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

March/April 2004
BOOKS IN REVIEW
 
 

Tour of Duty: Historian Brinkley's Examination of
John Kerry's Life

BY MARC LEEPSON

The presidential campaign biography is a poor stepchild in the publishing world. More often than not put together in a hurry by a hack writer, it is little more than a self-serving political advertisement with a price tag. One would reasonably think that a biography of Massachusetts Senator John F. Kerry published in January, at the height of the Democratic presidential primary season, would fall into the campaign biography category. But Tour of Duty: John Kerry and the Vietnam War (Morrow, 546 pp., $25.95) by Douglas Brinkley is an exception to the rule. This book is a well-researched, highly detailed look at Kerry's life and times, concentrating on his service in the Vietnam War. It is not the work of a writer for hire.

The author, Douglas Brinkley, is a prominent and prolific historian, the director of the
Eisenhower Center for American Studies and a history professor at the University of New Orleans. Brinkley has written deservedly well-praised biographies of Henry Ford, Dean Acheson, and Rosa Parks.

In Tour of Duty, Brinkley sketches John Kerry's life, concentrating on his service in Vietnam where Kerry was a Navy swift boat commander from November 1968 to March 1969. Kerry was wounded in action three times during his action-heavy brown-water tour and received the Silver Star and two Bronze Stars for valor. Brinkley also chronicles Kerry's disillusionment with the way the Navy waged its war in the rivers and canals of the Mekong Delta and with the way the Pentagon and White House waged the American war in Vietnam. And Brinkley describes Kerry's role as a Vietnam veteran in the antiwar group, Vietnam Veterans Against the War.

Brinkley based much of the book on Kerry's extensive wartime journals and letters and on interviews he conducted with Kerry and with dozens of his friends, family members, and colleagues. Brinkley includes words from Kerry's critics, but he clearly is a John Kerry fan. The image that emerges from this long book is of a man of conscience and conviction

One smallbut to my mind, significantomission in this otherwise dead-on portrait of Kerry's life and times: Brinkley does not mention Kerry's role in helping found Vietnam Veterans of America in 1978. In fact, Brinkley never mentions VVA, even though he quotes VVA founder Bobby Muller several times.

MOH PORTRAITS

Medal of Honor: Portraits of Valor Beyond the Call of Duty (Artisan, 251 pp., $40) is an elaborately produced book that pays homage to 116 recipients of the nation's highest military award. This handsome volume, produced by photographer Nick Del Calzo and author Peter Collier, comes with a preface by President Bush and introductions by Tom Brokaw and U.S. Senator John McCain.

The book consists of Del Calzo's striking full-page black and white photos of the MOH recipients from WWII and the Korean and Vietnam Wars, descriptions of the actions they took beyond the call of duty, along with war-time photos. The Vietnam War MOH profiles include: Paul W. "Buddy'' Bucha, the VVA 2003 National Convention keynote speaker; George E. "Bud'' Day, the USAF pilot, Admiral James B. Stockdale, and USAF Major Leo K. Thornsness, all of whom survived years of torture in the Hanoi Hilton; Ed W. Freeman and Walter J. Marm, Jr., heroes of the 1965 Battle of the Ia Drang Valley; former Nebraska Governor and U.S. Senator Joseph R. "Bob'' Kerrey; the late John L. Levitow, the first USAF enlisted man to
receive the MOH; and Alfred V. Rascon, who received his medal in 2000 after a campaign on his behalf that VVA supported.

NOT A PRETTY PICTURE

The Welsh-born photographer Philip Jones Griffiths took provocative photos of the American war in Vietnam as a freelance photojournalist. Many were contained in his antiwar book, Vietnam, Inc., which was published in 1971. Griffiths' latest book, Agent Orange: ``Collateral Damage'' in Viet Nam (Trolley, 174 pp., $39.95), focuses on the effects of American defoliant spraying. This large-format book contains dozens of stark black and white images of human beings, many of them children, who suffer from deformities and other maladies caused by Agent Orange exposure.

"In these pages are the Vietnamese and Cambodians the American tourists never see, never hear about,'' Gloria Emerson notes in the book. "Never has [Agent Orange's] effects on humans been so clearly shown as in this book by Philip Jones Griffiths, one of the great photographers of the war, who feels we should see what Agent Orange has done. It is almost unbearable, but to turn away and not see the photographs is to compound the crime.''

NIXON AGAIN

In his 1998 book, Nixon's Vietnam War, University of Miami history professor Jeffrey Kimball made a convincing case that President Richard Nixon and National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger had no concrete plan to end the Vietnam War as they claimed, and that, moreover, their four years of war-making "unnecessarily prolonged the war.'' In his latest book, The Vietnam War Files: Uncovering the Secret History of Nixon-Era Strategy (University of Kansas, 384 pp., $34.95), Kimball makes use of recently declassified documents, including taped White House conversations, to buttress his previous conclusion. In doing so, Kimball concludes that Nixon and Kissinger's postwar writings on Vietnam are "self-serving, incomplete, and obfuscatory.''

Nixon and Kissinger's "vision of history,'' Kimball says, "turns out to be demonstrably untrue in whole or substantial part.'' Nixon, for example, maintained that beginning in 1969 his overriding goals were to end the war, bring home the troops, and force Hanoi to release our POWs. "In practice,'' Kimball says, "these policy goals were held hostage to his other policy goal of protecting the credibility of the United States as a loyal and effective counter-revolutionary power and his personal political goal of winning the 1972 election.''

NONFICTION IN BRIEF

Sophie Quinn-Judge's Ho Chi Minh: The Missing Years (University of California, 356 pp., $39.95) is an informed and detailed look at the Vietnamese leader's life from 1919-1941. Quinn-Judge, a journalist who specializes in Southeast Asia, has mined a ton of material on Ho's journeys in Russia, France, England, and the United States during the years following his fruitless attempt to convince the world after World War I that Vietnam should be independent. In doing so, Quinn-Judge shows that Ho Chi Minh was much more complicated than either of the two common contradictory stereotypes of him: "the Machiavellian apparatchik'' portrayed in the noncommunist world, and the "nationalist saint'' pictured by the Vietnamese and other communists.

Former U.S. Air Force Secretary Thomas C. Reed includes a brief chapter on the Vietnam War in At the Abyss: An Insider's History of the Cold War (Ballantine/Presidio, 368 pp., $25.95), which examines the Cold War primarily through analyses of how nuclear firepower influenced American-Soviet confrontations in the second half of the 20th century. "In the sixties,'' Reed says, "while some of my generation were forging the weapons of nuclear war, others [in Vietnam] were paying a terrible price for our not using them.'' At times during the war, he notes, policy-makers advocated "quick shot of nuclear firepower, or a violation of long-honored diplomatic principles.'' Cooler heads, Reed says, "always prevailed, but nowhere was the price of forbearance more painful than'' in Vietnam.

John Fass Morton's Mustin: A Naval Family of the 20th Century (Naval Institute, 460 pp., $32.95) is a well-researched, well-written chronicle of four men in three generations of a family that served in important Navy posts beginning with the Philippine Insurrection in 1899. Brothers Hank and Tom Mustin both served in the brown-water Navy in the Mekong Delta in Vietnam. The book was published last year to coincide with the commissioning of the U.S.S. Mustin, the Navy's newest Arleigh Burke-class destroyer.

Michael S. Foley's Confronting the War Machine: Draft Resistance During the Vietnam War (University of North Carolina, 472 pp., $49.95, hardcover; $19.95, paper) is an exhaustive examination of one aspect of the antiwar movement: those who resistednot dodgedthe draft. Foley, assistant professor of history at the City University of New York's College of Staten Island, concentrates on Boston's draft resistance community and places what happened in the context of other dissident movements in American history.

James Lewes' Protest and Survive: Underground GI Newspapers During the Vietnam War (Praeger, 256 pp., $67.95) is a well-researched look at the antiwar publications produced by American military personnel from 1968-70. Lewes, who holds a Ph.D. in journalism and mass communications, provides information and analysisand reproductions of some coversof more than 120 of these often radical periodicals, several of which produced only one or two issues. He also includes a list of each of the papers in one of the book's appendices.

MEMOIRS IN BRIEF

Robert Tonetic's Warriors: An Infantryman's Memoir of Vietnam (Ballantine/Presidio, 198 pp., $7.50, paper) is a well-written, first-person account of the author's 1968 tour as a 199th Light Infantry Brigade rifle company commander with Charlie Co., 4th Battalion, 12th Infantry. Tonetic did a second 1970 Vietnam War tour as an ARVN adviser and retired from the Army in 1991. Also from Ballantine/Presidio: the paperback reprint of John Corbett's short, readable Khe Sanh memoir, West Dickens Avenue (256 pp., $7.50).

Richard Hogue tells his Vietnam War story in We Were the Third Herd (Richlyn, 322 pp., paper, $17.95), a well-crafted chronological war memoir. Hogue, who grew up in Iowa, was drafted into the Army soon after he graduated from Wayne State College in 1968. He had basic and AIT at Ft. Lewis and NCO school at Ft. Benning. In July 1969 Hogue began his tour of duty with the 25th Infantry Division. Hogue was severely wounded in January 1970, losing his left leg below the knee.

Arthur C. Farrington's Pacific Odyssey: Connections (Sunflower University, 313 pp., $22.95, paper) is a breezily written account of the author's tours of duty in WWII, Korea, and Vietnam. Farrington served with the 2nd Marine Air Wing in Chu Lai beginning in September 1967, doing a variety of explosive-ordnance-disposal jobs. His next duty station, in January 1968, was Khe Sanh. "The closest I can come to describing the Khe Sanh fire base,'' Farrington says, "is comparing it to the island of Peleliu in 1944. And yet, the battles we had at Peleliu with the Japanese were horrific, but they did not occur every day, all day, and all night as they did up there at Khe Sanh on top of that isolated bull's eye.''

Bill VandenBush's If Morning Never Comes: A Near-Death Experience in Vietnam (The Old Hundred and One Press, 238 pp., $14.95, paper) is a spiritual look at the author's life, including his tour in Vietnam as an Americal Division infantryman. VandenBush joined the Army in 1968, had basic at Ft. Ord and Infantry AIT at Ft. Lewis before heading off to Vietnam, where he was nearly died on April 17, 1969, in a friendly fire incident involving misplaced U.S. air ordnance.

   

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