The War I Survived Was Vietnam by Michael Uhl

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Michael Uhl’s The War I Survived Was Vietnam: Collected Writings of a Veteran and Antiwar Activist (McFarland, 300 pp., $29.95, paper) is a wide-ranging compilation of Uhl’s reviews and opinion pieces that will certainly generate responses. True to its subtitle, this collection has an antiwar agenda. It also covers issues other than the Vietnam War, including the plight of veterans exposed to atomic weapons and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As David Cline, the national president of Veterans For Peace says in the book: “There have always been veterans for peace. War makes veterans warriors for peace.”

A Vietnam Veterans of America member I served with once told me that his feelings about the Vietnam War took several drastic shifts as his circumstances changed. He focused on survival while in country. When he came home, he examined how the war ended, as well as the nation’s treatment of veterans, along with the controversy over the design of the Vietnam Veteran Memorial in Washington, D.C., and the POW/MIA issue. Uhl, who served as an intelligence officer in Vietnam in 1968-69, includes reviews and essays on these subjects and more.

They are sure to evoke strong reactions. As Uhl puts it: “If they provoke thought in whoever reads them, I will be profoundly satisfied.”

Uhl writes about many players involved in the Vietnam War, including some unheralded heroes, some famous and infamous people, and some who helped orchestrate the war’s strategy and tactics. Gen. Julian Ewell, the Ninth Infantry Division Commander in February 1968, is one of the key players Uhl credits with implementing the “body count culture,” which he says enabled American troops to hand out “candy to small children” one moment, then later to torch “a hootch or abuse a cringing papa-san.”

Uhl’s essays cover many topics, but I believe his essay on the Heinemann brothers succinctly represents the personal impact the Vietnam War has had on many people. “Three Heinemann brothers would eventually go into the military, two to Vietnam,” Uhl wrote in 2005. “Among them only Larry [the author of Paco’s Story] remains. One brother was a post-war suicide; the other left his family never to be heard from again.”

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Michael Uhl

Mentioning Robert Strange McNamara will liven up any discussion of the war. In 1995 in The Nation Uhl and co-author Carol Brightman wrote: “McNamara’s critics span the ideological spectrum, though the burden of their indignation differs according to whether they believe his moral failure lies in the past for not having spoken out sooner, or in the present for having spoken at all.”

This anthology is a valuable reference tool for anyone looking for scholarly and incisive writing on America’s most divisive overseas war. The fervor of those opposed to the war may have never been matched. Uhl includes essays by some of those who were dedicated to bringing the war to an end, such as David Harris, former Secretary of State John Kerry, and environmentalist and one-time presidential candidate Barry Commoner.

This anonymous excerpt written by a veteran quoted by Uhl may be the best summation of the Vietnam War legacy:

I carried the war in my blood

In or out of service

I was at war

Even today

Every day war explodes in my brain

—Curt Nelson

No Place to Hide by Bill Sly

On July 19, 1969, the North Vietnamese Army nearly destroyed Alpha 2/2 (Mech) of the U.S. Army’s First Infantry Division at Nui Ba Den mountain near Tay Ninh. American generals made bad decisions based on false assumptions resulting from faulty intelligence that led to the disaster.

Bill Sly discusses these events in great detail in No Place to Hide: A Company at Nui Ba Den (iUniverse, 182 pp. $13.99, paper; $3.99, Kindle). Sly served as the 2/2 historian after time in the field as an infantryman. He bases most of his reporting on interviews with survivors of the attack on the mountain.

Nui Ba Den (Black Virgin Mountain) rose to nearly a thousand meters and spanned a mile in width. The United States Army controlled the top and the perimeter around the mountain’s base, but the Eighty-Eighth NVA Regiment controlled everything in between. Plans called for 2/2 to scale the mountain, much in the manner of the taking of Hamburger Hill, while another American unit attacked from the top.

From there, planning disintegrated. Under temporary command of the 25th Infantry Division, the men of Alpha 2/2 were ordered to dismount from their vehicles and advance on foot, a decision that violated unit-level training. Furthermore, dismounting contradicted Vietnam War armored warfare tactics, which Sly explains. According to survivors, a 25th general said, “I want a body count,” and sent 2/2 up the mountain—without support from the unit on top.

The men walked into a trap. Finding themselves in open terrain and under highly concentrated fire from an enemy that held the high ground, the men of 2/2 made great sacrifices for each other as they split into smaller and smaller groups. They fought all day to extricate themselves from the area. The following day survivors with help from Charlie Company again went forward to recover bodies.

In the two-day encounter, Alpha had nine men killed in action and forty-four wounded. Charlie had two KIA and four WIA.

The Stars and Stripes portrayed the battle as a great American victory, which upset the participants. And then, Sly says, the battle appears to have been forgotten. (I searched internet but found no reference to it.) No Place to Hide is Sly’s contribution to setting the record straight.

The book also provides one more reminder of American Vietnam War folly for taking or securing terrain, regardless of the cost, only to eventually abandon it.

Sly writes from the heart. With a calm certitude, he validates the valor and fellowship of the men of Alpha 2/2. He neither editorializes nor pontificates in recreating two days of drama. Although he was on the scene in 1969, many of his endnotes refer to telephone conversations and letters dating from 1995. His research and the conclusions that he offers present valuable combat lessons.

—Henry Zeybel

Aid Under Fire by Jessica Elkind

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Nearly half a century after the fact historians face the formidable task of finding a way to analyse the Vietnam War from new perspectives. Several recently written books have approached the war by examining the political climate during the years between France’s departure from Indochina and the start of the American war there—approximately 1954-65.

Jessica Elkind’s Aid Under Fire: Nation Building and the Vietnam War (University Press of Kentucky, 310 pp., $45, hardcover, $45, Kindle) fits into this category. A San Francisco State University history professor, Elkind teaches and writes about American foreign relations, the Cold War, and Southeast Asia. Her next book will examine U.S. involvement in Cambodia in the 1970s.

Elkind bases parts of Aid Under Fire on interviews with civilian aid workers that offer new conclusions about old discussions concerning the effectiveness of non-military nation building. Elkind provides a long introduction that includes other historians’ perspectives of the world’s political picture pre-1965. The consensus is that nation building failed to make South Vietnam independent because of misconceptions regarding historical, political, and social conditions. This background material is exceptionally helpful for following Elkind’s subsequent arguments.

The nation-building effort in South Vietnam failed, according to Elkind, because the Vietnamese did not support American geopolitical goals. That is, Americans confronted problems by applying western practices while overlooking the reluctance of recently decolonized Asians to accept them.

By dissecting five assistance programs, Elkind explains nation building setbacks in Vietnam. The five are: refugee resettlement, public administration standardization, land reform and agricultural development, police force modernization, and the creation of an educational system to advance counterinsurgency aims. Atop everything else, the U.S. supported a repressive regime. Consequently, the South Vietnamese rural population did not devote its hearts and minds to supporting an anti-communist cause, Elkind says.

At length, she delves into controversies such as “The Legacy of Colonialism” that segues into “The Political Burden of Being American,” which deals with Americans being stereotyped as “a rich man with a head full of race prejudice” who puts the government ahead of the people. Two of Elkind’s closing subtitles—”From Enthusiasm to Defeat” and “Ears of Stone”—indicate that the nation-building experiment might have been doomed from the start.

When President Kennedy issued an executive order creating the Agency for International Development (AID) in 1961, American leaders eagerly supported nation building, according to my memory. Almost immediately, my Air Force friends delivered supplies country-wide in C-123 Providers during six-month deployments. As the 1960s wore on, however, war demands consumed almost all other such USAF efforts. In 1968, my C-130 crew flew nearly eight hundred in-country support sorties. Only two in one afternoon questionably helped nation building when we relocated women, children, and old men who did not want to be uprooted.

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Refugee resettlement from North to South Vietnam in 1954

Elkind describes similar patterns of activity and points out that, in all the intervening years, “nation building” has been thought of as “military modernization” for programs in Indonesia, Brazil, Iran, El Salvador, Iraq, and Afghanistan. The outcomes have been the same, she says.

Aid Under Fire is part of the “Studies in Conflict, Diplomacy, and Peace” series of books that examines—and mostly criticizes—the United States’ engagement with the world. The series includes the work of nineteen historians and other academics who think alike.

But to what purpose? I wonder why these folks do not organize and protest America’s endless involvement in the Middle East.

—Henry Zeybel

 

Twenty Days in May by John L. Mansfield

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John L. Mansfield served for more than thirty years as an officer in the Army, the National Guard, and the Army Reserve.  His short book, Twenty Days in May: Vietnam 1968 (PublishAmerica, 170 pp., $24.95, paper; $7.96, Kindle), recounts the actions of his unit—Alpha Company, 4th of the 31st Infantry Regiment—during twenty harrowing days at the height of the Vietnam War.

What makes this book unique is that—aside from the recollections of then 2nd Lt. Mansfield—it also uses his unit’s daily staff journal, its daily situation reports, official history, and radio logs, as well as several memoirs written by men in his company.

These twenty days in May represented a very hostile and intense period for Alpha Company. They had 69 wounded in action and nine killed. Most of the action revolved around the taking of Nui Lon, also known as Ghost Mountain. Mansfield, a life member of Vietnam Veterans of America, gives an excellent account of what it’s like to be an infantryman.

Along the way, he demonstrates some of the difficult choices facing Army infantry officers. Mansfield shows how a good officer leads from the front, not the rear. He follows orders, even after his platoon is tired and undermanned and facing a well-equipped NVA regiment.  Mansfield demonstrated this in his decision to follow orders to advance up Nui Lon at night, even though it placed his platoon at greater risk.

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John Mansfield

This is a serious book spiced up with a couple of humorous incidents, such as Mansfiled admitting to the CO that his weapon was accidently fired and scrambling to buy replacement ammo on the black market so no one would know.

The book’s true message for me lies in the last paragraph in which Mansfield talks about Tom Brokaw annointing those who came of age during World War II the “greatest generation.” Mansfield believes the men in his company in Vietnam should be considered the greatest generation.

“They went where they were sent by their government and did as soldiers have always done throughout the years, their duty as they saw it,” he writes. “These men are the real heroes and my greatest generation.”

— Mark S. Miller

Flapjacks and Fish Sauce by Jim Barker

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Jim Barker’s Flapjacks and Fish Sauce: Asymmetrical Vietnam Humor (115 pp., $12.95, paper) is a compilation of stories from veterans who served in Vietnam during the war. In his introduction, Barker (at left in the photo) says of war: “Like a Texas tornado, conditions can be quickly brewed up that make ‘saints of sinners,’ and occasionally vice-versa. In this colosseum of intensity, the extraordinary, absurd, unusual  and comic find fertile ground.”

The stories Baker has compiled prove his point. Some are outright funny. Some are of a gallows humor that makes one cringe.

One story tells of a man who lost his rifle in a rice paddy. He “fished around” for it, and thought he found it, only to come up with a severed arm.

The less gory tales can be laugh-out-loud funny. There’s the one about a guy on guard duty who felt something tapping on his shoulder.  He thought it was his team leader trying to keep him awake. A little later his rear was firmly squeezed. He yelped and turned around to find he was being groped by an orangutan.

Jim Barker served in Vietnam in 1971-72 as an adviser and linguist with MACV in II Corps.

For ordering info, email the author at erodemango@yahoo.com

—Loana Holyman

The Lighter Side of Vietnam by Pat Capainolo

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You won’t read about any firefights in Pat Capainolo’s Vietnam War memoir, The Lighter Side of Vietnam (CreateSpace, 166 pp., $14.95, paper), and you won’t find any gore or PTSD. Capianolo mainly recounts stories and antics of friends and (personal) enemies in a book in which even harrowing situations are told with a light touch.

Capainolo has an excellent memory for detail. He recalls many instances of kindness in others rather than meanness, although meanness was there, which makes the book true to his memory. A lot of times it is a dance around and through regulations, relations, and events of all kinds.

The author was first stationed at Cam Ranh Bay with the 165th Transportation Co. He was a good trooper, winning praise from his fellow soldiers and from NCOs and officers. His job was driving a Lighter Amphibious Resupply Cargo Five Ton vehicle, a LARC, and Capainolo had great fun with it. He later drove a Jeep in Thailand.

When he arrived in Vietnam Capainolo had some preconceived notions, which he willingly admits, and which he pushed aside. He was a bit worried about the aggressive sound of the speech and the seeming sternness of the South Korean troops he served with. But he came to understand those demeanors as cultural affectations and not a personal judgement about him. He later made friends with many Koreans.

One recurring character in this book is a psychotic soldier who hated the author for no reason. It seems that every time Capainolo thought he was rid of this man, he found the guy living in the same hootch. One night Bates, the crazy one, came after Capainolo with his fists. But Capainolo was a light sleeper, and jumped up and hit Bates a few times before before he was restrained.

Capainolo writes of men who thought of themselves as tough, and he writes of men who really were tough but who also were down to earth, regular soldiers whom he admired. One supposed tough guy from Brooklyn urinated in his bed when artillery was booming in the distance.

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A LARC  at South Beach, Cam Ranh Bay

Another seemingly tough guy wanted a ride on a LARC but once water began running over the sides of the vehicle he started yelling at Capainolo to turn around and take him back to the beach. When the screaming didn’t work, he tried threatening, which also did not work. Then he began whimpering.

“No one took his tough guy seriously again,” Capainolo notes.

The book is filled with many similar stories, all told without rancor, bitterness, or nostalgia. All of them also deal with both the silliness and seriousness of Army rules and regulation in the Vietnam War.

—Loana Hoylman

Tragedy at Chu Lai by David Venditta

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David Venditta’s Tragedy at Chu Lai: Reconstructing a Deadly Grenade Accident in a U.S. Army Classroom in Vietnam, July 10, 1969 (McFarland, 212 pp., $29.95, paper; $17.99, Kindle) is the story of the author’s hunt to find out exactly what caused the death of his cousin, U.S. Army Warrant Officer Nicky Venditti.

David Venditta, a retired journalist, conducted a twenty-one-year investigation, wading through official misinformation and uncovering hitherto unknown facts. The two men were cousins, but the spelling of their last names differs because part of the family reverted to the original spelling—Venditti—that officials at Ellis Island had altered two generations earlier.

In 1969, The Daily Local News of West Chester, Pennsylvania, attributed Nicky Venditti’s death to “wounds suffered in action about a week after he arrived in the war zone.” The assumption was that “a rocket got him,” David Venditta says. In 1994, curiosity led him to contact the newly organized Friends of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and ask about his cousin’s death. The Friends told him the death was listed as a “non-hostile” casualty. That motivated David Venditta to try to find out exactly what happened.

The book’s first half recreates Nicky Venditti’s life through childhood, elementary and high school, military training as a helicopter pilot, and arrival in Vietnam. The last half reveals his cousin’s extensive research into the matter from the time he contacted the Friends in 1994 until he wrote the book in 2015.

The author learned that an “instructor unknowingly discharged a live grenade” during classroom instruction and that was what killed Nicky and two other soldiers. Slowly but methodically, David Venditta looked through paperwork from virtually every available government source and interviewed one hundred thirty people from all levels of command, as well as friends of those who died.

Most significantly, the author learned that no meaningful investigation or conclusive report had resulted from the incident. Repeatedly finding the Army remiss in its approach to the three deaths, David Venditta tried to find a guilty party worthy of punishment. Eventually he found and interviewed the instructor who had detonated the grenade. His confrontation and conversations with the man constitute the climax of the book.

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The author, a pic of his cousin, and his pilot helmet

Guilt for what happened is never clearly established. The possibility of sabotage existed. David’s relations with the instructor provide an excellent psychological study about the acceptance of responsibilities related to war. “What if?” and “Stuff Happens” influenced the thinking of both men.

When I finished reading the book, I had mixed feelings about David’s investigation and his conclusions.

I intend to pass the book on to my brother-in-law, who (like David Venditti and unlike myself) did not serve in the military. I look forward to hearing his opinion. To me, many of the author’s questions are unanswerable—perhaps even unnecessary. But I’m still thinking about them.

David Venditta’s encounters with military personnel and military procedures steered him toward another project, interviewing more than a hundred veterans of both World Wars, the Cold War, and the Korean and Vietnam Wars. He published accounts of these men in another book, War Stories:  In Their Own Words.

—Henry Zeybel