Perfume River Nights by Michael P. Maurer

 

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Michael P. Maurer enlisted in the Army and served as an infantryman with the 82nd Airborne Division in the Vietnam War. Maurer moved to Vietnam in 2003. He stayed there until 2009. He took more than twelve years to complete his novel, Perfume River Nights (North Star Press, 329 pp., $14.95, paper), most of which was written in Vietnam.

The novel’s main character, Jimmy Miller, called Singer by his platoon mates, is the same age, 18, as Maurer was when he served in Vietnam. I don’t think that is the only similarity between the author and the protagonist.

As the novel’s title indicates, some of the story takes place in Hue (the Perfume River runs through it), after most of the fighting is over during Tet 1968 and the city is destroyed. Later, the novel moves to the A Shau Valley, where the scenes are cloaked  in great darkness due to the dense forest overhead. The platoon stumbles into an enemy base camp in the Valley and dire things ensue, all of which are well described and had me on the edge of my seat.

That includes bad leadership, which is decried often in this book. Fragging is suggested more than once. “Inept leaders and stupid orders” dog the platoon throughout. Their lieutenant tries to pick up a booby trap and blows himself and others up. At one point a character says he’d kill for a glass of water. Bees attack them. Our hero receives a Dear John letter. His letters to his mom are lies that tell her he is in a base camp watching a lot of old movies.

Our hero is angry all the time. After seven months, Miller refuses to shoot his rifle anymore. His Top Sergeant and the new Captain send him to Camp Eagle where he’ll “finish out [his] tour with the company support elements.”

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Maurer

We get many of the same motifs in this novel that are in the the hundreds of in-country fictional works that preceded it, but the writing is much better than in most infantry novels.

We hear “It don’t mean nothing;” we get the phrase, “the things they carried,” as well as rants against REMFs (“fuckin’ pogues”), shit-burning details, shake and bake leaders, chickenshit deferments, clerks with nervous fingers, friendly fire, and cowboys and Indians.

Near the end  we are told that there is no glory in killing, but the novel already made that more than clear to this reader.

Perfume River Nights is a superb novel of the American infantry in Vietnam, and I highly recommend it. If I were still teaching a class on the war, I’d use this novel as a text and the class would learn a lot from it.

I rank Perfume River Nights right up there with Marlantes’ Matterhorn, even though Matterhorn is at least twice the size.

The author’s website is www.michaelpmaurer.com

—David Willson

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Le Havre: A Riveting Expose For Our World Today by Pierre Gerard

Pierre Gerard’s Le Havre: A Riveting Expose For Our World Today: The French Resistance in World War II: A Historical War Romance Novel (Merriam Press, 286 pp., $18.95) has been published posthumously. A Vietnam veteran, Pierre Gerard served in the U.S. Army in Soc Trang during his 1967-68 tour of duty.

His family has a distinguished military history. Gerard was raised an Air Force brat by his Strategic Air Command pilot father and French mother, a native of Le Havre. Those facts enrich his writing.

This historical novel follows dual protagonists, Ti-Jean Campion and Marie-Claude Le Goff, life-long citizens of the French seaport Le Havre, which was occupied from 1940-45 by the Germans during World War II. At the start of the war, French citizens in this idyllic seaside city had fresh memories of the defeat of Germany in World War I.

“The lifestyle of Le Havre’s local population, for the most part, remained the same,” Gerard writes. “Ration cards, breadlines, and the Marche’ noir, or black market, were thus far not harsh realities of life.” They reasoned “maybe the Germans were not so bad. Maybe we could live in peace with them during the occupation of the city.”

Things soon changed. The two young protagonists are consumed with their love for each other—and with preserving free France, along with fellow Resistance fighters, Les Chevalier du Normandy. They often meet at Le Chat Noir,The Black Cat, planning strategy and sipping espresso and in their more-secluded safe house away from Gestapo prying eyes.

This suspense-filled story alternates between 1999 and the years of occupation with vivid descriptions of Le Havre in war and peace. Such as: “Ti-Jean continued to walk toward the end of the walkway. The sun began to show through the puffy, white clouds turning the brown sandy beach into an artist’s palette of oranges, reds, and blues mixed with the rainbow of colors of the latest designer swimwear.”
And: ” The two lovers gradually drifted off to a dreamless sleep, leaving the phantasmagoric world they existed in behind for a better place without threat or harm. Marie-Claude closed her eyes tightly and tenderly touched her lover’s face with her graceful fingers.”

The German invaders ruthlessly took homes and food and any creature comforts they desired from the citizens of Le Havre. German officer, sipping brandy and looking out the bay window at a beautiful villa shouted at his aide, ” I want that villa by the end of the cliff to be appropriated: evict the family living there.”

The German Navy moved a U-Boat into the city harbor and covered it with camouflage, protecting it from possible deconstruction by allied bombers. The Resistance had to find out what surprise the U-Boat Captain was planning. The fate of the harbor city of Le Havre— and perhaps all of Europe—hinged on the what lay hidden in the hold of the German U-Boat.

This novel is magnificent and tragic. Ce roman est magnifique et tragique.

—Curt Nelson

Shell Shock by Steve Stahl

Former UCLA and Stanford University psychiatry professor Stephen Stahl is an expert on PTSD. The hero of his novel, Shell Shock (Harley House Press, 448 pp., $17.95, paper; $5.99, Kindle), Dr. Gus Conrad, discover a covert “diabolical” military faction called The Patrons of Perseus, which was “formed during the First World War to celebrate heroism and eliminate cowardice.” The novel deals with Conrad’s attempt to fight the evil Patrons.

Blurbs compare this novel—a thriller—to those of David Balacci, Stephen Hunter, Dan Brown, and Lee Child. Having read thrillers by all of those authors, I agree. A book of this sort needs diabolical bad guys, and there are plenty.

Shell Shock covers events going back a century. World War I gets most of the attention, but recent wars also are given their due, including the Vietnam War. We get Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen as characters, with long conversations between them and a fictional character. I enjoyed reading those bits quite a lot. These conversations are set in remote Scotland at Craiglockhart, where the men were taken after being diagnosed with shell shock, the WWI term for what is known today as post-traumatic stress disorder.

Steve Stahl

We read justifications of why shell shock, battle fatigue (the World War II term), and PTSD have been demonized by the military. It’s because, Stahl writes, they are “diverting resources for weapons to psychiatric care and pensions for those injured with PTSD by these wars.”

We’re told that a ploy of claiming the men had “pre-existing moral deficiencies” would discredit these men and save a lot of money.

There’s a lot of serious stuff going on in this thriller. But there also is plenty of action to hold the interest of a reader. I recommend it to those who want to read a thriller dealing in a serious way with PTSD. The author’s website is http://stevestahl.com

—David Willson

The Centurions by Jean Larteguy

11111111111111111111111111111111111111Jean Larteguy (the pen name of Jean Pierre Lucien Osty, 1920-2011) spent time in prison in Spain in 1942, the year I was born. He then joined the Free French Forces and served seven years in North Africa and Korea. In 1955, he received the Albert Landres Prize for his Indochina reporting. He is best known for his Algerian War Trilogy.

The introduction by Robert D. Kaplan to Larteguy’s 1960 novel, The Centurions (Penguin Classics, 544 pp., $18, paper), is superb. The translation by Xan Fielding, the author of several fine war books of his own, is pitch perfect.

Larteguy’s book is a masterpiece on how to fight a war of counterinsurgency. I first encountered that word in a movie I saw at Fort Benjamin Harrison during my training to become an Army stenographer, which I then practiced for more than thirteen months in South Vietnam. Fort Ben had an excellent library that included many on Southeast Asian warfare.

Jean Larteguy

One of those books was this one. I read it and then spent a couple of months wondering why the United States was involved in a ground war in Southeast Asia. President Eisenhower had warned against entering into such a war, and Larteguy makes it clear in this book that guerrilla tactics must be used against an enemy that fights without rules, “tactics out of step with the ideals of just war.”

There are powerful, well-drawn characters in this classic novel. We first meet them in an Indochina prison camp in 1954, immediately after the fall of Dien Bien Phu. Larteguy makes all of his characters come alive on the page, including the Indochinese. We see them, warts and all, and we feel for them.

I reread this book again when I was stationed at USARV headquarters in the Inspector General Section. I loved hanging out in the air-conditioned library in the compound. I read all of the books they had on the wars in Indochina. There was no indication that any one else had read these books. They seemed brand new and unopened.

Reading The Centurions in South Vietnam was a different experience than reading it in Indiana. It really hit home that if our Army leaders—for instance, Gen. William Westmoreland—had read this novel, perhaps the war would be winnable. Or at least we’d be doing better. As the casualty reports and the downed aircraft reports cycled across my desk each day, I realized that we were not pursuing this war in a way that Larteguy would approve.

About a third of the way through this book, the author tells us that the Vietnamese never ceased working to defeat the enemy. “Meanwhile,” he writes, “we were idling away in the brothels and opium dens.”  I witnessed that during the American war, too.

Larteguy called the Vietnamese way of war “termite methods,” noting that they “never fail to learn from their mistakes.” The French—and the Americans—kept making the same mistakes over and over.

It’s became an all but accepted truth—especially in books written by American Vietnam War veterans—that the U.S. “never lost a battle” in that war. But, as Larteguy tells us, “In the strategy of modern warfare, military tactics are a matter of secondary importance, politics will always take precedence.”

I highly recommend this great novel to those interested in reading about combat and the aftermath of losing a war of counterinsurgency. None better has been written.

—David Willson

Take a Rifle from a Dead Man by Larry Matthews

Paul Brite—the hero of Larry Matthews’s novel Take a Rifle from a Dead Man (Argus Enterprises International, 264 pp., $17.99, paper)—survives the Depression as a cowboy, brothel bouncer, and railroad hobo and then, on March 7, 1940, makes a life-altering decision: enlisting in the U.S. Army.

After Basic Training at Ft. Benning, Brite is sent to the 304th Infantry Regiment at Fort Devens. He meets and falls in love with a woman named Marie while there. On a date they hear this announcement on the car radio: “We interrupt this broadcast to bring you a special bulletin. The Japanese have bombed Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. Repeat, the Japanese have bombed Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.”

One month later Paul and Marie become Mr. and Mrs. Paul Brite. Three years after that Corporal Brite leaves his wife and son to fight the war as an antitank gunner.

Discharged after VE-Day Paul Brite returns to civilian life and soon realizes that the factory assembly line is not for him. So he re-enlists in the Army. He and his wife and son are together briefly in occupied Japan until Brite is shipped out to Korea. He’s soon in hand to hand combat and loses his M-1, a life-long haunting memory.

“He tripped over something and fell into the dusty snow, landing on his face,” Matthews writes. “He turned and looked up and into the face of a dead Marine lying frozen and staring into the fog. The Marine was holding his M-1 with both hands, his left hand frozen around the barrel, his right hand on the trigger guard. Paul needed the weapon. It took him several minutes to pry it from the frozen fingers of the Marine. Tears rolled down his cheeks as he pulled the weapon away.”

In 1951 Brite is assigned as a Military Intelligence Operative to spy on Soviets in Cold War Berlin. What follows are engrossing chapters filled with intrigue and some ironic scenes reminiscent of Mad magazine’s “Spy vs. Spy.” Some comic relief comes from the station chiefs Paul works for in Berlin and Frankfurt.

Larry Matthews

During this assignment the Brite family spends some good years in Germany and then Paul gets a desk job in Arlington, Virginia, and his chance to retire approaches. Paul decides to go for the highest NCO rank of Sergeat Major. To do that he has to volunteer for one more combat assignment.

This times it’s in Vietnam. He spends a year gathering intelligence on Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army troop movements.

Sergeant Major Paul Brite retires to Arizona where he and his wife are together at last. but Paul is not alone .The ice-covered face of the dead Marine in Chosin is with him every day.

I strongly recommend this action-packed and sometimes poignant novel.

The author’s website is www.larrymatthews.net

Curt Nelson

Kickers by Patrick Lee

The cover of Patrick Lee’s Kickers: A Novel of the Secret War (CreateSpace, 380 pp., $13.95, paper) depicts an airdrop In Laos. It shows a package, probably rice, dropping after having been booted out of a low and slow-moving airplane. This novel is about the recruitment of young smoke jumpers by the CIA  to do this job, known as kicking. Patrick Lee interviewed smoke jumpers fifty years ago, and uses those characters and their stories as the material of this novel.

Lee, who practiced law in Washington, D.C., for forty-five years and now lives in Idaho, is a former smoke jumper himself. He made twenty-five parachute jumps into the Idaho Primitive Area fighting forest fires.

The novel starts in 1954 with a CIA agent and twenty French soldiers jumping into Dien Bien Phu as replacements for the dead. After the men land, they find themselves walking on the rotting corpses of those they are there to replace. Lee sets this scene of the French losing at Dien Bien Phu as well as any of the many authors I have read who have dealt with that subject.

The novel presents us with alternating chapters that go back and forth in time. One of the smoke jumpers ends up as a captive and we get details about how he is treated by his captors. Suffice it to say they do not treat him kindly. We also get a lot on the back stories of the main characters going back to childhood. We know them, and when awful things happen to them, we miss them.

The reader learns a lot about how the CIA chose, recruited, and trained the smoke jumpers to become surrogate warriors. They were taught to how to eat snakes, what to do when they ran out of water, how to behave when captured, and how to endure lectures from brainwashing captors.

Patrick Lee

We follow them to Saigon, to Tu Do Street, and into bars where they do what young men do in such circumstances. We follow them from the early years of the war to 1968 when LBJ announces his resignation from the presidency.

Lee is a good storyteller. He keeps the reader involved in the tales of these young men who were hired to kick thousands of pounds of rice out of airplanes to feed the Hmong fighters on the ground in Laos while they fought communists.

The rice was dropped in half-full sacks so they would not explode upon impact with the ground. One of the kickers comments that he hopes he will not be killed “in a dumbass war nobody knows about.”

If you are looking for a novel about the not-so secret CIA war in Laos and the involvement of the smoke jumpers this book is for you.

The book’s website is www.kickersthenovel.com

—David Willson