Arts of War By Marc Leepson

Welcome to “Arts of War,” Vietnam Veterans of America’s up-to-the-minute compendium of information, news and reviews about the arts—movies, television, stage plays, musicals, music, dance, popular and fine arts, and more—that deal with Vietnam veterans and the Vietnam War.

This web page replaces the “Arts of War” column that ran in Vietnam Veterans of America’s national magazine, The VVA Veteran, from 1986-2009. That popular column was written by The VVA Veteran’s arts editor, Marc Leepson, who continues that work on this web site.

We encourage feedback. Please email your comments, questions, and suggestions to

Posted on January 28th 2009 in Comments

New Doc on the Final Days in Saigon

I am confident that I speak for the overwhelming majority of Vietnam veterans when I say that Henry Kissinger is just about the last person I would want to see as a talking head in a documentary about anything to do with the Vietnam War—much less the final days in April of 1975.

There’s no disputing the fact that Kissinger, the former Nixon Administration Secretary of State and National Security Adviser, was the most influential American shaping Vietnam War policy from 1969 to the end in 1975. But to include him in a Vietnam War documentary is akin to having Admiral Tojo explain the ending of World War II in the Pacific.

That’s because Kissinger’s arrogance, disingenuousness, and duplicity —along with that of his boss, Richard Nixon—made him more responsible than any other American for the war’s disastrous conclusion.

What’s more, following the end of the war Nixon (until his death in 1994) and Kissinger have spent considerable time baldly rewriting Vietnam War history. In a stream of books, speeches, TV and radio interviews, and articles the duo has tried to make the case that the war effort did not fail because of anything they did. Rather, it was the fecklessness and evil doings of others: the North Vietnamese, the Viet Cong, the South Vietnamese, the American news media, the American antiwar movement, the U.S. Congress, your Aunt Gertrude.

So it was with no small measure of incredulity to see Kissinger spouting off throughout The Last Days in Vietnam, an otherwise very well done and moving look at the last few days of the Vietnam War in April of 1975. The film, directed and produced by Rory Kennedy for PBS’s American Experience series, has been playing at film festivals and in a few theaters this summer and will be into the fall. It will air on TV next spring to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the communist takeover of the former South Vietnam.

Kennedy’s theme is the human angle in this sad episode of history. She focuses on heroic actions taken by Americans on the ground in Saigon as they tried—against overwhelming odds—to evacuate South Vietnamese men, women, and children they believed would be in mortal danger after the North Vietnamese took over the country.

The most informative and riveting testimony comes from former CIA analyst Frank Snepp, one-time Army Capt. Stuart Herrington, former U.S. Marine Guards Juan Valdez and Mike Sullivan, former Navy officers Hugh Doyle and Paul Jacobs, and two Vietnamese people left behind, a college student named Binh Pho and former South Vietnamese Navy Lt. Dam Pham, along with Kiem Do, who was a captain the South Vietnamese Navy. In the main, they tell stories that are short on politics and long on emotion. In comparison, Kissinger’s two cents come off as banal and bland.

Kennedy has found lots of great footage to go with the first-person testimony, including home movies shot aboard the U.S.S. Kirk, and lots of film from inside and around the American Embassy in Saigon. It’s a well above average documentary that is marred by the hulking presence of one of the war’s most controversial figures.

A list of upcoming screenings is posted on the film’s website.

—Marc Leepson

Posted on September 3rd 2014 in Documentaries, History

A. J. Langguth, 1933-2014

A. J. “Jack”  Langguth, who covered the Vietnam War for The New York Times and who went on to have a long career as an author and journalism professor at the University of Southern California, died on September 1 in Los Angeles. The author of—among many other books—the award-winning Our Vietnam: The War, 1954-1975, was 81 years old.

“Unable to set Vietnam aside, Langguth spent seven years researching and writing Our Vietnam: The War 1954-1975 (2000), which won acclaim for telling the Vietnamese side of the story as well as it did the American side, through solid analysis, mastery of detail and deft portraits of pivotal figures, including Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem,” his Los Angeles Times obituary noted.

“The book does not develop new arguments or explicitly address the many war issues that still divide Americans,” historian George C. Herring wrote in his 2000 review . “Its strengths, rather, are in its skillful retelling of a well-known story, and in the way it captures the many dimensions of the war.”

Here’s our review of the book, from the October/November 2000 issue of The VVA Veteran:

Making History Come Alive: Jack Langguth’s Readable Our Vietnam

There have been readable narrative histories of the American war in Vietnam. There have been exhaustively researched histories of that war, combining material from original interviews, archival sources, and the best secondary sources. Now comes A.J. “Jack” Langguth’s Our Vietnam: The War, 1954-1975 (Simon & Schuster, 794 pp., $35), a history of the Vietnam War that is both compulsively readable and thoroughly researched.

Langguth, the former New York Times correspondent who teaches journalism at the University of Southern California, focuses on American policy-making in Washington, particularly during the Johnson administration. But he also includes fascinating material on concurrent planning by our Vietnamese allies and by the Vietnamese communists.

Langguth tells his story chronologically; he offers no surprises. But Langguth does bring something new to the table: insights into some of the war’s most pivotal events gleaned from interviews with lesser known but consequential American and Vietnamese eyewitnesses. That group includes William Kohlmann of the CIA; Viet Cong Lt. Ta Minh Kham; Foreign Service Officer Paul Kattenburg; North Vietnamese Army Col. Ta Minh Kham; Nguyen Dinh Tu, a one-time South Vietnamese newspaper reporter; and Jack Smith, the veteran ABC-TV News reporter who fought with the U.S. First Cavalry Division at the 1965 Battle of the Ia Drang.

Langguth also interviewed well-known pivotal players and mined the best primary and secondary accounts. With an eye for the telling anecdote, Langguth uses dozens of individual stories to create this personality-driven saga. The result is a long, compelling narrative. The book is short on analysis, but sets out the politically charged policy-making story of the Vietnam War in a complete and seamless manner.

Posted on September 2nd 2014 in Book News, History, In the Classroom, Journalism, Obituaries

Jack Herman’s Vietnam War ‘Micro Nonfiction’

Every week, the website Microfiction Monday posts stories that are told in 100 words or less. Today’s edition is a bit different–it contains six micro nonfictional accounts of the Vietnam War experiences of Jack Herman.

Drafted into the Army as a Conscientious Objector,  Herman served as a medic in Vietnam from 1969-70 with the 1st Cavalry Division. He saw his share of combat and—without carrying a weapon—received a Purple Heart and two Bronze Stars.

Here’s the full text of one of the pieces, “Nothing For Pain”:

It was a minor wound. A bullet had hit the man between his thumb and forefinger. Good bleeding but not pulsating, so no artery involvement. The medic cleaned and bandaged the wound as best he could while they sat in a dark foxhole.

“Sorry,” said the medic. “I don’t have anything for the pain. Battalion won’t issue us Darvon or morphine anymore because guys are stealing it from our aid bags. We’ll do our best to get you out in the morning on a chopper when we get resupplied with ammo. I’ll be back later to check the dressing.”

     Jack Herman in Vietnam

Posted on August 25th 2014 in Arts on the Web, Essays

Filmmaker Query: Vietnam Veterans and Apollo 11

Lauren Boudreau of 43Films is producing a two-hour special for the American Heroes Channel about Apollo 11 and what that event meant to Americans during the height of the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement.

“We want to focus on how the moon landing brought people together during those tumultuous times,” she told us, “and we are looking for veterans to share their stories with us about the war and about the moon landing. We want to tell the story of how the moon landing brought people together as accurately as possible.”

If you would like to tell your Vietnam War/moon landing story, email Lauren Boudreau at

Posted on August 14th 2014 in Artistic Queries, Documentaries, On TV

Robin Williams, 1951-2014

Most of the obituaries and appreciations of Robin Williams (who committed suicide on August 11) mentioned the fact that his breakout acting role came in the film Good Morning Vietnam and that he won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his supporting role in Good Will Hunting.

What few, if any, said was that the character Williams played in Good Will Hunting (Dr. Sean Maguire, at right in the above photo) was a Vietnam veteran—a strong, smart and good-hearted one. Those three attributes are rare to non-existent in Vietnam veteran characters on screen.

Here’s what we wrote about Williams and that film in the “Arts of War” column in the April/May 1998 issue of The VVA Veteran:

My guess is that it barely registered with most people. But it’s a good bet that nearly every Vietnam veteran who saw the serious-minded and entertaining dramatic film Good Will Hunting picked up on the fact that the brilliant, funny, sad psychologist played by Robin Williams served in Vietnam and later counseled veterans of the war.

The character, Dr. Sean Maguire, played achingly well by Williams, is a hero—a self-effacing man who knows many things and proves to be an astute, effective analyst.

The fact that Sean is a vet comes up only once, when the title character—Will Hunting, the working-class young genius played by Matt Damon—notices an in-country photo in Sean’s office. The two banter about it for a few seconds and that’s it.

But for the rest of the film we are aware that Sean’s Vietnam War service is an integral part of his psychic makeup, which also includes a hard-knocks, working-class upbringing in Boston’s South End and a deep personal post-war tragedy.

The good news is that director Gus Van Sant’s Good Will Hunting has a Vietnam veteran central character who is smart, savvy, empathic, and altruistic. The riveting, craftily plotted script was written by 27-year-old Damon and Ben Affleck, 25, who plays Will’s best buddy in the movie. In this movie these two young Boston-born-and-raised Hollywood actors show they know a good deal about life—and about their parents’ generation.

You can find a video of Williams’ Oscar acceptance speech on YouTube.

Posted on August 12th 2014 in Drama, Feature Films, Honors and Prizes, Obituaries

Jay Maeder, 1947-2014

Jay Edward Maeder, Jr., the newspaper columnist and editor and comic strip writer, died of cancer July 29 at age 67. He wrote the “Jay Maeder’s People” column for The Miami Herald and later was city desk editor and columnist for The New York Daily News.

Maeder, who served in the U.S. Army, including a tour of duty in the Vietnam War, also was the last writer for the comic strip (Little Orphan) “Annie,” from 2000-2010. He was the author of Dick Tracy: The Official Biography.

“Mr. Maeder and the artist Andrew Pepoy updated Annie’s red dress and curly hair and added the pilot and former C.I.A. agent Amelia Santiago, but kept the catchphrase ‘Leapin’ Lizards!’” Daniel Slotnick wrote in The New York Times obituary. ”‘I tell people it’s ‘Indiana Jones’ with chicks,’he told The News.”

Posted on July 31st 2014 in Comic Books, Journalism, Obituaries

Filmmaker Query: Vietnam War Tunnel Rats

Malcolm Young of Firefly Films, a film and television production company in Singapore, is developing a documentary about the Vietnam War that will look at the system of tunnels the Viet Cong had in South Vietnam and the role of the American tunnel rats.

To that end, Young is looking for former Vietnam War tunnel rats who would be willing to be interviewed as part of the film. He is particularly interested in contacting anyone who worked in the Cu Chi tunnels near Saigon.

If you’re interested or for more info, email or

Feel free to mention that you heard about the film on The VVA Veteran’s Arts of War on the web page.

Posted on July 24th 2014 in Artistic Queries, Documentaries

New Operation Babylift Play

Part of the upcoming 2015 commemorations of the 1975 Vietnam War Operation Babylift—the government plan to get orphans out of South Vietnam as the nation was about to fall to the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong—will include an original two-act play, the first ever about that humanitarian mission.

To find out more about the play, including booking arrangements, email or go to

The official Vietnam “Operation Babylift” 40th anniversary program will be held on April 25, 2015, at the New Jersey Vietnam Era Educational Center in Holmdel, N.J.

Posted on July 22nd 2014 in Plays

Homer Hickam’s Latest Sci Fi Novel

Homer Hickam, the author of acclaimed memoir Rocket Boys, and the recipient of VVA’s Excellence in the Arts Award, also has written many other books, including his “Helium-3″ a trilogy of science fiction novels: Crater, Crescent, and his latest, Crater Trueblood and the Lunar Rescue Company (Thomas Nelson, 322 pp., $9.99, paper), which was published last month.

As one reviewer put it: “Anybody who grew up reading golden-age science fiction authors like Robert Heinlein… will immediately feel at home in the world [these] novels…anybody who likes the kind of story where it is up to one determined hero and his pals to save the world from certain destruction will have no problem tearing through this tale, in which former miner Crater, now the head of a rescue firm, must once again come to the aid of his one true love.”

Homer Hickam’s website is

Homer Hickam in Vietnam in 1968

Posted on July 22nd 2014 in Book News

Author Query: DEROS Stories

John Brennan, who has put together two books on Vietnam War helicopter art, is working on a volume of Vietnam War DEROS stories. And he is looking for help from Vietnam veterans.

“Tell me about your return home from the Vietnam War,” Brennan says. “I’d appreciate reading your memories regarding the following four threads in any amount of words you’d care to share: Your last week in-country before DEROS;  how you got home starting in Vietnam; those initial thirty days back in the world; and What can our country learn from Vietnam veterans?”

If you’d like to contribute, send an email to or write to Brennan at 864 Wisconsin St., Chico, CA 95928

Posted on July 22nd 2014 in Artistic Queries, Book News