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January / February 2009

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Reviews by Marc Leepson

It’s a rare but good thing when novels written by Vietnam veterans or books featuring Vietnam veteran characters rocket to the top of the best-seller lists. I am very pleased to report that both of those things came to pass in November when Nelson DeMille (the former First Cav platoon commander) and Michael Connelly (the former L.A. Times reporter), came out with their latest blockbuster novels.

DeMille’s fourteenth novel, The Gate House (Grand Central, 677 pp., $27.99), the sequel to The Gold Coast (1990), features wise-cracking tax attorney John Sutter, who comes back to the Gold Coast of Long Island after a self-imposed, divorce-fueled exile. Sutter unwillingly re-kindles a relationship with his ex-wife, and then dangerous things start to happen—lots of them.

I’ve been a Nelson DeMille fan since 1985 when I read Word of Honor, the hard-hitting story of the early-1980s court-martial of a former Army lieutenant for events that took place in Vietnam in 1968. That book, as well as DeMille’s The General’s Daughter (1993) and Up Country (2002), deal directly with the Vietnam War and Vietnam veterans, subjects DeMille doesn’t touch in the new book, and ones he has said he doesn’t plan to revisit in his fiction. Still, DeMille has a way with creating intricate, fascinating plots and realistic, quirky characters. We get that, and more, in his latest big seller.

I’ve been a huge fan of the Michael Connelly Harry Bosch detective novels since the first one, The Black Echo, burst on the scene in 1992. Bosch is an LAPD detective whose service as a tunnel rat in the Vietnam War rarely is far from his consciousness. Connelly has brought him to life in a slew of readable, clever, cut-above detective thrillers.

In Connelly’s latest, The Brass Verdict (Little Brown, 422 pp., $26.99), Bosch is relegated to a supporting role. This one is a crime/legal thriller starring LA attorney Mickey Haller, a flawed hero getting back his life. For the first time, though, Bosch’s military service is not mentioned.

KOMUNYAKAA’S LATEST

Yusef Komunyakaa, the most honored poet to serve in the Vietnam War, has a new collection of verse. The Pulitzer-Prize winner’s fourteenth collection, Warhorses (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 86 pp., $22), which was published in October, is a meditation on war. It includes the long, evocative “Autobiography of my Alter Ego,” told in the voice of a haunted, embittered Vietnam veteran looking back on his life and times sitting at a bar. Here’s a typically strong excerpt:

“I took a sniper’s bullet/outside Da Nang a week before/my short-timer’s calendar/ turned blue. My platoon/was crossing a rice paddy/at dusk, the day’s end/white with salt & the weight/of green sky, silent/singing in the wild throat/of everything there,/& then mist rose as if from/the deep belly of night hunger/& the birds stopped before/monkeys crawled inside/the brain & eleven kinds of fear/clustered around the thing/worn to a bone. It were as if/the sniper had been born/for that moment, for nothing else/on earth—without mother/or father, without heart or history….”


FICTION IN BRIEF

VVA member Dale Dye, best known for inventing the modern art of movie military technical advising, also is an accomplished novelist who wrote Platoon. Dye’s latest literary effort, Laos File (Warriors Publishing, 273 pp., $14.95, paper), is set primarily in the mid 1990s and features Marine Gunner Shake Davis, who goes on a mission to Southeast Asia to find out what happened to more than two hundred American POWs. Dye fills this dialogue-driven thriller with plenty of action and lots of military detail—all of which (no surprise) rings completely true. For more info and to order, go to www.warriorsinc.com/Books.cfm


Townsend’s Solitaire (Redburn Press, 265 pp., $14.95, paper), the third of former Marine Dan Guenther’s Vietnam War trilogy of novels (after China Wind and Dodge City Blues), is set in the 1980s in Yellowstone National Park. In it, Guenther examines two-tour Marine Vietnam veteran Sam Gatlin’s readjustment blues.

Stephen Coonts (former Navy Vietnam War A-6 pilot and the creator of Flight of the Intruder), keeps churning out the techno-thrillers. His latest: Deep Black: Arctic Cloud (St. Martin’s, 435 pp., $7.99, paper), which deals with an ultra-secret NSA mission and which he co-wrote with William H. Keith. Retired federal judge Eugene Sullivan’s legal thriller, The Report to the Judiciary (Forge, 384 pp., $24.95), draws on the author’s experiences, including serving as a White House lawyer under Richard Nixon and as a West Point-educated, decorated Army officer in the Vietnam War.

Part of Joe Domenici’s first novel, Bringing Back the Dead (Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s, 288 pp., $24.95), is set in Vietnam in the latter stages of the war. The plot of this thriller involves six Green Berets getting together 35 years later on a dangerous mission in Florida. Retired Navy Chief William E. Sneed’s Black Oil Chief, USN (iUniverse, 370 pp., $20.95, paper) deals with big doings on a Navy ship steaming home from the Philippines in 1978. Sneed served a brown-water Navy tour in Vietnam aboard the U.S.S. Dyess in 1966 and on the U.S.S. Bennington in Vietnam in 1968. The author’s website is www.writerbillusn.com.


Robert Reynolds’ Firing at Shadows (Publish America, 258 pp., $21.95) is an autobiographical novel about Vietnam, where he spent 27 months beginning in 1966 in a Navy physical security unit in Danang. VVA member Martin C. Coy’s Not All So Tall Tales (Xlibris, 66 pp., $10, paper; $20, hardcover) consists of eight short stories, three of which (“Repeat Play,” “The Reunion,” and “Medals”) deal with veterans’ issues. The author’s website is http://martincoyfirstbook.com.

Dennis Wesley Clark’s Hard Way Home (Booksurge, 381 pp., $20.99, paper) examines American POWs who escaped from Vietnam after the war. Clark served in the Army in Vietnam as an artillery Staff Sergeant. JT Caldwell’s The Chaplain’s Assistant: God, Country, and Vietnam (iUniverse, 297 pp., $18.95, paper) is based on the author’s 1970 tour of duty in Vietnam as (what else?) a chaplain’s assistant. For more info, go to www.thechaplainsassistant.com


Terry Leiden’s Get Back in the Game: An Inspirational Story of Cancer Survivors (Savannah River Press, 251 pp., $16.95, paper) is the fictionalized story of five prostate cancer patients and their battles against the disease. Leiden, who served in Vietnam in 1965-66, is a survivor of Agent Orange-caused prostate cancer. He practices law in Augusta, Georgia.

DELAWARE MAILBAG

On May 20, 1968, at the height of  the Vietnam War, Nancy E. Lynch,  a columnist for the News Journal in Wilmington, Delaware, published a letter from Army Specialist John W. Morgan writing from Chu Lai in Vietnam. That began Lynch’s “Vietnam Mailbag” column, which ran until 1972. By the time it ended, Lynch’s column had featured the words of nearly 900 Delaware men and women who were serving the nation in Vietnam.

Now, more than 40 years later, comes Lynch’s Vietnam Mailbag: Voices from the War, 1968-72 (446 pp., $40), a lavish and visually arresting compilation of those letters, but with much more: dozens and dozens of in-country photos and other Vietnam War images, as well as pages and pages of text filling in the gaps about many of the veterans’ lives in Vietnam and after coming home. Delaware U.S. Sen. Thomas R. Carper, who did three Vietnam War tours as a Navy flight officer, provides the introduction to this valuable volume, which is available at bookstores and through the website www.vietnammailbag.com


NONFICTION IN BRIEF

Also in the lavishly produced category: Merrill L. Bartlett and Jack Sweetman’s Leathernecks: An Illustrated History of the U.S. Marine Corps (Naval Institute, 479 pp., $39). In addition to tons of great photos—including rarely published shots of American battlefield casualties—this coffee-table volume contains a well-written, detailed history of the Marines in the Vietnam War, starting in the 1950s and ending in 1975. The nation’s longest war ended “on a sour note,” the authors say; to wit: 13,095 Marines killed, 88,594 wounded. Fifty-seven Marines, a Navy chaplain (Lt. Vincent Capodanno), and three Navy corpsman working with the Marines received Medals of Honor in the Vietnam War, all but eleven of them posthumously.

The United States, of course, did not fight alone against the Vietnamese communists. Troops from Australia, South Korea, and New Zealand joined us in country. So did tens of thousands of émigrés to the United States who either joined the American military or were drafted while living here. The overwhelming majority were Canadian. In addition, some 2,500 Irish men and women served in Vietnam in the American and Australian military between 1964 and 1973, a fact I learned in Irish military historian James Durney’s excellent Vietnam: The Irish Experience (Gaul House [Ireland], 230 pp., paper).

I also learned that 28 Irish citizens died in Vietnam, dozens were wounded, and many came home with “emotional scars and memories that continue to revisit them to this day.” Durney tells his little-known story extremely well, leaning heavily on interviews with Irish Vietnam veterans of the American and Australian armies. For more info, including how to order, go to www.jamesdurneycom


Rutgers University history prof Lloyd C. Gardner has specialized in American foreign policy and the Vietnam War during his long academic career. In his latest book, The Long Road to Baghdad: A History of U.S. Foreign Policy from the 1970’s to the Present (New Press, 320 pp., $27.95), Gardner argues that there has been a continuum of war-making policy from (despite the subtitle) the early 1960s to the present day. He zeroes in on the anti-communist foreign policy theories of ultra Vietnam War hawk Walt Rostow, the JFK and LBJ national security adviser, and how what Rostow did in Vietnam has shaped the Bush administration’s polices on Iraq.

Ha Mai Viet, who came to the United States with his family from Vietnam in 1975, was a much-decorated ARVN colonel who commanded several armored units and later was the chief of Quang Tri Province. He puts that experience to good use in shining light on a not well known aspect of the American War in Vietnam in Steel and Blood: South Vietnamese Armor and the War for Southeast Asia (Naval Institute, 458 pp., $40). The book is primarily a nuts-and-bolts military history of South Vietnamese armored forces. It is based on the author’s extensive experience and upon hundreds of interviews he conducted during ten years of research, many with former South Vietnamese officers.

VVA Associate Member Harvey Shapiro’s They Called Him ‘Holly’: The Story of Don Holleder (Network Printers, 281 pp., $25, paper) is a biography of, and tribute to, U.S. Army Maj. Donald Holleder, an All-American football player at West Point who was killed on October 17, 1967, at the Battle of Ong Thah while serving with the 2nd/28th of the First Infantry Division, the Wolfhounds. Shapiro uses lots of dialogue and plenty of illustrations to tell the story of Holleder’s life. For more info, go to http://theycalledhimholly.com


Why Marines Figh
t is a series of extensive profiles of Marine veterans from World War II to Iraq (including Gen. Bernard “Nick” Trainer who did two Vietnam War tours) by popular Parade magazine columnist James Brady. It’s now out in paperback (Thomas Dunne Books, 302 pp., $14.95). So is Dwight Jon Zimmerman and John D. Gresham’s Beyond Hell and Back: How America’s Special Operations Forces Became the World’s Greatest Fighting Unit (St. Martin’s Griffin, 320 pp., $14.95), which contains a meaty chapter on the famed 1972 Vietnam War rescue of shot-down pilot LTC Iceal Hambleton in the famous operation code-named BAT 21.

 

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