The American War in Viet Nam by Susan Lyn Eastman

The author of The American War in Viet Nam: Cultural Memories at the Turn of the Century (University of Tennessee Press, 238 pp., $39.95), Susan Lyn Eastman, is not a Vietnam War veteran, nor any other kind of military veteran. She was raised in a small town in New Hampshire that was off the grid, attended a two-room school house, and her father is a Vietnam War veteran. Eastman is particularly interested in the treatment of veterans following the war. I suspect that relates to her father’s decision to get far away from modern post-war America.

In her book, Eastman, an English professor at Dalton State College in Georgia, examines a wide range of cultural productions. She discusses war memorials, poetry, and cinematic and fictional narratives. Eastman begins with a short Preface in which she recounts reading thirty names at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and giving in to tears when she did so. She says that the memorial does not account for the deaths of many others caused by the war, certainly not the more than one million Vietnamese dead.

Most interesting to me was Chapter 7, “Unfinished Remembrance: Beyond the United States and Vietnam—Jessica Hagedorn’s Dream Jungle and Frances Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now Redux.” I’d read a couple of Hagedorn’s books but not this one. I ordered the book, but decided to plod forward with this review.

The most useful aspect of this fine book was that it motivated me to do more reading about the Vietnam War. I was arrogant enough to imagine that I’d not missed the paramount books written about the war. So this book was a wake-up call for me.

The few black-and-white photos in the book were useful to the extent that they helped with the analysis of Vietnam War and veterans memorials. But they are muddy and not celebratory in any way, just useful to scholarly purposes.

Lyn Susan Eastman

The bibliography and the index are excellent. I spent much time pouring over them and then going to the references to see what I’d missed.  A book like this without an index and a bibliography is worse than useless, as all of us who have grappled with such messes will attest.

The author’s honesty about being the daughter of a Vietnam War veteran and how this affected her research and her point of view drove the book’s orientation and its power. Thanks to Susan Lyn Eastman for using her own life story to produce a useful and powerful interdisciplinary study that probes deeply where other books have only gone lightly.

–David Willson

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The Lotus and the Storm by Lan Cao

Lan Cao is a professor at the Dale Fowler School of Law at Chapman University and the author of the novel Monkey Bridge. Robert Olen Butler calls her “one of our finest American writers,” saying that her new book, The Lotus and the Storm (Viking, 400 pp., $27.95) is a “brilliant novel that illuminates the human condition shared by us all.”

That is what we should ask from a serious novel—and this is a serious novel. I realized that when I read the quote from T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land on the page after the dedication, which begins “Who is the third who walks always beside you?”

Much of the book is set in 2006 in the United States, and deals with how life is for Vietnamese who immigrated here to start new lives after the war. This present-day narrative is set off with large sections set in Saigon in the 1960s.

The author does a superb job summoning up Cholon of the 1966-1967 era. I recognize it and feel nostalgic for the beauty of those narrow, clogged streets that seemed to go nowhere.

The two primary narrators, Minh and Mai, father and daughter, give us much to think about. When Minh says, “And the Americans entered our story not fully knowing what awaited them,” he says a mouthful.

This is typical of the understatement in this fine novel. Most Americans, in fact, didn’t even know that the French had been there, let alone they’d been defeated at Dien Bien Phu. What’s more, they would not have cared if they had been told, as evidenced by the fact that I don’t know how many times I got asked why the Vietnamese spoke French but not much English.

Mai and her older sister have a dear friend, James Baker, a young American sergeant attached to the MP Compound just down the street from where they live in Cholon. He is an enigmatic character who I never figured out, although he is as far from an Ugly American as you can get.  He is golden and pure and teaches the girls American songs and English.  He acts as an English tutor to Mai.

Among the most powerful sections of the book deal are those that deal with Mai and her family home coming under attack by the VC during the 1968 Tet Offensive, James dying nearby, and Mai blaming herself for not saving him, and the section in which Mai goes to the Wall in Washington with her father and makes a rubbing of James Baker’s name. Sad stuff.

Saigon, 1966

The whole book is sad, even though it is filled with joyful descriptions of great meals of delicious Vietnamese food. As soon as possible I will make a pilgrimage to my favorite Vietnamese restaurant, Fortune Noodle House, and order a big bowl of pho with beef brisket. I once ate a dish of frogs legs in garlic sauce, and it brought me back to the time I had consumed such a dish in a small restaurant in Saigon.Dealing with all the tiny sharp bones reminded me of why it has been over forty years since I ordered that dish.

The ubiquitous Vietnamese restaurants in King County, Washington, demonstrate that this novel of the Vietnamese diaspora is totally valid. We as a country are much enriched by the Vietnamese presence. The question remains: Was the war worth it?

This fine novel is filled with tiny sharp bones, too—many small, painful memories that hurt and remind us of how we mishandled the war and how the Vietnamese on both sides suffered, and that there is no wall large enough to memorialize all the deaths.

Read The Lotus and the Storm if you wish to encounter—and perhaps better understand—the trauma and suffering of the Vietnamese during and after that long and bitter war. The main character, Minh, was an ARVN general, and his point of view is perfectly presented.

I’d like all American Vietnam veterans who castigate ARVN soldiers to read this book and try to eradicate their hatred of the ARVN soldiers and try to understand the position they were in, and how totally the United States had been the architects of that situation.

I highly recommend that all Vietnam veterans buy and read this fine book.  Try it; you might learn something.

—David Willson

Our Sons, Our Heroes by Linda Jenkin Costanzo

Gold Star Mothers are the mothers whose sons (or daughters) didn’t come home from war. Their Vietnam War stories are documented in an oral history from Linda Jenkin Constanzo, Our Sons, Our Heroes: Memories Shared by America’s Gold Star Mothers from the Vietnam War (Sonrisa Press, 216 pp., $14.95, paper).

The organization began in 1928, for mothers who’d lost sons in World War I. It grew in numbers after the war, and was instrumental in attaining a small pension for surviving mothers. Gold Star Mothers offered support for the grieving, but also was devoted to services such as volunteer work in veterans hospitals.

According to Ann Biber, a former national president, the organization has dwindled since World War II, and is now quite small. But you do not have to belong to a formal organization to be a Gold Star Mother, and Constanzo has gathered the testimony of sixteen women, members and non-members alike, filling a small gap in the ongoing story of the legacy of the Vietnam War. In each account she first tells the story of the soldier or Marine who perished, then recounts how his mother carried on with life.

Every story is touching. Shirley Popoff, mother of Marine Corporal Curtis Crawford, relates how, shortly after her son’s death, she was harassed by an antiwar activist. She then became obsessed with grief, to the point that she turned into a crank at work, and was referred to counseling. Finally, she channeled her grief into constructive activities with the national organization, turning an ugly, bewildering experience into something positive.

The fullest entry may be Virginia Dabonka’s, which includes several letters from her son, PFC John Dabonka. He was an intelligent young man with some sweeping observations about the war, and an engaging writing style. His mother is similarly intelligent, and wise. But all of these accounts, as they try to make sense of senseless loss, also are about love.

Costanzo asked each contributor what she would say to her son if she could. Lance Corporal Stephen Boryszewski’s mother, Theresa, offers words that could speak for every Gold Star Mother:

“He was such a good boy. If I could tell him something, I would tell him, ‘Stephen, you are such a hero who sacrificed your life for the people of Vietnam, for your country, and for freedom. Stephen, I love you and wish you could be here. Love, Mom.’”

Mothers—or fathers, for that matter—are not supposed to outlive their children. For those facing lifelong grief over the loss of a son or daughter in war, Costanzo’s book offers a path out of despair.

—John Mort

Divine Fate by Audrey M. Insoft

Audrey M. Insoft lives with her husband and son in Westchester County, New York.  There’s no information in her book, Divine Fate (Dog Ear, 304 pp., $19.95, paper), on her military experience, but she does tell us: “I met Sandy and Paul Pinkerton in September of 2000 when they facilitated the adoption of my son Alexander.”  Insoft goes on to tell the reader that her adoption of Alexander involved a trip to Vietnam. 

The true story that Insoft tells in this book is the result of hundreds of hours of interviews with the Pinkertons. “This is neither a war book nor an adoption book,” the author writes. But I can see where a reader might think it is both. 

Insoft uses the first eighty pages or so to give us the back stories of both Paul and Sandy Pinkerton. We learn quite a bit about Paul’s Vietnam War tour of duty. He was in the 1st Infantry Brigade, 5th Infantry Division (Mechanized.)  His unit was Headquarters Company, of the 1st Infantry Battalion, 61st Infantry (Mechanized.)  He was a member of a 4.2 mortar platoon, and was stationed in an area called Leatherneck Square. That area included Con Thien, “a fire support base located so close to the Demilitarized Zone… that on a clear day you could see the North Vietnamese flag flapping in the breeze.” 

Paul Pinkerton was a Forward Observer (FO), which entailed calling in fire missions, providing the coordinates so that massive firepower could be brought to bear on the enemy.  Keep in mind that it was General William Westmoreland who promised that it would be massive firepower that would win the American war in Vietnam. Pinkerton’s job required him to carry the AN/PRC radio.
To me, the description of Paul Pinkerton’s tour of duty in Vietnam is the most powerful part of the book. The author’s interviews did a great job of getting the details.  Insoft’s writing is excellent and clear, but very dense and necessitates careful reading. The reasons that Pinkerton was compelled to adopt a Vietnamese child, and also felt the need to become an adoption facilitator, are spelled out in these pages. They are related to his reasons for his initial return to Vietnam to search for POW’s and MIA’s. This search and the adoption of the child Isaiah partially relieved Paul of the sins he’d committed during his war, sins he’d secretly believed he could never be absolved of.

Insoft also explores in detail the reasons for Sandy Pinkerton’s decision to go to Vietnam with her husband. Part of the reason for her going to Vietnam was that she suspected he had another family hidden away there. She discovered that he did not.

Insoft introduces the reader to Vietnam veterans who have such whacky ideas that I shook my head in disbelief.  One who planned to accompany Paul to Vietnam on one of the early trips was convinced that POWs were being held in a cave in downtown Danang and that he and other veterans could go in there with automatic weapons and liberate them.

Late in the book, an issue close to my heart arises. Paul Pinkerton is diagnosed with prostate cancer, which he is convinced (as am I) is due to his exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam. The man is still alive at the end of this book. No evidence is apparent that he sought care from the VA for his cancer. The Pinkertons moved to Florida so Paul could receive cancer treatment at the Dattoli Cancer Center.

I recommend this book to those who wish to read about the troubles and challenges facing those compelled to adopt Vietnamese children in the earlier days, including eye-opening details of how unhelpful some American officials could choose to be. Our tax dollars pay them, but it is made clear that this fact did not translate always to an effort to do the right thing for hard-working, sincere Americans desperately striving to right old wrongs.

I couldn’t help but think that the American official (called Mark in the book) was acting (or not acting) out of pure spitefulness, because America had lost our war with Vietnam.

The author’s website is audreyminsoft.com

—David Willson