The Official Voice of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress
March/April 2005
BOOKS IN REVIEW
 
 

Larry Heinemann's Black Virgin Mountains: Worth The Wait
 

BY MARC LEEPSON

Part memoir, part travelogue, part political treatise, Black Virgin Mountain: A Return to Vietnam (Doubleday, 196 pp., $24), Larry Heinemann’s first nonfiction effort, is a stunning work. It’s a creative look at the author’s eventful 1967-68 tour in the Vietnam War with a 25th Infantry Division mechanized infantry battalion. It’s also a meditation on two of his trips to Vietnam in the early 1990s, as well as a strong indictment of the politicians and generals who waged that war.

Heinemann’s autobiographical Close Quarters (1977) is one of the most under- appreciated in-county Vietnam War novels. His second literary effort, Paco’s Story (1987), a biting tale of the war’s brutal emotional aftermath, won the National Book Award for fiction. We haven’t heard from Heinemann, in print, since 1992 when his comic novel Cooler by the Lake came out.

In his latest effort, Heinemann offers a compelling narrative framed around a trip he took to Vietnam in 1992 with fellow American Vietnam veteran writers as guests of the Vietnam Writers Association. Heinemann flashes back to his own tour, which molded him from a nonpolitical son of the working class into a disillusioned young antiwar soldier. The book’s title refers to the culminating moment of Heinemann’s 1992 trip, when he climbed Black Virgin Mountain (Nui Ba Den) and had an epiphany after visiting the Ban Den Temple at the mountaintop. To wit: “I’m home, I say to myself; I have arrived home; this place is home.”

THE DEATH OF A MARINE

Jedwin Smith’s Our Brother’s Keeper: My Family’s Journey Through Vietnam Hell and Back (Wiley, 256 pp., $24.95) is a muscular memoir that deals with the effects of the death of an American Marine on his family. Smith, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution editor, was twenty-two, the oldest of six children, when his beloved younger brother, Jeff, died in Vietnam. The young Smith served with F Co., 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines, and died after being hit by a Viet Cong rocket during a firefight in Quang Tri Province on March 7, 1968. Jeff Smith’s death tore his fragile family apart.

His mother retreated into severe alcoholism and an all-encompassing fixation with the life of her favorite son, neglected her children, and all but ruined her life. His father—a World War II Marine beset by post-war emotional demons—left the family for another woman. Jedwin Smith’s other siblings suffered severe and lasting emotional problems. Smith himself married, had children, and worked his way up the journalism ladder, but he also became a self-destructive alcoholic. “After Jeff died, my dysfunctionality took on extra dimensions,” he says. “Not only did I thoroughly embrace alcohol, but I also became kind of psychotic.” The book has a cathartic ending when the author and two of Jeff Smith’s fellow Marines make a journey to Vietnam in 2001 to visit the spot where he died.

DUTY BOUND

Quang Pham came to the United States as a child with his mother and three sisters just before the Vietnamese communists took over in April 1975. His father, a South Vietnamese Air Force pilot, stayed behind. The son grew up in California, joined the U.S. Marines, and served in the first Persian Gulf War as a helicopter pilot. The father spent 12 years in a re-education camp. A Sense of Duty: My Father, My American Journey (Presidio/Ballantine, 266 pp., $24.95), Quang Pham’s well-told memoir, is the story of father and son.

The author’s mother spoke no English and had no resources when she arrived
in California. She struggled mightily, learned the language, found work, and educated her children. The emotional pressures were high, though, and eventually ended her marriage. The author had a rough time assimilating. Joining the Marines presented its own problems, including anti-Asian racism. The author’s father nearly died in the re-education camps. His life improved measurably after immigrating to the United States, but he never reached anything close to what the family had before 1975.

Quang Pham tells his story bluntly, without disguising his hatred of the Vietnamese communists and his criticism of American politicians whom he believes abandoned South Vietnam. He’s also a critic of the American antiwar movement and the American news media.

DRAMA IN BLACK & WHITE

Retired National Guard Gen. Ezell Ware, Jr., has an eye-opening life story to tell and does a first-rate job with the help of journalist Joel Engel in By Duty Bound: Survival and Redemption in a Time of War (Dutton, 352 pp., $23.95). The book’s most riveting segments are Ezell’s depiction of growing up dirt poor and black in racist rural Mississippi in the 1950s and his stirring recounting of the three weeks he and another Army helicopter pilot spent evading the enemy in the jungles of South Vietnam after they were shot down.

Ware alternates chronological chapters with short chapters sketching the hellish journey he experienced avoiding the enemy and nearly starving to death on the ground in Vietnam. Adding to the drama, Ware discovered that his fellow pilot—who suffered a severe leg wound—was a card-carrying Ku Klux Klan member. Ware also offers an evocative recounting of his eventful, combat-heavy first Vietnam War tour, when he was one of the few black pilots with the Army’s 61st Helicopter Assault Company.

Ezell’s political analysis of the Vietnam War is not one of the book’s strong points. A self-proclaimed “lifer,” Ezell clings to the all-but-dismissed Domino Theory, claiming that if the United States hadn’t intervened in Vietnam, “the imperial communist powers” would “have continued to grab countries.”

NONFICTION IN BRIEF

Lori Grinker includes a chapter on the wars in Indochina in her starkly effective AfterWar: Veterans from a World in Conflict (de.Mo, 247 pp., $47.50), a series of photos and interviews with veterans from two dozen conflicts around the globe. Grinker, an internationally acclaimed photographer, provides penetrating color photos of the veterans, many of whom were severely wounded. The book, Bill Moyers said, “is one of the most compelling visual projects that I have seen on the subject of war and peace.” Several of the photos were on exhibition at the United Nations earlier this year. For more info, go to www.afterwar.com

Allan Richman includes a wry humorous chapter on his year in Vietnam in Fork It Over: The Intrepid Adventures of a Professional Eater (HarperCollins, 324 pp., $24.95), an engaging memoir that concentrates on the side benefits of being the award-winning culinary critic for GQ magazine. Richmond served at Camp Davies near Saigon as executive officer with the U.S. Army Harbor Craft Company. “There’s something I should confess about my year in Vietnam,” he says. “I gained weight while I was there.”

The next time the topic of in-country versus Vietnam-era service comes
up, take a glance at Cold War Clashes: Confronting Communism, 1945-1991 (VFW Magazine, 172 pp., $18, paperback), an informative, well-illustrated look at little-known engagements, covert operations, and other clashes on land, sea, and in the air that took place before, during, and after the American war in Vietnam. The book, edited by long-time VFW Magazine editor Richard K. Kolb, includes interviews with veterans and an honor roll of the 382 Americans killed by hostile action during that time. For more info, e-mail shanson@vfw.org

James H. Wilbanks’ Abandoning Vietnam: How America Left and South Vietnam Lost Its War (University Press of Kansas, 384 pp., $39.95) is a deeply researched, well-written analysis that focuses primarily on military matters during the Vietnamization of the war under President Nixon and how that policy led to the communist victory in 1975. The author, a professor of Combat Studies at the Army’s Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, is a retired Army infantry officer who fought in Vietnam during the 1972 NVA Easter Offensive.

Sylvia Ellis, who teaches history at England’s University of Northumbria, examines an often neglected but important foreign policy aspect of the Vietnam War in Britain, America, and the Vietnam War (Praeger, 298 pp., $74.95). Her topic is how the two nations’ longtime “special relationship” never led to British support of the war. Ellis looks primarily at the administrations of Lyndon Johnson and Harold Wilson during the big buildup of American forces in 1965-66, and shows how the strong disagreement over the war did not have a strong negative impact on overall relations between the two longtime allies.

Before there was the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley, there was Operation Starlite, the August 1965 battle fought by U.S. Marines against the 1st Viet Cong Regiment in northern I Corps. That American victory in the war’s first large engagement is the subject of Otto Lehrack’s First Battle: Operation Starlite and the Beginning of the Blood Debt in Vietnam (Casemate, 256 pp., $32.95). Lehrack, a two-tour former Marine, did a large amount of research, including interviewing veterans of both sides, in this well- written account. Lehrack also looks at the repercussions of Gen. Westmoreland’s decision to adopt his ill-fated search-and-destroy strategy rather than the Marine Corps’ hearts-and-minds pacification policies.

Few people have as much experience treating the emotional wounds of the Vietnam War as does Raymond Monsour Scurfield. He served a 1968-69 tour as an Army social work officer on a psychiatric team at the 98th Medical Detachment in Nha Trang, and he later worked for the VA for 25 years, directing PTSD mental-health programs in several cities. Scurfield puts that wealth of knowledge into A Vietnam Trilogy: Veterans and Post-Traumatic Stress, 1968, 1989, 2000 (Algora, 232 pp., $29.95, hardcover; $22.95, paper), an edifying look at the emotional impact of the Vietnam War aimed at explaining PTSD and helping those who suffer from it.

Seattle journalist Rick Anderson uses the example of Vietnam veteran Joe Hooper, who essentially drank himself to death in 1979, as a taking-off point in Home Front: The Government’s War on Soldiers (Clarity Press, 200 pp., $14.95, paper), a stinging indictment of the government’s treatment of veterans of our most recent wars. Hooper, a Medal of Honor recipient, is the subject of a massive biography, Looking for a Hero: Staff Sergeant Joe Ronnie Hooper and the Vietnam War (University of Nebraska, 688 pp., $29.95), by Peter Maslowski and Don Winslow. The book also includes the authors’ opinions on the war and its aftermath, including their puzzling contention that the “veterans’ lobby” helps veterans receive VA benefits for faked PTSD. VSOs are to blame, they say, for enabling veterans to become “a privileged class with their own extensive welfare system.” That statement, at the very least, is character assassination against all veterans who put their lives on the line for our nation.

Peter S. Temes uses the Vietnam War as a sometimes touchstone in The Just War: An American Reflection on the Morality of War in Our Time (Ivan R. Dee, 217 pp., $17.95, paper), a meditation on the principle of waging necessary war. Soldier Talk: The Vietnam War in Oral Narrative (University of Indiana, 240 pp., $49.95, hardcover; $21.95, paper) is a collection of ten essays by academicians on several areas of Nam War lit, including poetry, oral histories, the African-American experience, and women. Editors Paul Budra and Michael Zeitlin include essays in which voices of veterans closest to the fighting do the talking.

Art and Lee Beltrone’s Vietnam Graffiti: Messages from a Forgotten Troopship (Howell, 89 pp., $19.95) is the story in words (by Art) and pictures (by Lee) of a large trove of graffiti and drawings scrawled by Nam-bound GIs on the canvas undersides of their berths in the General Nelson M. Walker, a P-2 troopship that last saw active duty in 1968 taking U.S. soldiers and Marines to Vietnam. The book also contains a history of the ship. As for the canvases on the rotting, decommissioned ship, the Belrones turned them over to several museums.

 

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