The Deacon and the Shield by John E. Howard

The Deacon and the Shield (Austin Macauley Publishers, 174 pp. $24.95, hardcover; $11.95, paper; $4.50, e book) by John E. Howard, is a fictional story infused with religious testimony. Howard served a 1967-68 tour of duty in Vietnam with the 198th Light Infantry Brigade’s 1st Battalion/14th Artillery in the Americal Division in Chu Lai.

In an author’s note Howard writes of learning about the “horrific event” known as the My Lai Massacre in mid-March 1968. He suggests that what happened there led to a general sense of PTSD among U.S. troops in country. He also, intriguingly, suggests that PTSD may also be caused by the fact that after finishing their tours of active duty, Vietnam War veterans were still in the inactive reserves and could be called back to military service at any time.

The novel centers on twenty-two-year-old Eddy Riffle, who is married when he is drafted into the Army. When the guys in his unit learn he was a church deacon back home, that becomes his nickname. In his last combat action in Vietnam he feels that he was saved from death by an angel. After coming home from the war, he frequently has nightmares about which his wife says, “It seems that he just goes back to the jungles.”

Riffle’s family grows as he becomes a successful attorney. After being caught in a compromising situation with a co-worker, he loses his job, and becomes estranged from his family. His life spirals out of control as a new sense of failure and unworthiness combines with his PTSD. He regrets and fears all the things that might be said about him on the judgement day. To boost his income, he becomes a licensed, wise-cracking private detective.

The story goes on to include a physical fight with an angel who appears on horseback in which Riffle pits his “military training against his angel training,” as well as money laundering, undercover assignments, classic double-crosses, the antichrist, alluring women, and near-death experiences.

The Deacon and the Shield is difficult to classify. It’s not a fantasy because it’s based on a sense of spiritual reality. Basically, it’s a religious tract with a fictional story supported by many biblical verses.

The book might work for a men’s church group. Although it deals with the Vietnam War, its veterans, and PTSD, the main subject is the Deacon and his Christian faith.

–Bill McCloud

Charlie Owns the Night by Ilse Cullen

Charlie Owns the Night (294 pp., $12.99, paper: $4.99, Kindle) is the debut novel by the Irish writer Ilse Cullen. Set in Vietnam in 1968, the books has a multi-arc story of several individuals whose lives are effected by the war. Love comes to odd couples in the midst of the Tet Offensive and its aftermath.

The novel interweaves several main characters. Each gets their own chapter. Chau is the daughter of a decorated North Vietnamese general. The general wants her to deliver a secret message to Viet Cong command in Saigon. She ends up in the tunnel complex at Cu Chi. 

On the way back home via the Ho Chi Minh Trail, Chau bonds with her driver, Trang. Her brother Chinh is a VC operative working in Saigon. He works in a bar where he picks up intelligence information from drunk Americans. He ends up in a forbidden relationship with Marie-Louise, a French journalist. 

Tom is an American doctor. He and his wife are involved in the antiwar movement, so you can imagine her reaction when he volunteers to serve in Vietnam because he thinks the experience of combat surgery will be valuable to his career.

Charlie Owns the Night is not a Vietnam War novel even though it is set in Vietnam during the war. This is a welcome change from the other Vietnam War novels I have read, though I would not recommend it as a reader’s first taste of the war. 

Cullen does throw in some tidbits that show she has knowledge of the war. The journalist, for example, takes in the “5 O’Clock Follies,” the derisive nickname war correspondents used for fabrication-laden military press briefings. She gives herself a gold star for specifying that the VC wore black-and-white checked neckerchiefs with a red band at each end. 

Cullen is more interested in generalizing the war. The communists will win because they want it more and the Americans are doomed to fail because most of them don’t care about what they are fighting for. She implies that nearly all American troops were on heroin. The American military she portrays is closer to the way it was in 1972 than 1968.

Of the three main stories, Chau’s is the most compelling. The delivery of the secret message is without suspense, but her long journey home on the Ho Chi Minh Trail gives the book a core that is intriguing.

Chinh’s arc starts slowly and then improves with the introduction of Marie-Louise. The romance seems rushed, but the novel takes off after she visits the American base at Tay Ninh and reports on the attitudes of American troops. 

Tom’s story is the most pedestrian. His wife caves in too easily and their relationship is mostly developed via letters that tend to be redundant.

Cullen can be trite (“Thank you for helping me love again”), but she is sincere in her effort to personalize the North Vietnamese side of the war. She manages to do that through Chau and Chinh and to be fair she adds Tom into the mix.

The novel is definitely pro-VC/NVA, but Cullen does not demonize Americans. Tom represents the benevolent side of America—a nation that poked its nose in business that was not its own.

If you are familiar with the American grunt experience in the Vietnam War through novels and nonfiction books, this novel will give you a different perspective. Apparently, they lived and loved, too.

–Kevin Hardy

Vietnam What? by Gianni Ruffo

Vietnam What? 2 (223 pp. $10.99, paper) by Gianni Ruffo is a fictionalized account of a Catholic priest’s adventures in the Vietnam War during multiple tours of duty in the late 1960s. Ruffo lives in Italy, and has had a long-time interest in the military history of the Vietnam War. This book is a sequel to Vietnam What? and begins where the first one ended, but with a new protagonist.

The story opens at Khe Sanh in early 1968. A Catholic Army chaplain is temporarily at the besieged combat base because his job has him traveling throughout South Vietnam delivering religious aids to chaplains of all denominations. The priest tells a soldier that his name is Bud. The man says, “As in beer? From now on, you’ll be Father Beer for me.” The priest readily accepts the nickname.

As the priest experiences attacks on the base he begins to question why the U.S. is waging the war. As he flies out of embattled Khe Sanh, he prays for the men remaining there.

The priest continues to see action. A helicopter he is in takes enemy rounds as it is coming in for a landing. Another time he’s a passenger in a cargo plane that crashes. He also has a Jeep blown out from under him, and is taken prisoner by the Viet Cong for a few days before being rescued. But it’s not just the priest’s adventures we follow. Several chapters contain action stories he is told by hospitalized troops he visits.

The priest takes a short leave to Vatican City, then is sent to Quang Tri, and then to Cam Ranh Bay. Then he secretly joins a Red Cross committee visiting three prison camps around Hanoi. This priest certainly gets around.

This book is not written in typical paragraphs, but presented in quite long ones, many covering a few pages. It seems almost to have been written in a stream-of-consciousness manner.   

In Vietnam What, Bud the priest is a fearless man who never hesitates putting himself in danger to help a fellow human being. It’s a shame this is a work of fiction.

–Bill McCloud

The Rains on Tan Son Nhat by Christopher McCain-Nguyen

In The Rains on Tan Son Nhat (469 pp, $16.99, paper; $3.99, Kindle) Christopher McCain-Nguyen offers a decades-long love story centered on the American war in Vietnam. The novel personalizes the ups and downs of the war years, which culminated in a great sense of loss and defeat. The author came to the U.S. from Vietnam in 1966. A business entrepreneur with an interest in linguistics, McCain-Nguyen says his debut novel is a “25 years’ labor of love.”

The plot revolves around U.S. Air Force Maj. James Saito, a Japanese-Irish American intelligence officer in Saigon in 1967. He meets Emily Bach Mai, a young woman of Vietnamese and Jewish-German heritage who is an Air Vietnam receptionist manager and the airline’s Chief Public Relations Officer—a girl with “mysterious eyes.” The two fall in love, even though Mai is engaged to a physician named Chung who is likely working secretly for the communists. It’s not lost on James and Mai that they are both children of two heritages.

Chung tells Mai he must immediately leave for an indefinite period of time. While he is gone, she learns that he is, indeed, “an agent for the other side.” Meanwhile, James is readily accepted by Mai’s family and friends mainly because he speaks fluent Vietnamese.

Chung, working at a small, makeshift Viet Cong field hospital with only primitive equipment, begins developing a sense of political confusion. While Chung is away the relationship between James and Mai deepens.

McCain-Nguyen frequently steps back from the main storyline, as if hovering overhead, and offers background information about what was going on in the war. In doing so, he ends up giving the reader much of the history of Vietnam and of the American war. At important points in the story he tends to point out that what’s happening has been mostly dictated by fate with humans having very little control over their lives.

This novel, like the war, is long and sad. Some may find it hard to forget.

–Bill McCloud

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