The Official Voice of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress

August 2002
BOOKS IN REVIEW
   
 

Bob Kerrey Bares His Soul
In His Vietnam War Memoir

REVIEWS BY MARC LEEPSON 
 

Nearly every newspaper and magazine review of Bob Kerrey’s exceptional new memoir, When I Was a Young Man (Harcourt, 270 pp., $26), focuses on the former SEAL’s account of the incident at the South Vietnamese village of Thanh Phong. That action, in which civilian women and children were killed, was the subject of a 2001 media frenzy after a member of Kerrey’s team claimed civilians were massacred. Kerrey’s version of the story - that the noncombatants were caught in  SEAL-VC crossfire - rings true.

So does virtually everything else in this soul-searching, brutally frank memoir. Kerrey - the former Nebraska governor, senator, and 1992 Democratic Party presidential contender - covers his boyhood; his high school and college days in Nebraska; his abbreviated Vietnam War tour; and his long and painful recovery after half of his leg was blown away in Vietnam. As a result of that action Kerrey was awarded the Medal of Honor.

Kerrey (without help from a ghostwriter) clearly shows how he evolved from a Goldwater Republican to a vehement opponent of the Vietnam War and of President Richard Nixon. One factor that contributed greatly to Kerrey’s disillusionment was what happened when he arrived in Vietnam late in 1968. Kerrey, a newly minted SEAL, had undergone UDT, and Army Ranger and Airborne training and was ready and willing to fight the enemy. But the powers that be didn’t have a job for his SEAL team and, in essence, allowed him and his fellow officers to pick their targets.

"To say that I barely had a clue about what I would be doing in Vietnam underestimates the case," Kerrey says. "I was well trained in all the techniques of armed conflict, but I lacked a clear understanding of our enemy other than that they were opponents of our ally, the government of South Vietnam." It was a hell of a way to fight a war.

A DUNCAN THRILLER

Our friend and colleague, the accomplished screenwriter and director Patrick Sheane Duncan, has just published his second novel, A Private War (Putnam, 322 pp., $24.95). This one’s a well-executed, page-turning thriller set at a U.S. Army base and centering on a career Army woman who has to solve three pressing crimes her first day on the job as Provost Marshall. Duncan - who served as a 173rd Airborne trooper in Vietnam and whose film scripts include Mr. Holland’s Opus, Nick of Time, and Courage Under Fire - creates a suspenseful, clever plot filled with realistic characters, a central mystery, and plenty of tension. This is perfect fodder, you might say, for a top-notch Hollywood thriller.

FICTION IN BRIEF

Michael A. Shapiro’s in-country Vietnam War novel, Fields of Fire: A Rock ‘n’ Roll Tour of Duty in Vietnam (Metropolis Ink, 295 pp., $16.95, paper), is not to be confused with James Webb’s seminal 1978 in-country Vietnam War novel, Fields of Fire. Shapiro’s dialogue-driven Fields centers on an iconoclastic young draftee and his 1967-68 tour with the First Infantry Division.

Elton Fletcher’s Shadows of Saigon: Air Commandos in Southeast Asia (Xlibris, 514 pp., $25) is a fast-paced historical novel based on the author’s 1970-71 Vietnam War tour as an Air Force AC-119 Shadow gunship pilot. Fletcher flew 177 combat missions with Fighting C Flight of the 17th Special Operations Squadron at Tan Son Nhut Air Base.

Sandra Gurvis’s The Pipe Dreamers (Olmstead, 306 pp., $15.95, paper) is a nicely constructed look at the lives, loves, and adventures of a group of sixties college students who wade hip deep into the counterculture, including the anti-Vietnam War movement. Gurvis, the author of nine books, was a college student herself in the sixties.

NONFICTION IN BRIEF

Charles W. Sasser’s Raider (St. Martin’s 336 pp., $6.99, paper) tells the stirring story of Army Green Beret Galen "Pappy" Kittleson, who capped his long military career in November 1970 by taking part in the famed Army-Air Force raid on the Son Tay prison camp outside Hanoi. Raider is a well-executed book featuring plenty of reconstructed dialogue.

Tom Carhart, West Point class of ’66, chronicles the exploits of a group of his fellow USMA grads in West Point Warriors: Profiles of Duty, Honor, and Country in Battle (Warner, 417 pp., $6.99, paper). That includes Vietnam veterans Frederick M. Franks, Jr., Humbert Roque "Rocky" Versace, Larry D. Budge, James V. Kimsey (who went on to found AOL), Thomas Eugene White, Jr., Eugene R. Sullivan, and David Leroy Ramsay. Carhart came home from the Vietnam War with two Purple Hearts.

VVA Life Member John "Doc" Combs’s Mercy Warriors: Saving Lives Under Fire (Green Cross Foundation, 251 pp., $25.95, paper) is a well-rendered, valuable, comprehensive examination of the role of Army medics and Navy corpsmen in the Vietnam War. Combs was a corpsman and nurse with a 3rd Marine Division artillery battery and a Vietnamese children’s hospital in Dong Ha in 1968-69. He is an economist and college instructor who made good use of the experiences of more than 160 "docs" to put together this worthwhile book.

Lawrence H. Suid’s massive and instructive Guts & Glory: The Making of the American Military Image in Film, first published in 1978, is now out in a greatly expanded and revised edition (University of Kentucky, 748 pp., $50, hardcover; $29.95, paper). Suid, a military historian who specializes in war films, analyzes scores of movies from before World War I to the present day. He devotes three meaty chapters to Vietnam War and home front films. Suid offers detailed synopses of the plots of the films, his analyses of their critical worth, and his takes on the films’ contributions - or lack thereof - to the American military image.

Jeffrey Record’s Making War, Thinking History: Munich, Vietnam, and Presidential Use of Force from Korea to Kosovo (Naval Institute, 216 pp., $28.95) is a cogent and thought-provoking examination of how the appeasement of Hitler before World War II and the outcome of the American War in Vietnam influenced the way the United States has waged war. Record, a professor at the U.S. Air Force’s Air War College who served as a civilian adviser in the Vietnam War, finds that, in general, the American experience in Vietnam served as a caution flag to presidents about the use of military force - until the Persian Gulf War.

Craig C. Hannah’s Striving for Air Superiority: The Tactical Air Command in Vietnam (Texas A&M University, 176 pp., $29.95) is a well-researched examination of the many and varied shortcomings of the American tactical bombing effort in the Vietnam War. Hannah, an engineer, is a director of the Texas Air Museum.

Wynn F. Foster’s well written Fire on the Hangar Deck: Ordeal of the Oriskany (Naval Institute, 175 pp., $26.95) examines the disastrous 1966 fire that took the lives of 44 men on the USS Oriskany, the Essex-class carrier that operated in the Gulf on Tonkin. Foster, a legendary Navy aviator, flew 237 combat missions in Korea and Vietnam. He lost his right arm when, flying from the deck of the Oriskany, his A-4E Skyhawk was hit by anti-aircraft fire. Foster not only survived, but remained on active duty and was thereafter nicknamed "Captain Hook."

Dave Carey, a 25-year-old Navy aviator, took off in his A-4E Skyhawk from the Oriskany on August 31, 1967. He was shot down soon thereafter over North Vietnam and held prisoner for five and a half years. Carey, who today is a motivational speaker, tells his POW tale and offers uplifting words of hope and encouragement in The Ways We Choose: Lessons for Life from a POW’s Experience (BookPartners, 163 pp., $15.95, paper).

Early American support for the French in Indochina and the first expenditures of American funds to fight communism there - which took place during the Truman Administration - are barely covered in Arnold A. Offner’s long and detailed Another Such Victory: President Truman and the Cold War (Stanford University, 626 pp., $37.95). Offner, a Lafayette College history professor, contends that Truman was too hawkish during the Cold War and missed many opportunities to defuse the East-West tensions. "Throughout his presidency," Offner opines, "Truman remained a parochial nationalist who lacked the leadership to move the U.S. away from conflict and toward détente."

Nearly everything you ever wanted to know about the folks who climb aboard their motorcycles and make the trek to Washington for Memorial Day may be found in Raymond Michalowski and Jill Dubisch’s Run for the Wall: Remembering Vietnam on a Motorcycle Pilgrimage (Rutgers University, 295 pp., $55, hardcover; $22.50, paper). The authors are Northern Arizona University sociology and anthropology profs. George W. Schwarz, Jr.’s April Fools: An American Remembers South Vietnam’s Final Days (Publish America, 282 pp., $24.95, paper) is a well-written look at the author’s 1972-75 work in Vietnam as a civilian employee of Alaska Barge & Transport and his return to Vietnam in 1992.

George M. Watson, Jr.’s Voices From the Rear: Vietnam, 1969-70 (Xlibris, 322 pp., $32.95) is a highly readable memoir of the author’s Army career, beginning with Basic Training at Ft. Dix in January 1969, through AIT at Ft. Leonard Wood, and to Vietnam in June of 1969 where Watson put in a year as a personnel clerk with the 101st Airborne Division. Watson, who subsequently earned a Ph.D., is chief of the Special Projects Team at the Air Force History Support Office in Washington.

Larkin Spivey’s God in the Trenches (Allegiance Press, 203 pp., $25.99) interprets American military history through the lens of "how God defends freedom when America is at war." Spivey was a U.S. Marine officer in the Vietnam War. University of Exeter History Prof. Jeremy Black’s Warfare in the Western World, 1882-1975 (Indiana University, 256 pp., $45, hardcover; $19.95, paper) includes a brief analysis of the American war in Vietnam. The United States, the "foremost world power," he says, failed in Vietnam because of "wider political circumstances, especially the danger of a confrontation with other Communist powers and growing opposition to the war in the USA."

Charles Higham’s The Civilization of Angkor (University of California, 207 pp., $27.50) is a readable, comprehensive history of the prehistoric origins of what would become the massive Hindu temple complex in Cambodia, which has been called one of the marvels of the world. Higham is a noted New Zealand anthropologist who specializes in Southeast Asia.

Robert D. Dean’s Imperial Brotherhood: Gender and the Making of Cold War Foreign Policy (University of Massachusetts, 329 pp., $29.95) contains a long chapter on the Kennedy and Johnson administrations’ Vietnam War policy-making. Dean, an Eastern Washington University history professor, has a unique spin on his analysis of the matter: how the "ideologies of manhood, class and culture" of those who made the policies influenced those policies. Or, as Dean puts it: "The social construction of masculinity among the elites who managed America’s postcolonial empire must be accounted for in the effort to fully understand that history." Got that?

Two excellent books in the Vietnam War canon have just been reissued in handsome new paperback versions: Bernard Edelman’s Dear America: Letters Home From Vietnam (Norton, 326 pp., $13.95), which came out in 1985 in conjunction with the New York Vietnam Veterans Memorial Commission, and John Balaban’s Remembering Heaven’s Face: A Story of Rescue in Wartime Vietnam (University of Georgia, 334 pp., $19.95), a well-written and moving memoir of Balaban’s experiences as a CO who volunteered to go to Vietnam during the war and wound up carrying a grease gun and a sack of grenades during Tet ’68 when he was wounded during a VC attack.

   

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