Phoenix Mistress by Frank Wadleigh

 

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Frank Wadleigh’s Phoenix Mistress (iUniverse, 208 pp., $24.95; $14.95, paper; $3.99, Kindle) is written in the first person, but the book is a novel and the characters are fictional—except for famous people. The book takes place in Saigon in 1969-71, which is when the author worked as a senior intelligence analyst at MACV on the controversial Phoenix pacification program. All of the details in the book on Phoenix, Wadleigh says, are true.

Often the book reads more like a memoir than a novel, but that is not unusual for books of this sort. The main character, a computer scientist, is assigned the job of investigating the effectiveness of the Phoenix Program. He is shocked that innocent civilians are targeted and tortured. He protests and when those protests are ignored, he faces a moral dilemma.

Then he meets the title character.  She is pictured on the cover of the book.

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Frank Wadleigh

This novel is engrossing and well-written. As this is a historical novel, expect to come across a lot of facts and names. I recommend it to those who wish to read a book about this particular aspect of the non-combat side of the Vietnam War.

Wadleigh tell us he was “directly involved in the Pacification program headed by William Colby who became CIA Director after the war.” So he knows what he is writing about.

—David Willson

 

For No Good Reason by Steve Banko

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Steve Banko dedicates his firs novel, For No Good Reason (No Frills Buffalo/Amelia Press, 318 pp., $14.95, paper), to the 1st Cavalry Division Garryowen troopers of Company D, 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry who fought and died on December 3, 1968. Banko served sixteen months in Vietnam where he was wounded six times and received the Silver Star in addition to his four Purple Hearts.

For No Good Reason is a blood and guts Army infantry novel. My impression is that Banko drew heavily on his own wartime experiences for the narrative. In the acknowledgements he informs the reader that John Holcomb, his good friend, died saving Banko’s life on December 3, 1968, and that Holcomb was awarded a posthumous Medal of Honor. Banko made it home to grow old and bald.

For No Good Reason namechecks both the usual and the unusual, including John Wayne, Audie Murphy, Sgt. York, Racquel Welch, Goldie Hawn, and Superman. Shit is burned in the rear and we are admonished to get the hell out of Dodge, and that we “gotta get out of this place.” The place is Indian Country where Pancho Villa is also making a stand. The “hurting kangaroo” I encountered was new to me. I predict I’ll not see him again.

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Steve Banko

The writing is made up of short sentences and punchy expressions. Here is a typical example:

“I was thinking of our next move when some screaming and shooting came from our right. Our two buddies got a bead on the machine gun when he opened fire on us and assaulted from behind it. It was like John Wayne and Audie Murphy came flying to our rescue. They were shooting and screaming and acting all kinds of crazy. When one gook fell from the tree, we got the message and started shooting too. When we stopped to reload, everything was quiet.”

Banko’s prose hooks the reader and never lets go.

I recommend this war thriller to those who have not overdosed on infantry action books.  It moves right along, never stopping for idle moments.

—David Willson

Asian Stained by W. Thomas Leonard

Now that I’ve read the stories in W. Thomas Leonard’s Asian Stained (BookBaby, 235 pp., $2.99, Kindle), I believe that the title indicates the author’s hard-held belief that the Vietnam War stains (or taints or besmirches) everyone who experienced it. This book starts off by introducing two Marines I assumed would be main characters, 2nd Lts. Kevin Charles Barrett and William Francis Kelly. Both are on the plane to Vietnam for their thirteen-month tour of duty. Leonard served as a Marine lieutenant in the Vietnam War in 1968.

Spoiler alert: Don’t read on if you want to be surprised.

These two young men have been best friends since they were nine years old. They both had just graduated from Fordham, with scholarships, in 1967. Not exactly a great time to graduate from college. They both promptly enlisted in the Marine Corps and were assigned to the 3rd Marine Division, 3rd Battalion, 9th Marines, winding up in Dong Ha, in Vietnam in I Corps close to the DMZ.

The book then skips forward fourteen years to the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Two old men are at the wall—a Mr. Barrett and a Mr. Kelly. They find the names of their sons—Kevin Barrett and William Kelly—right at the top of the panel where they expected them to be. We’ve read five percent of the book, at least according to my Kindle.

The next section is entitled “Deserters.” However, we don’t get to follow Barrett and Kelly’s tours in Vietnam. I can deal with that, but what does the reader get? Lots of stories that follow. Including at least three dealing with Marines being incarcerated in brigs, with much detail about that confinement.

Twenty percent of the way through the book the reader encounters magical realism in the form of a vision or a fantasy of something that looks like a large aircraft with no wheels. It’s V-shaped and has the form of a wall. “It’s where the past, the present and the future merged,” a Marine says.  

This is a bleak book, made up of many stories, often of second-generation Americans who were raised in this country of opportunity and served in a war that horribly scarred them or killed them. The dozen or so stories are rarely happy ones, not even a little bit.

Once we get past “Deserters,” we are presented with stories in which hard-working veterans are fired unfairly or treated brutally. The stories are well-written but often hard to read. I, for one, hate to read about people who are cast into outer darkness for no reason other than the fact that someone with power can do so.

In one of the stories near the end of the book the character, Alex Kazakov, returns from his war minus his vision and three of his limbs. He is a character we get to know well, so his terrible scarring and crippling really hits home. Tears came to my eyes as I read the bad stuff that happens to him.  He’s lost everything but his mind. He learns Braille and does make something of himself, earning a Master’s in Creative Writing.

The overwhelming message of Asia Stained is a warning to everyone to avoid serving in the Marine Corps, especially in the Vietnam War. I didn’t need convincing; I am not going to recommend to my children that they join the Marines. My father was a Marine on Iwo Jima. One was enough for this family.

Read this collection of stories if you want to consume a really sad book of well-written tales about Marines. Otherwise, read something else. I’m having major trouble getting these stories out of my mind. And out of my dreams.

—David Willson

Three Joss Sticks in the Rain by Peter M. Bourret

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Peter Bourret served with the 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment in the 1st Marine Division as a 81 mm mortarman in Vietnam from 1967-68. When he returned home, Bourret he studied at the University of Arizona. He has taught classes about PTSD for the past twenty-five years, and has written two books of poetry: The Physics of War:  Poems of War and Healing and Land of Loud Noises and Vacant Stares.

The 1968 Tet Offensive began soon after Bourret arrived in Vietnam. “The 1968 Tet Offensive, in particular,” he writes, “is key to the development”of his novel, Three Joss Sticks in the Rain (CreateSpace, 271 pp., $21.95, paper).  He doesn’t lie about that.

The story is not presented with an objective omniscient narrator perspective, but rather from four points-of-view: two young members of the Viet Cong—a brother and a sister—and two U. S. Marines, one an 18 year old and the other a 21 year old on his second tour of duty.

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The author

Bourret tries hard to communicate to the reader the complexities of the Vietnam War by presenting back-and-forth, alternating stories. Perhaps he overdoes that a bit—the patriotism and jingoistic attitudes of the VC soon seem like overkill. However, he does a good job showing us the ambushes and firefights from both ends of the action.

A thwarted rape is at the center of this complex novel. The Marine responsible later commits suicide. One of the characters states that “this war never seemed to go away.”  I wish he’d put himself in my place. I’ve been reading about the war since 1964. That’s too long.

We get the usual stuff of Vietnam War fiction in this novel: Ham and motherfuckers, John Wayne, Fighting Leathernecks, and Agent Orange. This Marine Corps novel, though, is a bit better than run of the mill. Read it and learn why you were smart not to be a Marine in Vietnam during the Tet Offensive.

Three Joss Sticks in the Rain is one of the rare Vietnam War novels that takes great pains to show both sides of the war from the point of view of those who fought it. Peter Bourret, a life member of Vietnam Veterans of America, does an excellent job of doing so. Those who want to read a book that offers a good idea of what the VC were fighting for could do no better than to read this novel.

—David Willson

The Lawless Side of War by Terrell Reagan

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Terrell Reagan calls his book, The Lawless Side of War: Making Millions in the Vietnam Black Market (BookLocker.com, 259 pp., $16.95, paper; $2.99, Kindle), a “fictional memoir.” He says that the book is loosely based on actual events, explaining that he “has taken creative liberties with many details to enhance the reader’s experience. Names, locations, and other details have been changed and fictional details and characters have been added.”

Reagan goes on to tell us that this is a story of beating the draft, as well as one about “black market transactions that I created, some that I managed and others that I witnessed firsthand.”

This book is not malarkey. I worked for the Inspector General in Vietnam and we investigated many black market schemes, including some like the ones Reagan describes in this book. In other words, I believe this author knows what he’s talking about.

He has nothing good to say about the “long-haired hippies protesting the war.” As if the University of Texas where he went to school had many of those. The author had, he tells us, 254 hours of undergrad work in math and physics in college, and tried to get into the National Guard only to discover that the Texas units were all full with guys like George W. Bush and football players. Reagan didn’t want to take his chances with the draft the way many of us did.

“Every family in the U. S. that had a draft eligible loved one, which totaled in the millions, anxiously monitored the call-ups,” he writes. Well, not every family. Mine, for one, showed no interest in my draft eligibility. Their attitude was: What’s there to worry about? My father was drafted into the Marines in World War II and served on Iwo Jima. His father served in the Philippines and his father served in the Civil War. It’s what you did. You wore a uniform and went to some place where you got shot at. I guess that notion is not universal to all Americans.

So Reagan cut himself a sweet deal and that’s what this book is about. The Inspector General chased guys like him the entire year I was in Vietnam—guys who figured out angles to beat the system. We called them black marketeers and criminals.

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Terrell Reagan

This book delineates black market operations from the inside out. When I was on a team chasing these guys, I found the details boring. Reading this book is no different. The author spices up the narrative a bit with dragon ladies and the like, but to no avail. Changing greenbacks to MPC then to piasters and back again is just not fun to read about. The author claims this is the only book that tells how the currency laundering and black market really worked in Vietnam during the war, and he may be right.

This book confirmed my suspicions about how some sons of the rich and entitled avoided the draft and spent the war wearing civilian clothes, drinking champagne, and eating fish eggs on toast points at soirees hosted by the ambassador. So it goes.

Reagan tells us that with the money he made in Vietnam as “a civilian project engineer,”  he came back to the States and “built a large financially diversified company.” During the late eighties all of his assets were confiscated by the U.S. government, so he moved to London where he created an investment banking company. Today Reagan lives in Dallas.

—David Willson

Replacements by Alan Quale

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Alan Quale served as a supply sergeant for an infantry company in the Vietnam War in 1967-68. His first book, My Dakota, is the story of his life on the Great Plains. Quale’s mother saved all her letters her son sent from Vietnam in a shoe box, which formed the backbone of Replacements: Endless War and the Men Sent it Fight It (CreateSpace, 252 pp., $12.95, paper; $3.99, Kindle). Quale had a degree in journalism from the University of North Dakota before he was drafted into the Army.

Quale says this book is fiction. But then he says: “Replacements is my personal story from Vietnam. When writing it, I realized how fortunate I am. There were many other soldiers who also had stories to tell, but they didn’t survive. They were suddenly gone, and then they were replaced, and the war continued without them.”

This is a plainspoken book, with no flowery literary embellishments. It’s easy to read and well worth reading.

Alan Quale tells us that writing this book was therapy for him. He had a lot of bad dreams and his wife encouraged him to talk to her about them. He did that. His wife rescued him. He’d had the same nightmares over and over. What was his subconscious trying to tell him? His dreams were all about replacements.  He’d survived the Vietnam War, but many others had not.

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Alan Quale

“My nightmare shamed me and scolded me over and over again, and then it made me feel the last terrifying moments of life itself,” Quale writes, “a feeling likely experienced by several men in B Company when they were badly wounded.”

In Vietnam, he says, “you survive any way you can.”

Quale was stationed at LZ Bronco near Duc Pho in Quang Ngai Province south of Da Nang. It was a Viet Cong stronghold.  He arrived on December 6, 1967, at Duc Pho and enjoyed a full year of the Tet Offensive and its aftermath.

The shooting started when the sun set and seemed to never stop. But Alan Quale survived to write this great book.  We are grateful for his survival.

—David Willson

A Portion of the Loveliness by Christoph Feldkirchen

Christoph Feldkirchen’s  A Portion of the Loveliness (Feldkirchen Press, 212 pp., $11.95, paper; $7.95, Kindle) is a work of fiction. There are three short novels in this book; the first one, “Nothing Could Happen,” deals with the war in Vietnam. That title is taken from a long quotation from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness that sets the tone of the book. It is a scene in which a man-of-war ship sends shells from the Congo River in the African jungle trying to hit unseen enemies. It reminded me of the American war in Vietnam, which I suspect is intentional.

The main character of this short novel, Feldkrichen (like the author), tells us he entered Navy boot camp in September 1965. Later he describes his onboard duty on a ship nicknamed “The Bucket.”

“If you were unlucky, you might work all day, be CQ all evening, stand a midnight to four a.m. watch, grab two hours of sleep, and be on duty all next day,” he writes. “Everyone was tired, all were irritable and there was no end of griping.”

I’ve not read many novels or memoirs dealing with Navy duty during the Vietnam War. I enjoyed this one. When it ended, I found myself wishing for more, a rare feeling when reading a book I knew nothing about before I started it.

This short novel is light hearted, well written, and it reinforces my long-ago decision to spend my tour of military duty in the Army. The graphic descriptions of seasickness made me slightly nauseous.  (Full disclosure: The chemo I am on makes me feel that way often enough anyhow.)

Thanks, Christoph Feldkirchen, for writing this book. The other two novellas also were good. Please consider writing a full-length novel or memoir of your time in the Navy. I promise I will read it.

—David Willson