The Vietnam War in Popular Culture, Vols. I & II, edited by Ron Milam

vietnamwarpopularculture

Ron Milam, a Texas Tech University history professor who served in the Vietnam War and has written widely about it, has done an excellent job putting together the two-volume The Vietnam War in Popular Culture: The Influence of America’s Most Controversial War on Everyday Life (ABC-CLIO/Praeger, 772 pp., $164), a valuable collection of wide-ranging essays by more than three dozen contributors.

The first volume’s entries focus on aspects of popular culture (primarily movies, music, television shows, magazines and newspapers, and fiction and nonfiction literature) that hit the scene during the war. The second volume looks at the same areas in the years since the war ended in 1975. Nearly all the essays are from university professors; more than a few teach at Texas Tech. The noted Vietnam War historian George Herring contributes an excellent introduction.

Highlights in Volume I include Beverly Tomek’s hard-hitting essay, “‘Hanoi Jane’ and the Myth of Betrayal: The Cultural War on the Home Front,” and Roger Landes’ “Barry Sadler and ‘The Ballad of the Green Berets.'” As the author of the first biography of Barry Sadler (Ballad of the Green Beret: The Life and Wars of Staff Sgt. Barry Sadler), I am pleased to report that Landes—a music professor at Texas Tech who teaches the history of rock and roll—presents an excellent, in-depth look at Sadler’s song, which sold nine million copies and was the No. 1 single of the year in 1966. He used the best sources and his conclusions about why the song went viral twenty-five years before the birth of Internet are right on the money.

The essay that stood out for me in the second volume is Lindy Poling’s insightful (and cleverly titled) “Encouraging Students to Think Outside the ‘Box Office,'” which reports on a survey of students who took her innovative one-semester elective class, “Lessons of Vietnam.” Poling created that course and taught it from 1997-2011 at Millbrook High School in Raleigh, North Carolina.

 

r-1472846-1266535399-jpegIn her essay, Poling reports on what her former students told her about their knowledge of the war before taking the class and how what they learned (from studying a wide variety of perspectives on the war, hearing from Vietnam War veterans, and visiting The Wall in Washington, D.C.) changed their perceptions of the war and those who took part in it.

Poling found that 55 percent of her students “entered the course with Hollywood film and popular media-based preconceptions” of the war and its veterans; 25 percent had learned about the war mainly from their parents or other adults; and the rest knew “very little” about the war.

After immersing themselves in learning about the war in her class, Poling found that many of them were motivated “to personally investigate and gain a better understanding of what was happening during the Vietnam era, both at home and abroad. In addition, these students come to sincerely appreciate the tremendous sacrifice of our veterans, as well as those who fought for South Vietnam.”

What’s more, she writes, most of her former students no longer rely on Hollywood movies for their understanding of the Vietnam War.

That good news led Poling to her conclusion: “Yes, they truly have learned to think outside the box office!”

—Marc Leepson

 

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

Tales from the Teamhouse, Vol. III by Jim Kelley

Tales from the Teamhouse Vol. III (Old Mountain Press, 263 pp., $4.99, Kindle) is third collection of stories edited by Jim Kelley and written by members of the Special Forces, all of whom also are members of the Special Forces list. All of contributors are active duty or retired. Some are departed.

The book is arranged in subject sections and contains stories, humor pieces, and poetry. The stories range in size from a tiny anecdote to a long short story. They range also in quality. Some are sketchy at best, written by soldiers who had stories to tell but little notion of how to tell them. Others are superb tales that hold a reader’s attention and make him want more.

One of the better stories is “Big Boys” by Command U.S. Air Force SMAJ William E. Edge (RIP). It’s an account from his time in the Korean War with the First Cavalry Division. It deals with holding back the North Korean Army along the Naktong River.

Another fine story, “Pepsi From the Sky,” written by Rolf R. Kreuscher, deals with the evacuation of a village of about 1,000 souls in South Vietnam. This story embodies virtually all the themes and tragedies that were in place in the Vietnam War.

“Tet ’68″ by John Blevins also is an excellent piece. Blevins was sent to Saigon during Tet to get supplies for his team, and got stuck in Can Tho.

“Baby Killer!” by Reg Manning tells a funny story of how Manning dealt with a guy who made the mistake of hollering “baby killer” at him while riding a bike. “I never got spat upon, but I did get called a baby killer once,” he writes. I think that what happened to that ill-advised fellow should have happened to more of his ilk.

“Attack on the Camp” by Rudy Cooper (from his autobiography, Seed of Endurance) made me want to read his entire book. It was an exciting recounting of an attack, very well written, and emboding the values of the Special Forces.

“Barry Sadler in Panama” by Bill Coombs is a story about the former Green Beret on stage in 1965. Staff Sergeant Barry Sadler (above) was his billing and he made the point that he could not be paid “or accept any money for his appearances” while in uniform. I wish Barry Sadler had made it to one of the places I was stationed in 1966-67. We had to settle for Hank Snow.

The stories use language and themes that are often encountered in Vietnam War literature: Get the hell outta Dodge, cowardly ARVNs, the odious ham and lima beans, and so on. I encountered the notion that we were doing fine in Vietnam, and that we gave up fighting due to “a bunch of weak-dicked politicians who represented us.” There is a great glossary in the back of the book, more useful than most.

This book will please any aficionado of the Special Forces. I have not seen or read  Volumes I or II, but I’m sure those tales are as good or better than the bunch selected for this book.

—David Willson

Red, White, & True by Tracy Crow

Red, White, and True: Stories from Veterans and Families, World War II to Present (Potomac Books, 288 pp., $21.95, paper), edited by Tracy Crow, is an anthology of nonfiction. Crow is a former Marine Corps officer and the author of Eyes Right: Confessions from a Woman Marine. She served in the Marines for ten years.

Many of these thirty-two true stories deal with how lives have been affected by military service, either the service members or those close to them. The most powerful—and also most sad—are the stories that deal with the Vietnam War. That includes “The Thirty-Day Project,” in which Chrystal Presley tries to understand her father’s Vietnam War experiences. Those experiences traumatized her childhood and left her barely able to function.

Her father was a type very familiar to many members of the Vietnam Generation. In fact, I had a father similar to Presley’s. But my father had never been to Vietnam. He was a World War II Marine veteran of Iwo Jima.  I expected from the title that the story would progress through thirty days of conversation with her father. But no conversation happened. Presley made one effort and that was that.

Tracy Crow

Not all the stories in this large collection deal with the Vietnam War, but a surprising number do relate to America’s most controversial overseas conflict.  Ronald Jackson, Tracy Kidder, Stephen Wilson—all are Vietnam veterans with worthy stories to tell.

Children of Vietnam veterans also speak out. In addition to Chrystal Presley, there also is Lorrie Lykins with “Panel 30W, Row 15,” and Leah Hampton, with “Above and Beyond.” Read these stories and you may weep, as I did.

These fine stories remind us of the residual cost of America’s wars. They do so in a relentless and involving way.

In a country made by war, there’s nothing special in having a jumpy, sometimes violent father, one who wants his children to be neither seen nor heard. No loud noises permitted, not unless you want to court disaster. Lots of fathers of this sort figure in these stories—men who were called to war and who did their duty to this fine country, and who did not come back as the men they left. Nor did they return to the country as it was when they departed.

Most of this is sad stuff. Did I read a story in this anthology that made me happy, made me laugh? Not that I recollect. Still, I highly recommend this collection for libraries—especially young adult libraries—and as a gift to any young person who is hot to join up and go off to war. These stories might cause him or her to reconsider.

—David Willson

The World’s Greatest Military Investigator’s Ultimate Book of War Stories by Michael J Oszman

Michael J Oszman’s The World’s Greatest Military Investigators Ultimate Book of War Stories (CreateSpace, 60 pp., $10, paper) is a collection of fiction, rumors, war stories comments, dim memories, and a little truth. Oszman dedicates his book to his brother Chester and a friend named Eddy, both of whom died in 1994. I believe that they would hope—as I do—that is the first of many such writings.

The author received a degree in criminal justice and went to work for an agency of the government. He never reveals which agency because he says that if he did, he would have to kill the reader.

Oszman opens with an explanation of a rule that was extremely difficult for most military people to understand: the procedure by which troops had to receive permission to fire on the enemy. Perhaps he placed this entry at the beginning of the book because it sets the surrealistic tone of his reporting.

The book continues with dozens of brief descriptions of incidents Oszman investigated. Some are comedic and some disastrous. The author closes each incident with a bit of his own wisdom or laugh line.

The case of an exploding latrine tells how a soldier was ordered to burn material but no one told him to first remove the drums from the latrines. So he poured two gallons of gasoline into the stuff and threw in a flaming rag. As a result, a lieutenant was seriously burned.

In another incident, one trooper, suspecting that an inspection was imminent, passed around a bottle of Jack Daniels. When it was half empty, he pissed into the bottle before an officer confiscated it. The reader can only imagine the look on the officer’s face when he took a swig.

Oszman describes another incident in which the main communication lines to Air Force command were cut. Since the lines had been buried and there was no map to locate them, it was assumed that the enemy had sabotaged them. Panic ensued. In the author’s special note he explains that the wires had been accidentally severed by a backhoe.

Michael J Oszman

Oszman follows the first twenty investigative reports with a shift to military life in Korea. He tells of a Korean farmer who pick-axed a pipeline of jet fuel thinking that the line was carrying water. In another fuel incident, a Korean houseboy filled barracks heaters with gasoline. After he learned about the color coding of fuel tanks, the houseboy was observed tasting the fuel cans to make sure he had the right stuff.

The author opens one chapter with a comment about the horrors of Agent Orange. Large numbers of veterans, including Oszman’s brother Chester, suffered and died from the being exposed to that toxic herbicide.

In a humorous episode, a large flight of helicopters passed over a group of officers. Objects began falling from the helicopters. The objects were condoms filled with urine.  One landed on a major’s head. Oszman was ordered to find out who perpetrated that foul deed.

He closes this short book with a few observations about the conundrum called the Vietnam War, and ends with the statement, “but that is another story.” We hope he shares that story with us.

—Joseph Reitz