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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Long Journeys Home by Michael D. Gambone

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Michael D. Gambone proposes that Americans should raise the status of Korean and Vietnam War veterans to the legendary height of those who fought in World War II. He makes that case in his latest book, Long Journeys Home: American Veterans of World War II, Korea, & Vietnam (Texas A&M University, 275 pp. $45.00, hardcover; $45.00, Kindle).

Gambone examines those who played a role in the three wars from multiple angles: class, race, gender, age, education, and region. Much of what he says is not new, but Gambone uses this information—such as how draftees were selected, the composition of forces, and post-war economic trends—to make his points persuasively.

He delves into the post-war lives of the three groups of veterans to show that Vietnam War veterans were not monsters as identified by many in Hollywood and the news media during that era. He also makes a case for boosting public appreciation for veterans of the so-called “forgotten war” in Korea.

 

Gambone, a history professor at Kutztown University, points out that many  novels, television shows, and movies laid the groundwork for countless authors, journalists, and film directors to build World War II veterans into the “Greatest Generation,” which won a “good war.” He notes, though, that those troops did not fight any harder, nor did not die in greater agony, than other combatants did throughout modern history. Nevertheless, the idea that World War II warriors saved the entire world from dictatorship placed a halo effect on them.

The public disliked and basically ignored the Korea War because it too soon renewed the fight against the Asian hordes, he suggests. In other words, public emotions overrode facts concerning combat to the detriment of American veterans from the wars in Vietnam and Korea.

Gambone strives to separate myth from fact and thereby reduce the impact of the nature of a war on the public’s perception of the value of its veterans. He contends that “armies cannot escape the societies from which they are drawn,” but he asks the public to accept veterans who deviated from the norm in crisis—rather than to condemn them.

Overall, Gambone shows that the quality of life beyond the battlefield deteriorated from World War II to Vietnam. Upon returning home, Vietnam War veterans experienced increasing difficulties with mental problems, job placement, racial issues, and educational opportunities.

At the same time, veterans from the three wars shared a commonality about the “basic nature of military service,” according to Gambone. To prove this point, he cites evidence that supports consistencies in patriotism, dealing with trauma, and assimilation into civilian life, along with much more.

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Michael Gambone

Gambone, the author of The Greatest Generation Comes Home: The Veteran in American Society (20015), served with the 82nd Airborne Division from 1985-88. He spent 2006 in Iraq as an Army contractor.

I would have liked to see Gambone compare the veterans he writes about in Long Journeys Home to veterans from today’s all-volunteer military forces.

When describing the post-World War II period, Gambone says, “There was no shared burden to link the public with [the nation’s] military effort. Education, income, and race became important cleavage points with respect to service, sacrifice, and recognition.”

To which I say: “That’s still America today. Tell us how to change it.”

—Henry Zeybel

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

There and Back by Lisa A. Lark

Lisa A. Lark, the author of There and Back: The Vietnam War Through the Eyes of Those Who Lived It (M.T. Publishing Company, Inc., 136 pp., $39.95), also has written All They Left Behind: Legacies of the Men and Women on The Wall, which was published in 2012 in commemoration of the 30th anniversary of the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

Lark is an English teacher at Edsel Ford High School in Dearborn, Michigan, and teaches writing at Henry Ford Community College. Her new commemorative book is dedicated to the 58,300 men and women who gave their lives in the Vietnam War. The contributors to There and Back include more than a hundred Vietnam veterans, along with members of the families of a dozen who did not make it home—families that donated their memories and photographs to this timeline of the war.

Beautifully designed and prepared, this coffee-table-sized book contains more than 300 photos, many in color. Through these photos and accounts the reader is guided through the day-to-day lives of veterans involved in nearly every aspect of the war from 1959-75.

The text contains three main sections:

“Getting There” takes the reader back to the first inkling that the draft board may be calling, or the decision to volunteer, and then what the journey was like once inducted into military service.

“Getting Through” covers being part of America’s involvement in the war.

“Getting Back” shares the memories of veterans as they marked the days off on their short-timer calendars awaiting the Freedom Bird flight back to The World.

No matter where, when, or how one served during the Vietnam War, this book will surely evoke the reader’s own memories. For those who did not serve in that war, this compilation of veteran memories and quality photographs will paint a vivid picture of what that experience was like.

—James P. Coan

Wassermann Gardens by Milo Samardzija

Milo Samardzija’s title alerted me that the subject of his book,  Wassermann Gardens (Publish Green, 170 pp., $8.99, Kindle), might be venereal in nature. I was not disappointed. The author has taken the old Vietnam War myth about an island where soldiers with incurable sexually transmitted diseases were marooned for eternity and turned it into a dystopian allegory of how Vietnam veterans were treated by society when they returned home.

Just a chapter or two into this short, powerful novel, my mind was reeling with thoughts of other populations of people on islands: especially Lord of the Flies.  But there also were intimations of H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau, Robinson Crusoe, and Richard Connell’s short story, The Most Dangerous Game.  

We are told that the soldiers living on this island are Vietnam veterans, although initially there were soldiers from America’s earlier wars there. Death has claimed the older veterans—and the newer ones, too, at a rapid rate. Many are blind as a result of their venereal diseases. The blind are not popular on the island as they demand special treatment.

The helicopter that delivers their rations is often late, sometimes by weeks. The venereal-diseased veterans have denuded the island without seriously considering becoming self-sufficient by fishing the surrounding waters.The men have few skills and are not dedicated to trying to learn any. They just want to be fed by the food from the helicopter. They do not work together as teams to survive.

Milo Samardzija

A scheme is hatched to mob a helicopter and escape. One of the smarter captives has figured out that the men are on one of the islands in the Philippines. That plot goes awry, of course, and results in dire consequences. A main character named Marlowe tries to do things right, at least according to tenets he believes in, but madness finds him.

This grim tale provides much food for thought. I enjoyed reading it, but I have a dark view of the world—and a dark view of the Vietnam War.

These disease-ridden Vietnam veterans are a part of the past that America does not want to own up to, which led me to often to think of the current scandals in the VA hospitals.  Perhaps the author intended that a reader be provoked in that direction.

—David Willson

Paying With Their Bodies by John M. Kinder


John M. Kinder is an American Studies professor at Oklahoma State University who specializes in the history of war and American culture. He is most interested in war’s aftermath, including how nations and veterans deal with a wide range of post-war issues.

So it’s no surprise that Kinder’s new book, Paying With Their Bodies: American War and the Problem of the Disabled Veteran (University of Chicago, 368 pp., $18, Kindle; $30, hardcover), is a cultural history of America’s disabled veterans. The book, which concentrates on twentieth century wars, covers America’s conflicts from the Civil War through the latest conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan .

Kinder’s main theme is what he calls the Problem of the Disabled Veteran. Said problem: how the nation deals with its war wounded. Kinder identifies two main  “fantasies” involved in the Problem. One is the generally pro-war attitude that the U.S. can remain a global military power “without incurring the social, economic and physical consequences associated with veterans’ disabilities.” The other is the antiwar belief that Americans “will permanently reject war because of the risks to soldiers’ bodies and minds.”

In this well-written, if at times academically tinged tome, Kinder mixes in sketches of well-known disabled veterans (including Harold Russell from World War II, Ron Kovic from the Vietnam War, and Tammy Duckworth from Iraq) with bigger-picture, societal and political issues.

The author’s website is http://johnmkinder.com

—Marc Leepson

Kill for Peace by Matthew Israel

Matthew Israel’s Kill for Peace: American Artists Against the Vietnam War (University of Texas Press, 278 pp., $29.95, paper) fills the space that was left by Lucy Lippard’s A Different War:  Vietnam in Art and the National Vietnam Veterans Art Museum’s Vietnam: Reflexes and Reflections.

Much of the art in those two books is antiwar; in his book Matthew Israel focuses on that art to great effect. Israel is a New York art historian and author who has taught at New York University and the Museum of Modern Art. No information is given in the book on his military service.

The “baby killer” motif is prominent in Israel’s presentation and analysis of antiwar art. I’ve read hundreds of books by Vietnam veterans who say they are tormented by that appellation. This book has many references to the “baby killer” theme, although when I went to the otherwise fine index, that term was not there.

Korean War and World War II veterans got a free pass on the issue of killing innocent civilians, but Vietnam War veterans are held to account in a way that veterans of those wars were not. Was it that no women and children were killed in previous wars?  We know that is not true. Previous wars also drafted civilians to be soldiers, so that isn’t the variable either.  So what is it?

Israel addresses this question in a chapter entitled “AWC, Dead Babies, Dead American Soldiers.”  It contained an epiphany for me. First, Israel doesn’t say it straight out, but most home-front  Americans believed that all soldiers in Vietnam were in the infantry. Americans still tend to think this. But something like ninety percent of us were support troops who had little or no access to weapons—and if we had them, we would not have chosen to kill women and children with them.

The visuals in this chapter clearly show that the posters disseminated after the My Lai massacre focused on the notion that American soldiers were baby killers—that that, in fact, was their mission.

The most scurrilous image in the book is of a 1970 poster, Jeff Kramm’s “My Lai,” displaying a naked ROTC soldier as a muscular, smug rapist and murderer. The caption is “My Lai—We Lie—They Die.” As if young men were joining ROTC motivated by the urge to kill. Most men were in ROTC either as a way to get a college education or because we attended Land Grant colleges that required ROTC. That’s why I was in ROTC—no choice at all, just like when I got my draft notice in late 1965.

Leon Golub created a lot of art about the war: the Vietnam Series and later, the Napalm series. He later recanted. “I couldn’t blame the G.I.’s for the guys who were initiating all this,” he said. “The soldiers weren’t assassins. I became ashamed.”  Golub then destroyed most of those demonizing art works, but it was too late, the damage was done.

Tens of thousands of posters showing Vietnamese civilians—including the iconic photo taken by Ron Haeberle of My Lai (below)—did their work in demonizing American troops in Vietnam. That includes a poster that showed a Vietnamese mother holding her burned child with the words:“Would you burn a child? When necessary.”

These images became the defining visual myth that ruled the minds of most Americans, convincing them that we were all “baby killers.” The idea that Golub presents—that those who sent us to Vietnam are the real “baby killers”—escapes most Americans.

The entitled elite who used the term “baby killers” against us re-purposed the term from World War I, when the English used it to refer to what the German use of zeppelins did over English cities.

Matthew Israel

The World War II generation—the so-called “Greatest Generation”—punished Vietnam veterans for this sin when we returned home by not giving us much of a G.I. Bill, by not giving us jobs, and by not allowing us to join the VFW and similar old-line veterans organizations because we weren’t “real” war veterans.

Reading this book reminded me again and again of the questions I had in the eighties when I taught Vietnam War classes at a community college.  In a nutshell, students would ask, “Why did you go?  If you’d just refused to be drafted, there would have been no war, no dead Americans, no dead Vietnamese.”

My answer was: You are right, but young men don’t get to decide. Also, they don’t know what they knew later, and they don’t know what you know now. They just know that America was in a war against communism and that their dads wore the uniform and saved the world, and they now had the opportunity to do the same. Later, they know stuff that changes their point-of-view, and makes them very bitter at how they were taken advantage of. They knew then that if they hadn’t served, prison and infamy awaited them, and their families would disown them.

Anyone curious about how American soldiers who served in Vietnam became stereotyped as “baby killers” should read this fine book. Matthew Israel has done a brilliant job demonstrating the power of the media, both television and art. He shows how they worked together to foster the myth of American soldiers running amok in Vietnam.

The author’s website is www.matthewisrael.com

—David Willson