Incident at Dak To by Louis Edward Rosas

Incident at Dak To (257 pp. $14.95, paper; $4.99, Kindle) by Louis Edward Rosas is a very enjoyable military-procedural science fiction story that brings to mind pulp novels of the Vietnam War era. If this book had been serialized in a monthly science fiction magazine 50 years ago it would have been well received.

In the book, we learn that Army Capt. Jay Swift wrote his Vietnam War story in a pocket journal in 1967, making it possible for him to relate it to us today. Swift and his buddy Fred Mason apparently worked for the CIA in Vietnam. They experienced combat in the war and still occasionally wore their Army uniforms, but mainly worked in civilian clothes. When asked what they did they said, “We are field analysts.” Their official job was to “locate and acquire exotic foreign technologies,” meaning things the Soviets and Chinese may have been ahead of the U.S. on, with the goal of reverse-engineering the stuff to our nation’s advantage.

They get called off an assignment in the Middle East to go to Vietnam to investigate an object of unknown origin that’s been recovered from a crash site near Dak To. The site, Rosas writes, “is smack in the middle of an enemy tunnel complex that was nearly overrun by combined NVA and Viet Cong forces. Whatever crashed there is of deep interest to them.” The recovered object was placed in a supposedly secure vault in the basement at the American Embassy, but then disappeared.

There had been reports of a fast-moving aircraft that “appeared as a glowing light in the night sky.” The object seemed to carry a “radiation signature,” and Swift’s initial thinking was that his assignment probably didn’t have anything to do with the war, and that whatever the object was had just dropped into the war zone. The two men are put up in an air-conditioned room with bulletproof windows in Saigon’s Caravelle Hotel where they worked day and night trying to get to the bottom of the mystery object.

The fun kicks in when Swift is told of “a blue-white fireball,” a “large impact crater,” a weird fog that suddenly appeared, and M16s that were strangely disabled. Then come missing witnesses, dissolving bullets, and encounters with Men in Black who walk through walls and always seem to be one step ahead of Swift and Mason.

This fast-moving story is told sometimes in third person, other times in first person, in cinematic-like form. Louis Edward Rosas, whose father served in the U.S. Army in the Vietnam War, never gets in the way of his storytelling as he takes the reader on a wild ride.

–Bill McCloud

Warriors and Friends by Jim Hasse

Jim Hasse’s Warriors and Friends: Through the Eyes of His Alter-Ego, a Green Beret Unlocks Forbidden Memories of Vietnam on His Path to Healing (296 pp. $11.99, paper; $2.99, Kindle), is billed as a collection of 38 short stories. For the most part, though, it reads like a novel divided into 38 chapters. Hasse describes his book as a memoir written in the form of “creative non-fiction” because it’s a fictional retelling of events that really happened. Warriors and Friends is a really fine book, though, whether it’s a creative nonfiction, a novel or a group of short stories.

Hasse spent two years on the ground in Vietnam as a Green Beret sergeant. He later made a career in law enforcement. In the book Hasse’s alter ego is Jay Boone Hanson. In 1965 Hanson is in college listening to a stern professor challenging the males in class to consider what they’re going to do with their lives. What Hanson does is drop out of school and join the Army. The professor is the only person in the book to come across as a caricature. He is reminiscent of the schoolmaster, Kantorek, in All Quiet on the Western Front, who encourages his young students to join the German army.

I bonded early on with Hanson when he went through three months of training at Fort Gordon to become a Communication Center Specialist. I had that same training and, also like me, he would not work very long in that MOS. He makes an unsuccessful stab at Officer Candidate School and then goes through Special Forces training at Fort Bragg before arriving in Vietnam in January 1967.

“I believe I have always had the warrior spirit,” Hanson says, and he sees plenty of action in Vietnam in firefights, ambushes, and raucous nights back at the club. He’s issued large amounts of amphetamines to help him stay awake in the field and serves with a Sergeant First Class who, when in the rear, begins some of his mornings with two double Scotches mixed with buttermilk.

Hanson encounters a Vietnamese orphanage, Montagnard tribesmen, and an atrocity is committed by an American. Many people we read about in the book end up being killed. “The constant presence of death,” Hanson says, “stunned me into appreciating life.”

Once he’s home in Illinois out of the Army and dealing with ex-wives and PTSD, Hanson takes comfort in a companion dog while taking part in therapy groups for war veterans and finding a creative outlet in a veteran writers group.

Hanson says he was “devastated” when he “had to leave combat, Vietnam, and the military.” Later he recalls: “In the past fifty-two years I have thought of Vietnam every day, many times a day, and I am back there again on nights too numerous to count.”

Jim Hasse does a great job telling this story in a way that keeps the reader engaged. Now that I think about it, the idea of making the book’s chapters into short stories works.

–Bill McCloud

Going Home for Apples and Other Stories by Richard Michael O’Meara

The first story in Richard Michael O’Meara’s Going Home For Apples and Other Stories (CreateSpace, 152 pp. $28.73, paper; $9.99, Kindle) is the best work of short fiction dealing with the Vietnam War that I’ve read in years. O’Meara served in Vietnam in 1967-68 as an infantry officer.

This book is a collection of six stand-alone short stories averaging about 25 pages each. Some are in first person, others in third person, and they complete an arc beginning with preparations for going to war and ending years after coming home from the battlefield.

The first story, “Going Home for Apples,” is a brief character sketch of someone so memorable that the narrator, Colt, still thinks of him often, more than forty years after Danny Joy—a last name not randomly chosen by the author—and he met in Army Basic Training at Ft. Dix in July 1967.

Colt, who takes everything he’s told seriously, lies in his bunk after the first day of training, wondering if the VC really would “cut my dick off if I went to sleep.” Joy, on the other hand, is a calm, near-mystical figure who seems, improbably, to somehow know all the “tricks” that make it a little easier to get through Basic. Reminiscent of Bubba from Forrest Gump, Danny Joy constantly talks about apples. His family makes their living by harvesting them in the Hudson Valley.

After Basic, the two men are together in AIT at Ft. Dix. They get weekends off so Joy goes home to help harvest apples. After one such visit, he returns a changed man. This first story is so good that it makes you want to keep reading to see if any others are as well. They are.

In “A Sorta War Story,” we’re immediately “doing ambushes in this little town just south of Lai Khe in Vietnam, the Republic of.” We’re in a six-man recon unit and fortunately the lieutenant in charge is a good guy, “not wasting time on the Mickey Mouse.” He lets the men get away with carrying Remington 12-gauge, pump action, a semi-automatic shotgun or even a Colt .45 single-action Army revolver. A big issue is the South Vietnamese members of the group who cannot be trusted. “Hell, at the first sign of trouble, they’re liable to strip down to their skivvies and melt into the bush.”

In “Cantor’s Fairytale” a handful of guys swap war stories while waiting for their chopper to R&R in Vung Tau. “Justice” could have come right out of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 if that book had been about the Army in Vietnam. It deals with the court-martial trial of a Black man who is considered to be a straight troop who didn’t wear an Afro or hang out with the Black Power guys. Why, writes O’Meara, he never even “carried one of them canes with the knife built into its head.” Two more stories round out this excellent collection.

I hope for more stories by Richard Michael O’Meara. If he would expand the first story to novel length, I would be first in line to buy it.

O’Meara’s website is richardomeara.com

–Bill McCloud

A Bend in the River by Libby Fischer Hellmann

A Bend in the River (The Red Herrings Press, 406 pp. $17.99, paper; $6.99, e book) is a meaty, satisfying historical novel set during the Vietnam War by crime fiction writer Libby Fischer Hellmann.

The plot hinges on the aftermath of an incident in Vietnam in the spring of 1968. Two teenaged Vietnamese sisters helplessly see their family killed by American troops who then massacre the rest of the people in the village. The girls flee to Saigon, joining streams of refugees following the Tet Offensive heading to South Vietnam’s capital.

While living in a refugee camp they find jobs at a restaurant. The younger sister, Mai, finds work as a hostess in a Saigon lounge that caters to Americans. Tam goes off to join the female fighting forces of the Viet Cong known as the Long Hairs. Mai, fourteen, wears makeup to appear to be seventeen, having been told that is the “perfect” age for the business. She works at the Stardust Lounge, named after the Las Vegas hotel. It’s one of the few air-conditioned bars in the city.

Tam goes through a two-week training camp, then is encouraged to use her sister to collect information from loose-lipped Americans. But she refuses to involve the younger girl in that dangerous activity. After Tam kills a man in battle, she realizes she “could no longer accept that she was more principled than the enemy.”

We learn through Mai that many Vietnamese people in Saigon fearfully followed the first manned landing on the Moon, concerned that the gods were being tempted and might decide to punish people on Earth. Her VC sister, virtually unaware of such things, is busy recovering unexploded bombs, driving a supply truck, and exploring the tunnels of Cu Chi.

Whenever Tam is asked what village she’s from, she refuses to name it, simply saying it’s “not there anymore. The Americans destroyed it.”

As the war begins winding down the sisters are affected in serious but different ways. Though they are estranged we feel as though destiny may bring them back together. The story goes back and forth, a few chapters at a time, telling each girl’s story. It’s an efficient way of keeping the reader’s interest.

Libby Fischer Hellmann

Hellmann says she was driven to write this book because “Americans still see the war through a strictly American lens.” In an effort to learn more about the Vietnamese during the war, she read novels such as Nguyen Phan Que Mai’s The Mountains Sing, Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer, and Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous.

The results of that research are obvious in the book, but this story, and the telling of it, are strictly Hellmann’s own. Part popular fiction and part literary fiction, this deftly written book is well worth reading.

The author’s website is libbyhellmann.com

–Bill McCloud

The Last Vietnam Novel by Fred Vigeant

When I first picked up Fred Vigeant’s novel, The Last Vietnam Novel: Darling, They’re Playing Our War (336 pp. $14.99, paper; $2.99, Kindel), I immediately thought I was about to enter the world of the Preston Jones’ play, The Oldest Living Graduate. Instead, I felt like Gulliver when he awoke in the land of Lilliput.

Above all, The Last Vietnam Novel offers a close examination of perspective and its role in how we determine our world views. While the book includes much humor and irony, the most potent message for this reader was the lesson in relativism.

The setting of Vigeant’s novel is the future. The year is 2054, and the author’s protagonist, Wonton Lively, the last living Vietnam War veteran, takes it upon himself to describe a future that the world has created. A world that takes absolutely no responsibility for the disaster it has created. As Wonton prepares for an interview with the “media giant Time/Netflix/Apple/Microsoft/Facebook/Pez,” he reminisces about life during the war in Vietnam.

One of Vigeant’s writing strengths is his ability to take the mundane, everyday routines of military life and turn them into magical stories that capture our attention and imagination. Another strength is Vigeant’s ability to write vivid dialogue in a tongue-in-cheek satirical style. The verbal exchanges between Lovely and his counterparts build complete images of the characters in the Last Novel. Wonton Lovely’s eloquence and post-ironic banter with a variety of characters sound natural and honest and, at times, reminds me of the work of the writer David Foster Wallace.

The story follows Wonton—the story behind the name “Wonton” is a great story in itself—Lovely’s recollections about ROTC, his active-duty, training, his first assignment in the states, and finally his tour of duty in the Vietnam War as he prepares for his interview. Fred Vigeant, a retired high school chemistry teacher, served as an Information Officer with the Americal Division in Vietnam in 1971.

His book is composed of one hundred fourteen chapters. Each is self-contained and reads like an O. Henry short story.

Fred Vigeant

In Chapter 28, “Major Alexander Seeks Respect,” Vigeant shows a deep understanding of the absurdity of the human condition. Lovely has been assigned to the Information Office at Ft Lee and has to report to the IO’s second in command, Maj. Alexander. 2nd Lt. Lovely has received orders for Vietnam and feels disposed to accept whatever requests the major has in mind.

The major wants Lovely to investigate why the guards at the entrance to Ft Lee do not salute him when he arrives on base. The conversation quickly devolves into one of those Catch 22 disjointed dialogues that use just about every form of ironic hyperbole, understatement, and rhetorical questioning imaginable.

The Last Vietnam Novel is a fast-paced and well-written book that I highly recommend. It goes down like Jack and Coke.

–Charles Templeton

Templeton, who served as a Marine Corps helicopter crew chief in the Vietnam War, is the author of Boot: A Sorta Novel of Vietnam. His website is charlestempleton.com

As Leaves are Prey to Wind by John F. McGowan

John F. McGowan’s novel, As Leaves Are Prey to Wind (Grace O’Malley, 512 pp., $24.99, paper), looks at one Australian soldier’s experiences in the Vietnam War.

The novel’s protagonist, Brian Fronton, volunteers for the Australian Army. As he and two buddies are about to fly off to Vietnam, his father tells him, “Be a man son, like your uncles, be strong and take care.” He then shakes hands with his typically unemotional dad who says, “Come on son, man up for Christ’s sake, give me a firm handshake, you’re not holding a limp dick in your hand. are you?”

This is one of those novels that pretty well drops you right into the action. The young men arrive in Vietnam on page eight of the is 500-plus page book, flying into Tan Son Nhut on a QANTAS Boeing 707 commercial jet. They are then flown to Nui Dat in a C-130. The big plane lands, slows, turns around, and the men jump out the back while the plane begins rolling for takeoff.

Fronton decides to write regularly in a journal. He hopes to use the material later to help him become a “great novelist.” He’s assigned to a relatively safe base camp, but his job as a radio operator means he frequently goes out on patrol. After a few weeks, he writes, “My life is an adventure” in his journal. One night a buddy of his says, “I bet 99 out of every 100 Gooks are no different from me. Just poor dumb pricks in the hands of fanatic wankers.”

At one point he is dropped into the jungle to replace an injured signaler and is welcomed to what he’s told is the real war. But it’s not the one with the Viet Cong. Instead, it’s about being “tired, sore, wet and feckin miserable.” The mission is pretty single-minded: Seek out the enemy, track them, hunt them down, and kill them.

After talking with buddies about Australia’s World War I experience at Gallipoli, followed up with reading some Kipling, he notes to himself: “I had never thought about my possible death in war, but suddenly I am afraid. I do not want to die because Australia needs to keep trade relations with America.”

McGowan

On another patrol he’s told again that the real war is not the one with the “Feckin Gooks,” but the one with spiders, carnivorous ants, poisonous snakes, scorpions, and tigers. And leeches. Soldiers around him stop removing leeches from their bodies knowing they’ll eventually drop off.

Fronton writes in his journal that actual combat is not as bad on the nerves as dreading the constant possibility of contact.

“It’s the knowledge,” he writes, “that at any moment the world around you could erupt into death and destruction.”

The novel’s title, As Leaves Are Prey to Wind, refers to how little control humans have over what happens in our lives. That sense of helplessness becomes even more vivid during times of war. It is well expressed by John F. McGowan—who served in Vietnam with the Third Battalion Royal Australian Regiment—in this solid Vietnam War novel.

McGowan’s website is johnfmcgowan.com

–Bill McCloud

On Thunder Road by Michael Alan Shapiro

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At the beginning of Michael Alan Shapiro’s autobiographical novel, On Thunder Road (325 pp., Booklocker.com $19.95, paper; $4.99, Kindle), main character Paul Gebhart volunteers for the draft in 1967 “to prove my manhood to the guys in the neighborhood. It was a stupid thing to do.” Having been “raised on war movies,” this New Jersey boy leaves home to receive training at Fort Carson and Fort Riley.

The last thing his father tells him before he leaves for Vietnam is, “Be smart over there and write your mother.” As the plane lifts off, a clock begins ticking in Paul’s mind as the countdown for his one-year tour of duty begins.

Arriving in-country in late 1967 he reports to Bravo Company of the 1st Battalion, 10th Infantry, in the Army’s First Infantry Division just outside Long Binh. He is immediately told: “You’re going to see some action with this unit.” Bravo Company is charged with helping keep Thunder Road open. That’s what GIs called Highway 13, which was used by most vehicles heading west out of Saigon.

Assigned to a mortar unit, he begins regularly smoking marijuana, and quickly learns that he is fighting alongside several guys who had been in trouble with the law and were given a choice between joining the Army or going to prison.

The daily routine for Paul Gebhart and his fellow soldiers includes morning patrols to sweep the roads for landmines. In the afternoon, they patrol through wooded areas and practice with the mortars. At night there’s perimeter duty. Pot smoking is part of the routine.

On one occasion outside the perimeter Paul experiences a mystical sense of being a part of a brotherhood with men who fought in the American Civil War and with Roman soldiers two thousand years ago, as well as with those who took part in the Crusades.  

He learns to cut a slit in his green towel and wear it like a Mexican serape to help keep the sun off his shoulders. He also learns what it means when you see sandals that have been melted into a blackened, scorched piece of earth.

As the year rolls over into early 1968 Paul hears rumors about guys who’ve dropped acid and walked off into the jungle to make peace with the enemy. But, at the same time, he also hears rumors about guys who would pay to walk point for someone else because they want all the action they can get.

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Big Red One troops on patrol

At base camp the troops continue to smoke dope. Word is that officers several steps up the chain of command are aware of that illegal activity, but allow it because when it comes time to fight the men fight.

Moving through the summer months, Paul Gebhart learns that “getting short is all about being scared.”

In this novel Michael Shapiro does a great job describing how the war changes his main character in ways that we know will make it difficult for him to escape his memories of the war after he comes home. This is a major work of Vietnam War fiction.

–Bill McCloud

The Travelers by Regina Porter

Regina Porter, a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, did her Vietnam War homework for her new novel, The Travelers (Hogarth, 320 pp. $27, hardcover; $13.99, Kindle). Among other things, she interviewed a university historian who teaches a Vietnam War in Film class; read John Darrell Sherwood’s Black Sailor, White Navy: Racial Unrest in the Fleet During the Vietnam Era; and researched the Vietnam Women’s Memorial to learn about the contributions of American female troops during the Vietnam War.

The novel begins with a two-page list of characters, which is kind of a key to the meaning of the book. Porter also offers a brief statement of time, which helps the reader some. “This novel,” she notes, “travels from the mid-fifties to the first year of President Obama’s first term.” The list of settings includes Long Island, New York, and the former South Vietnam. Even with this attempt to help the reader, though, the book sometimes comes across as a hodgepodge of events, characters, and places.

Mostly I enjoyed the book, but only by turning it into a game by keeping track of  all the references to the Vietnam War. They mounted up rapidly and made it possible for me to view The Travelers as a Vietnam War novel. The story deals with Agent Orange, the Tet Offensive, the Gulf of Tonkin, Nixon’s war, the South China Sea, and Vietnam veterans more thoroughly than many literary Vietnam War novels do.

Porter places many of her characters in Vietnam where they do the things that young men were said to do during the war. Sex and drugs are given a lot of space, and the troops suffer psychologically by their involvement with those things. My painstaking mining of the text for Vietnam War references was rewarding, but likely would not be the way most readers will deal with the book.

The Travelers contains a fair number of photographic images, many related to the Vietnam War, including one of two sailors pressing pants on the USS Intrepid. The chapter entitled “I Know Where the Poison Lives” has a nice photo of the USS Oklahoma City and a powerful introduction to Agent Orange, including the line: “That shit ate up our daddy’s intestines.”  Porter goes on to discuss how Agent Orange affected Blue Water Navy veterans who served on aircraft carriers off the coast of South Vietnam during the war.

The role of African Americans in the Vietnam War is presented in the lives of the black characters, especially Eddie Christie, who serves on an aircraft carrier. During the war he is introduced to the play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead and it becomes an anchor to his life in a sea of racial unrest.

One reviewer calls the book unlike anything she’s ever read. That’s true for me as well.

–David Willson

The Life of an Airborne Ranger, Book Two by Michael B. Kitz-Miller

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Michael Kitz-Miller, the author of The Life of an Airborne Ranger, Book Two: Take Care of Your Men (Xlibris, 388 pp., $29.99, hardcover; $19.99, paper; $3.99 e book), informs us in his notes that the book is a work of fiction. Or as his puts it: “It is a military novel in a historic context.”

The book starts prior to the Vietnam War and continues with the conflicts in Grenada, Somalia, Panama, Kuwait, and Iraq. The author (who died July 29, 2019, at age 78) fictionalized battles and changed them to fit the character of the characters. Kitz-Miller, who enlisted in the Army and served for three years as buck sergeant with the 101st Airborne Division, used Wikipedia as his library to try to get his facts right.

The 44th Airborne Division is fictional and the organizational structure of the 75th Airborne Division has been changed to fit the story. The author credits Ayn Rand and her fiction as his inspiration and her philosophy of Objectivism as being important in forming some of his ideas.

This book is carefully composed of 55 short chapters, most of which begin with the one of the names of the two main characters: Jack and Mary Clarke. Mary Clarke is the beloved wife of the book’s hero, Jack. He is the most decorated hero of his war—or of any war that ever took place.

Jack is very modest about his decorations and often chooses not to wear them, which causes drama and discord. His modesty brings trouble to him and to those around him. But that is just the way he is. His beginnings are modest and he is self-deprecating to a fault—a fault that makes the San Andreas shrink to the size of a paper napkin by comparison.

Jack moves up to be a commander with the 75th Airborne Rangers and runs a big FTX at Ft. Benning. Daring maneuvers and key operations bring him new promotions and accolades. Mary Clarke completes her doctorate and fills large lecture halls with students eager to hear her dazzling lectures.

These heroes choose not to have any children so that their contributions to society are not diluted in any way. Mary discovers that she has inherited millions and has the responsibility for a complex estate. We part with the couple while they are discussing social metaphysics.

If you loved book number one, you’ll love this one also.  A third book is on the way.

The author’s website is kitz-millerbooks.com

–David Willson

Hiroshi’s Story by Richard Rajner

Richard Rajner’s Hiroshi’s Story: The Journals of a Japanese Soldier in Viet Nam, 1941-1968 (Austin Macauley, 500 pp., $37.95, hardcover; $24.95, paper; $4.95, Kindle is a massive, dense novel. Rajner does not break up the story into chapters, parts, or books. He doesn’t even use space breaks between paragraphs. The novel just begins and takes off, almost in a stream-of-consciousness form.

It’s a design that, surprisingly to me, worked with this book. At first, it seem like reading the book would be a daunting task. But once I started, I seemed to be naturally carried along by the story, with no place to rest until the end.

Rajner, who served three tours in the American war in Vietnam, offers up a fictional account of the 5,000 Japanese troops who remained in Vietnam following World War II and who became part of the Viet Cong guerrilla movement in the south.

Hiroshi Watanabe and Matome Tanaka, cousins from a small farming village, join the Imperial Japanese Army right after high school. Growing up doing farm work gave them the strength to survive fairly brutal military training when many sons of factory workers and shopkeepers fell out along the way.

Being sent immediately into the war with China, they served as part of an antiaircraft unit. Two years later, in 1941, they found themselves being shipped to Indochina. By a “peculiar” diplomatic agreement, the occupied Vichy French government allowed Japan to occupy its colonies in Southeast Asia.

The boys were excited to be assigned to an airbase 30 kilometers north of Saigon—a city known as the “Pearl of the Orient” because of its “wide variety of delights.”

Before long, they learned that Imperial Japanese forces were about to take over all of Southeast Asia. By the summer of 1944, however, things were looking much different. For the first time in 2,600 years the Japanese were about to lose a war.

A faction of the Japanese government encouraged the thousands of Japanese soldiers in occupied lands to join local resistance groups after the war to continue to fight the Americans and their allies. With no hesitation, Watanabe and Tanaka decide to fight on as “the Emperor’s soldiers” by joining the newly formed Vietnamese Army.

Revenge is their sole motivation—a desire to punish the Western powers for defeating Japan. They consider themselves instruments of retribution. Specifically, they would  fight until the Vietnamese people had become fully independent.

While fighting against the French colonial government, Watanabe and Tanaka become weakened from combat wounds and disease and are allowed to become farmers, morphing into a soldier-farmer role. They marry Vietnamese women, and raise families.

When the French are defeated in 1954, however, Vietnam remained a divided nation due to a “poorly negotiated” peace treaty. So the two men continue in their roles as soldier-farmers. They dream of someday returning to their homeland, taking their families with them.

But soon they’re fighting against the Saigon government, which they’ve been told is propped up by Western powers. It’s a fight the two will continue to be a part of until it ends for them in 1968.

Rajner’s story, after 500 pages, ends without having built to a climax. It ends, appropriately, as if to say this is the way things are, as they always have been, and as they always will be.

Hiroshi’s Story is a major work of Vietnam War fiction.

—Bill McCloud