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

Detached From It All:
Tracey Kidder's Vietnam Memoir
 

REVIEWS BY MARC LEEPSON

It’s not widely known, but writer Tracy Kidder—the author of such critically acclaimed books as House and The Soul of a New Machine and the winner of the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award—served in the Vietnam War. For a year, he was a lieutenant in charge of eight enlisted men in an Army Security Agency detachment inside a well-fortified infantry base camp near Chu Lai. Kidder tells his war story in the insightful My Detachment: A Memoir (Random House, 208 pp., $24.95).

A reluctant warrior, Kidder joined ROTC in his junior year at Harvard to avoid the draft. Two years later he was in Vietnam, in a war that he had soon decided was “unnecessary” and “futile.” As an ROTC cadet and later as an Army officer, Kidder felt “separated from my social class, from my student generation.”

In Vietnam, he detached himself emotionally from the Army bureaucracy, from his ticket-punching superior officers, and from his work-shirking enlisted men. In Kidder’s Vietnam War story there are no heroes. There are, in fact, few “war stories.” He presents, instead, realistic day-to-day reports on what happened at his detachment where the mission was to interpret enemy troop movements using raw intelligence data supplied by eavesdropping technology.

His account is an introspective, de-mythologizing dose of reality as seen by a perceptive though immature Army intelligence LT. War isn’t hell here; it’s hellishly bureaucratic and infused with mind-numbing Army rules and regulations exacerbated by the fact that it’s played out in a war zone. “I was never more than a few miles away from a village being bombarded or a platoon caught in an ambush,” Kidder says, “and yet [the war was] an abstraction, dots on a map.”

BOSCH & BROKER

Michael Connelly’s latest Harry Bosch detective novel, The Closers (Little, Brown, 403 pp., $26.95), doesn’t disappoint. Connelly brought Bosch to life in 1992 in The Black Echo, a riveting thriller in which we learn that the LAPD homicide detective served in the Vietnam War as a tunnel rat. Bosch’s war experiences played smaller roles in the eight subsequent books. The readable, well-plotted The Closers deals with an unsolved murder. Bosch’s Vietnam War experience rears its head several times as our hero, back on the force after a brief retirement, barely manages not to get himself into deep departmental trouble (his usual M.O.) as he works over a two-day period to solve a vexing crime.


Chuck Logan volunteered for the draft in 1967, went Airborne, and did a Vietnam War tour as a radio operator with small advisory teams around Dong Ha in northern Quang Tri Province. After the war, the Detroit native moved to Minneapolis, became a staff artist with the St. Paul Pioneer Press, and in 1996 published his first book, the top-notch thriller Hunter’s Moon. That book featured Nam vet undercover cop Phil Broker. Since then, Logan’s turned out six more Broker novels, including his latest, Homefront (HarperCollins, 368 pp., $16.95).

Like its predecessors, Homefront is a tense, dark page-turner set in northern Minnesota. This time, Broker must deal with a pack of malevolent sociopaths intent on doing severe harm to him, his wife, Nina (a young Army major recovering from her own encounter with bad guys), and their 11-year-old daughter. Along the way, a lot of bad things happen to the family and to Griffin, Broker’s old Nam buddy and partner in fighting crime.

BUTLER ON FICTION

Robert Olen Butler, who won the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his Vietnam-themed short story collection, A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, has been a creative writing professor at Florida State University since 2000. Butler served as a U.S. Army translator in Vietnam, and the war and its aftermath have strongly influenced his fiction, beginning with his first published novel, The Alleys of Eden (1981), and including On Distant Ground (1985), The Deuce (1989), They Whisper (1994), and The Deep Green Sea (1998).

Butler’s latest book is not fiction, but it deals with fiction writing. From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction (Grove, 272 pp., $24) is Butler’s how-to for aspiring fiction writers. The work is based on the creative writing class he teaches to graduate students at FSU. In addition to this insightful series of lectures, edited by former student Janet Burroway, the book includes “Open Arms,” one of the short stories from Good Scent.

FICTION IN BRIEF

The unique thing about George Hay’s novel, Agent Orange (AVBooks, 11 hours, $19.95), the story of a POW rescue mission in Vietnam, is that it has been released as an audiovisual book. That is, it’s a single CD that can be listened to on any portable or car MP3 player, DVD player, or iPod-type device, and can be read or listened to on any personal computer. The book, which is read by William Shatner, looks just like a hardbound book on your computer with pages that turn. To find out more, go to www.avbooks.com/Reviews/EBooks.jsp

A SORT OF PEACE

W.D. Ehrhart, the poet and writer whose work is shaped by his experiences as a U.S. Marine in the Vietnam War, has collaborated with another Vietnam veteran, Don Fox, on A Sort of Peace: Echoes and Images of the Vietnam War. It’s a book of photographs and poetry that originally appeared on the “Today in Literature” website. You can take a look at www.todayinliterature.com

The collaboration is now available in a full-color chapbook (Fox Photo Arts, $20). It’s made up of eight of Fox’s photos, most from Vietnam, and Ehrhart’s verse. For more info, write to Fox Photo Arts, 1611 Wheatstone Dr., Farmington, NY 14425 or go to www.wdehrhart.com

NONFICTION IN BRIEF

The novelist Clyde Edgerton (The Floatplane Notebooks, et al.) has just written Solo: My Adventures in the Air (Algonquin, 296 pp., $23.95), an engaging autobiography. Edgerton’s love affair with flying began when he was four years old and his mother took him on a trip to a local airport. It picked up steam in 1962 when Edgerton signed up for Air Force ROTC as a University of North Carolina freshman. His goal: to become a fighter pilot. The Air Force, though, turned him into a Forward Air Control pilot during his 1970-71 tour. He flew over the Ho Chi Minh Trail out of Nakhon Phanom Air Base in Thailand. It was often dangerous work, and he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his part in an unsuccessful rescue mission.


The Search for Peace in Vietnam, 1964-1968 (Texas A&M University, 406 pp., $40) is a compilation of 22 essays by top-tier Vietnam War scholars on the many peace initiatives—all of which went nowhere—that arose during the first four years after the big American build-up. Editors Lloyd C. Gardner (Rutgers University) and Ted Gittinger (LBJ Library) include well-documented, revealing entries by—among others—Robert K. Brigham and George Herring on the 1987 Pennsylvania Peace Initiative; Ivan Gaiduk on the Russians’ role in peace talks; and retired Army Col. Herbert Schandler’s take on the Pentagon’s role in peace negotiations after March 31, 1968.


Michael Archer enlisted in the Marines in the summer of 1967. By the end of the year he found himself dug in with the 26th Marines at Khe Sanh. Archer tells his Vietnam War story exceptionally well in A Patch of Ground: Khe Sanh Remembered (Hellgate, 192 pp., $15.95, paper). In clear, evocative prose, Archer relives his 13 months at the pivotal Marine base, where he served in the thick of things as a radio operator. Archer’s first-hand account, fleshed out with historical background, adds a significant voice to the history of the Khe Sanh siege.


Henry G. Cole, a retired Army colonel, served from 1952-88, including tours in the Korean and Vietnam wars. He fought in Vietnam in 1966-67 with the 5th Special Forces Group and in 1969-70 in Kontum at the Command and Control Center of SOG, the famed covert Studies and Observation Group. Cole offers up his war memories in Soldiering: Observations from Korea, Vietnam and Safe Places (Potomac Books, 255 pp., $27.95), in which he includes perceptive profiles of many of the men with whom he served.


The father in John H. Richardson’s My Father the Spy: An Investigative Memoir (HarperCollins, 314 pp., $24.95) is Jack Richardson, a longtime CIA man who was the agency’s station chief in Saigon from 1962-63. U.S. Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge abruptly sent him home because of Richardson’s close ties to the Diem regime. The younger Richardson, an Esquire writer at large, offers a personal view of his father’s tumultuous time in Saigon. The book is a mixture of memoir (9-year-old John was with his family in Vietnam) and well-researched family history, including Richardson Sr.’s life story before his son came along in 1954. It adds up to a fascinating insider’s look at a post-World War II CIA family’s life.


Retired Adm. Stansfield Turner, who commanded the guided missile destroyer USS Horne in the Tonkin Gulf during the Vietnam War, headed the CIA from 1977-81. In Burn Before Reading: Presidents, CIA Directors, and Secret Intelligence (Hyperion, 320 pp., $23.95), Turner looks at the relationships between all of the DCIs and the presidents they served. Turner shows that very few presidents worked well with their CIA directors and that the relationships often were severely strained over matters of politics, personality, and loyalty. That includes Vietnam War matters under Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon.


Robert C. Mikesh, a former USAF Forward Air Control pilot in the Vietnam War, offers a long, detailed history of what once was the world’s fourth largest Air Force in the profusely illustrated Flying Dragons: The South Vietnamese Air Force (Schiffer, 224 pp., $49.95). Norman Polmar’s Historic Naval Aircraft (Brassey’s, 165 pp., $34.95) contains illustrated chapters on two aircraft used during the Vietnam War, the McDonnell F3H Demon, and the Grumman A-6 Intruder.


From 1945-70 the State Department, the USIA, and the Smithsonian—working with private organizations, art dealers, and collectors—sent countless art exhibits overseas to offer favorable impressions of American culture to allies and neutral countries in the Cold War. Michael L. Krenn, the chairman of the History Department at Appalachian State University, takes a critical look at this intriguing aspect of the Cold War in his deeply researched, smoothly written Fall-Out Shelters for the Human Experience: American Art and the Cold War (University of North Carolina, 312 pp., $39.95).


Trin Yarborough sketches the history of Amerasian children and tells the not-always-happy stories of children born in Vietnam during the war to American GIs and Vietnamese mothers in Surviving Twice: Amerasian Children of the Vietnam War (Potomac Books, 304 pp., $25.95). Yarborough, a veteran journalist, concentrates on five young people living in California—life stories that represent the tumultuous legacy of the war for tens of thousands of Vietnam War Amerasians.


Marine Corps WWII and Korean War veteran Herbert W. Warden III includes some four dozen true stories from the time of the Pilgrims to the 21st century in American Courage: Remarkable True Stories Exhibiting the Bravery That Has Made Our Country Great (Morrow, 379 pp., $25.95). One story deals with the Vietnam War: “Roy Benavidez, Vietnam Superman,” an excerpt from the Medal of Honor recipient’s memoir.


Howard J. Langer has put together nearly 600 short quotes from hundreds of first-hand participants and observers of the Vietnam War, in chronological order, in The Vietnam War: An Encyclopedia of Quotations (Greenwood, 440 pp., $85). Langer offers many points of view, along with biographical sketches of those who are quoted.

   

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