Remembrances of Wars Past edited by Henry F. Tonn

Henry F. Tonn is a semi-retired psychologist who lives in Wilmington, North Carolina. His Remembrances of Wars Past: A War Veterans Anthology (Fox Track, 216 pp., $24.95, hardcover; $17.95, paper), is a beautiful book with a classy cover designed by Kevin Morgan Watson. Looking at that cover, I had the thought, “A soldier in heaven.”  No doubt that is a result of my early Norwegian Lutheran origins. Valhalla, my Viking forbears called it. 

This anthology contains twenty-two pieces of prose and twenty-three of poetry. Tonn, the editor, tells us that this content covers “a wide variety of wars, with the Vietnam wars and the Iraq wars being most represented.”

The table of contents seems to divide the book into three sections: nonfiction, fiction, and poetry. However, the page numbers after the individual items indicate the pieces are scattered throughout the book.

As a reference librarian for over thirty years, I always look for order in an anthology. Can this one easily be used to answer a reference question?  Not really. Next I assumed that the pieces were grouped by war. There was no way to tell that from the table of contents, so I dipped into the book. I found no internal headings indicating which war attached to a piece. Titles sometimes contain a clue, such as “Bass Fishing on the Mekong” by Russell Reece. Without reading it, I surmised it was Vietnam War-related.

The second piece in the book is “Buchenwald Diary”  by Henry Tonn from the verbal history of Richard Daughtry. Does Tonn mean oral history? I believe so. I guessed that this piece related to World War II.  Each piece is labeled at the top of its first page as fiction or nonfiction. The poetry selections are not labeled.

I went through the book item by item, trying to figure out which wars were represented, how well-represented they were, and what American wars were not represented. It was a hard and unnecessary slog. The editor should have done this job for the reader, my reference librarian-self kept telling me.

Henry Tonn

I noticed while doing my war tally that Tonn, perhaps a nonmilitary fellow, had his name on several pieces. There were no poems with his name attached to them. Tonn’s photo on the back cover shows us an older man, perhaps a member of the “Greatest Generation,” or an elderly member of the Vietnam War Generation who had other priorities during the war than serving in the military. Good for him.

As for the subtitle, “A War Veterans Anthology,” I noticed that there is no apostrophe in “Veterans.” Does that mean that the editor is a war veteran who put this book together? Does it mean that all those authors included are war veterans? I read the authors’ biographies at the back of the book and discovered that many authors are military veterans and many are not. So it’s not really clear what the subtitle means.

I was bemused to find that Henry Tonn’s name was listed as co-author on a piece entitled, “A Veteran’s Interview Concerning Agent Orange.” This was a piece I was familiar with. It is an interview between Robert McGowan and Steve Hussy of Meridian Star Press. Rob McGowan had sent me this piece when it came out as I also had an Agent Orange-related cancer. McGowan has since died of cancer so I can’t discuss with him what we think of how Tonn treated or rewrote this interview.

Rob McGowan

Even in this edited and rewritten version, Rob McGowan’s powerful words brought tears to my eyes as though he’d spoken to me from his grave. I miss my friend every day, and I appreciate that Tonn included this interview, as well as Rob McGowan’s great short story, “The Two Things I Wanted.”

In the final analysis, all anthologies must be judged by the quality of the writing in the book, and whether it  reaches the stated goals of the editor. Tonn writes: “There was a bias toward well-written pieces dealing with some aspect of armed conflict heretofore under-reported.” These pieces are well-written. The “heretofore unreported” dimension is harder to measure.

Tonn promises the reader that the forty-five pieces cover “a wide variety of wars, with the Vietnam and Iraq wars being most represented.” That statement is half right.  By my count, of the forty-five pieces in the book, twenty-four are clearly focused on the Vietnam War or Iraq.

The next largest group, unsurprisingly, is about World War II. Ten of those. Three deal with America’s Civil War. There’s one Sarajevo story.  One Afghanistan poem. One piece about a war between Brazil and Colombia by Spencer Carvalho that knocked my socks off. One piece dealing with Zapata. That leaves a few pieces I couldn’t connect to a particular war. 

Tonn tell us that over a period of three months he received 500 submissions. He says that the high volume of submissions provoked him to “a full-blown panic attack.” I pondered whether this anthology covers “a wide variety of wars.”  I took down from my reference shelf Alan Axelrod’s America’s Wars:  A Wiley Desk Reference.

The cover blurb says it includes “lively narrative histories of more than 100 North American wars, skirmishes, and military expeditions.” That puts things in perspective. Thirty-seven of the pieces in Tonn’s book deal with four of America’s wars. The others deal with one war each or generic war or anonymous war. 

Tonn could only publish from what he was sent. He promises that the forty-five pieces cover “a wide variety of wars, with the Vietnam and Iraq wars being most represented.” That is half right.

Tonn could only publish from what he was sent. But I wonder why there wasn’t even one piece dealing with the Korean War, the American Revolution, all of our Indian wars, World War I, or the Spanish American War and America’s many other imperialist conflicts.  I only bring up these other American wars to question Tonn’s claim of covering “a wide variety of wars.” The variety is not wide. If he had included the Peach War, Shay’s Rebellion, and the War of 1812, that would have been “wide.” 

Overall, the quality of writing is high in these pieces. “Insanity is Contagious” is a brilliant piece by Kristin Aguilar. Byron Barton’s story, “Checkpoint,” had me on the edge of my seat. Carvalho’s “One Bullet” made me want to read an entire book by him. His voice and his story were extraordinary. Diane Judge’s two poems made me want to read an entire book of her fine work. One of Judge’s poems (“Faith”) deals with Agent Orange and says more about that subject than some three hundred page books I have read.

The stories by Robert McGowan and Susan O’Neill are brilliant. Please buy their books to get more. As fine as the stories they wrote that are included in this book, they have other stories that are even better.

Horace Coleman

Disclaimer: Rob McGowan and Sue O’Neill are friends. Horace Coleman is also a friend. His poem “That Saigon Night” is great, but it is just a taste of his fine work. Please buy and read Coleman’s book In the Grass, one of the best books of poetry dealing with the Vietnam War. It was published by Burning Cities Press, a short-lived house that published some of the best Vietnam War literature, both prose and poetry.

I’ll leave the rest of the prose and poetry for you to discover on your own. It is all worthy of your attention and discovery. I have done my part to lead you to it.  Now drink, please.

The best purpose this anthology can serve is to motivate people to do what they can to end war. Another useful purpose would be to motivate readers to buy books by those authors in the book who have books and who are worthy of more attention—writers who have risked much for the experience they write from.

If you have the stomach to read more about a few of America’s wars and the butcher’s bill for them buy Henry Tonn’s book and read it and give it as a gift to anyone you know who is gung-ho to join up and march off to yet another new American war.

One more disclaimer: Rob McGowan emailed me asking me to submit some pieces for consideration for inclusion in Tonn’s proposed anthology. I sent him some. He emailed back and expressed interest in one. We back and forthed about it  for a few weeks, and got into a couple of wrangles. He had ideas for “punching up” my story to make it funnier. I told him I didn’t want my story to be any funnier than it was already.

We also got into a wrangle about my biographical piece that mentioned my authorship of REMF Diary and The REMF Returns. Tonn said that he didn’t know what “REMF” meant and that readers would not know and that my information on that would not be included. I told him that was my brand, what I was mostly known for. At that point I told Tonn that we were done and that was that.

Now the anthology is out. Rob McGowan is dead. Sue O’Neill and I are still on the right side of the grass.  Rob and Sue each have a piece in the book, and Rob also has that odd transmogrified AO interview in there. I’m reviewing Tonn’s anthology, and doing my best to give him and his book a fair shake. The Great Karmic Wheel rolls on. Life is sweet.

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

—David Willson

Proud to Be: Writing by American Warriors edited by Susan Swartwout

Susan Swartwout announces in the introduction to Proud to Be: Writing by American Warriors (Southeast Missouri State University Press, 256 pp., $15) that the intent of this anthology is that it “will become an annual series.”  Swartwout, a professor of English at Southeast Missouri State, also is the director of the University Press. The book is a co-production of the Press, the Missouri Humanities Council’s Veterans Projects, and the Warrior Arts Alliance.

This anthology contains excellent writing dealing with America’s wars, from World War II up to and including our current wars. It is hard to tell at a glance which war gets the major attention.

I was pleased to note the title of the first piece in the book, “First Day at An Khe.”  Monty Joynes’s short story sets a high standard for the rest of the book as it is one of the most powerful, moving, and well written-stories of the Vietnam War I’ve ever read.

Monty Jooynes

Monty Joynes

Phil, a corpsman, arrives in country and without being in-processed is dumped into triage duty for days to deal with an onslaught of the wounded and dying. The First Sergeant of the Hospital company abandons Phil to those duties, which he bravely does until he’s covered with blood, excrement, and vomit and passing out from fatigue and hunger. All the horrifying essence of the carnage of the Vietnam War is distilled and encapsulated in this superb story.  Joynes is the fiction winner for this collection, chosen by William Trent Pancoast, author of Wildcat.

I can’t give this level of attention to every piece in this collection, but I assure prospective readers that this anthology is the best you’ll ever find. The World War II entry by Paul Mims, “Rockhappy, 1944-45,” is as worthy as the An Khe piece, but as different as it can be. There’s some of the flavor of Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific, but with elements of Catch-22 madness. Mark Bowden was the judge who picked this nonfiction piece as a winner.

I usually am not much impressed by the quality of war poetry in a mixed genre anthology, but I had high hopes for the poetry in this collection because the judge was Brian Turner, author of Here Bullet.  My high hopes for Gerado Mena’s “Baring the Trees” were not dashed. There were echoes of Villon’s more doom-laden poetry in Trees, but it was still totally its own poem. Great stuff.

This anthology is a deluxe production in every way—the cover art, editing, proof reading. The reader can dip into it and find excellence on every page.

My favorite piece in the book is Russell Reece’s Vietnam War story, “In Less Than a Minute.”  It is an up-river Mekong journey into the horrifying Heart of Darkness that was the Vietnam War, just seven pages but more memorable and powerful than dozens of full-length Vietnam War novels I have read.

Buy this anthology and keep it by your bedside to dip into and read before you turn out the lights at night. That practice will guarantee nightmares about America’s choice to engage the world in one war after the other. This anthology is one of the few positive byproducts of our national predilection for war.

—David Willson