Winter Phoenix by Sophia Terazawa

The poems in Sophia Terazawa’s Winter Phoenix: Testimonies in Verse (Deep Vellum Publishing, 140 pp. $16, paper; $15.20, Kindle) serve as witness to a series of war atrocities. A poet and performer of Vietnamese-Japanese descent, Terazawa holds an MFA from the University of Arizona and is the author of two award-winning poetry chapbooks.

The poems in the Winter Phoenix—some of which were published in The Iowa Review, The Cincinnati Review, Salt Hill Journal, The Seattle Review, and Sundog Lit—are a form of found poetry based on veterans’ testimonies during internationally publicized events, including the Winter Soldier Investigation held by Vietnam Veterans Against the War in Detroit in 1971, and the Bertram Russell International War Crimes Tribunal in Stockholm in 1966.

Terazawa says these poems are about her “ongoing survival as the daughter of her mother.” The book can be read as eighty poems, or as six poems, or even just one long one. There are several different forms of poems, and poems within poems. Taking the overall form of a war crimes tribunal, the poems speak of accusations and allegations, atrocities, violence, trauma, and witness. Each consists of an opening statement, witness oaths, exhibits, supplemental diagrams, testimony, cross-examination, redactions, bylaws, a final report, and a closing statement. In all, they are “a cry for justice.”

These lines that jumped out at me during multiple readings of the book:

She was shot before they called her young.”

“Our trials happened but we never happened.”

“Stars inside my mouth” and the men kept changing places, “Slapping high-fives.”

“How do trials make another body absent?”

“women, hunted, were first shot then stabbed—each comma,/here, most crucial to our story, hence, delineating men from action/during war—a woman, hunted, was then killed upon another hill./These facts are very simple.”

“Losing count of war crimes meant a war crime never happened. Therefore, I was tortured.”

“Then all was silent in your

language, and my language”

“Somewhere in a thicket

There were rabbits screaming. Stop.”

“Uphill, in a country not my own, I found her body, sir.

From that body I could write our book of testimonies. But I could not write this by myself.”

“Why did you just stand there and say nothing?”

The final poem includes an alphabet running backwards, as if it’s leading us back to a time before there was a language to describe the atrocities of war. But even then there would be a witness and a silent accusation: Why did you not do something?

This is a consciousness-raising work of literature.

–Bill McCloud


An American Atrocity by Mike McCarey

Mike McCarey served as the First Marine Division’s chief prosecutor for most of 1968 when that unit was in Vietnam. McCarey’s office prosecuted all felony cases in the division.

Captain Conners is the main character in American Atrocity (J-ALM Publishing, 288 pp., $13.99, paper; $3.99, Kindle), a military/legal novel.  “On a rainy night in January 1968, several days before Tet, a squad of Marines on a mission to gather information is attacked by a large force of North Vietnamese regulars,” the back-cover blurb notes.

“Only six Marines live through the assault. The following day, the half-dazed and exhausted survivors capture three Vietnamese dressed as farmers. The captives are put on ‘trial’ for being the enemy, sentenced to death and executed. One of the captives—a teenage boy—is tortured and hanged.”

The plot brings to mind the real-life story told in Casualties of War, the book and the movie. Many of the same issues are presented and debated in this book. That includes questions such as:

  • Is it realistic to expect our soldiers and Marines to follow the rules of war when the enemy does not follow them?
  • Are rules for war realistic? 
  • When fighting an enemy who adheres to only guerrilla war methods, can we beat them if we stick with Geneva Convention rules?
  • All war is hell, but when does war become war crimes?

Captain Conners deals with all of the above. Things get complicated when Conners realizes that he had met and spoken to the three murder victims, and he knew for sure they were farmers, not Viet Cong. The six Marines who murdered them, however, did not know that. To them, all Vietnamese were alike, all were the enemy.

Mike McCarey

This is an engrossing book, with a well-told story. We encounter Bob Hope, people sniffers, a media that is against the war, and Marines being spat upon in airports back home and being baby killers.

Fragging is also featured. The Phoenix Program is mentioned as a defense as it involved murdering civilians whose crime was to be included on a list for perhaps no more serious a reasons than insulting a neighbor.

It is good to read a Vietnam War novel in which the hero spends most of his time behind a desk, not out in the field. It also is good to read a book in which justice is done, although it doesn’t resurrect the dead Vietnamese farmers. They are gone; their hearts and minds are beyond reach.

I highly recommend An American Atrocity to those who who wish to read a nuanced novel about the moral and ethical issues that infantry soldiers deal with.

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

—David Willson

The author in Vietnam