Focus on Vietnam by Steven Burchik

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Steven Burchik served as a sergeant with D Company of the 1st Infantry Division’s 2nd Battalion, 18th Infantry Regiment in Vietnam in 1968-69. Burchik was a forward observer, not a photographer, but he often had his camera with him. During his tour he took more than four thousand photographs. None of combat, he notes, since that’s when he was using a rifle—not a camera.

Burchik mailed the film to his wife, and didn’t see his prints or slides for the first time until after he returned from Vietnam. “It was an amazing experience to view them and remember the circumstances surrounding each image,” he writes in the introduction to Focus on Vietnam (Sharlin-K Press, 120 pp., $29, paper).

After that memorable experience, Burchik boxed up the photos and rarely looked at them until he was asked in 2013 to make a presentation on the war to a high school English class. Speaking to the class reignited his interest in the Vietnam War, and he wrote and published Compass and a Camera: A Year in Vietnam in 2014, followed by Focus on Vietnam.

You won’t find any Great Photographs in this new volume—no decisive moments, no grand tableaux, no epiphanies, no perfect compositions, no “Oh my God” images. The Vietnam War produced many great photographers—many unheralded—who left a trove of images of the beauty, the horror, the cruelty, and the kindnesses that resulted from America’s involvement in the conflict. Burchik is not one of them.

He took for himself a more prosaic task: depicting the daily life of the combat soldier.

Focus on Vietnam is arranged thematically into short chapters, each with brief introductory notes combined with relevant photos. The chapters reflect the interests of young Americans serving halfway around the world: weapons and transportation, children and villagers, Saigon and stand-downs, wading through rivers and tracking through jungles, pacification and the rice harvest. Burchik, curious and fresh-eyed, kept his camera by his side and recorded the life that passed before him.

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That’s the book’s power: a record of one man’s life as it is swept into a tidal wave of events far beyond his control. Everyone else depicted in his book, both American and Vietnamese, has similarly been swept up by the war. Yet daily life goes on, perhaps having taken on a sort of exotic sheen or at least an awareness that those involved are living history.

Burchik’s book, perhaps, will be best appreciated by those who have served and those who may soon serve. His images are fascinating yet familiar.

The author’s website is stevenburchik.com

–Michael Keating

Vietnam Reflections by Michael T. Keene

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In Vietnam Reflections: The Untold Story of the Holley Boys (Ad Hoc, 246 pp., $14.71, paper), Michael T. Keene presents a story about people and places that would be overlooked elsewhere. The most important people are eight men who died in the Vietnam War. They all came from Holley, New York, a small town on the Erie Canal: Ronald P. Sisson, Howard L. Bowen, David D. Case, John P. Davis, George W. Fischer, Jr., Paul Mandracchia, Gary E. Bullock, and Gary L. Stymus.

The loss of eight men from a town of approximately 1,800 was one of the nation’s highest Vietnam War death toll for any community. Keene recreates the men’s lives through letters they sent home, official documents, and more than sixty interviews with their families, friends, and fellow soldiers.

An avid researcher, Keene opens the book with a history of Holley and recognition of the town’s prominent citizens as far back as 1802. He alternates chapters about the Boys with episodes arranged chronologically from Vietnam’s history, such as the 1954 Battle of Dien Bien Phu, the 1963 Diem assassination, and the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident. This provides relevance between the deaths and the progress of the war.

The biographies of the eight offer many stories from their childhood and teen years but only limited information about their activities in the war. An award citation, an after-action report, and a condolence letter shed light on the war-zone lives of a few of the men. Enemy fire killed six of the eight. The first died in 1965 and the last in 1970. Their average age was slightly under twenty-three.

They were typical young Americans of their time. Growing up, they went to the same high school and took part in sports, marching band, Boy Scouts, and hot rod racing. Keene traces the occupations and lineages of some of their families.

Keene’s book brought to mind Beyond the Names: A Tribute to the Clermont County, Ohio, Vietnam War Dead, a work of love and admiration for forty men killed in the Vietnam War from Clermont County, Ohio. Gary L. Knepp wrote the book as a way to keep the sacrifices of the men from fading into obscurity.

Similarly, Eric Poole’s Company of Heroes: A Forgotten Medal of Honor and Bravo Company’s War in Vietnam tells of a company that lost eighteen men, all of whom are still fondly remembered by their comrades. Based on seven years of interviews, that book weaves together episodes from the men’s pre-war civilian lives with what they experienced in Vietnam.

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Michael Keene

Books such as these are important because too many Vietnam War grunts never received the honor and recognition they earned. These books chronicle people and events on the verge of disappearing and, in that manner, set examples for today’s young men and women who do not face the challenge of involuntary military service.

Vietnam Reflections contains four appendices, including one that analyzes the influence on the war of ten leaders such as Richard Nixon, Vo Nguyen Giap, and William Westmoreland.

Keene served two tours in Vietnam with the Marines. He has written many books about the people of upper New York State.

His website is ad-hoc-productions.com

—Henry Zeybel

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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