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MAY/JUNE 2007

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Books In review
Robert Stone’s Not-So-Magical, Not-So-Mysterious Tour

REVIEWS BY MARC LEEPSON

Robin Williams, or some other baby boomer, once said that if you can remember the sixties, you weren’t there. Or words to that effect. The novelist Robert Stone whose Vietnam War-themed novel Dog Soldiers stands among the very best literary offerings that deal with the legacy of the war was there. And, based on his new book, Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties (Ecco, 240 pp., $25.95), he remembers a good deal of it.

Stone, who was born in 1937, joined the Navy when he was seventeen, getting out just before the chronological 1960s began. As those of us who lived through it know, what we now refer to as “the sixties” actually were the years from the mid-sixties to the mid-seventies. Robert Stone spent most of the chronological sixties and the proverbial “sixties” hip-deep in many of the aspects of the drugs-sex-and-rock-and-roll milieu that Robin Williams (or was it Dr. Timothy Leary?) archly referred to. Stone traveled the world, hung out with Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, married, had a child, traveled some more, and began his successful writing career.

I had high hopes when I heard that Stone, a truly great storyteller and literary stylist, had written a memoir of the sixties. Stone is a perceptive writer and thinker, and I had every reason to believe his memoir would tell great stories and shed informing light on important aspects of that turbulent era, including America’s participation in the Vietnam War.

Maybe my hopes were too high: Stone’s memoir was a disappointment. Yes, he tells some great tales about the life he led in the sixties anti-establishment and literary worlds. They involve interesting places: Hollywood movie sets, Big Sur, the Lower East Side of New York City, London, even Vietnam. And they include snapshots of classic sixties characters including Ken Kesey, Neal Cassady, and Wavy Gravy. But the tales are curiously cursory, and the writing, while sometimes inspired, rarely rises to the heights we know Stone to be capable of.

The section on Stone’s 1971 trip to Vietnam as a dubious stringer for a British publication contains more solid and evocative writing than most of the book. But it, too, is truncated, and it comes near the end of this rambling memoir that never rests in one spot long enough to do justice to Stone’s talents or to the turbulent “sixties.”

FICTION IN BRIEF
Two years ago, Phillip Jennings wrote a funny, over-the-top satire called Nam-A-Rama, in which two oddballs, Marine LT Jack Armstrong and his buddy, Gearheardt, try to put an end to the Vietnam War in one very strange way. It ended with Gearheardt going down in flames in the Laotian jungle.

Jennings, who served as a Marine helicopter pilot in Vietnam and also as an Air America pilot in Laos, has followed that darkly humorous romp with Goodbye Mexico (Forge, 352 pp., $25.95), another wild novel in which Gearheardt returns from the dead (not literally) and joins Armstrong (who’s working in the U.S. embassy in Mexico City) south of the border just after the war.

Much satirical high jinks ensue, this time dealing mainly with Gearheardt’s
preposterous plan to overthrow the Mexican government. Jennings again keeps a wild plot rolling along with much humor, most of it aimed at Armstrong’s propensity to underestimate his buddy’s abilities to accomplish the seemingly impossible.
The good news about Irini Spanidou’s depressing novel, Before (Knopf, 224 pp., $23), is that the Vietnam veteran character has his life together, more or less. It’s the early seventies, and he’s over his bout of immediate post-war emotional distress and his stint as a drug dealer, has found his calling, and is working hard at a real job. The bad news is that nearly every other character in the novel, including the central one, is as lovable as a rabid pit bull.

Main character Beatrice (the sister-in-law of Cyril, the Vietnam veteran) is depressed and self-destructive, drinks like a longshoreman, and reacts sexually to every person she comes into contact with. Her husband is an abusive bully. Her best female friend is a preening, lying deceiver. Her next-door neighbor is an ex-con who takes his pleasure having rough sex with young male hustlers. And so on. Making matters worse: these disturbing, pathetic people are thrown together in a plot that goes nowhere.

Walter Boyne, who was just inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame, is a retired Air Force officer and a prolific author of nonfiction books on aviation topics. The former director of the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum’s latest effort is a novel, Supersonic Thunder (Forge, 367 pp., $25.95), which tells the stories of a father and his twin sons who are ace pilots and pioneering air engineers. The men wind up involved in most of the big moments in U.S. aviation from mid-century on, including one of them being shot down over North Vietnam. For more info, go to Boyne’s web site, www.air-boyne.com

VVA Life Member George D. Anderson, Jr., collected dozens of sea stories during his long Navy career, which included three tours in Vietnam. Anderson has woven those stories into a dialogue-heavy, cleverly plotted novel, The Other Side of a Sailor (WingSpan Press, 407 pp., $19.95, paper). VVA member Raymond Dix’s page-turning legal thriller, Death Row Defender (Hard Shell Word Factory, 239 pp., $12.95, paper), is peopled with Vietnam-era veterans, including the troubled but dedicated main character, Woody Thomas. For more info, go to
http://raydixbooks.com

Joyce L. Rapier’s Full Circle (EZP Publishing, 180 pp., $11.95, paper) tells the affecting story of the son of a Vietnam veteran and his adult friendship with a battle-scarred veteran of that war.

The pseudonymous Joe Lerner has fictionalized his real-life adventures as a reluctant Air Force enlistee involved hip-deep with the famed Ravens, the undercover secret warriors in Laos, in In The Black (iUniverse, 246 pp., $16.95, paper), a sprightly written, dialogue-driven tale.

Samuel C. Crawford, who served three brown-water Navy tours in Vietnam, has written a three-volume series of novels that tell the sometimes wacky stories of two young Navy men in country: Getting There Is Half the Fun (Xlibris, 495 pp., $33.29, hardcover; $22.94, paper), The Adventure Begins (527 pp.), and Time To Go Home (652. pp).

NONFICTION IN BRIEF
The historian Doyle Glass’s Lions of Medina: An Epic Account of Marine Valor During the Vietnam War (Coleche Press, 448 pp., $24.95) is a well-written and deeply researched account of the men of C Company, 1st Battalion/1st Regiment of the 1st First Marine Division, centering on the October 1967 Operation Medina that took place near the DMZ. Glass interviewed more than 75 veterans of C Company, along with family members, to come up with this chronicle of battlefield action that also includes revealing sections on the men before and after their service in the war. For more info, go to www.lionsofmedina.com

Robert Coran, the author of, among other books, a first-rate biography of John Boyd, the under-appreciated air power theorist and fighter pilot, has turned his attention to another noted American air warrior in American Patriot: The Life and Wars of Colonel Bud Day (Little, Brown, 384 pp., $27.99). This is an unabashed tribute to Day, who is best known for being held for nearly six years in the Hanoi Hilton, for which he received the Medal of Honor for the courage he displayed in the face of repeated physical and mental torture.

William Head’s Shadow and Stinger: Developing the AC-119G/K Gunships in the Vietnam War (Texas A&M University, 344 pp., $49.95) is the definitive examination of the two extremely effective side-firing gunships, nicknamed “truck killers” because they destroyed thousands of enemy trucks in the late 1960s. As Head, a historian at Warner Robins Air Force Base and an expert on air power, notes, even though there have been great technological advances since the Vietnam War, “side-firing, fixed wing gunships” such as the Shadow and Stinger, “still operate with deadly efficiency over modern battlefields.”

Helen White, a VVA member who served as a nurse with the 67th Evac Hospital in Qui Nhon in 1969-70, today is an accomplished artist whose work is heavily influenced by her military service and the readjustment problems she has had in the last three-plus decades. You can get a good look at White’s striking work, which has been compared to German abstract impressionism, in her book, Lipstick and a Smile: Story of One Nam Nurse (Bell Books, 56 pp., $32).

Eric Hammel has written more than thirty books of military history. His latest, Marines in Hue City: A Portrait of Urban Combat, Tet 1968 (Zenith Press, 168 pp., $34.95), differs from his previous work in that it is photographic history. That is, it tells the story of the four-week Battle of Hue with concise prose and many strongly evocative photographs. Many are official USMC photos; others are never-before-published pictures taken by individual Marines. It all adds up to an excellent account of one of the Vietnam War’s most pivotal battles.

Speaking of excellent, evocative photographs, you can be reasonably certain that any book published by National Geographic will have them in profusion. That certainly is the case in Etched in Stone: Enduring Words from Our Nation’s Monuments (National Geographic, 191 pp., $30), featuring the work of photographer Carol M. Highsmith. The book, with text by Ryan Coonerty, includes dozens of monuments and memorials, including, of course, Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, here represented by a two-page shot that includes an array of material left at The Wall.

Surprisingly, given the fact that Benjamin Spock was an outspoken anti-Vietnam activist, the letters collected in Dear Dr. Spock: Letters About the Vietnam War to America’s Favorite Baby Doctor (New York University, 352 pp., $30) contain an array of opinions about the war, of both the hawk and dove variety. The scores of letters in this collection, edited by City University of New York history professor Michael Foley, both praise and vilify Dr. Spock for his antiwar activism.

Sandra Gurvis, who wrote the Vietnam-War-themed novel The Pipe Dreamers, has put together Where Have All the Flower Children Gone? (University Press of Mississippi, 240 pp., $28), a look at the Vietnam antiwar movement told primarily through oral histories of those who took part in it.

The latest edition of Army veteran David Cortright’s Soldiers in Revolt: GI Resistance During the Vietnam War (Haymarket, 355 pp., $16, paper), a look at the active-duty military antiwar sentiment, contains a new introduction by noted historian and social activist Howard Zinn.


OFF THE SHELF
A 9th Infantry Division Memoir

REVIEWED BY BERNARD EDELMAN
Back from War: Finding Hope & Understanding In Life After Combat (Exceptional Publications, 264 pp., $27.95) is less a memoir than a scrapbook of reflections and recollections, not all of them by the author, Lee Alley, who wrote this volume with the assistance of the late Wade Stevenson.

This is a quirky, uneven book, albeit one with several redeeming qualities. Alley, a lieutenant with Delta Company, 5th/60th, 9th Infantry Division, offers compelling vignettes from his year in-country. Most of the book, though, occurs years afterwards as he explores his “veteranness’’ and seeks to understand the demons that followed him home from Vietnam. His book recounts his coming to terms and coming of age.

Back from War seems more spoken than written in a conversational, almost colloquial manner. It is reminiscent of Michael Norman’s excellent Vietnam War memoir, These Good Men. It offers several heartfelt observations.

“To most guys, the day after a battle is always the worst,’’ Alley writes. “Adrenaline is gone. Cold reality sets in. You’re no longer on automatic.’’ A group of his grunts collects the corpses of the VC they’d slain the night before. A pit is bulldozed. Then: “We watch as 150 bodies are moved into the mass grave. The pit is soon covered back over with dirt, the ground made smooth, and everyone leaves. All done. Quick as that, it’s over with. But still there are times now when I recall that burial. I remember the sight of all those dead bodies. And I see them not as enemies, but perhaps as husbands, fathers, sons, brothers, cousins, neighbors, and friends to someone.

Alley makes some generalizations about how the war was portrayed. “If you went to see a film about Vietnam, or read a book, you couldn’t find yourself in there. Anywhere!” I have to wonder: Did he ever read Philip Caputo’s memoir A Rumor of War or James Webb’s novel Fields of Fire? Or a novel like John Del Vecchio’s 13th Valley or the story of the battle of the Ia Drang, General Hal Moore and journalist Joe Galloway’s We Were Soldiers Once...and Young? All the books and movies about the war were not phony; all the characters were not John Rambos.

Lee Alley includes an account of getting together with his former comrades at one reunion, then at others. And several of his men offer their memories in short essays. One of the most affecting is that offered by his medic, who openly declares his gayness; another well-told tale is related by Louis Balas. All told, Back from War is a fine addition to the literature of war, one which will touch a lot of hearts.


Who Was Pham Xuan An?

REVIEWED BY JOHN PRADOS
Pham Xuan An, Larry Berman notes in Perfect Spy: The Incredible Double Life of Pham Xuan An, Time Magazine Reporter & Vietnamese Communist Agent (Smithsonian Books, 336 pp., $25.95), stood at the nexus of much of what happened in the Vietnam War. A well-connected Saigonese with an American education in journalism, An explained America to South Vietnamese leaders—among them “Big” Minh, Tran Van Don, and Bui Diem. He also explained the Vietnamese to Americans.

As a stringer and then reporter for a succession of important news organizations ending with Time magazine, and friend to virtually every journalist who covered these events, An played a key role as amanuensis and as a source for some of the crucial press reporting of the war.

As Hanoi’s spy, Pham Xuan An kept the National Liberation Front and North Vietnamese appraised of the military and strategic developments of the day. As a staff aide to Saigon officials, An also sat beside those who created the South Vietnamese intelligence service. And as an extremely well-connected friend, during the last days of Saigon, Pham Xuan An helped important figures, including former intelligence personnel, escape the cauldron of South Vietnam.

In this first full-length English language biography of Pham Xuan An, Larry Berman explores An’s life sympathetically and with verve. A professor at the University of California, Davis, historian, and author (No Peace, No Honor: Nixon, Kissinger and Betrayal in Vietnam), Berman is well-equipped for this story. He met An at a dinner in Ho Chi Minh City, became fascinated with him, and made a succession of visits to further their acquaintance. Along the way, he achieved unparalleled access to his subject and became his authorized biographer. The result is fascinating but frustrating.

As Berman’s friend and one who spoke to him during this project, the emergence of Perfect Spy was a long-awaited event for me. Berman is excellent on Pham Xuan An’s life and journalistic career, but Perfect Spy contains only a bare-bones outline of An’s methods and network, and beyond a few vignettes, it is short on details of his spying, often substituting the private notes of journalist friends (Robert Shaplen most notably) for the substance of the intelligence An is supposed to have had access to and to have passed on.

Mention needs to be made of the charge that Pham Xuan An might have been a “triple agent,” which was raised by one of his former journalist colleagues. Purporting to explain how An could have survived so long as a spy in Saigon, the charge has a superficial plausibility.

The allegation is a serious one, but the available record wholly lacks the level of detail specifics of what An might have done for the CIA or Saigon masters in addition to those in Hanoi necessary to make a determination. Beyond mentioning the charge, Berman’s account also avoids the focused analysis required to pronounce one way or the other upon it.

There is also the story that Pham Xuan An tried to discourage a reporter from writing up a tale of North Vietnamese and NLF troops fighting each other. This was clearly potential disinformation, and the episode took place at a moment the Nixon administration had ordered ramping up psychological warfare against Hanoi. It seems to militate against the theory of An as CIA or South Vietnamese agent.

This said, on the basic issue of An as North Vietnamese spy, as well as the general question of North Vietnamese intelligence and how it worked, the literature is exceedingly thin, and Perfect Spy is a major advance. Plus Pham Xuan An’s story is fascinating. I highly recommend it.

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