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September/october 2009

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REVIEWS BY MARC LEEPSON

Wayne Karlin’s seven novels and two books of nonfiction are among the very best Vietnam War-influenced literary works. Karlin, a Marine Corps Vietnam veteran, also has done a yeoman’s job forging ties between American and Vietnamese veteran writers. In that endeavor, he has made many trips to Vietnam and has worked with more than a few of his Vietnamese colleagues in this country.
His latest book, Wandering Souls: Journeys With the Dead and the Living in Viet Nam (Nation Books, 337 pp., $25.95), is a mesmerizing, beautifully rendered work of nonfiction that, in a large way, is the culmination of Karlin’s life work. I don’t believe anyone else on the planet could have told this moving, sometimes heart-breaking, yet ultimately redemptive story of two men whose lives intersected for a few seconds in a fatal encounter in Vietnam forty years ago, and whose lives were re-united in a monumental fashion nearly four decades later.
Army Lt. Homer Steedly of B Co., 1st of the 8th of the 4th Infantry Division, shot and killed NVA medic Hoang Ngoc Dam on March 19, 1969, a blazingly hot day in Pleiku Province in the Central Highlands, when they came face to face on a jungle trail. Steedly had no choice; the enemy soldier was going for his weapon. The American LT searched the body and took the dead NVA’s diary and other personal effects. He put the incident to the back of his mind. But it would not stay there. For years, Steedly suffered emotionally because of that incident and many others during a hellish tour.
The medic’s body was buried in an unmarked mass grave. In Vietnamese culture, your soul cannot come to rest unless you are buried properly by your family near your ancestral home. Dam’s family tried for decades to find his body with no luck.
Then, a few years ago, Wayne Karlin learned of the incident and of Homer’s wish to return Hoang Ngoc Dam’s effects to his family. Karlin, using his extensive contacts, put in motion a process that included the author presenting Dam’s diary and papers to his family, and culminated with the repatriation of his remains in a ceremony in which Steedly took part in his village.
Karlin does a beautiful job telling Steedly and Dam’s back stories, as well as the story of Steedly’s life since Vietnam, and the saga of Dam’s family since he died. It all reaches a crescendo with the June 2008 trip that Steedly made to Dam’s village. This is a one-of-a-kind Vietnam War story, peppered with illuminating allusions to Vietnam War literature by Americans and Vietnamese. It is a book not soon forgetten.

POW/MIA HISTORY

Northwestern University history professor Michael J. Allen does an excellent job chronicling the history of the Vietnam War POW/MIA movement in his deeply researched and perceptively analyzed Until the Last Man Comes Home: POWs, MIAs, and the Unending Vietnam War (University of North Carolina, 448 pp. $30). Allen’s ambitious goal is to account for the startling fact that the postwar accounting effort for a comparatively small number of Vietnam War missing (about 1,800, compared to 170,000 Union missing from the Civil War and 78,000 in World War II) has been by far the most extensive ever attempted “in the history of warfare.”
He does that by carefully and meticulously tracing the history of the movement, concentrating on the group that would become the National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia. Allen shows how the League morphed from being a wives-led lobbying effort during the war to a family-led postwar political phenomenon that has had a significant impact on the body politic through six presidential administrations, from Nixon to George W. Bush.
Allen also makes a convincing case that the MIA issue was an important factor in the political rise of Ronald Reagan, which he notes, “marked the start of nearly three decades of Republican rule.” Allen lapses into academic jargon on occasion, but otherwise writes clearly and cogently in this valuable look at what he accurately calls a “strange” story.

TOURING VN

In his too-academic-for-me Tours of Vietnam: War, Travel Guides, and Memory (Duke University Press, 289 pp., $79.95, hardcover; $22.95, paper) University of Minnesota (Duluth) history prof Scott Laderman explains why in a book about the Vietnam War he eschews using the terms “Vietnam War,” “Viet Cong,” “North Vietnamese Army,” “South Vietnam,” “North Vietnam,” and the “First (and Second) Indochina War.”
These commonly used appellations are biased, he says, and the latter two “obscure the temporal continuity of the Vietnamese anti-colonial struggle and the American commitment, beginning in the 1940s, to combating it.” The biases, according to Laderman, are overwhelmingly pro-American and anti-communist. American “imperialism,” aka “imperial aggression,” was, Laderman says, at the heart of whatever you want to call the shooting war between the United States and Vietnam (and Laos and Cambodia) in the 1960s and 1970s.
His book’s thesis is that the guidebooks, pamphlets, and brochures produced before, during, and especially after the American war are filled with biased, pro-American interpretations of the wars in Vietnam. Or, as Laderman puts it, the guidebooks by and large tell the story of the war “in ways favorable to American global ambitions.”
Aside from his semantic gyrations, the most irritating thing about this book is Laderman’s chapter on the 1968 Hue Massacre. He says that the common wisdom—that the Viet Cong systematically sought out and executed some 2,800 civilians and buried them in mass graves—has “been vigorously contested” and that “exactly what happened in 1968 remains uncertain.” For evidence, he sites the work of D. Gareth Porter, a far-left historian who in the mid-seventies denied the Cambodian holocaust.
Laderman says “Porter and other scholars” agree that the VC “killed noncombatants” in Hue during Tet ’68, but that “the most reliable enumerations of those killed range from 300 to 400 to a more precise 710.” That flies in the face of the conclusions of an overwhelming majority of scholars, journalists, and researchers who’ve looked into what took place during those 25 days of fighting.

MAX’S STORY

Max Cleland’s Heart of a Patriot: How I Found the Courage to Survive Vietnam, Walter Reed and Karl Rove (Simon & Schuster, 259 pp., $26) is a moving, sometimes gut-wrenching autobiography that looks deeply into Cleland’s horrific wounding in Vietnam and his roller-coaster government and political career. Cleland, born and raised in a small Georgia town, was wounded by an errant American grenade on April 8, 1968, near the end of his tour of duty as a First Cav Captain. He lost both legs and an arm, and survived only because he was whisked to a field hospital where five surgeons worked on him simultaneously.
In 1970, after nearly two years at Walter Reed and the Washington, D.C., VA Medical Center, Cleland was elected to the George State Senate. In 1977, he was appointed Administrator of the Veterans Administration at age 34 by President Jimmy Carter. From 1981, he served for twelve years as Georgia’s Secretary of State and then, in 1998, was elected to the U.S. Senate.
Cleland tells his amazing life story straightforwardly and very well in his book, written with Ben Raines. His reconstruction of his wounding and long, slow recovery contains details that are almost unbearable to read. And his depiction of the deep depression that he fell into after losing his Senate seat in 2004 is almost equally painful.
Still, this is a story of redemption. Cleland is now Secretary of the American Battle Monuments Commission and has “a new perspective on life, a reconciliation with my past,” and “an appreciation that somehow, through it all, God provides.”

NONFICTION IN BRIEF

In Ride the Thunder: A Vietnam War Story of Honor and Triumph (WND Books, 650 pp., $29.95), Richard Botkin, a post-Vietnam War Marine Corps infantry officer, interprets the war mainly through the stories of three American and two South Vietnamese Marine officers. The book focuses on the NVA’s 1972 Easter Offensive. One of the Marines, John Ripley, became a legend for destroying the bridge at Dong Ha, cutting off one of the NVA’s main routes into South Vietnam.

Kenneth P. Werrell, a USAF pilot from 1960-65, includes a chapter about the Vietnam War in Death from the Heavens: A History of Strategic Bombing (Naval Institute, 352 pp., $49.95), a heavily illustrated survey of his subject. The ’Nam chapter includes excellent analyses of Operations Rolling Thunder and Linebacker I and II and the introduction of the F-111, “probably the most controversial USAF aircraft of all time.”

Robert O. Harder took part in 145 Vietnam War B-52 missions as a navigator-bombardier then wrote Flying From the Black Hole: The B-52 Navigator-Bombardiers of Vietnam (Naval Institute, 320 pp., $34.95), a well-researched history of the role of the non-pilot officer aircrews of that fearsome aircraft.

Two Navy medals were created during the Vietnam War: the Meritorious Service Medal and the Combat Action Ribbon. The ribbon came “from a desire to recognize the unique role Navy riverine patrols played in Vietnam.” Those are the words of Fred L. Borch and Charles P. McDowell in their inclusive Sea Service Medals: Military Awards and Decorations of the Navy, Marine, and Coast Guard (Naval Institute Press, 180 pp., $34.95).

In War Stories: A Graphic History (Collins Design, 118 pp., $24.99, paper), comic book expert Mike Conroy presents an illustrated history of American war comics.  The Vietnam War section includes info on Vietnam veteran Doug Murray’s The ’Nam, which ran for 84 issues from 1986-93; Vietnam veteran Don Lomax’s Vietnam Journal, which also consisted of 84 issues (1987-93) and which Conroy calls “among the most graphically violent [comics] ever published”; as well as several antiwar underground comics.

Albin F. Irzyk, who headed the U.S. Army Headquarters Command in Saigon in 1968, tells the story of what the men in his “tiny, obscure” support unit did during the Tet Offensive in Unsung Heroes, Saving Saigon (Ivy House, 212 pp., $24.95). His troops rose to the occasion, battling the VC in the city’s streets and on the grounds of the U.S. Embassy. His unit’s response to the massive sur­prise attack, Gen. Irzyk says, “was immediate and heroic” and was “a critical factor in the saving of Saigon.”

 

The Attack on the U.S.S. Liberty

BY MICHAEL KEATING

On the morning of his 24th birthday, June 8, 1967, Ensign John Scott stood on the deck of the U.S.S. Liberty and watched Israeli reconnaissance planes repeatedly fly overhead. The sky was clear and the sea was empty. Almost all shipping had withdrawn from the war zone; hundreds of miles separated the Liberty from the rest of the Sixth Fleet.
The spy ship Liberty had been sent to this spot, 12-1/2 miles off the Egyptian coast, to monitor the Six Day War.
Shortly after 2:00 p.m., three Israeli fighter jets bored down on the ship. The two mounted .50-caliber machine guns—the Liberty’s only defense—and the sailors manning them “vanished in a cloud of smoke and metal.” Then the fighters zeroed in on the bridge, strafing the command with rockets and 30-mm cannons. The dead and wounded littered the decks. “One sailor, with two and a half feet of his colon blown out by shrapnel, used his own blood to cool his burning skin.” Two 55-gallon gasoline tanks ignited. The attacks came in waves, about every minute.
Then, abruptly, the fighters disappeared. The crew had little time to wonder if the attacks were over; they were attacked by three torpedo boats. Five torpedoes were launched; one ripped a massive hole in the side of the Liberty. Life boats were set out but destroyed by machine-gun fire.
American fighter jets were sent to protect the Liberty, but when it was discovered that the attackers were not Egyptian, they were recalled. When the ship limped to port, all the crew was threatened with courts-martial if they discussed the incident. Of the 300-man crew, 34 were dead and 171 injured.
Investigative journalist James Scott’s The Attack on the Liberty: The Untold Story of Israel’s Deadly 1967 Assault on a U.S. Spy Ship (Simon & Schuster, 374 pp., $27) details his father’s experiences and those of the other crew members as they attempted to withstand the attack. The crew had waited long enough for justice that never came, suffered the PTSD that churned in the enforced silence, and finally decided to tell their stories.
Theirs are horror stories of pain, death, and destruction. Then the Johnson administration, loath to offend the Israelis—despite Dean Rusk’s certitude that the attack was intentional—declared the entire series of events a tragic mistake.
The transcript of radio communication between Israeli pilots and air controllers recorded that one controller asked, “Authorized to sink her?”
“You can sink her,” the chief air controller replied. “Is he screwing her?”
“He’s going down on her all the time with napalm.”
“She’s burning! She’s burning!” another pilot exclaimed
Later, the Israeli government, too, declared the entire series of events a tragic mistake.
In addition to having the confidence of the Liberty’s crew, James Scott also had access to recently declassified material. He is a trained journalist who writes what he knows and what he can document. This book is not a screed, nor an indictment. Rather, it’s a careful laying out of the details—many horrific—and the price paid by the crew members.
The price paid by a nation, too, in turning away from the truth and turning away from its responsibilities towards its servicemen. In concentrating upon containing political damage, the Johnson administration neglected to take any lessons from the sad tale of the Liberty. Seven months later, the U.S.S. Pueblo, a similarly unprotected spy ship out by itself on international waters in nearly identical circumstances, was seized by North Korea, and American sailors were subjected to more horrors.

 

 

 

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