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

Looking Back by Sarah Sherman McGrail

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Sarah Sherman McGrail’s two-volume set, Looking Back: A History of Boothbay Region’s Veterans during the Korean and Vietnam Wars (Cozy Harbor Press; 562 pp., Vol. I; 586 pp., Vol. II. $24.95 each) Volumes I & II), is a treasure chest of well-organized and carefully researched, alphabetized biographical sketches of more than two hundred  veterans from Maine’s Boothbay area. The books provide many unique personal wartime experiences.

“The men and women in these pages are our relatives, spouses, and neighbors,” McGrail writes. “They matured, learned about responsibility and respect, suffered trauma, and witnessed death.”

The veterans include Army draftee Ambrose “Sonny” Artzer, a cook who was responsible for feeding two hundred men daily and then pulling perimeter guard duty at his An Khe base in Vietnam. “The military food he prepared consisted of dehydrated milk, powdered food, including franks and beans, spaghetti and meatballs, peaches and fruit cocktail, Sonny’s favorites,” McGrail writes.

In the year Artzer left An Khe, Army dog handler George Blackman arrived. “The lives of the men were dependent upon an obedient, mean dog,” the author notes. “Blackman’s canine commands included, “sit, stay, down, come, as well as watch him, get him, and kill.”

Details like these abound. Many of the entries deal with the heat, humidity, monsoons, and the smells and dangerous creatures in Vietnam. Army Infantryman Ernest Carver, for example, encountered pit vipers, wild pigs, red deer, rats, mosquitoes, monkeys, elephants, and tigers. “The leeches were terrible,” the author notes. “During the rainy season, or monsoon season, Ernie said it was impossible to keep dry.”

Richard Benner enlisted in the Army in 1947 and served two tours in Vietnam, first as part of a Civil Affairs Team with the 521st Medical Intelligence Unit, the only outfit so dedicated in Vietnam. Near Qui Nhon there was a leper colony “and its inhabitants were relocated to a camp” because of their highly contagious disease, Benner said. “To their credit, the lepers painted their shacks different bright colors and Dick said they looked very nice.”

Volume II opens with the globe-hopping, thirty-year Navy career Seaman Harmon Roscoe Maddocks. He served in Vietnam with the 571st River Division as a Patrol Boat River (PBR) Captain aboard a Brown Water Navy vessel in the Mekong Delta. Wounded in action, Ross received two Bronze Stars while wearing the black beret of the “River Rats.”

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Sarah Sherman McGrail

One interesting story pre-dates the official American involvement in Vietnam. Harold Seavey, Jr. enlisted in the Air Force in 1951. One year later he was assigned to the 1600th Medical Group at Westover Air Force Base in Massachusetts as a Medical Service Apprentice. In that capacity Seavey participated in the evacuation of French troops from their war in Indochina.

In addition to the first-person accounts, these volumes also include addenda on subjects such as the history of the POW/MIA bracelet, song lyrics, photo albums, and poems.

—Curt Nelson

 

Eisenhower & Cambodia by William J. Rust

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The journalist, editor, and author William J. Rust specializes in mid-twentieth century interactions between the United States and Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, the three nations that once comprised French Indochina. His most recent book is Eisenhower & Cambodia: Diplomacy, Covert Action, and the Origins of the Second Indochina War (University Press of Kentucky, 374 pp.; $40.00, hardcover; $31.20, Kindle).

Rust has mastered the art of reviving the past as he piles fact upon fact to recreate the political and military climate of the time. Footnotes abound. The bibliography delves deeply into government documents and histories, oral histories, and interviews, memoirs, and the best secondary sources.

The book’s major player is Norodom Sihanouk, who served both as king of Cambodia and as its prime minister for decades. Caught between the United States and communist-inspired Viet Minh interests, Sihanouk worked hard for Cambodian independence and neutrality.

The latter stance created turmoil because the Eisenhower administration wanted Cambodia to take an anti-communist position similar to that of South Vietnam and Laos. Consequently, the book focuses on misdirected diplomacy, border incursions, and unfulfilled coups. The title of one chapter—”Many Unpleasant and Different Things”—could serve for the entire book.

Rust contends that President Eisenhower’s administration failed at finding common ground with Sihanouk, even though he had pro-Western inclinations. Rust labels Cambodia as “an afterthought in U.S. relations with Indochina.” Eisenhower’s two-volume memoir mentions Sihanouk only once, Rust says, which shows the limit of his interest. Rust also says that American leaders felt “contempt for the prince personally.”

The influences of anti-communist Cambodian dissidents and their patrons from South Vietnam and Thailand, as well as from India’s Jawaharlal Nehru, China’s Zhou Enlai, and the Soviet Union, the Philippines, and French leaders compounded the diplomatic problems confronting America’s Eisenhower’s Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and his ambassadors to Cambodia.

Despite the many Westerners who viewed him as incompetent, from 1953-61 Sihanouk kept Cambodia from suffering political and military turmoil similar to that experienced by South Vietnam and Laos. A failed 1959 CIA-supported plot to overthrow him succeeded only in solidifying his leadership role, Rust says.

Eventually, limited American financial and military aid to Cambodia brought the two nations closer together. “Cambodia was a relatively peaceful front in the cold war,” Rust writes, when John F. Kennedy became president in January 1961.

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Prince Sihanouk on his throne

Finger pointing will never go out of style when it comes to writing about the causes and the outcome of the Second Indochina War, aka the Vietnam War. Three recent books, for example, accuse American leaders of harming the nation’s Vietnam War credibility. In The War after the War, Johannes Kadura offers a “new interpretation” of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger’s multiple plans—called “equilibrium strategy” and “insurance policy”—to counterbalance defeat in Indochina and simultaneously preserve presidential credibility as an opponent of communist expansion. Nixon and Kissinger’s quest for a positive self-image transcended their honesty, Kadura says.

In The American South and the Vietnam War Joseph Fry writes that political leaders in the eleven former-Confederate states (plus Kentucky) felt that Asiatic peoples were inferior and undeserving of protection. Tears Across the Mekong by Marc Philip Yablonka challenges the CIA and the United States government for failing to recognize Hmong contributions to the war in Laos.

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William J. Rust

Rust’s Eisenhower & Cambodia is particularly significant because the Eisenhower administration’s activities preceded much of the other actions related to the war and provided a foundation for what followed. In this respect, Rust’s Epilogue, which deals with the 1961-63 deterioration of relationships within and between Southeast Asian nations, is a lucid summation for everything he explains earlier.

“The coup d’état in South Vietnam on November 1 [1963], and the assassination of [Prime Minister Ngo Dinh] Diem and [his brother Ngo Dinh] Nhu confirmed Sihanouk’s worst fears about the United States,” Rust says. It caused Sihanouk to end all U.S. military, economic, and cultural assistance.

Rust’s book also fills a niche in the University Press of Kentucky’s excellent Studies in Conflict, Diplomacy, and Peace series, which explores the significance of developments in U.S. foreign relations from the eighteenth century to the present.

—Henry Zeybel