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

December 2003
BOOKS IN REVIEW
 
 

An On-the-Ground Look at the Search for MIAs in Indochina

BY MARC LEEPSON

Most Americans are unaware of the Pentagon's Vietnam War MIA efforts. Earl Swift's well-written book, Where They Lay: Searching for America's Lost Soldiers (Houghton
Mifflin, 307 pp., $25), should go a long way toward rectifying that situation.

Swift, a reporter for the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot, accompanied a fifty-person recovery team into the mountainous jungles of Laos two years ago. The mission: to look for the remains of four crewmen of a Huey helicopter that was shot down in the area in 1971. Swift's report on what took place provides a clear picture of the magnitude of the task faced by the Pentagon's Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office, which includes the Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii (the world's largest forensic laboratory), and the Vietnam-based Joint Task Force-Full Accounting (now combined into one and referred to as Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command or JPAC).

As Swift clearly shows, the recovery work is dirty, exhaustively time consuming, and very often tedious. It is also mostly frustrating, rarely rewarding, and sometimes dangerous. Swift presents compelling portraits of the dedicated Americans working against long odds to locate the MIAs. He also mulls over the important question of whether the recovery effort is worth continuing, concluding that there is value in it.

Detractors, he notes, "have their case; the recovery effort is wildly expense, and it's dangerous, even deadly. But for the families [of the missing], it serves as their government's acknowledgment that the lives lost in a problematic war were more than statistics. It makes good on that sacred contract."

NONFICTION IN BRIEF

Great news for anyone interested in the nuts and bolts of the U.S.Army units that took part in the Vietnam War: Stackpole Books has just republished an updated version of Shelby Stanton's long-out-of-print Vietnam Order of Battle: A Complete Illustrated Reference to U.S. Army Combat and Support Forces in Vietnam 1961-1973 (396 pp., $69.95). This extremely valuable book also includes information on Air Force, Navy, Marine, and allied units. It belongs on your bookshelf next to Michael Kelley's Where We Were, if you want accessible, detailed information on where, when, and how most every Army unit, down to the company level, served in the Vietnam War.

The latest example of Henry Kissinger's campaign to burnish his Vietnam War record is the bloated, self-serving Crisis: The Anatomy of Two Major Foreign Policy Crises (Simon & Schuster, 564 pp., $30). One of the crises is the 1975 evacuation of Saigon; the other is the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Much of the book consists of previously unpublished transcripts of his phone conversations.

"I think it is just a damn poor performance by everybody concerned," William Clements, the Deputy Secretary of Defense, told Kissinger on the afternoon of April 29, 1975. Kissinger should top the list of poor performers, but he blames what went wrong on Congress. As in the statement he made to Gen. Brent Scowcroft on April 15: "Indochina is gone, but we will make them pay for it," Kissinger said. "In my whole testimony today, I said twenty-five times that it was Congress's fault."

Remember the CNN "Valley of Death" broadcast in June of 1998? That's the one that claimed that Operation Tailwind, a 1970 Green Beret raid into Laos, used sarin nerve gas to kill American soldiers who had defected to North Vietnam. The story proved to be the equivalent of an urban myth. Jerry Lembcke, a Holy Cross College sociology professor, deconstructs the entire episode in CNN's Tailwind Tale: Inside Vietnam's Last Great Myth (Rowman & Littefield, 215 pp., $24.95). Lembcke, who wrote a book about the myths involved in stories of Vietnam veterans being spat upon, looks at why such myths arise and why, in this case, CNN made the colossal mistake of airing an entire report on something that never happened.

Maxine Hong Kingston's The Fifth Book of Peace (Knopf, 402 pp., $26) is an eclectic amalgam of truth and fiction. It begins with a devastatingly real event: the 1991 fire that destroyed the only copies of the novel she was writing. The book contains that reconstructed fictional tale, which involves a Chinese-American's battle with the Vietnam War draft. And it contains the true, first-person story of Kingston's veterans writing workshops in California, which began in 1993. There is much pain in these pages, some of it real and some of it imagined.

Letters from Vietnam (Presidio/Ballantine, 245 pp., $21.95) is a collection of missives from the war zone by men and women who served from 1965 to 1973 in different capacities and in many different places. Editor Bill Adler includes reader-friendly reproductions of some of the letters, along with in-country photos of the letter writers and short descriptions of their lives in the war and after coming home.

Leo Braudy's sprawling, insightful discourse, From Chivalry to Terrorism: War and the Changing Nature of Masculinity (Knopf, 613 pp., $30), looks at the enormously complex issue of the relationship between war and masculinity from the Middle Ages to today. Braudy, a widely published author and historian, includes a chapter on the Vietnam War. In it, he concentrates on JFK and LBJ's obsession with not being "soft" on communism. "In the face of name-calling about unmanliness and cowardice, the underlying urge was to make sure the United States did not lose a war," he says. As for the antiwar movement, Braudy notes that it "strikingly combined political protest against the war with a protest against the style and substance of traditional norms of masculinity."

Max Boot's The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power (Basic Books, 428 pp., $16, paper) is a readable, personality-driven look at non-big American conflicts from the Barbary Wars to the operations in Bosnia, Haiti, Somalia, Kosovo, and the Persian Gulf in the early 1990s. Boot, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, has a chapter on the Vietnam War, which he calls "Lessons Unlearned." He includes that war, not because it was "small," but because of the "style of warfare--clashes with guerrilla or irregular forces." The main unlearned lesson, Boot says, was the military's insistence in Vietnam on a war of attrition, which contrasted with the hearts and minds "achievements of America's small war soldiers of the past--the [Smedley] Butlers, and [Herman] Hannekens and [Chesty] Pullers."

Susan Braudy's Family Circle: The Boudins and the Aristocracy of the American Left (Knopf, 460 pp., $27.95) is a well-written, well-researched, detailed look at Kathy Boudin. She is the 1970s ultra-radical member of the Weathermen who was released from prison in September after serving nearly twenty years for her role in a 1981 bank robbery that ended with the deaths of a Brinks guard and two police officers. Braudy also details the lives of Boudin's parents and grandparents. Her father, Leonard Boudin, was a liberal labor lawyer who defended high-profile, non-violent Vietnam War protesters, including the Berrigan brothers and Dr. Benjamin Spock.

MEMOIRS IN BRIEF

When Bill Shanahan was drafted in 1967, he decided to enlist in the Army instead. He had basic training at Fort Benning, infantry AIT at Fort Gordon, and jump school back at Benning. In April 1968, Shanahan began what turned out to be an action-filled two-year tour as a LRRP with the 173rd Airborne's 74th Infantry Detachment and later with Company N of the 75th Infantry. Shanahan, with the help of writer John P. Brackin, does an excellent job sketching his eventful tour of duty in his readable memoir, Stealth Patrol: The Making of a Vietnam Ranger (Da Capo, 296 pp., $26).

Martin J. Dockery's Vietnam War story took place well before most Americans could find the country on a map. Dockery served as a U.S. Army adviser to an ARVN battalion in 1962-63, a tour of duty he calls "the defining experience of my life" in his thoughtful, enlightening memoir, Lost in Translation: Vietnam: A Combat Advisor's Story (Presidio/Ballantine, 254 pp., $24.95). Dockery learned a great deal working with the South Vietnamese infantry. That included the fact that the adviser program, "from the outset," failed in Vietnam. It failed, he says, not from lack of effort but because "of cultural differences and the reality of human nature." Although the Americans "had the tools" in Vietnam, Dockery says, "we did not understand the forces at work or the dynamics of nationalism."

Lee Burkins's Soldier's Heart: An Inspirational Memoir and Inquiry of War (1st Books, 308 pp., $21, paper) lives up to its subtitle. Burkins served with the 5th Special Forces in a secret MACV-SOG program that worked with Montagnards and other Indo-Burmese tribal men fighting the communists in South Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. He weaves in his experiences with significant readjustment problems after coming home into this well-told tale of secret ops in the hinterlands of Indochina.


FICTION IN BRIEF

The main character in Rick Riordan's Cold Springs (Bantam, 340 pp., $23.95) is an angst-ridden USAF veteran who served in Thailand during the Vietnam War. His not-easy life is wrecked after his teenager dies of a heroin overdose. He quits his teaching job in a fancy San Francisco private school and goes to work for his war buddy who runs a boot camp for troubled rich kids in Texas. Things get really messy nine years later, as our hero gets involved in murder, blackmail, and mayhem. Riordan spins out a fast-moving thriller that contains mostly believable, if over-the-top, characters and situations. Plus, there's a surprise plot twist involving the ultimate bad guy.

The main character in Norman Green's dark crime story, The Angel of Montague Street (HarperCollins, 293 pp., $24.95), is a maladjusted, prone-to-violence Vietnam veteran who specialized in assassinations in the war. He comes home to Brooklyn several years later in search of his missing younger brother. Then the bullets really start flying. As the plot unravels, we discover that our hero had a horrible childhood and was mentally unbalanced before he went to war. That's some consolation; otherwise he would have been another in a depressingly long list of fictional cardboard Nam vets made into remorseless killing machines wreaking havoc on America's streets by the horror in that dirty, rotten war.

The main character in Barry Levinson's first novel, Sixty-Six (Broadway, 271 pp., $24), is not a Vietnam veteran. He's a law school dropout trying to break into television directing in Baltimore. He's part of a crew that hangs at the local diner. One of the guys gets married and his marriage soon gets in trouble. One of the guys gets drafted and is headed for Vietnam. A good part of the plot will sound familiar if you've seen Levin's most excellent movie, Diner. Sixty-Six is set a few years after Diner and the war in Vietnam is a larger part of the story. There are elements of a good novel here, especially the characters and setting. But there's an awful lot of deja vu, too. The story's a good one though, and--no surprise--seems like it could be worked into a good screenplay.

Debra Feldman's first novel, An Ordinary Hero (Mystery and Suspense Press, 262 pp., $18.95, paper; $28.95, hardcover), is a well-crafted, cleverly plotted story that involves several Vietnam veterans. It takes place before, during, and after the vets' tours of duty. Feldman had help with wartime and military details from a group of Vietnam veterans, and her in-country scenes work well in conveying the physical landscape of wartime Vietnam and emotional landscapes of her characters. For info, email: cdsworkroom@aol.com

   

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