Fighting the Bad War by Angelo Presicci

Angelo Presicci’s Fighting the Bad War (Night Horn Books, 232 pp. $24.95, paper) is a collection of seventeen autobiographical linked short stories that take place during the war in Vietnam and the immediate post-war years. Presicci served in Vietnam with the 11th Armored Cavalry in 1966-67. His writing style kept my interest as I went from one story to another.

In the first story, “The Tunnel,” we witness “a few men in one of those futile military chores like shifting dirt.” One guy likes to show off Polaroid pictures of “rotting, bloated bodies.” Two men, much to their dismay, are told to check out a tunnel.

The NCO giving the order says, “Take my word, it’s gonna be OK down there.” When asked how he knows that, he replies, “I don’t goddamn hafta to know. My job is giving orders.” In the tunnel the men encounter “tropical roaches the size of Arizona.”

In “Countdown” we read of a man who enlisted with the hope of avoiding combat. He is pleased to be given a job working on generators until he is told, “If you can take a generator apart and reassemble the damn thing, why not a machine gun?”

“All the Undecorated Heroes” features a pet monkey and a commanding officer who sees the war only as “dots and coordinates on maps and grids.” He says things like, “Charlie’s out there. Today’s our lucky day.” No surprise that talk of fragging inevitably comes up.

“Graveside Etiquette” consists almost entirely of Catch-22-type dialogue.

In my favorite story, “A Day in the Life of Sen Wah,” focuses on an 18-year-old Vietnamese girl in Xuan Loc. “She backed away out of the crowd and watched the Americans, some of them handsome and rugged, and bigger than their Vietnamese counterparts,” Presicci writes. “Wasn’t that what made them feel superior?”

Sen Wah is unsure about her father’s loyalties as she helps him serve water buffalo burgers to the Americans. We learn she wanted to teach, but U.S. bombs destroyed her school, killing some of the children in the process. “We were once normal innocent students,” she says, “and now we are normal with being at war.”

That story is followed by my second favorite, “Poker Night,” in which a poker game ends up providing more action than anyone anticipated.

Angelo Pressici

The stories in the second half of the book take place in the U.S. between the years of 1970 and 1986. They include some of the characters in the first group of stories and involve flashbacks, troubled attempts to return to school, the guilt of a man who avoided service, and the effects of the war on those who remained home.

This book can be read as if it’s a novel divided into two parts. It’s to Angelo Pressici’s great credit that both halves are equally well done. I hope to read for more stories from him.

–Bill McCloud

A Legacy of Chains and Other Stories by Philip Kraske

Anguish. There is no better word to describe the emotion inspired by the title piece in Philip Kraske’s A Legacy of Chains and Other Stories (Encompass Editions, 224 pp. $12.50, paper; $4.99, Kindle). In each of his stories Kraske deftly creates a sense of place and time, as well as a unique character. Far more than a backdrop, the context of each story is a living presence within the tale.

The most powerful one is the title story. A work of plausible fiction, “A Legacy of Chains” is set in a near-future America sliding into civil war. With domestic terrorism rampant and vast regions of the country breaking away, a few friends gather for respite from it all.

After dinner, the protagonist reflects on an experience a few years earlier when he suddenly received evidence that American prisoners of war were being held in Vietnam, nearly forty years after the war’s end. Then a State Department officer in Spain learns of a group of American refugees, all men in their seventies, in a town along the Straits of Gibraltar. Within hours he is standing face to face with the group and speaking with their leader, a U.S. Army surgeon captured by the North Vietnamese in 1965.

Staggered that these men are alive decades after they were reported missing, Klippen is further shocked to learn that the American government is determined to kill the men and those who helped them escape from Vietnam. As Klippen hurries to help, a third blow hits when he realizes that Milner has an agenda of his own.

The story “Pirates” also deserves attention for its haunting account of a woman’s life after escaping Vietnam in the 1980s to settle in Minneapolis with her family. Weary after years of enduring fraud, discrimination, and worse, she struggles with the consequences of a burglary at her flower stall in the city center. This unusual Christmas tale takes a surprise turn when the thieves return for second visit.

Philip Kraske

Highly effective overall, the book is occasionally uneven. Now and then characters recount what others have said and leave the reader uncertain about who is actually speaking. Certain words are deliberately misspelled to underline a character’s accent, stupidity, or both. These are minor points, though.

Kraske, who has lived and taught English in Spain since the 1980s and did not serve in the military, has created otherwise exceptional stories and some great writing, especially his detailed descriptions of the beauty of Spain, a country he clearly loves.

Lean and compelling, unsettling and inspiring, A Legacy of Chains and Other Stories is worth the read.

Kraske’s website is philipkraske.com

–Mike McLaughlin

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

The Hardest Part by Bruce I. McDaniel

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Bruce McDaniel enlisted in the Army in September 1967 and spent a year as a medic with the 198th Light Infantry Brigade in Vietnam. He wrote about that experience in a 2016 memoir, Walk Through the Valley: The Spiritual Journey of a Vietnam War Medic, which we reviewed on these pages.

In  Homecoming Stories from the Vietnam War (Lulu.com, 64 pp., $8, paper) McDaniel uses those experiences to create a group of short stories that explore his feelings about the challenges of returning to America after his tour of duty. He did not anticipate the troubles he would encounter.

McDaniel’s service as a medic saving lives in the Vietnam War did not make him popular in the civilian world when he returned home.  Some of the stories he uses to explore what it is like to be back deal with a Vietnam veteran on leave who chooses to travel in his uniform because of the advantages he thought that would give him as a traveler.

The story I appreciated most was about a veteran who enrolls in college with his war wound dogging him, but not a wound that is readily identifiable. He lacks one eye, which was damaged by a tiny piece of shrapnel. He’s actually told by a fellow student that it served him right for being in Vietnam.

Nobody has told me that about my Agent Orange-connected disability, but the world has changed a lot since 1968. The story made me wonder, though, if the occasional person might have that thought. It wouldn’t surprise me.

These stories frequently provoked me to fits of thinking, which is what one hopes for from good fiction. There are far fewer than seventy-five pages is this little book, but it packs a punch.

In fact, it packs several punches, and I highly recommend it to all veterans. I believe the stories would be especially helpful to read and discussed by a group of veterans dealing with stubborn, painful issues that have refused to fly away into the clouds.

I appreciate that Bruce McDaniel used his memories and imagination to produce these powerful stories.

—David Willson

How Stevie Nearly Lost the War by Marc Levy

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Marc Levy served as a medic in the 1st Cavalry Division in Vietnam and Cambodia in 1970. How Stevie Nearly Lost the War and other Postwar Stories (Winter Street Press, 154 pp. $12, paper; $2.99, Kindle) is a small book of powerful short stories and essays that hits like a hand grenade ignited in a closet full of secrets.

Full disclosure: I was a stenographer in Vietnam, so I don’t really know exactly what happened out in the field. Imagining that grenade blast is as close as I wish to get to it.

The special power of language is immediately apparent in the book’s first two stories in which Marc Levy pulls no punches. These stories, in fact, are a punch in the gut.

Here, for example, are a few lines from the beginning of “The Thing They Will Always Carry”:

VA Shrink:  Were you in Vietnam?

Vietnam Vet:  Yes.

VA Shrink:  When were you there?

Vietnam Vet:  Last night.

Yes. He was there last night. I totally get that. I was a steno in Vietnam, and when I napped briefly this afternoon, I was back there. I was not typing or taking shorthand. I was interviewing a black guy in Long Binh Jail. Did I ever do that? Yes. But it was much scarier in my dream than it had been in real life—if that is what my tour of duty in Vietnam was.

In his book Levy describes a “safe rear job” in his story “Meeting the New Lieutenant.”  He writes of “clean clothes, showers, real beds, reinforced bunkers, fresh food.” All of that is true. Levy doesn’t mention that the water we showered with was saturated with Agent Orange. Just a small thing to overlook, but there it is.

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Marc Levy in Vietnam

Marc Levy’s great talent is his ability to reach the reader at a personal, intimate level with his poetic whispers and shouts. We are lucky he has chosen to take the time to communicate with us.

His book speaks to all who read it. Please do so.

You owe it to yourself and to your loved ones.

—David Willson

The author’s website is medicinthegreentime.com

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

All Would Be Heroes by Jim Maher

 

 

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Jim Maher is a U. S. Navy veteran who served for a few months in Da Nang during the Vietnam War. His book, All Would be Heroes (Tate, 146 pp., $12.99, paper; $10.99, e book ), we’re told, “is a work of his mind, dreams, and what if’s, plus excerpts from stories he heard.”  Maher also wrote a book called Leaders, Losers and Lessons.

This small book is presented as a series of short stories, each of which features a main character who seems to be disconnected from the main character in the other stories. Then they link up near the end of this book in action and theme.

We first meet Tom, a whining, complaining coward who never shuts up. He’s trained as an Army postal clerk and stationed near Da Nang.

Next we meet Ned, who joined ROTC and wants to be a wealthy broker when he grows up. He was trained for Naval Intelligence and stationed near Phu Bai. He did courier duty, and is shot down with a satchel full of secret documents, which he carefully hides. Then we meet Ben, a hospital corpsman in Da Nang  assigned to a Seabees unit.

Throughout the book the author does not waste false respect for the  enemy. One chapter is entitled “Viet Cong Scum.” Agent Orange is acknowledged and the VA is criticized for failing to help veterans with  PTSD. The book has a frequent sardonic edge. Maher writes, for instance that the mother of a fallen soldier is “given his medals in a beautiful wooden case.”

In the end, more medals are handed out and whiners show some heroism. Tom, the malingerer, “was now popular in his hometown because of his heroics in Vietnam, so he didn’t have a problem getting dates and spending a lot of time in bars,” Maher writes. “People enjoyed buying him drinks and sharing their pot with him. He was getting drunk and high on a nightly basis, and life for Tom was good.”

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Jim Maher

After getting drunk and high one night, Tom tries to cross some railroad tracks. He “failed to see the freight train backing slowly. The train’s wheel crushed him, killing Tom instantly.”  Just desserts, I say. No happy endings.

I highly recommend this book to overly optimistic high school seniors who think that being an American hero is all roses.

—David Willson

The Jake Fischer Stories by Stewart Bird

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Stewart Bird, the author of The Jake Fischer Stories (Dog Ear Publishing, 176 pp., $12.97, paper; $9.99, Kindle) is a novelist (Murder at the Yeshiva), a TV documentary writer/producer (The Wobblies, Coming Home, et al.), and a member of Vietnam Veterans of America.  I suspect his military history is similar to that of the stories’ protagonist, Jack Fischer.

Bird has produced a baker’s dozen of short stories of varying lengths with the protagonist Jake Fischer, as the title indicates.  Jake is drafted into the Army and ends up as a psychiatric social worker at the Michigan Army Hospital during the Vietnam War.

Some of the titles of the stories are:  “Basic,” “The  War at Home,” “Coming Home,” and “Chicago 68.” The stories reflect the titles. All are interesting and well-written. “Basic” takes place in the fall of 1965 at Fort Hamilton, Brooklyn and then moves to Fort Dix in New Jersey. “They took everyone with a heartbeat,” Bird writes.

The story “War at Home” is mostly about drugs. Bird refers to Robert S. MacNamara as “the systems analyst who planned and ran the Vietnam War:  The face of death.” He certainly captures my feelings about the man.

The reader gets references to LBJ and how many kid he killed today, as well as to Scarface, Full Metal Jacket, Ron Kovic, Bob Dylan, Catch-22, and President Nixon looking like a cattle rustler in a John Ford Western. There is a lot of wit and some humor in these serious literary stories. I enjoyed all of them.

I highly recommend this collection of short stories to anyone who wishes to read finely written short fiction about the Vietnam War era.

The author’s website is www.stewartbird.net/the_jake_fischer_stories_125234.htmu

—David Willson

Eating With Veterans by Michael Lund

Michael Lund served in the U. S. Army as a correspondent in Vietnam, 1970-71. He is the author of a memoir, Route 66 to Vietnam: A Draftee’s Story, and a book of short stories, How Not to Tell a War Story.  Lund’s latest book is Eating With Veterans (BeachHouse Books, 268 pp., $16.95, paper; $3.99, Kindle), a book of twenty serious short stories.

Lundh, a life member of Vietnam Veterans of America, holds a PhD in literature from Emory University, so I expected his stories to be literate and well-written. I was not disappointed.

Most of the characters in these fine stories are aging veterans, mostly of the Vietnam War. Often these veterans and their companions are eating, drinking, and talking. Occasionally a story will seem like a deliberate homage to Raymond Carver, for instance “The Soy Bean Field.”  I intend this as the highest of compliments.

Most of the stories communicate an atmosphere of social unease. Many take place, at least in part, in South Vietnam, and give us insights into the lives of soldiers who served there in communications. Some of the titles are: “The Rules of Engagement,” “Drugs Away,” “Blood Drive,” “The Death of Short-timer Sam,” and “Counterinsurgency. ”

Some of the stories that have non-military sounding titles are the ones that contain the most overt military scenes, for instance Lund’s Tet Offensive story, “Magician.”  We get a reference in that story to the school at Fort Benjamin Harrison, where the correspondent was trained—and where I was trained as a stenographer. I am always pleased when I read a book that deals with what the 80 to 90 percent of us did in Vietnam: not take part in combat. This is one of the best books yet that deals seriously with that aspect of our war.

Lund uses the phrase “rear echelon troops,” and the derogatory term “REMF” does not appear. It’s a term, by the way, that I never heard in Vietnam, but trip over endlessly in Vietnam War combat books, both novels and memoirs.

Lund does deal with some war-horse items such as Agent Orange, and he does have a story that mentions the oft-related tale of returning soldiers being spat upon and called baby killers. But he also includes  “Hadrian’s Wall,”  a rare story dealing with the Coast Guard’s role in the Vietnam War. Jimi Hendrix, one of my favorite Vietnam War era veterans, gets more than a mention—he gets an entire story, “Look Alike.”

Michael Lund

In “Camp Hoover” Lund captures an elusive feeling that I have tried to put into words, but failed to do so: how the past and the present can get intertwined and confused. It’s a great story and the saddest one in the book—perhaps one of the saddest stories I’ve ever read.

I highly recommend the stories in this book to all those drawn to serious writing about the Vietnam War and to seekers after the whole story—not just a narrow story told over and over again.

—David Willson

Friendly Casualties by Tom Glenn

Friendly Casualties: A Novel in Stories (Glenn Publishing, 171 pp., $3.95, Kindle), author Tom Glenn says, is the result of “the many years I spent in Vietnam during the war. Nearly all the characters are based on people I knew, many of them killed by the Vietnamese communists.”

Glenn tells us nothing about what he did in Vietnam, so I did some digging. I found out that he has published a novel called No-Accounts, and that he writes reviews for the on-line Washington Independent Review of Books. His bio on the review website says:

“Tom Glenn has worked as an undercover agent, a musician, a linguist (seven languages), a cryptologist, a government executive, a caregiver for the dying and always a writer. Many of his prize-winning stories came from the 13 years he shuttled between the U. S. and Vietnam on covert signals intelligence assignments before being rescued under fire when Saigon fell.”

The first section of Friendly Casualties contains some bitter father stories, including one about a divorced dad alienated from his son. It is set in April 1976. There is high drama in the story, and a kind word for the VA; to wit: “The VA’s counseling had helped.” On the other hand, the conclusion indicates that the counseling had not helped much.

The second part of this book is composed of linked stories with characters that are well-developed and with whom the reader becomes sympathetic.  The three main characters are in-country for most of this section. The author brings alive the environment of the U. S. Embassy in Saigon where much of the story takes place. Maggie, an analyst, is responsible for the Central Highlands in II Corps. The machinations between Maggie, her boss, and the ambassador resonate with authenticity.

Glenn does an equally good job with the other two main characters in this section: Captain Rick Diaz, an adviser with the ARVN, and Thiep, an officer in the ARVN 29th Battalion. Many good things are said about Thiep, who becomes like a brother to Diaz. There also are good things said about the ARVN troops, which was refreshing.

Tom Glenn

Maggie is an excellent analyst. She forecasts the 1968 Tet Offensive, but no one will listen to her. As a result, many die. The dead include Rick and Thiep.

Rick’s thoughts on combat make this not the tragedy it seems.  “Combat,” Glenn writes. “Rick pitied the man who had never known the perfect moment when men fought each other to the death.”

This is a worthy collection and I recommend it. There were, however, some clinkers in it—at least to these ears. One was the word “nug,” which I’d never encountered. We are told that a nug is a new girt. Then we are told that a girt is a GI Rat Bastard. Where did this stuff come from?

I also was troubled by a reference to a Vietnam War era mess kit containing metal plates. I must have missed this, too. Anyone who can enlighten me about this stuff, please contact me.

The author’s website is http://friendly-casualties.org

—David Willson