March / April 2009
Reviews by Marc Leepson
Wayne Karlin has been turning out first-rate work examining the legacy of the Vietnam War for more than two decades. The former Marine’s latest novel, Marble Mountain (Curbstone Press, 270 pp., $15, paperback), continues in that vein.
This intense, intricately plotted, richly written story is set in the present with flashes to the American war. A sequel to Karlin’s 1998 novel, Prisoners, which won the Paterson Fiction Prize, the new book tells the intermingled stories of a Vietnamese-African-American teenager named Kiet, her adopted American father (who served a searing Vietnam War tour), and the family she never knew in Vietnam.
Kiet is now in her thirties. As in Prisoners, this young woman struggles emotionally after a rough childhood that included fleeing her homeland and suffering at the hands of an abusive foster family in this country. She runs off to Vietnam in search of answers. Her adoptive father, who also is struggling with postwar emotional problems, compulsively follows her. The plot unravels circuitously in an eye-opening climax in and around Marble Mountain.
FICTION IN BRIEF
VVA member Daniel L. Lawrence’s Nice Day For Flyin’ (Xlibris, 358 pp., $29.95, hardcover; $19.99, paper) is a smooth, dialogue-driven tale that follows Ian McIntyre into Vietnam where he undergoes an eventful tour. Lawrence served with the 1st Cav as a helicopter pilot flight engineer in Vietnam. Duke Barrett’s The Wall of Broken Dreams (Night Bandit, 275 pp., $14.95, paper) is an in-country Vietnam War novel based on the author’s 1966-67 tour as an infantryman and recon scout with the 1st Cav at An Khe. The author’s website is www.dukesbrokendreams.com
Jeffrey Rothman’s Almost Forgotten (PublishAmerica, 200 pp., $24.95, paper) begins in 1973 in a North Vietnamese POW camp and ends thirty-five years later with two American forensic scientists investigating a plane crash in Tibet. The author is a physical therapy professor at City University of New York’s College of Staten Island. Alangalang (PublishAmerica, 327 pp., $29.95, paper) is Vietnam veteran Robert Campbell’s autobiographical, flashback-filled novel that focuses on a soldier’s R&R experiences in the Philippines in April 1968.
Vietnam veteran Gabriel Urbina’s A Difficult Peace and Other Stories (Vantage, 90 pp., $9.95, paper) is a collection of twenty-one interrelated short stories, each of which deals with Vietnam War veterans and their postwar experiences. VVA life member Lansford O’Dell Lilly’s novel, A Dandelion For DeReau (Trafford, 503 pp., $30.28, paper), is set in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley during the Civil War.
OUT OF CONTEXT
The word “context” kept running through my brain as I read Deborah Nelson’s disturbing The War Behind Me: Vietnam Veterans Confront the Truth About U.S. War Crimes (Basic Books, 295 pp., $26.95). As in, “Where is the context?” Nelson’s book is, as the subtitle not so subtly indicates, an examination of hundreds of inexcusably bad things that American soldiers and Marines did during the Vietnam War, primarily killing, maiming, raping, and torturing innocent Vietnamese civilians. Nelson, a former L.A. Times reporter, also tells us how the U.S. military whitewashed or covered up the vast majority of these crimes.
But Nelson provides only the barest context. There is no mention, for instance, of the way the enemy operated among the civilian population. No mention, that is, of the VC’s MO of entering a village and doing to the ARVN-friendly folks what she describes in detail that American troops did to other civilians. Nor is there any mention of the NVA’s systematic massacre of nearly three thousand civilians in Hue during Tet ’68, nor the shameful way the other side treated our POWs. Nor, for that matter, is there even a hint that horrible crimes against innocents have been committed by all sides in every war ever fought in history.
This is not to say that American troops did not commit heinous crimes in the Vietnam War. Nor to excuse them. Many were prosecuted; too many were not, as Nelson shows. But Nelson fails to point out that the over ten long years some 2.8 million Americans fought in Vietnam, and that the overwhelming majority did not come close to taking part in, covering up, or aiding or abetting any type of war crime. After reading her book, though, one could come away thinking that the American war in Vietnam was one long crime spree. That’s a gross distortion of the truth, at the very least.
NO. 1 SPY
One other thing that bothered me about Nelson’s book: She made herself and her quest to uncover American war crimes a big part of the narrative. This kind of personal journalism (“how I got the story” with the emphasis on “I”) seriously distracts the reader from the story. That also is the case with Thomas A. Bass’s The Spy Who Loved Us: The Vietnam War and Pham Xuan An’s Dangerous Game (Public Affairs, 297 pp., $26.95). There’s a fascinating and important story here: Time magazine Saigon bureau translator and reporter Pham Xuan An led an amazing double life as a high-ranking spy for the other side.
But Bass, an English and journalism prof at the State University of New York at Albany, all but ruins the story with far too many first-person travelogue-like interludes. Such as: “Whenever I am in Paris, I try to meet Philippe Franchini for an afternoon drink at the Bistro des Amis near his apartment near the Left Bank.” Who cares and why is this in the book other than as a massive ego exercise? Another annoying thing about the book: Bass’s use of the present-tense when quoting An. This is more than a little off-putting because the master spy died in 2006.
Still, the facts of the case are amazing, especially that An pulled off the spying for decades right under the noses of the top American journalists and military intelligence types in Vietnam. He gave vital advance information to the other side on many U.S. and ARVN operations, including the Cambodian incursion in 1970 and Operation Lam Son in Laos in 1971. But before recognizing and honoring him for his work, the Vietnamese Communists sent him to a “re-education” camp to atone for his bourgeois ways.
NONFICTION IN BRIEF
In Grunts: The American Combat Soldier in Vietnam (M.E. Sharpe, 243 pp., $24.95), Arizona State University history professor Kyle Longley examines the American war in Vietnam largely through the experiences of those closest to the fighting. Although ground soldiers (and Marines) are the focus, Longley does a very good job of summarizing the war’s main points and Vietnam veterans’ postwar issues. That includes the evolution of the psycho “Nam vet” stereotype and the Vietnam veterans’ advocacy movement, including mention of the founding of VVA in 1978. The book is well researched (relying mainly on primary-source material, including Longley’s interviews with veterans) and well written.
Jim Beaver is a veteran character actor best known for his portrayal of the gruff-but-good-hearted Ellsworth on the great HBO series Deadwood. Baker also is a Vietnam veteran who joined the Marines when he was 19 and did a 1970-71 tour in Vietnam with the 1st Marine Division. Beaver’s new memoir, Life’s That Way (Putnam, 320 pp., $24.95), told in journal form, looks at the tremendously unsettling events surrounding the 2003 birth of the author’s daughter, who was diagnosed with autism, and the lung cancer than claimed his wife Maddie a year later. It’s a moving story told poignantly and not without redemption.
David A. Ballentine’s Gunbird Driver: A Marine Huey Pilot’s War in Vietnam (Naval Institute Press, 276 pp., $28.95) is a well-crafted, dialogue-heavy memoir of the author’s 1966-67 tour as a young UH-1E helicopter pilot with Marine Observation Squadron Six operating out of Ky Ha. Ballentine, who earned a Ph.D. in European history after his Vietnam War service, retired as a colonel in 1989. He says he made a conscious attempt to get the in-country language correct, and he does: The book overflows with expletives.
More Than a Memory: Reflections of Viet Nam (Modern Healing Press, 221 pp., $21.95, paper) is an anthology of essays, stories, and poems by fifteen Vietnam veterans. There is a wide range of material here, all well worth reading. That includes an excellent essay, “Whatever You Did in War Will Always be With You,” on PTSD by writer Marc Levy, who also contributes two first-rate short stories. The other contributors include Don Bodey (the author of the novel F.N.G.), Alan Farrell, and Preston Hood.
If you guessed that a book titled Bombing Civilians: A Twentieth-Century History (New Press, 291 pp., $25.95) addresses the American war in Vietnam, you’d be correct. This compilation of essays edited by Yuki Tanaka and Marilyn B. Young looks at actions as diverse as the British bombing of Iraq in the 1920s, the atom bombing of Japan in 1945, and the American bombing of Afghanistan today. Young, a New York University history professor and Vietnam War specialist, offers her thoughts in her essay “Bombing Civilians from the Twentieth to the Twenty-first Centuries.” She includes a 1978 remark by WWII Army Air Forces Gen. Ira Eaker: “How much better it would have been, if necessary, to destroy North Vietnam, than to lose our first war.”
In Courage and Fear: A Primer (Potomac Books, 144 pp., $19.95), Retired Col. Wesley L. Fox, a Medal of Honor recipient who served for forty-three years in the Marine Corps, writes about how he handled fear on the battlefield and in other dangerous operations. Fox includes a revealing, short chapter on a brutal fight he took part in on Feb. 22, 1969, when he was commanding Alpha Company of the 1st Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment, 3rd Marine Division during Operation Dewey Canyon in the A Shau Valley. Fox’s unit took heavy casualties; he was hit twice by shrapnel and pinned down by murderous NVA machine gun fire. Fox “recognized fear in a big way,” he said, then went on to conquer it after being buoyed by the “courage of my ground Marines” and the air support crews that came to his rescue.
Retired USAF Col. Wolfgang W.E. Samuel’s Glory Days: The Untold Story of the Men Who Flew the B-66 Destroyer Into the Face of Fear (Schiffer, 429 pp., $35) chronicles the wartime feats of the two B-66 squadrons that flew out of bases in Thailand into North Vietnam. Samuel, who flew 77 Vietnam War missions with the 355th Tactical Fighter Wing in EB-66 aircraft from Takhli Royal Thai Air Force base, interviewed fellow USAF B-66 veterans and dug through official records to augment his personal experiences in telling this story.
The Art of Command: Military Leadership from George Washington to Colin Powell (University of Kentucky, 296 pp., $32.50), a group of nine essays edited by Harry S. Laver and Jeffrey J. Matthews, contains an excellent entry by the Army historian Col. H.R. McMaster on the “adaptive leadership” of Gen. Hal Moore, the hero of the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley.
Alexander Rose’s American Rifle: A Biography (Delacore, 495 pp., $30) includes the Army’s search for the best military rifles with a concise rundown on the unwieldy Vietnam War era M14 and the controversial M16. The latter weapon, which because it was “rushed into production,” Rose notes, caused “needless deaths.”
New in paper: The Tet Offensive: A Concise History (Columbia University Press, 272 pp., $24.50), a concise analysis by James H. Willbanks, who directs the Military History Department at the U.S. Army Command General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth.