War Crimes by Martin Robert Grossman

War Crimes (Koehler Books, 276 pp. $29.95, hardcover; $17.95, paper, $5.03, Kindle) is Martin Robert Grossman’s second mystery novel featuring Jerry Andrews, a Vietnam veteran and recently retired Los Angeles Police Department detective. The former Green Beret is living in a peaceful village in northern Mexico when he gets a call from an old Army buddy, Jon Compton, a retired Texas Ranger. Compton asks Andrews to help him resolve an issue he’s taken on.

Seabrook, Texas, is a small fishing town near Houston. In the mid-1970s Vietnamese shrimpers who fled their homeland ended up working the coastal waters there. Feelings of prejudice, combined with fears of competition, led some locals to attack the newcomers and burn their boats. There also was at least one murder, and the influx of Vietnamese led to the appearance of a revitalized Ku Klux Klan.

Things calmed down and nearly two decades went by. But now the body of a Vietnamese male is discovered. He had been shot in the hard and had his throat cut. A playing card–an ace of spades with the Grim Reaper holding a scythe—was found on the body. Former Ranger Compton volunteers to help investigate. Then, following a second similar murder, he decides to ask his old buddy Jerry Andrews to join him.

Soon there’s a third victim, with mutilation added to it, and Compton tells Andrews they need to quickly solve these new murders “under the radar” before the situation causes a new race riot. But racist skinheads are already beginning to gather in town and a reporter for the local newspaper hopes to break the story wide open. After a fourth murder they know they’re after “a deranged serial killer” who is very likely a Vietnam War veteran.

There’s a broad cast of characters in this story, many with military backgrounds. There’s a nearby VA hospital and a private retreat set up for veterans. The founder of the latter is driven by a desire to slow down the numbers of brave men fought in the Vietnam War only to end up being killed by “the lifestyle” they’ve “been forced into by an ungrateful nation.”

Martin Grossman

The direct connection between War Crimes and Grossman’s previous novel, Club Saigon, in addition to the character of Jerry Andrews, is the illicit movement of cocaine and heroin between Vietnamese-American communities. In both novels the author frequently refers to Vietnamese people as “Orientals.” That term today is outdated, but at least its use is consistent throughout the two books.

After reading War Crimes and Club Saigon you could end up believing that every American who served in Vietnam left the war zone as damaged goods. Some did, but most didn’t. Remember that as you read these novels in which memories of the war eventually pour out in extremely violent fashion.

Grossman’s website is martinrobertgrossman.com

–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

Lincoln’s Code by John Fabian Witt

John Fabian Witt’s Lincoln’s Code: The Laws of War in American History (Free Press, 498 pp., $32) is “a story about war in America,” the author notes. “To be more specific, it is the story of an idea about war, an idea that Americans have sometimes nurtured and often scorned.” Said idea: “that the conduct of war can be constrained by law.”

Witt, a Yale University Law School professor who also is a Yale history professor and a Guggenheim Foundation fellow, traces that concept to the Lincoln administration’s adopting of a detailed code of law for the Union Army in late December of 1862. Written by Francis Lieber and approved by Lincoln, that code—which dealt with issues such as torture, POWs, the treatment civilians, spies, and slaves—became “the foundation of the modern laws of war,” Witt notes.

Parts of the code, which consisted of 157 short sections (or “articles”), were adopted by other nations around the world; some were incorporated into the Geneva Conventions of the mid-twentieth century.

Witt deals mainly with American wars from the Revolution to the little-known Philippine War of 1899-1902. He barely touches the Vietnam War, except to note that that war had several things in common with the Philippine War, including the fact that in both cases American troops faced guerrilla-led insurgencies in the jungles of Southeast Asia.

In the Philippine War, Witt notes, American troops’ use of an interrogation method now known as water boarding “produced a law of war crisis like none to that point in American history, though it bore an eerie resemblance to the controversies that would arise in Vietnam in the 1960s and in Afghanistan and Iraq in the early 2000s.”

—Marc Leepson