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Reviews by Marc Leepson

Something like 300,000 books are published every year. A healthy percentage of them are self-published. Of that group, an even healthier percentage are amateurish to the extreme. Every so often, though, you come across a gem in this category, and that is the case, in spades, with Linda West’s moving memoir, Beyond the Rice Paddies (Booksurge, 111 pp., $11.95, paper).

West, born Tran Thi Bach Yen Oanh, does a superb job evoking the American war in South Vietnam from the vantage point of a young girl living with her grandmother in a small village near Bien Hoa. She tells her story in an affecting, child-like manner that is refreshingly naïve and, at the same time, remarkably perceptive.

When you finish reading this short book, you will understand how we Americans were perceived by the South Vietnamese villagers, especially the children. And you also will gain a new appreciation for how villagers were forced to deal with the Viet Cong in their midst, not to mention the South Vietnamese government and military.

West immigrated to this country when she was ten years old, courtesy of a GI who married her mother, a bar girl in Saigon. In her book, Linda West acknowledges the debt she owes to that once-young man, as well as to other American soldiers because, she says, “you made me feel safer in my village when I was a young girl.” West also notes with appreciation the help she received in researching her book from VVA members. She is donating half the book’s royalties to VVA.

For more info on this gem of a memoir, go to http://beyondthericepaddies.com/index.html

THREE WARS
Andrew X. Pham also vividly shows the impact of the warring sides on the Vietnamese civilian population in The Eaves of Heaven: A Life in Three Wars (Harmony, 256 pp., $24.95), a creatively written “autobiography” of his father, Thong Van Pham. Andrew Pham (born Pham Xuan An) covered some of this territory in Catfish and Mandala: A Two-Wheeled Journey Through the Landscape and Memory of Vietnam, his very readable 1999 memoir.

The new book, which is told using many recreated quotes based on stories Andrew Pham heard from his father, covers the years 1940-76. It flashes back and forth in time, showing how the father’s upper-class family in northern Vietnam suffered under the French colonial rulers, then lost everything when the communists took over and the family was forced to flee to the South. Things didn’t get much better there, as Pham senior was drafted into the South Vietnamese Army, where he was forced to put up with “corrupt politicians,” “inept brass,” and “seemingly well-intentioned Americans.”

Things only got worse after the communist takeover in 1975, when Thong Van Pham barely survived seven months in a re-education camp. His son tells his story well.

NIXONLAND
Historian Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America (Scribner, 881 pp., $37.50) is the latest salvo in the ongoing literary and cultural war over the legacy of Richard Nixon. The former president himself started the war of words not long after his August 1974 departure from Washington.

His first memoir, published in 1978, marked the beginning of a small avalanche of books from his pen, and from those of his supporters (including chief Vietnam War strategist Henry Kissinger). All of those books, and the interviews Nixon granted before his death, have attempted to paint positive pictures of Nixon’s domestic and foreign policies, including his stewardship of the war in Vietnam.

Countless other books, mainly by historians and journalists, have countered with mountains of evidence that paint Nixon as a deceptive, dishonest politician whose domestic policies failed and whose Vietnam War policies were little short of disastrous.

Perlstein’s new book is a notable addition to the anti-Nixon canon.
In readable prose and relying primarily on the best secondary sources, Perlstein excoriates Nixon for a multitude of sins, including playing politics with Vietnam War policymaking. This anecdote-filled account also contains a thorough recounting of the antiwar movement during its heyday with Nixon in the White House.

NONFICTION IN BRIEF
Historian and journalist Martin J. Schram’s Vets Under Siege: How America Deceives and Dishonors Those Who Fight Our Battles (Thomas Dunne Books, 320 pp., $25.95) is a stinging indictment of the Department of Veterans Affairs. Schram takes a brief look back at the VA’s past performance, but concentrates on how the agency—and the federal government as a whole—ill serves the newest generation of veterans.

In his chapter on Agent Orange, Schram reports on conversations he had on Veterans Day 2007 at The Wall with VVA members from Chapter 82 in Nassau County, New York. Those men gave Schram vivid, first-person accounts of the VA’s abysmal record in the last forty years dealing with Vietnam veterans with Agent-Orange caused diseases.

James R. Chiles’ The God Machine: From Boomerangs to Black Hawks: The Story of the Helicopter (Bantam, 320 pp., $25) is a sprightly and well-researched history that includes an informative look at the use of choppers in the Vietnam War. Chiles, an author and journalist, points out that Gen. Maxwell Taylor talked a skeptical President John F. Kennedy into deploying helicopters to help the ARVN in 1961. Nearly three dozen H-21C transport helicopters, the “Flying Bananas,” were deployed to Vietnam that December in Operation Chopper. That code name, Chiles notes, “could serve as a name for the whole war.”

Historian and author (Like Rolling Thunder) Ronald B. Frankum, Jr., does a terrific job detailing what he calls “the first chapter of the American experience in Vietnam” in Operation Passage to Freedom: The United States Navy in Vietnam, 1954-1955 (Texas Tech University, 288 pp., $40). Said experience was the year-long evacuation, under much-less-than-ideal conditions, of more than 300,000 North Vietnamese citizens who wished to go south rather than live under the incoming communist regime of Ho Chi Minh. “It was a first chapter that ended in success,” Frankum notes, “one of the few that would characterize the remaining American story in Vietnam.”

One of the many unique things about the Vietnam War was that it provided the opportunity for women journalists, for the first time, to break through the glass ceiling of being relegated to reporting on women’s news. In Vietnam, “women established that their skills, courage, and fortitude entitled them to be considered for any newsroom assignment,” Joyce Hoffmann notes in On Their Own: Women Journalists and the American Experience in Vietnam (Da Capo, 448 pp., $26).

Hoffmann, who teaches at Old Dominion University in Virginia, focuses on a handful of women who made their marks covering the Vietnam War. That group includes Dickey Chapelle (the first women war correspondent killed in Vietnam), the great Gloria Emerson, Kate Webb (who was captured and briefly held by the NVA in Cambodia), and pioneering New York Herald correspondent Beverly Deepe. In a detailed, fascinating narrative, Hoffmann clearly shows how those and other women correspondents created “a widespread acceptance of the female war correspondent—both by the military and newsroom bosses.”

Prolific author and former Vietnam War helicopter door gunner Hans Halberstadt’s latest book, Trigger Men: Shadow Team, Spider Man, the Magnificent Bastards and the American Combat Sniper (St. Martin’s, 320 pp., $25.95) is a well-conceived look at modern-day snipers, complete with an evocative selection of color photos, mainly from the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

MEMOIRS IN BRIEF
Jim McGarrah’s A Temporary Sort of Peace (Indiana Historical Society, 251 pp., $19.95) is a well-written autobiography that focuses on the author’s eventful tour of duty with the 3rd Battalion, 9th Marines in 1967-68. McGarrah, who teaches creative writing at the University of Southern Indiana, makes good use of reconstructed quotes and flashbacks. The result is a compelling narrative that includes well-rendered depictions of his recovery from his war wounds, his war-related emotional problems, and his return to Vietnam in 2005 with his son.

Jack Tumidajski’s Quadalajara: The Utopia That Once Was (Brundage, 394 pp., $23.95) is an inspiring autobiography by a man who survived a 1968-69 Vietnam War tour of duty (as 1st Logistical Command clerk in Qui Nhon), only to break his neck
in a car wreck soon after he came home. Tumidajski has been confined to a wheelchair ever since. The heart of the book details the author’s time living and working with other quadriplegics and paraplegics in the 1970s in Mexico. The group, including many Vietnam veterans, formed a chapter of Paralyzed Veterans
of America and helped each other deal with their physical and psychological problems. For more info, go to www.quadmexico.com

VVA member Gary Robert Geister’s Nam: The Devil’s Domain: A Combat Infantryman’s Own Story of the Horrors of Vietnam (Trafford, 256 pp., $19.95, paper) is an unflinching look at the author’s action-filled tour of duty with two 199th Light Infantry Brigade companies and a Combat Recon Intel Platoon in Vietnam in 1968-69. Geister, a Detroit native and star baseball player, was drafted into the Army when he was 19 years old in March of 1967.

Stephen D. Saunders’ Breaking Squelch: A Vietnam Introspective (Marsh Lake, 159 pp., $17) is a creditable account of the author’s 1966-67 Vietnam War tour of duty with C Company, 2nd Battalion, 8th Cavalry in the 101st Airborne. Saunders and two buddies joined the Army in June 1965 in Janesville, Wisconsin, just after graduating from high school. Today he practices law in Elkander, Iowa. For ordering info, email saunders@alpinecom.net

Soldiering: Observations from Korea, Vietnam, and Safe Places (Potomac Books, 288 pp., $17.95, paper) is retired Army Col. Henry G. Cole’s lively account of his long military career. That included two tours in Vietnam, the first in 1966-67 with the 5th Special Forces’ Blackjack 21 in II Corps, and the second in 1970-71 in Kontum with the famed Studies and Observation Group, also known as SOG.

William Murphy’s Souvenirs of War: One Marine’s War, An Entire Generation’s Story (Murchada, 166 pp., $16.95, paper) centers on his combat-filled thirteen-month Vietnam War tour in 1968-69 with the 3rd Battalion, 27th Marine Regiment.

Letters from Tommy J.: A Marine’s Story, 1966-1967 (Walker Press, 115 pp., $19.95, paper) is a beautifully executed tribute to Marine Corps PFC Thomas J. Holtzclaw of Atlanta, who was killed in Vietnam on April 21, 1967. The book, a compilation of Tommy Holtzclaw’s reproduced letters, photographs, and text, was put together by his nieces, Connie C. Hughes and Terri C. Walker, and edited by Gina Webb. Holtzclaw served with F Company, 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines. He was killed while walking point during an NVA ambush in the small village of Binh Son in Quang Ngai Province. For more info, go to www.lettersfromtommyj.com

Kenneth D. Williams’ Blue Tiger (1stBooks, 237 pp., $14.50, paper) is a creatively written account of the author’s 1967-69 Vietnam War tour with D Troop, 3rd/17th Air Cavalry Regiment, call sign “Blue Tiger.” The book is based on the diary that Williams kept and is written in the third person. Joseph Kelly’s Confession of a CIA Interrogator (AuthorHouse, 422 pp., $20.49 paper), written with Vietnam veteran, pilot, and author Ben R. Games, looks at the author’s years working undercover with the South Vietnamese special police.

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