A publication of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress

April/May 2002

BOOKS IN REVIEW

BY MARC LEEPSON

HOW TO WIN IN VIETNAM: The Nguyen Cao Ky Version 

The one man who knew how to defeat the communists in Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s and had the wherewithal to do so was Nguyen Cao Ky, the South Vietnamese Air Force general who was the unelected prime minister from 1965-67 and vice president from 1967-71. But Ky was thwarted by venal, incompetent, and corrupt South Vietnamese politicians (especially his successor, Nguyen Van Thieu), by the evil Vietnamese communists, and by ignorant American political and military leaders.  

That=s the version Ky presents in Buddha=s Child: My Fight to Save Vietnam (St. Martin=s, 272 pp., $24.95), a self-serving, self-aggrandizing memoir written with Marvin J. Wolf. Ky says his plan to lead an invasion of North Vietnam in 1966, which “would have ended the war,” was squelched by timid Johnson administration officials. His plans to introduce democracy were continually beaten back by his political enemies, including Buddhist leaders whom Ky says acted as little more than communist dupes. Ky whitewashes his government=s excesses, which included heavy-handed intimidation of the press and Ky=s political enemies, and his violent crackdown on the protesting Buddhists.  

Ky provides an insider=s look at the political machinations of South Vietnam during the American war. But that view is shown through a vehemently anticommunist and egocentric lens. Plus, Ky’s explanation of the most portentous event in his political life - allowing his political archenemy Thieu to be nominated as the military directorate=s candidate for president in 1967 - is stupefyingly unbelievable. Ky claims that the reason he gave his blessing to Thieu to become president “remains a great mystery, even to me.” That mystery led to Ky=s political downfall and to the end of his plans to defeat the communists and bring democracy to his homeland - and to eight years of a corrupt, ineffectual Thieu-led South Vietnamese regime. 


EXPAT VETS 

Jonathan Stevenson=s well-written Hard Men Humble: Vietnam Veterans Who Wouldn=t Come Home (Free Press, 256 pp., $25) tells the stories of twenty expatriate veterans who live in Thailand and Vietnam. Many of these tales are compelling. Stevenson tells them well as he spotlights an intriguing and little-known American subculture. 

A London-based author and editor, Stevenson correctly and convincingly debunks the “too-often misremembered” image of Vietnam veterans as “drug-addled basket cases, shell-shocked baby killers, or treasonous ‘fraggers’ who deserved the jeers and taunts that some received” when they came home. 

On the other hand, it=s difficult to envision how this book will help counter the negative image of Vietnam veterans. That=s because Stevenson=s veterans are members of what he calls “an awkward, out-of-the-way fringe group” of fewer than a thousand men who have very little in common save the fact that they have chosen to live in Southeast Asia. This awkward group includes several men on the far political left and several on the far right. They “run the gamut of retrospective Vietnam [War] thinking,” as Stevenson accurately puts it.  

Some of the men are living comfortably in retirement. Some are in Asia temporarily for work. Some have been done in by classic midlife crises. Some are there for the wine, women, and song. More than a few appear to be wrestling with war-related emotional problems. 


FICTION IN BRIEF

The prolific Robert Olen Butler=s latest literary effort, the readable and insightful Fair Warning (Atlantic Monthly, 240 pp., $24), his tenth novel, is a penetrating look at the life of a 40-year-old New York City professional woman as she faces her angst-ridden family, work, and romantic conundrums. Butler, a Vietnam veteran who often uses Vietnam War themes in his work - which included the Pulitzer-Prize-winning short story collection, A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain - this time steers clear of those subjects. Except, that is, for mentioning that the heroine=s French tycoon love interest was conceived in Saigon=s Hotel Continental “in the final days of our misbegotten empire.” 


NONFICTION IN BRIEF

John F. Sullivan, a former CIA polygraph examiner, offers his unique Vietnam War perspective in Of Spies and Lies: A CIA Lie Detector Remembers Vietnam (University Press of Kansas, 280 pp., $29.95), a detailed, anecdote-heavy, and CIA-approved accounting of his four years (1971-75) of service in the Vietnam War.  Sullivan went to Vietnam in April 1971 as a war hawk. After 48 months of traversing the war zone administering lie-detector tests to thousands of enemy prisoners and others, he came home a thoroughly disillusioned dove.  

Sullivan chronicles his change of heart by sparing few details about his work and social life during his extended tour of duty. He also paints a generally negative picture of the CIA=s war against the Viet Cong. Sullivan claims that CIA operatives produced “some good information” but that information was misused by those at the top and produced no real progress in undermining the enemy.  

The American War in Vietnam (AKA the Second Indochina War) takes up about 20 pages in Vietnam: An Illustrated History (Hippocrene, 175 pp., $14.95, paper), a concise narrative history by Shelton Woods, a Boise State University history professor who specializes in Southeast Asia. Woods stays away from interpretation and sticks to the facts in this abbreviated but well-presented look at the culture, society, and history of Vietnam, the country. 

Sarah H. Godson=s exhaustive Serving Proudly: A History of Women in the U.S. Navy (Naval Institute, 512 pp., $38.95) contains a detailed chapter on the Vietnam War and the 1960s. Veteran historian and author Godson covers the highlights of the deployment of limited numbers of WAVEs and large numbers of Navy Nurse Corps personnel in country and on hospital ships off the coast. 

Casemate Press is offering a unique look at the French Indochina War in a series of four books from the French publisher Editions Heimdal. Three of these heavily illustrated tomes ($32.95 each), with captions in French by Rene Bail and Jean Pierre Bernier, cover different aspects of the French war. One, by Bail, focuses on the pivotal Battle of Dien Bien Phu. They are: Le Rconquete, which deals with France=s retaking of its Indochinese colonies after World War II; Le Tournant, hich follows events to 1950; and La Guerre. L=Enfer de Dien Bien Phu, which contains more text, also in French, along with hundreds of photos of the battle. 

Two new reader-friendly, handsomely designed coffee-table books from Schiffer Publishing deal in significant part with the Vietnam War. They are: Robert Anzuoni=s The All American: An Illustrated History of the 82nd Airborne Division (175 pp., $45) and Michael Hill and John Campbell=s Tactical Air Support: An Illustrated History (199 pp., $49.95). 

In the timely The Lessons of Terror: A History of Warfare Against Civilians: Why It Has Failed and Why It Will Fail Again (Random House, 272 pp., $19.95), Caleb Carr, the military historian and novelist, contends that America=s use of terror tactics that resulted in civilian deaths was the root cause of our defeat in the Vietnam War. “American leaders such as John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Henry Kissinger,” Carr says, had “given themselves over to a repugnant and self-defeating philosophy” in persecuting the war. That philosophy, he says, included the “carpet bombing” of North Vietnam, the use of napalm, the Cambodian incursion and bombing campaign, and the Phoenix program. 

In Heroes: U.S. Marine Corps Medal of Honor Winners (Berkley, 400 pp., $26.95), veteran author Marc Cerasini includes a meaty chapter on the Vietnam War, in which he weaves in the heroic details of the stories of many of the 57 Marines who were awarded the nation=s highest military honor.  Big selling-novelist Tom Clancy=s Shadow Warriors: Inside the Special Forces (Putnam, 560 pp., $29.95) contains a jargon-heavy, 40-page chapter sketching the real exploits of the various counterinsurgency operations in the Vietnam War, along with the reminiscences of co-author Carl Stiner=s 1967-68 tour with the 4th Infantry Division. Stiner is a retired general; Clancy did not serve in the military. 

The Country of Memory: Remaking the Past in Late Socialist Vietnam (University of California, 271 pp., $50, hardcover; $19.95, paper) is a compilation of scholarly essays edited by Hue-Tam Ho Tai, a Harvard University professor of Sino-Vietnamese History. Each of the five essays, along with the editor=s introduction and afterward, cover aspects of how the American War is viewed by Vietnamese today. The essays focus primarily on the thoughts and ideas of those who fought against the Americans. 

Reeducation in Postwar Vietnam: Personal Postscripts to Peace (Texas A&M University, 135 pp., $24.95), on the other hand, tells the post-1975 stories of three men who fought with the Americans, former ARVN Cols. Huynh Van Chinh, Tran Van Phuc, and Le Nguyen Binh. Retired Army Col. Edward P. Metzner, a longtime ARVN adviser, put together this book, which describes in detail Huynh and Tran=s years in reeducation camps and Le=s escape from Vietnam after the war. Metzner also chronicles the stories of Father Joe Devlin, who worked with war refugees, and his former comrade, former ARVN Gen. Le Minh Dao.

In 1998, former New York Times foreign correspondent Edward Gargan set out to fulfill a dream: to take a river journey along the entire Mekong, from Tibet to the southern Vietnamese delta. The River=s Tale: A Year on the Mekong (Knopf, 332 pp., $26.95) is Gargan=s evocative and perceptive first-person report on that adventure. It includes his close-up observations of life in Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam where Gargan - who refused induction into the U.S. military during the Vietnam War and spent two years in a federal prison as a result - finds plenty of evidence of the war=s continued impact on the people and the land. “For all of the northern polemics about the ‘liberation’ of the South, there remains,” Gargan notes, “a quarter of a century after the war=s end, the scent of occupation.” 

Bill Ayres was among the most radical of the radical antiwar leaders, a prominent member of the Weather Underground who believed in violent means. Ayres gives his self-congratulating version of his life in Fugitive Days: A Memoir (Beacon, 293 pp., $24), which will not warm the hearts of many who served their country during the war or who believed in nonviolent social protest. Ayres, who avoided significant jail time for his crimes of violence, is a professor of education at the University of Illinois, Chicago.

In Homefront: A Military City and the American Twentieth Century (Beacon, 328 pp., $28.50), the anthropologist Catherine Lutz takes a close look at Fayetteville, N.C., the home of Ft. Bragg and the 82nd Airborne. Her 40-page chapter on the Vietnam War era looks at life on and off the base primarily through the eyes of those who lived in Fayetteville, also known as “Fatalville” and “Fayettenam.” That includes those civilians and military folks who spoke out against the war. Lutz is an anthropology professor at the University of North Carolina.


CORRECTION 

In our review in the December-January issue, we misspelled the title of Charles Sheehan-Miles= worthy Persian Gulf War novel, Prayer at Rumayla.

   


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