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January/February 2010

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War Without Fronts: American Atrocities Viewed In A Vacuum

REVIEWS BY MARC LEEPSON

Bernd Greiner’s War Without Fronts: The U.S. in Vietnam (Yale University Press, 544 pp., $35) is the second book I read in 2009 (the other one is Deborah Nelson’s The War Behind Me) that tries to make the case that the Vietnam War was one long atrocity committed by American troops. I tend to take these books personally since the authors classify me and virtually all of my fellow Vietnam veterans as run-amok war criminals.

But I know from personal experience, from talking to scores of fellow Vietnam veterans, and from reading hundreds of books about the war that atrocities are committed by every army in every war ever waged on the planet, and, more importantly, that hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Americans who fought in Vietnam did so honorably and within the rules of war.

So here’s what I think of Greiner’s book, which was translated from the German by Anne Wyburd with Victoria Fern: I give credit to the University of Hamburg history professor and director of the Program on the Theory and History of Violence at the Hamburg Institute of Social Research for doing a massive amount of research on the American conduct in the war. And for mentioning, albeit almost in passing, the war’s greatest atrocity: the other side’s massacre of some three thousand South Vietnamese civilians in Hue during Tet ’68.

But I cannot abide his all but ignoring every other perfidious thing the Viet Cong or NVA did. Instead, Greiner gives us a laboriously detailed account of the My Lai massacre, along with details about other incidences of GIs wantonly killing, maiming, raping, and torturing innocent Vietnamese civilians.

The brutal American acts Greiner describes took place; no one denies that. But they did not take place in a vacuum in Vietnam, although in Greiner’s account, the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese are all but invisible. The VC’s MO of entering a village and doing to the ARVN-friendly folks what Greiner describes in detail that American troops did to other civilians fits the 21st century definition of “terrorism.”

Greiner also fails to note that 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. As I said in my review of Nelson’s book, by presenting the American war in Vietnam as one long, ultraviolent crime spree, Greiner’s book amounts to a gross distortion of the truth, at the very least.

MEA CULPA

Occasionally, your book editor is inundated by books. In order for me to give readers an idea of what’s between their covers in a timely fashion, I have to greatly truncate the space I give to each book. This is one of those times. What follows, therefore, are very short descriptions of 31 books that deal with the Vietnam War or Vietnam veterans or are written by Vietnam veterans. I apologize for not giving these authors the space their books deserve. There is a limited amount of space—and a seemingly unlimited number of books.

MEMOIRS, ETC., IN BRIEF

Jim Hooper’s A Hundred Feet Over Hell: Flying With the Men of the 220th Recon Airplane Company Over I Corps and the DMZ, 1968-1969 (Zenith Press, 272 pp., $25) tells the story of that FAC unit’s pilots, which included his older brother. Hooper is a war correspondent and author. Historian John Acacia’s Clark Clifford: The Wise Man of Washington (University Press of Kentucky, 440 pp., $39.59) is the latest bio of the ultimate Washington insider who took over as LBJ’s Secretary of Defense in 1968 and pushed to end the Vietnam War.

You Are Not Forgotten: A Family’s Quest for Truth and the Founding of the National League of Families (Vandamere, 348 pp., $27.95) is an account of the late Evelyn Grubb’s POW/MIA advocacy after her husband, USAF LTC Wilmer Grubb, was shot down over North Vietnam in 1966. Co-author Carol Jose has specialized in writing about POW/MIA issues. Warning: Henry Kissinger wrote the foreword.

ARVN Gen. Tran Van Nhut took part in the pivotal 66-day Battle of An Loc in 1972, the subject of his new book An Loc: The Unfinished War (Texas Tech University, 227 pp., $27.95). Written with Christian L. Arevian, it is an autobiographical account that includes his army service from 1954. Another ARVN general, Lam Quang Thi, offers his third-person assessment in Hell in An Loc: The 1972 Eastern Invasion and the Battle That Saved South Vietnam (University of North Texas, 282 pp., $29.95).

Navy historian Jan K. Herman’s Navy Medicine in Vietnam: Oral Histories from Dien Bien Phu to the Fall of Saigon (McFarland, 365 pp., $55) contains the voices of Navy physicians, dentists, nurses, and hospital corpsman, along with the patients they treated. To order, go to www.mcfarlandpub.com or call 800-253-2187.

Dean Ellis Kohler’s Rock ’n’ Roll Soldier: A Memoir (Harper Teen, 278 pp., $16.99), written with Susan VanHecke, tells the story of a draftee who went to Vietnam in 1967, served with the 127th MP Co. in Qui Nhon, then formed a rock band and toured the country. It’s pegged at the YA market. Kohler’s website is www.deanelliskohler.com


Eric Newhouse’s Faces of Combat: PTSD & TBI: One Journalist’s Crusade to Improve Treatment of Our Veterans (Issues Press, 312 pp., $18, paper) includes interviews with veterans with PTSD.

Leadership: Combat Leaders and Lessons (Stand Up America, 197 pp., $18, paper) contains twenty-five essays written by members of the West Point class of 1959 and edited by two of their number, retired Army Cols. James L. Abrahamson and Andrew P. O’Meara, Jr. Nearly every one of the men served in the Vietnam War. Henry G. Cole’s General William E. DePuy: Preparing the Army for Modern War (University of Kentucky, 364 pp., $35) is a biography of the former MACV chief of operations and commanding general of the Big Red One, the man who devised the search-and-destroy strategy. Cole, a retired Green Beret colonel and historian, also looks at DePuy’s post-Vietnam War role in reshaping the U.S. Army.

Robert L. Tonsetic’s Forsaken Warriors: The Story of an American Advisor who Fought with the South Vietnamese Rangers and Airborne (Casemate, 256 pp., $32.95) is the author’s memoir of his 1970-71 tour, his second after serving two years earlier with the 199th Light Infantry Brigade’s 4th of the 12th. 

HISTORY IN BRIEF

The new fourth edition of Peter P. Mersky’s heavily illustrated U.S. Marine Corps Aviation Since 1912 (Naval Institute Press, 432 pp., $49.95) contains two chapters on the Vietnam War. Mark Philip Bradley’s Vietnam At War (Oxford University Press, 256 pp., $29.95) is a concise history of the Indochinese Wars (involving France and the United States), focusing on the role of the Vietnamese, both north and south. Bradley is a University of Chicago history professor.

Herbert Y. Schandler’s America in Vietnam: The War That Couldn’t Be Won (Rowman & Littlefield, 209 pp., $39.95) looks at the war primarily through the eyes of the North Vietnamese. Retired Army Col. Schandler served two tours in Vietnam, the second as commander of the 101st Airborne’s 3rd Battalion, 187th Infantry. Among his many other academic accomplishments, Schandler wrote the final two chapters of The Pentagon Papers.

The Vietnam War: A Graphic History (Hill and Wang, 143 pp., $19.95) is former Marvel Comics editor Dwight Jon Zimmerman and illustrator (and Vietnam veteran) Wayne Vansant’s unique look at the war, told concisely and factually, comic-book style. Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist and author Ted Morgan’s Valley of Death: The Tragedy at Dien Bien Phu that Led America into the Vietnam War (Random House, 698 pp., $35) is a massive, inclusive look at the pivotal 1954 event with plenty of material on the French wars in Vietnam from 1940 on.

Simon Dunstan’s 1st Marine Division in Vietnam (Zenith, 128 pp., $21.99, paper), the latest volume in the Spearhead series, is a profusely illustrated on-the-ground history of “The Old Breed” in Vietnam. The latest concise, well-illustrated paperback Vietnam War military history books from Osprey Publishing are both written by Gordon L. Rottman, who served in the Special Forces in Vietnam: U.S. Army Long-Range Patrol Scout in Vietnam (64 pp., $18.95) and North Vietnamese Army Soldier, 1958-75 (64 pp., $18.95). For info on ordering The Complete Story of the Design and Building of the Ultimate Weapon Statue: Ft. Dix, New Jersey (128 pp., $14.95, paper), send an email to stuscherr@earthlink.net

OTHER NONFICTION IN BRIEF

Spring Visits: Photographs From Viet Nam (Stray Dog Press, 112 pp., $12.95) is a selection of 48 evocative black-and-white photographs of people and places in Vietnam in 1992, 2000, and 2004 by Don Unrau, an accomplished photographer who served in the Vietnam War. His website is www.donunrauphoto.com/book.html.

Former Green Beret Vietnam veteran and prolific author Charles W. Sasser’s latest book is None Left Behind: The 10th Mountain Division and the Triangle of Death (St. Martin’s, 307 pp., $25.99), which tells the story of a May 2007 incident in the Iraq War.

Martin Schram’s Vets Under Siege: How America Deceives and Dishonors Those Who Fight Our Battles, first published in 2008, is now out in paperback (Thomas Dunne/Griffin, 320 pp., $16.99).

Also new in paper: David Cortright’s Soldiers’ Revolt: GI Resistance During the Vietnam War (Haymarket Books, 355 pp., $16), first published in 1975, and Earl H. Tilford Jr.’s Crosswinds: The Air Force’s Setup in Vietnam (Texas A&M University, 252 pp., $24.95), first published in 1993, an examination of the how the USAF’s bombing campaign in Vietnam did not achieve victory. Tilford served a 1970-71 tour in intelligence at the Headquarters of the 7th/13th Air Force at Udorn Royal Thai AFB.

FICTION IN BRIEF

Nine Dragons (Little, Brown, 384, $27.99), the latest Michael Connelly detective novel starring Harry Bosch, the former tunnel rat and present-day LAPD homicide cop, gets our noble-but-flawed hero involved in another messy investigation, one that spills over tragically into his personal life. There are four references to Harry’s service in the war in this typical Connelly page-turner with a few twists near the end.

Robert Olen Butler’s latest novel, Hell (Grove, 240 pp., $24), puts the reader into an unrelentingly hellish narrative that centers on the frustrations of the main character, a former TV anchorman trying to escape from the netherworld—kind of. Butler, a Vietnam veteran best known for his Pulitzer-Prize winning short story collection, A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain, hits home in this satirical farce, in which Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon (among many others) have hellish speaking roles.

Evie Wyld’s After the Fire, A Still Small World (Pantheon, 296 pp., $24) is set in Australia and deals with the emotional trials of several veterans, including one who served in the Vietnam War. Jim Stovall’s The Sound of Honor (Hawk Publishing, 224 pp., $24.95) features a detective who was blinded in Vietnam. Stovall is an advocate for people with blindness.

Philip Caputo, the former Marine who wrote A Rumor of War, also has written eight novels. Crossers (Knopf, 448 pp., $26.95), his latest, examines three generations of an Arizona family. It has received sterling reviews: “Without any ripped-from-the-headlines artifice, [the book] gives us an intense, clear-sighted account of the times in which we live, of 9/11, the Iraq war, the ‘war on drugs,’ and the conflict over illegal immigration,” Charles Matthews wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle. “Caputo succeeds in showing how our contemporary paranoia and homeland insecurity are rooted in the inescapable past.”


The latest book from Paul Clayton, the Vietnam veteran author of the excellent novel, Carl Melcher Goes to Vietnam, is a historical thriller, White Seed: The Untold Story of the Lost Continent (Booklocker.com, 487 pp., $19.95, paper). It’s available in paper and many electronic formats. The author’s website is www.carlmelcher.com

 

 

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