Books In review
REVIEWS BY MARC LEEPSON
Many sons and daughters of Americans who perished in the Vietnam War have embarked on personal quests to learn about the fathers they never knew.
Danielle Trussoni’s father and namesake, Dan, did not die in Vietnam, and she knew him very well. But the crazed lifestyle her father lived after he came home sent Danielle Trussoni on an adult mission to find out what happened to her father in the Vietnam War. Danielle Trussoni’s quest took her to Vietnam where, among other things, she forced herself to descend into the infamous VC tunnels at Cu Chi. That traumatic trip is at the heart of her beautiful, warts-and-all memoir Falling Through the Earth (Holt, 240 pp., $23). In it, Trussoni examines her father’s life before, during, and after the war with insight and, surprisingly, with affection. It is surprising because Dan Trussoni all but neglected his children as he indulged in decades of postwar alcohol abuse, serial infidelity, and emotional turbulence.
Not exactly a model citizen before he entered the Army, Dan Trussoni spent an eventful year as a tunnel rat with the 25th Infantry Division. He returned to his hometown of La Crosse, Wisconsin, after the war, married, found work, and raised a family. But he also suffered—and caused those around him to suffer—from severe, untreated PTSD. He was, as his favorite daughter puts it, “rude, mean spirited, and temperamental.”
“As a girl, I believed the war had taken him from us,” Danielle Trussoni writes in a typically insightful passage. “It was an amorphous monster that would grab hold and pull us into it kicking and screaming. Vietnam claimed Dad’s past, his future, his health, his dreams. It was never satisfied. It came to live in our house, eat dinner at our table, sleep in our beds. It trailed me home from school; it lapped at my heels as I walked to [her father’s favorite bar]. It was an elusive yet inescapable thing skulking through my life, a Jack-the-Ripper presence that hid in alleyways and in the sewers, waiting to get me alone.”
What she calls “Vietnam” nearly did get to her. But she somehow survived the near-constant emotional trauma of growing up Dan Trussoni’s daughter. She attended the University of Wisconsin and the famed Iowa Writers’ Workshop. In her young adulthood, Danielle experienced more bumps along the way, but the achievement of Falling Through the Cracks provides strong evidence that she has made something of her life—something that would have made her father (who died of throat cancer at age 61 in March) extremely proud.
Penny Coleman’s 1970s marriage to Vietnam veteran Daniel O’Connor was not an easy one. “He told funny stories about hijinks during R&R, but he refused to talk about anything more serious,” Coleman says. “He slept too much, drank too much, smoked too much marijuana, and held me much too close. He was hurt in ways I couldn’t fix.” O’Connor killed himself after the couple broke up in the 1970s. Penny Coleman, racked with guilt, blamed herself. But she eventually got on with her life, remarried, had children, and went on to a long career as a university professor and photographer.
About five years ago, she decided to look into the thorny issue of Vietnam veterans, PTSD, and suicide. The result of her years of research is the well-crafted, insightful Flashback: Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, Suicide, and the Lessons of War (Beacon, 223 pp., $23.95). In it, Coleman shines revealing light on post-Vietnam-War suicide by thoroughly examining the facts and including excerpts from interviews with other women whose Vietnam-veteran husbands took their lives after the war, women she calls “Vietnam war widows.”
“The story of the Vietnam war widows discussed in this book is a hidden piece of the women’s history of my generation,” Coleman notes. With this book, that important subject is hidden no longer.
MEMOIRS IN BRIEF
Arthur Wiknik, Jr., was drafted into the Army in May 1968. He was 19. He endured basic training at Fort Polk’s unfriendly Tigerland and then volunteered for shake-and-bake school at Fort Benning. You can guess what happened next. Wiknik, a very young buck sergeant, arrived in Vietnam in April 1969. He served as a squad leader with the 101st Airborne Division’s Company A, 2nd Battalion, 506th Infantry Regiment based at Camp Evans. It was a tough tour, one that included taking part in the infamous Battle of Hamburger Hill.
Wiknik does a great job of describing his tour of duty in his war memoir, Nam Sense: Surviving Vietnam with the 101st Airborne Division (Casemate, 288 pp., $32.95). In this, his first book, he offers up a compelling evocation of his time in the war zone. His short epilogue could stand as a primer on the individual and collective treatment given to Vietnam veterans after we returned home. “Although I never experienced being spit upon or heckled,” sitting in uniform in a large airport waiting room and watching other passengers sit as far away as possible was, he says, “even more telling. I was just as alone and vulnerable coming home from the war as when I left to fight in it. I was both sad and disappointed that this treatment of returning GIs was typical of our national abandonment” of Vietnam veterans.
Douglas Bey had just finished a three-year residency at the Menninger School of Psychiatry studying under the famed Dr. Karl Menninger when he reported to Fort Sam Houston for Army basic medical training. Before that, he had earned his medical degree at the University of Illinois College of Medicine in Chicago. After a stint at Fort Knox, he arrived in Vietnam in May 1969.
Bey spent the next year as a psychiatrist “helping men adjust to a crazy place,” as he aptly puts it—at the 1st Infantry Division’s headquarters in Di An. He provides the details of that year in his well-written, illuminating Wizard 6: A Combat Psychiatrist in Vietnam (Texas A&M University Press, 304 pp., $44, hardcover; $19.95, paper).
NONFICTION IN BRIEF
The publisher bills Bill Fawcett’s How To Lose a Battle: Foolish Plans and Great Military Blunders (Harper Paperbacks, 384 pp., $13.95) as a “tongue-in-cheek” and “humorous” analysis of the world’s worst military disasters. But it’s difficult to find humor in these generally straightforward accounts of some of the deadliest carnage in human history. That includes the Civil War Battle of Antietam, the bloodiest day in American history, and the three-day Battle of Gettysburg.
Fawcett, who has put together several books on Navy SEALs in the Vietnam War, including Hunters and Shooters, has written widely on military matters. In his new book, he offers 37 concise, analytical, finger-pointing accounts of battles from ancient times to the present. He and contributors Brian Thomsen, William R. Forstchen, Douglas Niles, and Edward E. Kramer show off a wide knowledge of military history.
Mark Atwood Lawrence, a University of Texas history professor, goes back to the origins of the American involvement in fighting communism in Vietnam in his deeply researched, fact-filled Assuming the Burden: Europe and the American Commitment to War in Vietnam (University of California Press, 358 pp., $34.95). He delved deeply into the diplomatic, political, and military records of the United States, France, and England from the early 1940s to the portentous 1950 Truman administration decision to support the French in their fight against the Indochinese communists.
In brief, the common perception is that the United States threw its economic and then military support behind France because of the nation’s Cold War fear of international communism. Lawrence digs deeper into the question and concludes that the French and British had more on their minds than fighting communism. The “transformation of American thinking about Vietnam” from President Roosevelt’s reluctance not to back French re-colonization, Lawrence says, “occurred as part of a grand, transnational debate about Vietnam in particular and the fate of colonial territories in general following the Second World War.”
Earlier this year the work of six Vietnamese artists—including several North Vietnamese Army veterans who did their work during the war as part of their duties—along with that of American artist Nancy Spero, whose wartime work reflects her opposition to that conflict, were gathered together in a well-received show called Persistent Vestiges: Drawing from the American-Vietnam War at New York City’s The Drawing Center. The impressive catalog of that show, which includes essays by Moira Roth and Boreth Ly, an introductory essay by Catherine de Zegher and Katherine Carl, and an annotated Vietnam War chronology with quotes from several of the artists, is now available (The Drawing Center, 194 pp., $40, hardcover; $35 paper). For more info, go to http://drawingcenter.org/pub_books.cfm
FICTION IN BRIEF
VVA member R.L. Tecklenburg sets his evocative, dialogue-driven novel, Ghosts of War (PublishAmerica, 278 pp., $21.95, paper), in Saigon and Hanoi in the politically pivotal year of 1945. The plot hinges on an OSS operative’s dangerous mission to Indochina and contains elements of a good murder mystery and a fast-paced espionage thriller. For more info, go to www.PublishAmerica.com
Gaz Crittenden served with the 1st Cav in Vietnam in 1966-67. After the war he earned a law degree. His novel, Jungle Rules: A Novel of Viet Nam (Dan River Press, 158 pp., $16.95, paper), is a well-told coming-of-age tale set in Vietnam during the war. The main character is a teenaged 1st Cav trooper who undergoes a hellish tour.
Former Marine Gary J. Cook’s Blood Trail (Dennis McMillan Publications, 465 pp., $35) lives up to its title. This is a hard-hitting, violence-filled story that centers on a Vietnam War Marine sniper who stayed with his job after the war and finds himself drawn back to Asia and his former trade.
Michael Archer’s fast-moving thriller Firestorm (Firebomber Publications, 388 pp., $9.95, paper) is dedicated to those who have served in the U.S. armed forces. The story involves a billionaire entrepreneur and his adventures in firefighting in a Central American country. One episode, dealing with a microwave communications station, is based on an incident that took place in the Vietnam War in the Central Highlands. For more info, go to www.firebomberpublications.com
Paul Densmore’s readable novel, The Fall of ’68 (Trafford, 289 pp., $20.60, paper) is set in that crucial year and revolves around the postwar adventures of two Vietnam veterans, one of whom throws himself completely into the hippie lifestyle. For more information, go to www.Trafford.com/05-1175
Robert Saniscalchi’s worthy in-country Vietnam War novel Bullets & Bandages (Bedside Books, 263 pp., $22, paper) is based on the stories told to him by his brother Patrick about his tour of duty. For more info: www.American-book.com
The tenth anniversary edition of one of the best (and underappreciated) Vietnam War memoirs, Nathaniel Tripp’s Father, Soldier, Son (Steerforth, 280 pp., $14.95), came out in April. Also: British historian Martin Windrow’s massive and all-inclusive The Last Valley: Dien Bien Phu and the French Defeat in Vietnam (Da Capo, 734 pp., $18.95).Ω