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

Imagining B.D. Cooper As A Vietnam Veteran With A Plan
 

BY MARC LEEPSON

Elwood Reid shows off a hard-hitting, vastly entertaining writing style in his clever what-if novel, D.B. (Doubleday, 356 pp., $23.95). Here’s one example, in which the author riffs on main character Phil Fitcha Vietnam veteran whom Reid postulates is the legendary early 1970s plane hijacker B.D. Cooperand his thoughts about his Mexican girlfriend: "Over time the routine of their affair became a sturdy and suitable stand-in for over-the-top, heart-melting passion he read about in the secondhand romance books. Boil it down, Cooper thought, and women were suckers for bad boys, dogs, children, and lilac, while men liked routine, roasted meat, cars, and lingerie. Somehow in all that mess love and happiness could find a place to put down roots."

Reid imagines Fitch/Cooper an iconoclastic and smart-but-lazy two-tour Nam vet whose marriage goes to pot mainly because of his indolence. Fitch decides that the way out of his series of dead-end jobs in the wake of his wife’s leave taking is to make one big score and then go into seclusion with his ill-gotten gains on a beach in the middle of nowhere. He pulls off his death-defying skyjackingin which he parachutes out of a perfectly good commercial airplane after demanding and receiving two hundred grandand flees to Mexico where life isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

This is a richly imagined tale that also follows the mostly downward trajectory of an FBI agent assigned to the case who, instead, obsesses about another murder and the fate of a young woman threatened by a no-good husband. Reid pulls the two stories together well, creating a smooth-flowing, entertaining story. One very minor problem: Reid writes that Fitch made "dozens of jumps" over "the humid jungles of Vietnam." In real life, only one combat jump took place during the entire Vietnam War.

FICTION IN BRIEF

Robert Olen Butler’s latest book, Had a Good Time (Grove, 267 pp., $23), has nothing to do with the Vietnam War or Vietnam veterans. Butler, who served in Army intel in Vietnam, often writes about that war and its legacy in his novels and short stories, including his Pulitzer-Prize winner, A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain. Had a Good Time is made up of superbly crafted short stories based on real picture postcards from the first decade of the 20th century.

The nine starkly drawn short stories in Barry Lopez’s Resistance (Knopf, 176 pp., $18) deal with angst-ridden protagonists who are politically exiled to remote lands across the globe. These tales do not make for light reading; the main characters suffer emotionally for their beliefs and Lopez lays out their anguish in page after uncompromising page. That includes "Traveling with Bo Ling," told in the voice of a deadly serious blind Vietnam veteran soured on war in general and the Vietnam War in particular. This grim tale does bring a tad of redemption in the form of the veteran’s wife, who is originally from North Vietnam and also cannot see.

Jeff Long’s The Reckoning (Atria, 278 pp., $25) starts out as a fact-paced, readable thriller with well-drawn characters and evocative landscapes. That includes thirty-something main character Molly Drake, an ambitious photojournalist who sees the career move of a lifetime covering an MIA search in present-day Cambodia. But things go downhill quickly about midway through the tale when Long drags down the story with dreams, ghosts, mirages, and other spooky ephemera. By the end, the reader is left wondering what is real and what is not.

NONFICTION IN BRIEF

Philip Beidler, an English professor at the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, served as an armored cavalry platoon leader in the Vietnam War. He has written extensively about the war, concentrating on literature and Vietnam veteran writers. In his latest book, Late Thoughts on an Old War: The Legacy of Vietnam (University of Georgia, 213 pp., $29.95), Beidler presents a series of thoughtful, insightful, first-person essays. In them, Beidler combines an adroit mixture of his own war and postwar experiences and cogent analyses of Vietnam War films, books, music, and history.

One forceful essay lays into former Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamarathe person who "more than any other figure, created and set in motion the death apparatus that wound up killing 58,000 Americans and between two and four million Vietnamese," Beidler says, and who "in retrospect, tells us he’s sorry it all turned out to be such a big corporate miscalculation."

James Webb, the former Marine turned journalist, novelist (Fields of Fire, et al.), and government official, looks into a little-noted but huge (27 million strong) American ethnic group in his latest book, Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America (Broadway, 369 pp., $25.95). Webb weaves his own experiences in the Vietnam War and afterwards into this detailed history of the Scots-Irish-Americans—a group that includes Andrew Jackson, Davy Crockett, Stonewall Jackson, Mark Twain, John Wayne, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton.

In Overconfidence and War: The Havoc and Glory of Positive Illusions (Harvard University Press, 284 pp., $26.95) Princeton University’s Dominic Johnson poses the question: "Does a human tendency toward overconfidence lead us into wars when a more realistic assessment might keep the peace?" His answer, stretched out over eight densely written chapters, ismuch more often than notyes.

Johnson hones in on what he posits are turning points in 20th century history: World War I, the Vietnam War, the Munich Crisis of 1938, and the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. Johnson shows that all five American presidentsTruman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixonwho set this nation’s course in Vietnam had plenty of evidence that a war there was, at best, an iffy proposition. Yet each prosecuted that ultimately fruitless war. All five, Johnson says, appear "to have maintained an optimism that some kind of victory would eventually come, however painful and costly the war might be along the way."

Craig Roberts and Charles W. Sasser collectively and singly have written extensively about the Vietnam War. Both are veterans; Sasser is a former Green Beret and Roberts a former Marine sniper. Their latest collaborative effort, Crosshairs on the Kill Zone: American Combat Snipers, Vietnam Through Operation Iraqi Freedom (Pocket, 370 pp., $6.99, paper) contains first-person profiles of snipers with the use of reconstructed quotes and scenes.

The latest convincing attack on the puffed-up legend of Henry Kissinger is Jussi Hanhimaki’s well-argued The Flawed Architect: Henry Kissinger and American Foreign Policy (Oxford University Press, 554 pp., $35). Hanhimaki, a professor of international history and politics at the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva, makes a convincing case that Kissinger’s peacemaking in Vietnam is part of his inflated legacy. Before the war was over, in 1973, "his foreign policy began to disintegrate," the author notes, as the agreement he worked out "began to fall apart at the seams."

Robert Timberg, the longtime Baltimore Sun reporter and editor, graduated from the Naval Academy and served as a Marine lieutenant in Vietnam where he was severely wounded. His 1995 book, The Nightingale’s Song, is a top-notch look at five USNA gradsincluding John McCain and James Webbwhose lives were shaped by the war. Timberg’s latest book, State of Grace: A Memoir of Twilight Time (Free Press, 292 pp., $26), is a memoir of his two years playing for a sandlot football team in Queens, New York, in 1958. It’s a rich tale well told by an accomplished writer. Near the end Timberg gives a brief mention of his 1966 Vietnam War tour.

Bill McWilliams’ latest book, On Hallowed Ground: The Last Battle for Pork Chop Hill (Berkley, 494 pp., $16, paper), is a well-crafted recounting of the famed Korean War battle. McWilliams, a West Point grad, went into the USAF and, among other things, flew 128 missions during a seven-month Vietnam War tour. Beyond Trauma: Conversations on Traumatic Incident Reduction (Loving Healing Press, 290 pp., $21.95, paper), a book recommended by VVA National Chaplain Father Philip Salois, is a compilation of essays dealing with TIR, a technique for dealing with PTSD. Editor Victor R. Volkman includes two articles on Vietnam veterans, Tom Joyce’s "Back Into the Heart of Darkness," and Chris Christensen’s "A Combat Vet’s Perspective on TIR."

David Stone, a Brit history and military writer, includes a long and detailed chapter on the French and American wars in Indochina in Wars of the Cold War: Campaigns & Conflicts, 1945-1990 (Brassey’s 336 pp., $36.95). Stone sticks primarily to military matters, but also addresses political questions. He adheres to the theory that the American news media "considerably assisted—whether unwittingly or not" what he calls "communist propagandists" and that this nation "abandoned" South Vietnam in 1973.

In Time-Line Vietnam: The Tiger That Ate the Firebase (Bows and Co., 159 pp., $19.95), former Army Master Sergeant Ray Bows, with Pia Problemi, tells of his 1968-69 Vietnam War tour, paying tribute to two of his fallen comrades, Robert J. Widemann and Joel W. Mock. For ordering info, e-mail: Bowsandcompany@hotmail.com

VVA member Lawrence E. Haworth, who served as an Army chaplain during two Vietnam War tours (1967-68 with the 13th Combat Aviation Battalion and 1969-70 with the 11th Armored Cavalry), offers a series of vignettes based on his war experiences in Thunder Run: The Convoys, the Noise, the Ambushes: Stories of QL 13, the Route 66 of Viet Nam (ACW Press, 190 pp., $12.95, paper).

Linda Robinson’s Masters of Chaos: The Secret History of the Special Forces (Public Affairs, 388 pp., $26.95) is less a history than a well-told journalistic account of Green Beret actions since the 1980s. Robinson is a U.S. News & World Report writer who’s covered the two wars in Iraq and the one in Afghanistan. Robert R. Owenspastor, author, musician, composer, and historianargues that this nation met its stated goals and objectives in Vietnam in America Won the Vietnam War: How the Left Snatched Defeat from the Jaws of Victory (Xulon Press, 404 pp., $21.99, paper).

Norman Polmar and Thomas B. Allen’s Spy Book: The Encyclopedia of Espionage (Random House Reference, 718 pp., $21.95, paper) is just what the title says: 2,500-plus entries detailing spy-related people, places, paraphernalia, and more. The authors, veteran intelligence experts, include a long Vietnam War entry. Plenty of other info about spying in that war is contained between the covers of this valuable reference work.

David Maraniss’s exceptional They Marched Into Sunlight: War and Peace, Vietnam and America 1967(2003), which brilliantly tells the simultaneous stories of a First Infantry Division engagement and an antiwar demonstration at the University of consin, is now out in paper (Simon & Schuster, 572 pp., $16). Christian G. Appy’s excellent 2003 oral history, Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered From All Sides which includes the voices of just about every group of people involved in the American war in Vietnam, is now out in paper (Penguin, 288 pp., $16).

   

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