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November/December Issue

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Reviews by Marc Leepson

Sometime in the early 1990s, I considered writing a biography of the journalist, scholar, and author Bernard Fall. The Austrian-born French citizen was the pre-eminent authority on the Vietnam War from the mid-1950s until his death on patrol with U.S. Marines in South Vietnam in 1967. Fall lived a unique and notable life, and it was surprising that no one had written his biography. I made an appointment to see his widow, Dorothy Fall, to ask her permission to write the book. She kindly heard me out then said that she was working on her husband’s biography. I wished her the best of luck.

Dorothy Fall’s biography of her famed husband, Bernard Fall: Memories of a Soldier-Scholar (Potomac Books, 304 pp., $27.50), has just been released. It is an excellent, revealing piece of work, a combination family memoir and biography. In it, Dorothy Fall does a splendid job recounting the life and times of a brilliant, brave, opinionated man who earned international respect for his scholarship and on-the-ground research about the 20th century wars in Indochina. The book is both a “loving tribute,” as Dorothy Fall puts it, to her husband, and an illuminating look at his life and his life’s work.

Bernard Fall was born in Vienna in 1926. His family fled to France to escape the Nazis in 1938, but both of his parents later perished at the hands of the Germans. Sixteen-year-old Bernard Fall fought the Germans with the French Resistance and later with the French Army. He came to the United States for his post-graduate education, specialized in Indochina, and did much of his research in Southeast Asia beginning in 1953. He taught at Howard University in Washington and made many trips to Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia before his death.

Fall was an early critic of American involvement in Vietnam. In an eerily prescient July 1962 magazine article he called for the United States to negotiate peace and not to get involved militarily. “We must clearly realize,” he said, “that the alternative means the bloodshed and misery of a long and probably inconclusive guerrilla war, a war which Ho Chi Minh is well prepared to fight.”

American military leaders respected Bernard Fall’s opinions and sought out his advice on waging war in Vietnam. The Kennedy and Johnson foreign policy higher-ups (McNamara, Bundy, et al.) did not. Fall was accused of being a communist spy, and the FBI put him under secret surveillance for years. What the FBI found out was that Bernard Fall had no political agenda; he spoke the truth as he saw it. Dorothy Fall reveals that and more in this loving tribute.

LBJ BIO

Randall B. Woods’ mammoth new biography, LBJ: Architect of American Ambition (Free Press, 1,007 pp., $35), is a masterful examination of the brash Texan who plunged this country full bore into the Vietnam War and who saw the war destroy his political career. Woods, a University of Arkansas history professor, sets out LBJ’s life with facts and with insightful analysis. That includes concise, information-packed chapters on the Vietnam War.

Woods makes a very convincing argument that LBJ, as has been said often, wanted to fight the war on poverty, not the war in Vietnam. He was no warmonger, but wound up ordering the massive escalation in Vietnam through a series of circumstances primarily not of his making. That includes the situation he inherited from the Kennedy administration, along with a trio of arrogant, hawkish foreign policy honchos: Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, and National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy.

Other factors were at play, of course, including political ones. Johnson, in the months prior to the 1964 presidential election, for example, strove not to appear weak on fighting communism. Johnson, Woods notes, had embarked on his “nation-building enterprise believing that freedom was indivisible, that historically, intellectually, and morally the United States was bound to combat communist totalitarianism at every front. But [he] discovered that there were limits to American power.”

BIOGRAPHIES IN BRIEF

Washington Post editor Karen DeYoung’s Soldier: The Life of Colin Powell (Knopf, 610 pp., $28.95) is a well-researched and well-analyzed life account of another man who brought himself up from extremely humble roots to the pinnacle of power in Washington. DeYoung clearly chronicles Powell’s two very different Vietnam War tours as an adviser with a 400-man ARVN battalion in the A Shau Valley and Hue in 1962-63, and his 1968-69 stint as XO of the Americal Division’s 3rd Battalion, 1st/11th, in Duc Pho and Chu Lai.

“If his first tour in Vietnam had been a trying but noble effort to help contain Communist expansion,” DeYoung notes, “Powell saw his second deployment more than five years later largely as something to be endured. He was well aware that much of what he did contributed little if anything to defeating a North Vietnamese Army that was clearly fighting a different war than the Americans were.” Powell, she notes, “was like many other young officers who saw the irrationality and futility of the effort on a daily basis, and the experience would later play a major role in his own command decision at the highest level.”

Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska cooperated fully with University of Nebraska-Lincoln journalism professor Charlyne Berens in Chuck Hagel: Moving Forward (University of Nebraska Press, 230 pp., $24.95), an admiring biography. The book includes a short chapter on Hagel’s 1967-68 tour of duty as an infantryman with the 9th Infantry Division’s 2/47th slogging around the Mekong Delta, which Hagel described as the hardest thing he’d ever done. Not surprisingly, she writes, “he believes what he learned there is [a] big part of who he is today.”

MEMOIRS IN BRIEF

Tucker Smallwood expired on the operating table in Vietnam, only to be resuscitated by a never-say-die doctor. Smallwood, an actor of some renown, has compiled short, autobiographical essays about his tour of duty, about his family and career, and about his return to Vietnam in Return to Eden (231 pp., $17.95, paper). It is an easy and intriguing read. But it is one that also leaves the reader hankering for more about his relations with the ARVN (Lt. Smallwood was an adviser with an outpost of Regional Popular Forces), about his wounding, and about his coping after recuperating. We look forward to a second, expanded edition. For ordering info, go to www.lulu.com

Ted G. Arthurs’ Land With No Sun: A Year in Vietnam with the 173rd Airborne (Stackpole, 352 pp., $19.95, paper) is a well-told account of the author’s 1967-68 tour of duty as the sergeant major of the 173rd’s 4th Rifle Battalion, 503rd Infantry, in the Central Highlands, aka the “land with no sun.” Arthurs and his men went through a brutal year that included the Battle of Dak To and the Tet Offensive, during which 125 of his men perished. Arthurs dedicates the book to their memory.

Douglass H. Hubbard, Jr., spent three years in Vietnam (1969-72) as a civilian special agent for the Office of Naval Intelligence. Hubbard writes about his Vietnam War experience in detail and also relates the story of Naval Intel special agents during the entire war in Special Agent, Vietnam (Potomac Books, 288 pp., $26.95). “Despite a preponderance of altruism,” Hubbard says, recounting a thought he had during a recent return trip to Vietnam, “we had mattered very little in the context of Vietnam’s troubled two millennia of history.”

Stephanie Hanson’s A Corpsman’s Legacy: He Continues To Heal Others Through the Daughter He Never Knew (Leatherneck Publishing, 333 pp., $15.95), is a moving tribute to the author’s father, Gary Norman Young, a Navy Corpsman who perished in Vietnam in February 1969, as well as the story of Hanson’s compelling quest to learn about her father and his hazardous tour of duty with the Marine Aircraft Group 16 at Marble Mountain. For more info, go to www.leatherneckpublishing.com

Roy Gleason, one of the few men who played Major League Baseball and then served in the Vietnam War, tells his life story with the help of Wallace Wasinack and Mark Langill in Lost in the Sun: Roy Gleason’s Odyssey from the Outfield to the Battlefield (Sports Publishing, 239 pp., $24.95). After a cup of coffee with the L.A. Dodgers, Gleason was drafted into the Army in April of 1967. He went to Vietnam in late December and served with Co. A, 3/39th, in the 9th Infantry Division.

Gerald R. Gems’s Viet Nam Vignettes: Tales of the Magnificent Bastards (St. Johann Press, 147 pp., $22.50, paper) is a fast-moving account that focuses on his 1967-68 tour with the 2nd Battalion of the 4th Marine Regiment. Gems, who later played semi-pro football and today is a professor of health and physical education at North Central College, tells his story well and in the third person.

Larry D. Hall, another former football player—he starred as a running back at Jackson State—deals briefly with his war and postwar stories in Vietnam Veteran: Quest for Compensation (AuthorHouse, 74 pp., $15.50, paper). Hall was drafted into the Army and did a 1970-72 tour of duty in Vietnam with the 13th Finance Section. He has spent decades trying to be adequately compensated for injuries and wounds he suffered in the war—the subject of much of this book.

Dave Wright does a fine job chronicling his Vietnam War and homecoming stories in Not Enough Tears (AuthorHouse, 251 pp., $14.95). Wright, who was drafted into the Army, put in an eventful year mainly walking point with the 1st Infantry Division’s Co. A, 1st/26th. A recipient of Silver and Bronze Stars, he had a difficult emotional readjustment but has been helped by his strong religious convictions.

David W. Powell’s My Tour in Hell: A Marine’s Battle with Combat Trauma (Modern History Press, 190 pp., $26.95, hardcover; $18.95, paper) chronicles the author’s 1966-67 Vietnam War tour with Co. D, 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, in Chu Lai and Danang, and his years of suffering from PTSD. Powell recovered using the Traumatic Incident Reduction technique, which he explains in his book
George Brondsema’s often painfully honest Born in the ’40s, Raised in the ’50s, Died in the ’60s (PublishAmerica, 188 pp., $19.95, paper) focuses on his two tours in Vietnam, in 1965-66 with the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Regiment, 3rd Marine Division, and in 1967-68. The latter was cut short when Brondsema was wounded at Khe Sanh and suffered what he calls “a complete mental breakdown.”

Jim Stewart has a unique story to tell in The Ghosts of Vietnam: A Memoir of Growing Up, Going to War, and Healing (iUniverse, 197 pp., $17.95, paper). Stewart joined the Army in 1966 and put in a two-year tour with several MP units in Long Binh and Saigon. The heart of this well-told book deals with Stewart’s love affair with a Vietnamese woman, the daughter they had together, his return as a civilian to Vietnam, and the sad series of events that ensued. Paul Bylin’s The Other Casualty of War (PublishAmerica, 61 pp., $14.95, paper) is a memoir of his two tours in Vietnam and his rocky homecoming after getting out of the Army.

Jim Albrigtsen’s No More Tears for the Dead! (PublishAmerica, 527 pp., $34.95, paper) tells the story, as he puts it, of “a kid from upstate New York who joined the Army and went to Vietnam.” Albrigtsen served in Vietnam in 1968-69 with the 187th Helicopter Assault Company. His book also covers his often-difficult readjustment after coming home from the war.

Robert G. Scholten’s Reflections on a Journey to War (Green Olive Tree, 159 pp., $28.95, paper) contains photographs, biblical quotes, and the author’s thoughts on his ten months in Vietnam as a gunner on a Duster with the 4th AW/SP Battalion of the 60th ADA Artillery. For more info, go to www.vietnamwarreflections.com

The Last Boat Out: Memoirs of a Triumphant Vietnamese-American Family (Gaslight Publishing, 208 pp., $16.97, paper) contains the inspiring first-person stories of Truong Nhu Dinh and Tran Thi Truong Nga, a husband and wife who fled Vietnam in April 1975 and came to this country to create a new life. The book’s translators are Truong Nhu Kenny and Ton-Nu Phuong-Thao.

FICTION IN BRIEF

Very few journalists and other nonfiction writers have had success writing fiction. Which is why it’s always a pleasant surprise to read a good novel by a good journalist. Case in point: Zalin Grant’s Presumed Dead (iUniverse, 275 pp., $17.95, paper), a fast-moving thriller set in Paris, Washington, and in the jungles of Laos that deals with the very real possibility of living American POWs (or former POWs) in Southeast Asia. Grant is a former U.S. Army intelligence officer who served in Vietnam, a journalist, and the author of three previous books, including Survivors, which deals with American POW/MIAs.

John E. McDonald, a Canadian by birth, joined the U.S. Army and served in Vietnam in 1969-70. He is the author of a series of five novels featuring a Canadian-born U.S. Army grunt named Mac who gets himself involved in deep kim chi in Vietnam and after he comes home from the war. The first book in the series, Here Piggy…(AuthorHouse, 236 pp., $10.75, paper), is a fast-moving in-country tale in which Mac, the M-60 man in his platoon, goes head to head with a cowardly LT and faces some amazing consequences in the jungle. For more info, go to www.sgtmajorbooks.com

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