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

Back in the World by Joe Lerner and Herman Kaufman

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The late Joe Lerner was assigned to the American embassy in Laos in an undercover espionage posting before his return home from the Vietnam War. Later, while attending college, he wrote extensively on his readjustment to civilian life. Herman “Kid” Kaufman was posted to the American embassy in Laos as a communications technician. He knew Joe Lerner there, and mentored him during his college career. Kaufman completed Lerner’s memoirs with his own recollections, and the result is Back in the World: A Composite Novel: Returning to the World Can Be So Much Harder than Leaving (Booklocker.com, 264 pp. $21.95, paper; $2.99, Kindle).

The characters in Lerner and Kaufman’s book are entirely fictional. The events may be real happenings that have been fantasized into fiction, but are not intended to portray historic events.  Readers who know some Vietnam War history may object to the authors’ twisting of the war’s timing, but this is done out of dramatic necessity.  The public’s ill treatment of Vietnam veterans is true in many cases.

The authors compare the Vietnam War with World War II by noting that the killing of evil Nazis and treacherous “Japs” was easily justified. “I grew up with John Wayne telling me so,” they write. The so-called Big War, the Real War, and the Good War was a morality melodrama, an all-star production.  As the authors put it: “Our righteous chevaliers sallied forth to vanquish the evil hoards.”

They characterize the American military in Vietnam as ten percent defective. “No matter how fucking clear you make anything to the troops, ten percent of them never get the word. They’re fucking clueless.”

They go on to state the military’s raison d’être: “Everyone who joins the service helps to kill people. It’s the purpose of the military. What does it matter who actually pulls the trigger or drops the bomb?”

When Joe, the book’s hero, arrives back home in the World, he discovers that a myth has preceded him. “You dudes got the black syph and I don’t know what all. Hey, I’m clean. I ain’t taking no chances. They’re keeping some of you guys over there on an island ‘cause they can’t cure you. Don’t tell me you believe that old sea story?”

Our hero ends up out in a drizzly street, with seagulls shrieking at him. No love for him, not even a short time.

Homecoming is bleak for Vietnam veterans. What will become of Joe Lerner?  Nothing good.

–David Willson

Vietnam Blues by D.R. Van Wye

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D.R. Van Wye’s novel, Vietnam Blues (Thackery-Sterling, 292 pp. $13.95, paper; $3.99, Kindle), takes us back to the war in Vietnam for several months in 1971. It’s a time when the fighting is winding down, not that that reduces the threat of danger for those who remain as combatants on all sides.

Van Wye was a U.S. Army infantry officer during the war, serving as a military adviser to South Vietnamese forces in the Mekong Delta. Most of his story takes place in Ben Tre Province in the Delta in southern South Vietnam. Occasional references are also made to Can Tho, Dong Tam, and My Tho.

Van Wye should be complimented for giving the points of view of many different people. He boldly uses the first chapter to illustrate the difficult, dangerous position the South Vietnamese populace found itself in in 1959. I consider this a bold move because Van Wye lets the reader know that the book is not going to be only about American characters, but will tell a larger story.

Villagers in the South were being pulled in different directions as they were regularly visited by troops backing the government and those with the revolutionary forces. While many only wished to remain neutral in those dangerous times, most were forced to take a side.

We “must be on one side or the other,” one character says. “There is no normal living.”

The first chapter is well written and should capture the interest of readers. The next chapter moves to 1971 and the arrival in-country of Capt. Henry Hoyt. He joins a group of American military advisers working to pacify a region known as “VC Island.” The story then basically alternates between chapters about Americans and their Vietnamese allies, and chapters about the the Viet Cong.

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D.R. Van Wye

I enjoyed reading this novel, especially as it built toward the end. A minor issue: At times, a character awkwardly explains terminology to a new guy. There also are a few large information dumps that almost made the novel begin to read like a textbook.

But, overall, Vietnam Blues is a well-told, interesting story.

One character pretty well sums up the American experience in the war Vietnam. “We’ll be remembered by the junk we leave behind,” he says. “That and all the sorrows. I wonder, do they think we made things better?”

The book includes a glossary, timeline, and two maps, and is a sequel to Van Wye’s 2014 novel, Saving Ben Tre.

–Bill McCloud

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

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“I wanna be an Airborne Ranger; I wanna live a life of danger.” So cadenced our Basic Training Drill Instructor all those years ago. In The Life of an Airborne Ranger: Donovan’s Skirmish (Koehler Books, 332 pp. $29.95, hardcover; $18.95, paper; $4.99, Kindle) Michael Kitz-Miller presents us with what he calls a “work of fiction” that appears to rely heavily on the lives and stories of people he came in contact with during his time in the Army. A better description of this book might be “autobiographical fiction.”

The book follows protagonist Jack Donovan’s exploits from early childhood, through a stellar and bemedaled military career, to his quick marriage and his next assignments, which apparently will be chronicled in the next two offerings of Kitz-Miller’s proposed trilogy.

I was struck with the thought that young Jack Donovan may be the re-embodiment of Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy of the popular radio serial of the 1940s, in that he’s just too good to be true. He also could be the Audie Murphy of the Vietnam War. He has Dr. Ben Casey-style healing and recuperative skills, as well as just off-the-charts expertise in all things military, including being an expert marksman with every weapon he picks up and uses.

Donovan leaves high school, goes through dead-end jobs and a truncated college effort, and then joins the Army. He finishes at the top of his classes in Basic and AIT. And he does very well in Recondo, Ranger, and Airborne schools. He sees action in the decade prior to the run-up of the Vietnam War. Then Donovan earns a chest full of medals serving in Vietnam, including the Medal of Honor for heroic, life-saving actions during an engagement that becomes known as Donovan’s Skirmish.

He also plans and executes large-scale operations anhqdefaultd develops ARVN training programs during his first tour. After recuperating from many wounds, he takes time away from the military to complete college, and while he’s at it, joins an ROTC unit so he can graduate as an officer. And he meets his future bride, the wonderful Mary Clarke.

In his Author’s Note, Kitz-Miller suggests that “If there are mistakes, inaccuracies, errors they are certainly mine.” Disregarding the book’s literary qualities, this was a tough one to work through because of misspellings, incomplete or missing punctuation, incomplete sentences, and syntactical errors.

One hopes Michael Kitz-Miller will seek better editorial help with his next literary project.

–Tom Werzyn

For Good Reason By James D. Robertson

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For Good Reason (Black Opal Books, 482 pp., $29.99, hardcover; $19.49 paper; $3.99, Kindle) is James D. Robertson’s debut novel. A Vietnam War veteran, Robertson edited two non-fiction books dealing with that war:  Doc: Platoon Medic (1992) and Steel My Soldiers’ Hearts (2002).

The plot of For Good Reason revolves around Danny Mulvaney, a Vietnam veteran who writes a best-selling memoir twenty years after coming home from the war. As a result of his notoriety, Danny gets an invitation from a mystery woman to return to Vietnam, where he had almost died. When he arrives, old nightmares return and his Danny’s past begins to unravel.

Danny had one of those mothers, common during the 1950s, who believed that everything happened for a reason. He didn’t know if that passed for wisdom or just pure poppycock, but he loved his mother, so he joined the military with the notion that bolting for Canada was wrong, and that he must do his best not to let down his family or his country.

In the course of his eventful Vietnam War tour of duty, Danny was wounded, decorated for heroism, betrayed, faced a court martial, and rescued an officer from his college town by disobeying orders and entering the enemy-infested U-Minh Forest.

This is a large, well-written book that has everything in it, including—figuratively speaking—the kitchen sink. REMF’s are castigated as “candy asses;” John Wayne and the Lone Ranger “saddle up;” and Vietnamese prostitutes have razor blades hidden in their vaginas from whence they emerge to do serious damage to American manhood.

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Robertson

VC territory is referred to as “Indian Country.” “The Green Machine” rears its ugly head, as do Bob Hope and Johnny Cash. Donut Dollies are relabeled “Biscuit Bitches,” a new one to me.  Tiger cages are used to torture captured Americans. Great expanses of the Vietnam countryside are defoliated.

The question is asked, “What are they gonna do—send me to Vietnam?”

This long book book requires a huge commitment of time and energy, but is one of the best written of the recent Vietnam War novels.

I am glad I plowed through the entire thing.

—David Willson