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September/october 2008

red star bulletThe Veteran Departments : Featured Stories / President's Message / Government Affairs / Member Notes / Veterans Healthcare / Homeless Veterans / Veterans Incarcerated / POW-MIA / PTSD / AVVA / Chapter 172 / Books In Review / Ross Grego Remembered / Anthony Russo / Letters / The Locator / Reunions / Taps / American Medals / Messer at the BVA

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REVIEWS BY MARC LEEPSON
Of the thousands of books written about the Vietnam War, few come close to Gen. Hal Moore and Joe Galloway’s We Were Soldiers Once…And Young, the 1992 memoir extraordinaire of the Battle of the Ia Drang. It would be a monumental task for retired Army general Moore and recently retired journalist Galloway—1999 recipients of VVA Excellence in the Arts Awards—to top that classic piece of reporting and analysis.

But Moore and Galloway come close in We Are Soldiers Still: A Journey Back to the Battlefields of Vietnam (HarperCollins, 256 pp., $24.95). This sterling sequel tells the back story of the battle, of their 1992 book, and the 1993 ABC-TV documentary that brought them back to the battlefield. Told in Moore’s strong first-person voice, this readable narrative goes over the basics of the November 1965 actions at Landing Zones X-Ray and Albany, the fiercest components of the 34-day Battle of the Ia Drang Valley.

Moore, then a lieutenant colonel, showed exceptional courage and leadership as he saved his under-strength battalion from certain obliteration under a withering attack from a 2,000-man North Vietnamese Army regiment. Galloway, a UPI reporter, had a front-row seat for the vicious fight that lasted almost three days.

In their new book, Moore and Galloway present revealing portraits of two former enemy commanders, Gens. Nguyen Huu An and Chu Huy Man, whom the authors met—and bonded with—in Vietnam nearly three decades after the battle. This book (along with its prequel and the Randall Wallace Hollywood film We Were Soldiers) proves that Hal Moore is an exceptionally thoughtful, compassionate, intelligent, and courageous leader of men. He was one of a handful of Army officers who studied the history of the Vietnam wars before he arrived. Since the war, he has been a strong voice for reconciliation and for honoring the sacrifices of the men with whom he served.

THE DEFINITIVE NGOK TAVAK
Many VVA members are familiar with the disastrous doings in May of 1968 at the Special Forces camp on a hill called Ngok Tavak south of Kham Duc in the I Corps jungle near the Laotian border. That’s when the enemy overran the camp and 43 Marines and a Navy Corpsman were killed, twenty wounded, and only eleven escaped. Twelve men were reported missing, presumed dead.

VVA, through our Veterans Initiative, got heavily involved in the accounting for the missing of Ngok Tavak in the early and mid 1990s. After years of effort, five of the missing were definitively identified and enough evidence accumulated at the site to provide proof of the demise of the additional seven. In 2005, a military funeral took place at Arlington National Cemetery for the missing men of Ngok Tavak.

Bruce Davies, who served multiple tours with the Australian Infantry in Vietnam, does a smashing job telling the complete story of this important part of the Vietnam War in The Battle of Ngok Tavak: A Bloody Defeat in South Vietnam, 1968 (Allen & Unwin [Australia], 242 pp., paperback).

Davies gives a detailed accounting of the battle, based on extensive research and interviews with the survivors. He also presents a full account of the long, long battle that VVA waged to account for the missing, including revealing details of the trips made by VVA’s Veterans Initiative Task Force to Vietnam and the important work done by Tim Brown, Bill Duker, Donnie Waak, Tom Corey, and other VVA members. For ordering info, go to www.allenandunwin.com

THE FIGHTING SEVENTH
John C. McManus, who teaches military history at Missouri University of Science and Technology, has done a tremendous job putting together the history of one of the U.S. Army’s oldest fighting units in The 7th Infantry Regiment: Combat in an Age of Terror: The Korean War Through the Present (Forge, 415 pp., $27.95). McManus did his homework and writes engagingly in this, the first of a projected two-volume series. His section on the Vietnam War, in which the men of the 7th Infantry (known as the “Cottonbalers”) served in the 3rd Battalion of the 199th Light Infantry Brigade (known as the “Redcatchers”), is engrossing and enlightening.

McManus includes a vivid depiction of one of the unit’s low points—a “living nightmare,” as he puts it—that took place on March 1, 1970, when an inexperienced captain took his men into a lethal ambush. One of the survivors was VVA’s National Chaplain, Father Phil Salois, then a young PFC who made a vow that if he escaped the fighting alive, he would lead a religious life. The depiction of that scene is not easy to read, but it is must reading.

CLETE AND DAVE
My wife asked me if I was reading the new James Lee Burke novel, Swan Peak (402 pp., Simon & Schuster, $25.95) to review or for pleasure. I was pleased to say that I was reading it for both. One of the highlights of my job is reading one of my favorite novelists, the prolific Burke, just about every summer when he produces his latest Dave Robicheaux. Every one of these detective thrillers is as good as the genre gets.

The new book is no exception. Burke follows his Robicheaux formula, but keeps things fresh and compelling. This time—the 17th in the series—Burke moves the action from New Orleans to the Montana Rockies, where Dave and his fellow Vietnam veteran and old crime-fighting buddy Clete Purcell (the defrocked detective) are on an extended vacation. It doesn’t take long for the boys to get into big trouble with a gang of violent sociopaths. There are murders aplenty; Dave and Clete get in trouble with the feds and the local cops; and they solve a giant mystery in the last pages of the fast-moving narrative.

Dave and Clete’s service in the Vietnam War is a constant theme. In fact, the book opens with former Marine Clete’s recurring war-induced nightmare. Burke’s muscular, evocative writing style is evident throughout this violence-filled, often dark book.

In his dream, Clete “saw a hootch with a mamasan in the doorway suddenly engulfed in an arc of liquid flame sprayed from a Zippo-track,” Burke writes. “He saw a seventeen-year-old door gunner go ape shit on a wedding party in a free-fire zone, the brass cartridges jacking from an M60 suspended from a bungee cord. He saw a Navy corpsman with rubber spiders on his steel pot try to stuff the entrails of a black Marine inside his abdomen with his bare hand. He saw himself inside a battalion aid station, his neck beaded with dirt rings, his body dehydrated from blood expander, his flak jacket glued to the wound in his chest.”

FICTION IN BRIEF
Intercourse (Chronicle Books, 216 pp., $22.95), the latest effort from Robert Olen Butler, is a unique one: fifty very short stories, each told in the first person by two people in the act of making love. Butler, the much-honored literary novelist who served as an Army intelligence specialist in Vietnam, imagines the coital thoughts of, among many others, Marc Anthony and Cleopatra, Louis XV and Marie Antoinette, Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln, Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker, Robert F. Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe, and George W. and Laura Bush.

Few of them, in Butler’s imagining, have their minds on what is going on in bed; and that includes the encounter that happens on August 11, 2007, between “Robert Olen Butler, 62, writer, Vietnam veteran,” and “Miss X, 36, hotel desk clerk, daughter of a North Vietnamese soldier” in room 1503 of the Sheraton Saigon Hotel and Towers.

The ultra-prolific Stephen Coonts, the former Navy Vietnam War A-6 pilot who made his literary reputation with Flight of the Intruder (1986), his first techno-thriller, has two new fast-paced thrillers: Deep Black: Conspiracy (St. Martin’s, 468 pp., $7.99, paper), which he co-wrote with Jim DeFelice, and part of which is set in present-day Vietnam, and The Assassin (St. Martin’s, 352 pp., $26.95), in which Admiral Jake Grafton of Intruder fame gets involved in an international terrorist plot.

HERRING ON FOREIGN POLICY
It’s hard to be brief about George Herring’s massive From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations Since 1776 (Oxford University Press, 995 pp., $35). Part of the renowned Oxford History of the United States, this impeccably written and deeply researched volume contains two in-depth chapters dealing with the Vietnam War, one on the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, and one on the Nixon-Kissinger era. Herring, Alumni Professor of History Emeritus at the University of Kentucky, is perhaps best known for America’s Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950-1975, which was published in 1979, is still in print, and stands as the best short, comprehensive history of the American War in Vietnam.

In his new book, Herring weaves Vietnam War policy into a narrative that covers nearly every aspect of foreign policy during the war. He calls the war Kennedy’s “greatest foreign policy failure.” He gives Johnson only slightly better marks, noting that the “war he took on with grave misgivings and struggled at great cost to end dominated his presidency and eventually drove him from office.” As for Nixon and Kissinger, they “underestimated their adversaries and overestimated their ability to control events.”

Herring gives Nixon and Kissinger marks for their “important achievements” in foreign policy, including the start of détente with the Soviet Union and opening up relations with China. Those accomplishments, though, “must be weighed against huge and glaring failures,” Herring notes, in Latin America, India and Pakistan, and “above all” in Vietnam. They “developed Vietnam policies from badly flawed assumptions and with means entirely inadequate to the ends they sought. The height of realism is recognizing when to cut one’s losses. They did that only grudgingly and after four more years of war, with more than twenty thousand American lives lost, and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese.”

David L. Anderson and John Ernst, the editors of the anthology The War That Never Ends: New Perspectives on the Vietnam War (University of Kentucky, 376 pp., $35), dedicate this worthy volume to George Herring, who contributes an excellent essay, “The War That Never Seems to Go Away,” dealing with how the lessons and experiences of that war become part of the debate whenever the United States gets involved, or thinks about getting involved, in military action around the globe. Other contributors include Vietnam War historians Marilyn Young, Robert K. Brigham, Sandra Taylor, Robert Buzzanco, and Anderson and Ernst.

NONFICTION IN BRIEF
James E. Westheider’s The Vietnam War (Greenwood, 248 pp., $65) is part of the publisher’s “American Soldiers’ Lives” series. As such, Westheider, a University of Cincinnati history prof, gives plenty of details on daily life in the war zone for American troops, making good use of oral histories.

Mark Atwood Lawrence’s The Vietnam War: A Concise International History (Oxford University, 208 pp., $18.95) lives up to its subtitle. Lawrence, a University of Texas history prof who has written widely on the Vietnam War, provides a well-researched and succinct account of the war, never straying far from its international geopolitical implications.

Peter S. Gaytan and Marian Edelman Borden’s For Service to Your Country: The Insider’s Guide to Veterans’ Benefits (Citadel Press, 480 pp., $10.95, paper) also lives up to its subtitle. In very readable prose the authors offer step-by-step advice on dealing with virtually every aspect of the VA. Among the book’s appendices is a state-by-state listing of the addresses and phone numbers of all the nation’s Vet Centers.

You can find similar information in the newly published, revised and updated second edition of John D. Roche’s The Veteran’s Survival Guide: How to File and Collect on VA Claims (Potomac Books, 336 pp., $17.95, paper). Roche, a retired USAF Major, also is the author of The Veteran’s PTSD Handbook: How to File and Collect on Claims for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (Potomac Books, 231 pp., $17.95, paper).

Photographer Robert C. Knudsen’s A Living Treasure: Seasonal Photographs of Arlington National Cemetery (Potomac Books, 200 pp., $29.95) is a coffee-table affair with more than two hundred evocative color photos, including one of a Gold Stars Mothers event featuring a VVA Color Guard.

 

 

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