enlisted men—and sometimes have sex with them and sometimes marry them. And some enlisted men did relate in a familiar manner with officers.  But it was unusual enough that it has to be explained and the reader has to be prepared for it. It is jarring for it to be presented as status quo, which it was not.

Because of my personal involvement with Agent Orange (I was heavily exposed to it in Vietnam and am now dealing with Multiple Myeloma), I was bothered by an anachronistic speech given by an NVA major who lectures Major Morris when he is a POW, telling him that AO is causing physical defects in children in Vietnam, and also physical problems “to your own soldiers.”

I can’t swallow that as something that happened. It is excessively didactic, as well as anachronistic.

O’Rourke dies in Vietnam and Major Morris comes home a shell of a man, unable to sexually perform with his loving and beautiful wife who made her living in Las Vegas while he was gone, showing off her body to men professionally while wearing a very brief “costume.”

Morris kills himself. Menge backs up this dire happening with plenty of research and footnotes. Yes, stuff like this happened. But did many POWs come back from the war and eventually manage to have full rich lives, including sexual ones?  Yes, they did.

Ellen, the widow of Major James Morris, gives us the agenda of this book.  “We made them die for a war we didn’t want to win,” she says. “We made them die for a war we should not have even started, a war that was a mistake from the start.”  I’m not arguing with Ellen, but many would.

A lot of folks did want to win that war, whatever winning would have looked like, and many of them helped drop millions of bombs on the people of Vietnam in the effort.  They were sincere in their effort.

Did the author “fairly represent the experience of the whole generation in how they responded to the war,” as he claims?  I did not recognize myself in the book. I did not share the assumption that if drafted I would go to Vietnam, and if I went to Vietnam, I would be at risk, most likely in the infantry. Or that it was likely I would die there. That simply never occurred to me.

Most of the people I went through Advanced Individual Training with did not go to Vietnam.  Most went to Europe or Korea. It was not inevitable that I’d go to Vietnam. I did go, and served with the Inspector General as a stenographer, typing letters and filing. I did not see a character of this ilk in this book.

Another thing that bothered me was the absence of NCOs who would have been between Spec4 O’Rourke and  Lt. “Cubby.”  And why are C-Rats called “canned food”? Why were they heated up in boiling water and not with a little piece of C-4?  Why is wafer spelled “waver?”  Why did combat pilots “kink” rather than jink?  I think that “kink” is flat out wrong, and so are many other little things in the Vietnam War section of this book.

I could have spent my time rereading Tristram Shandy or any two of James Joyce’s big books, but instead I read this one. For a man with a limited amount of time to live, I am not certain I made a smart choice.

The author’s website is: www.againstthewarnovel.com

—David Willson