The Official Voice of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress
August/September 2004
BOOKS IN REVIEW
 
 

Carl Melcher Goes to Vietnam and Doesn't Have a Great Time
 

BY MARC LEEPSON

Paul Clayton's well-crafted novel Carl Melcher Goes to Vietnam (Thomas Dunne, 208 pp., $22.95) is the story of a group of 4th Division grunts humping the boonies in South Vietnam's inhospitable, mountainous Central Highlands. Claytonnot surprisingly, a 4th Infantry Vietnam veteranportrays his main character as a mild-mannered naifa guy who, to his bafflement, is constantly buffeted by life's big currents. "Things just happen to me," Melcher says, "as if I have no say, and then I react." That is a far cry from most first-person war-novel protagonists, who tend to be jaded iconoclasts who make things happen to other people.

Clayton's drab Carl Melcher is an effective counterpoint to the Technicolored world of Vietnam War combat that he recreates so well. The tone of the novel is in blunt contrast with the horrific events Melcher and company undergo: sudden death in oppressive jungle and mountainous conditions; mind-numbing Army chicken crap (to use a Melcher-like euphemism); morale-destroying Dear John letters; racial tensions in the rear; and drug use and abuse. Melcher, who's just trying to get along, has a first-hand look as his buddies get blown up, one by one, and as his ticket-punching commanding officer puts his men in mortal danger for no reason other than to feed his ego and lust or rank.

Melcher is an effective cautionary tale. It brings to mind Fallen Angels (1988), an excellent young adult in-country Vietnam War story by the accomplished and prolific Walter Dean Myersa novel that is perfectly suitable for grownups. Or perhaps the 1987 two-hour pilot of Tour of Duty, the network TV Vietnam War combat series that contained not one foul oath. Myers' award-winning book and that well-crafted TV movie succeedas Paul Clayton does in his novelin presenting the Vietnam War realistically and creatively from the grunt's point of view.

FICTION IN BRIEF

Detective novelist George Pelecanos deals with the legacy of the Vietnam War in several of his books, including The Sweet Forever (1998), which is set in the Nation's Capital in 1986 and features Marcus Clay, a Vietnam veteran who owns a chain of local record stores. Pelecanos' latest fictional effort, Hard Revolution (Little, Brown, 376 pp., $24.95), is set in the spring of 1968 with the war in full swing and the antiwar movement gathering steam. Several characters in the storywhich involves the investigations of two different murders by two different police officers that converge at the end during the D.C. riots, following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.are Vietnam veterans. Their service in the war has an impact on their trouble-filled lives after they come home.

Robert David Clark served as a draftee Army infantryman in the Vietnam War in 1968-69. His novel, Flowers of Dinh Ba Forest (Livingston Press/University of West Alabama, 178 pp., $25, hardcover; $14.95, paper), is a gritty, in-country Vietnam War story based  on his experiences in the trenches. William J. Smith's The Savior (Infinity Publishing, 307 pp., $17.95, paper) is a fast-paced thriller set mainly in Laos before,  during, and after the Vietnam War. Smith served with the First Marine Division in Vietnam.

Penny Taylor Decker's The Crackerjack Kid (1st Books, 335 pp., $12.95, paper) deals with a two-tour Vietnam veteran's PTSD readjustment problems. Decker's husband, Greg, served in Vietnam and is rated 100 percent PTSD disabled. Faith Deveaux based  her novel, When Duty Calls (iUniverse, 110 pp., $9.95), on the letters that her father and mother wrote to each other while he served in Vietnam.

L.J. London's novel, Kutch (PublishAmerica, 132 pp., $16.95, paper), focuses on the readjustment problems of a Vietnam veteran emotionally scarred by his wartime  experiences. Bill Kehr's novel, Vietnam Illinois (Ringneck Press, 122 pp., $9.95, paper), shows how a young boy deals with the war after his brother is shipped to Vietnam. Kehr himself was a youngster during the Vietnam War. His book is aimed at middle-school students.

NOW AND ZEN

After a difficult childhood and an unruly adolescence, Claude Anshin Thomas joined the Army in 1965 at age seventeen. He put in a combat-heavy tour of duty as a door gunner and crew chief with the 116th Assault Helicopter Company in Vietnam, an experience that left deep emotional scars. After coming home, Thomas had enormous readjustment problems. But he turned his life around in the early 1980s after studying with the Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh. Thomas soon took up Zen himself, devoting his life to what he calls being "a wandering mendicant monk." He has few material possessions and spends much of his time making pilgrimages, during which he practices Zen philosophy.

Thomas wrote At Hell's Gate: A Soldier's Journey From War to Peace (Shambhala, 132 pp., $19.95)a combination memoir, Zen primer, and how-to book of meditative techniquesas a form of therapy, "something," he says, "to help me keep a grip on my sanity." He evokes his tour of duty in Vietnam and his PTSD quite well. The Zen  lessons concentrate on be-here-now philosophy, with a heavy emphasis on mindfulness and meditation. Thomas, unfortunately, repeats the unsubstantiated allegation that  "more than 100,000" Vietnam veterans have committed suicide since the war. That is a myth, with no basis in fact, that has been repeated by those trying to make the valid  point that Vietnam veterans have had disproportionately high readjustment problems.

LIFE STORIES

Antonia Felix's Wesley K. Clark: A Biography (Newmarket, 256 pp., $19.95) chronicles the life and times of the retired Army general who made a run at the 2004 Democratic  presidential nomination. It includes a brief account of Clark's 1969-70 Vietnam War tour  that ended in February 1970 when Clark, the CO of a First Infantry Division company,  was shot in the leg and shoulder on a jungle patrol and medevaced home. 

Bill Clinton's best-selling memoir, My Life (Knopf, 957 pp., $35), contains the  President's account of his battle with the draft. Clinton says that after returning to  Arkansas following his Rhodes Scholarship in England in June 1969, he thought he'd be drafted into the Army. So he looked into joining the National Guard and Reserves, but "there were no available spots." Clinton considered joining the Air Force but realized he'd fail the physical for flight school because of a "weak left eye." He then flunked a   Navy physical "because of poor hearing." Clinton's "best option" after that, he says, was going to law school and signing up for Army ROTC, which is what he did. The rest is history: later that fall, Clinton wrote what would become a famous letter to his ROTC commander opting out of the program and finished out three years of law school with his student deferment.

Battle Ready (Putnam, 480 pp., $28.95) is the work of novelist Tom Clancy, retired Marine Corps Gen. Anthony Zinni, and writer Tony Koltz. It's a combination biography and memoir, in which Clancy goes over Zinni's life and Zinni recounts his work as the head of the U.S. Central Command in the late 1990s. The book made headlines because of Gen. Zinni's harsh criticism of the way the war in Iraq is being waged. But it also contains a meaty section on Zinni's two tours in Vietnamin 1967, serving mostly in the Delta, and in 1970, in I Corps, where he was severely wounded.

Nobody knows how many Mexican-Americans served in the Vietnam War. What is known is that very few of the thousand who did serve have told their stories in memoirs, autobiographies, or oral histories. Lea Ybarra's Vietnam Veteranos: Chicanos Recall the War (University of Texas Press, 288 pp., $45, hardcover; $18.95, paper) remedies that situation. Ybarra, a longtime educator, presents informed and detailed oral histories by some two dozen Mexican-American Vietnam veterans who tell their war and postwar stories.

Yvonne Latty's valuable oral history, We Were There: Voices of African American Veterans  from World War II to the War in Iraq (Amistad/HarperCollins, 184 pp., $23.95), includes testimony from eight Vietnam War veterans. The group includes a former Marine sergeant, an Army nurse, an Army lieutenant, three Army enlisted men, a USAF lieutenant colonel, as well as retired Army Lt. Gen. Julius W. Becton, Jr., who served in WWII, Korea, and Vietnam.

Jerry Morton focuses on his time at basic training at Fort Dix in the summer and fall of 1966 and his Infantry AIT and OCS at Fort Benning two months later in Reluctant Lieutenant: From Basic to OCS in the Sixties (Texas A&M, 336 pp., $40, hardcover; $19.95, paper). After OCS, Morton went to the JFK Special Warfare Center at Fort Bragg. Ivan N. Pierce's An Infantry Lieutenant in Vietnam (Capsarge, 178 pp., $19, paper) tells the story of his January 1967-March 1968 tour of duty with the Army's 4th Infantry Division's 3rd Battalion, 8th Infantry Regiment.

Chuck Gross joined the Army in November 1968 at age 18 to fly helicopters. He put in a year in Vietnam, from 1970-71, as a Huey pilot, flying hundreds of dangerous missions with the 71st Assault Helicopter Company near Chu Lai and Quang Tri. In Rattler One Seven: A Vietnam Helicopter Pilot's War Story (University of North Texas, 248 pp., $27.95), Gross dutifully describes his day-to-day activities in the air and on the ground. He also includes his opinions about the war, such as his belief that "the press" did "more harm to the war effort than any other single group."

Tony Lazzarini tells the story of his 1966-67 tour as a Huey door gunner with Company A, 25th Aviation Battalion, 25th Infantry Division, in his readable memoir, Highest Traditions (Voyager, 151 pp., $18.95). Arthur J. Amchan's Killed In Action (155 pp., $19.95, paper) is a tribute to Stephen H. Warner, who was drafted into the Army after   his first year at Yale Law School and was killed during Operation Dewey Canyon II in February 1971, three weeks before he was due to rotate home. Amchan, who was  drafted after two years at Harvard Law School, did a 1970-71 tour with the Army Procurement Agency in Saigon.

William H. Hardwick's Down South: One Tour in Vietnam (Ballantine, 204 pp., $6.99, paper) is a well-written account of his eventful 1968-69 tour as a forward observer platoon commander for Mike Company, 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines. The heart of Martin  J. Dockery's insightful Lost in Translation: Vietnam: A Combat Advisor's Story (Ballantine/Presidio, 252 pp., $6.99, paper) is the story of his 1962-63 tour as an Army LT working as an ARVN adviser in the Mekong Delta. Jay Keck, who served with Echo  2/7 of the 1st Marine Division, tells the story of his tour mostly in photos in Photographs and Memories From the Nam (VV Publishing, unpaginated, $8, paper).

POETRY IN BRIEF

R.L. Barth's Deeply Dug In (University of New Mexico Press, 78 pp., $16.95) is a collection of short, satiric, linked poems that are based on the poet's tour of duty as a Marine patrol leader in the First Reconnaissance Battalion in Vietnam. The title comes from the Roman epigram that also gave one of the best Vietnam War films its title: "Go tell the Spartans that we hold this land, deeply dug in, obeying their command."

Longtime Vietnam veterans' advocate, journalist, and author Jan Barry is the author of an excellent anthology of poetry, Earth Songs: New & Selected Poems (iUniverse, 143 pp., $15.95, paper). Barry served an early Vietnam War tour with the Army's 18th Aviation Company.

Bill Siemer and Archie Williamson served as Green Berets in Vietnam in 1967-68, Siemer as a medic and Williamson as an executive officer. Their book, Skeletons to Find: A Vietnam Diary (1st Books, 108 pp., $11.45, paper), creatively looks at their work with Special Forces Detachment A-108 in the Central Highlands in poetry written by Siemer and line drawings by Williamson.

Guy L. Jones, who served with the 43rd Signal Battalion in Pleiku from March 1967 to November 1968, is the author of a book of poetry based on that experience and his postwar PTSD: Reflection on Vietnam (1st Books, 54 pp., $15.50, paper). Jones also includes a brief history of his unit. D.M. Kraft is donating a portion of the proceeds of her book of poetry, Somewhere on the Edge of Words (PublishAmerica, 96 pp., $14.95, paper), to VVA. Several of the poems deal with the 1960s.

   

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