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may/june 2009

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Although it’s been said before, it bears repeating: There are but two requirements for a great memoir: a great life story and a great writer to tell it. Many have lived interesting lives; few have the ability to turn those lives into compelling books. Doug Anderson is one of the few. His searing literary memoir, Keep Your Head Down (Norton, 288 pp., $25.95), is one of the most compelling, poetic autobiographies I’ve read in years.

Anderson, who served as a Navy Corpsman with the 1st Marine Division in Vietnam in 1967-68 and today teaches poetry at the U. of Connecticut in Hartford, has had one amazing life—before, during, and after his Vietnam War tour of duty. He has been (in no particular order) a jazz drummer, a playwright, an actor, an alcoholic, a college dropout, a masters degree recipient, the son of an alcoholic, a college instructor, a drug abuser, a PTSD sufferer, and a poet.

Anderson tells his story in inviting, often poetic, prose. He begins with his dysfunctional childhood, replete with hard-drinking relatives, a father who left, and a mother who was distant at best and abusive at worst. Anderson then presents an evocative depiction of his tour of duty in Vietnam, which included a firefight on his first day in the field, along with more than his share of closely observed horror.

He goes on to show the hell of war as he experienced it, and how he has relived it ever since. For many years he self-medicated with booze, drugs, and sex. Only in recent years did he stop drinking, find meaningful work (as a poet and college professor), marry, and make a life-changing 2000 trip back to Vietnam. His story is one of redemption. Yet, what Anderson dubs “Snakebrain” (that is, the demons inside him) remains a part of his life, and his memoir has no neat, happy ending. But it‘s well worth reading.

Jack McLean also has had an eventful life, and he tells his story extremely well in Loon: A Marine Story (Presidio Press, 256 pp., $25). Unlike Anderson, McLean is not a poet, but he has many poetic passages in his war memoir, which is told from a unique and perceptive perspective. Unlike the overwhelming majority of men in his privileged social class, McLean joined the Marines after he graduated from Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass. (where George W. Bush was a classmate) in August of 1966.

Making excellent use of more than a hundred letters he wrote home from the war zone, where he served with Charlie Co. of the 3rd Marine Division’s 1st Battalion/4th Marine Regiment from 1967-68, McLean reconstructs his time in the Marine Corps with a sharp eye for detail and a very readable prose style.

McLean turned 19 in Vietnam. He underwent a hellish tour of duty and became the first Vietnam veteran to enter Harvard in the fall of 1968. Just months before, his unit was torn to pieces by the NVA on the mountainous LZ Loon near the Laotian border. Of the 180 Marines who landed there, only sixty came off the hill, McLean says. Hundreds of NVA perished after McLean’s CO, Capt. Bill Negron, saved the day by calling artillery in almost on top of the Marines.

McLean uses a good deal of reconstructed dialogue to tell his war story, a technique that in lesser hands only cheapens a memoir. But virtually all of McLean’s dialogue rings true, as does nearly everything else in the book.

Former First Cav LT Bob Nylen takes a more impressionistic approach to telling his eventful life story in the bombastic, self-deprecating Guts: Combat, Hell-Raising, Cancer, Business Start-Ups, and Undying Love: One American Guy’s Reckless Lucky Life (Random House, 260 pp., $25.95). That line from Bruce Springsteen, “his life was one long emergency,” kept ringing in my ears as I read page after page of Nylen’s seemingly lifelong litany of physical mishaps, mental errors, business goof-ups, death and maiming in Vietnam, and virulent cancer.

Nylen, who died late last year, described himself as “impulsive: slow to think, quick to act, lousy at risk assessment, and incapable of forward thinking.” Those words belie the facts of Nylen’s life, though. He graduated from college, survived a year in the thick of things in Vietnam with the First Cav’s 2nd of the 12th and as a RUFF-PUFF adviser, got his MBA from the Wharton School, and helped create two successful publishing business, The New England Monthly and He had a long and seemingly stable marriage to a good woman and seems to have been a good father and husband.

Still, his life careened along crazily after he came back from Vietnam, and Nylen does a terrific job describing the ups and downs. And you cannot help but admire the man for what he went through in his long battle against the cancer that killed him.


In Soldiers Once: My Brother and the Lost Dreams of America’s Veterans (DaCapo, 224 pp., $25), long-time author Catherine Whitney presents a memoir about her brother Jim Schuler, a three-tour Vietnam veteran who died penniless and alone in 2001 at age 53. Whitney also gives her spin on a wide range of issues affecting American veterans, from World War I to today. While these sections contain good, solid reporting, there is very little here that isn’t widely known and reported.

The parts that deal with her brother and family are more fully realized, although much of that narrative, including Jim Schuler’s service in Vietnam (as an engineer with the Army’s 1st, 87th, 815th Engineer Battalions) and his postwar military career, is based on speculation since he had very little contact with his estranged family—including the author, who was adamantly against the Vietnam War, something her troubled brother never forgot or forgave.

Whitney only partially succeeds in her “mission” to “find” her brother.


Why We Fought: America’s Wars in Film and History (University Press of Kentucky, 624 pp., $75, hardcover; $40, paper) is an excellent compilation of essays on war films edited by John E. O’Connor and Peter C. Rollins, both of whom are professors emeritus and former editors of the journal Film & History. Three essays deal with the Vietnam War: on Platoon by Lawrence Lichty and Raymond L. Carroll, on The Quiet American by William Bushnell, and on popular culture and the Vietnam War by Rollins, who served as a Marine in Vietnam and holds a Ph.D. from Harvard.

The journalist James Scott takes on one of the deadliest attacks on Americans that occurred during the Vietnam War—albeit one that didn’t take place in Vietnam—in The Attack on the Liberty: The Untold Story of Israel’s Deadly 1967 Assault on a U.S. Spy Ship (Simon & Schuster, 352 pp., $27). Israeli jets and torpedo boats attacked the U.S.S. Liberty on June 8, 1967, during the Six Day Arab-Israeli War off the coast of the Sinai Peninsula in international waters. Among the crew who survived (34 didn’t and 170 were wounded) was the author’s father, U.S. Navy Ensign John Scott.

Bruce Davies’ The Battle at Ngok Tavak: Allied Valor and Defeat in Vietnam, which we reviewed very favorably in the September/October 2008 issue when it was published in Australia, is now available on these shores from Texas Tech University Press (242 pp., $24.95, paper).

Mark Moyar’s revisionist 2006 history, Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954-1965, is now out in paperback (Cambridge University, 542 pp., $23.99). In it, Moyar offers an unabated salvo against liberals, intellectuals, newspaper correspondents, and just about anyone else who had bad things to say about the South Vietnamese or good things to say about Vietnamese communists.

The latest translation of the ancient Chinese military text The Art of War, by Victor Mair, professor of Chinese language and literature at the University of Pennsylvania, is now out in paper (Columbia University Press, 256 pp., $14.95). Mair contends that this long-studied text was not written by Sun Wu, the common wisdom. Instead, Mair says, this iconic text was a group effort put together over many years.

The brief concluding chapter of Joel R. Davidson’s Armchair Warriors: Private Citizens, Popular Press, and the Rise of American Power (Naval Institute, 348 pp., $37.95) contains a series of more or less off-the-wall letters (gleaned from thousands and thousands) that American citizens wrote to the Pentagon with suggestions on how to fight the Vietnam War. As Davidson notes, these letters “ranged from dropping rattlesnakes in likely Viet Cong hiding spots to attacking enemy tunnels with explosive-laden rats or with suffocating soapsuds.”

You can find just about anything you need to know about military and veterans’ benefits in the 2009 edition of The Military Advantage: The Guide to Military and Veterans Benefits (Naval Institute, 400 pp., $21.95, paper).


Alex Caine, a Canadian, joined the U.S. Marines to escape a rough adolescence. He went to boot camp at Parris Island and was sent to Vietnam where he served for 13 months and 15 days in 1969-70. His unit, which was attached to the 82nd Airborne’s Third Brigade, was involved in hush-hush Operation Phoenix activities. Caine includes a brief section on his Vietnam War service in his well-written memoir, Befriend &
Betray: Infiltrating the Hells Angels, Bandidos, and Other Criminal Brotherhoods
 (Thomas Dunne, 304 pp., $25.95), which concentrates on his postwar undercover law enforcement adventures.

Michael Larson arrived at Camp Radcliff at An Khe, the First Cavalry Division’s headquarters, in July of 1967. He spent a year in Vietnam as a public information specialist with the Cav’s Public Information Office. Like most of his colleagues, including Donald Graham, the chief executive officer and chairman of the board of The Washington Post Company, Larson did his share of reporting from the field and earned the title of combat reporter. Larson, a former journalist, does an excellent job telling his war story in Heroes: A Year in Vietnam With the First Air Cavalry Division (iUniverse, 251 pp., $20.95, paper).

John J. Gebhart quit college in his sophomore year in 1964 and joined the Marines. He served two tours in Vietnam, 1965-67. Gebhart’s LBJ’s Hired Guns: A Marine Corps Helicopter Gunner and the War in Vietnam (Casemate, 384 pp., $32.95) is his blunt war memoir.

John Blehm, Sr., and Karen Blehm’s Angel of Death: True Story of a Vietnam Vet’s War Experience and his Battle to Overcome PTSD, the “Cancer of the Soul” (iUniverse, 126 pp., $14.95) is the story of John Blehm’s intense 1969-70 tour of duty with the First Cav’s Company D, 1st of the 5th and his postwar emotional struggles.

Gannon McHale, a veteran character actor, joined the Navy was he was 19 years old in 1967 and spent most of his time serving on the U.S.S. Sturgeon, a fast-attack submarine. McHale tells his life story, concentrating on his years at (and under) sea in his sprightly memoir, Stealth Boat: Fighting the Cold War in a Fast Attack Submarine (Naval Institute, 224 pp., $24.95).

Also in the underwater Vietnam era vein: Peter Sasgen’s Stalking the Red Bear: The True Story of a U.S. Cold War Submarine’s Covert Operations Against the Soviet Union (Thomas Dunne, 336 pp., $25.95), which looks at Operation Holystone, the Navy’s top-secret Cold War submarine intel operation.


In the January/February issue, we omitted Dennis Wesley Clark’s website for his novel, Hard Way Home, which deals with American POWs who escaped from Vietnam after the war. For info, go to

Blowback: A Canadian History of Agent Orange and the War at Home


Blowback by Chris Arsenault is one of the most courageous and honest books I have ever read on the Agent Orange and dioxin cover-up. This Canadian-published book will not reach U.S. bookstores until September, but you can order it online from the publisher, Fernwood (112 pp., paper) at

The death and destruction caused by Agent Orange was first noticed in a little Canadian town called Enniskillen in the area of military Camp Gagetown. Civilians and former military people did not know that Agent Orange and its toxic relatives were tested at Gagetown. For a very small town, the death statistics were high. The book states that “twenty-five people have died from cancer.”

I am not a scientist; however, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, part of the World Health Organization, has declared dioxin a “human carcinogen.”

Chris Arsenault makes clear that Canada was not the only country involved in the Gagetown disaster. The United States was greatly involved as well. It is interesting to note that the American spraying was invited by the Canadian government. However, the Canadian spraying was done by private contractors motivated by profit. They didn’t pay much attention to the warning labels.

Arsenault does not minimize or sugarcoat the damages done by Agent Orange and dioxin. Unidentified babies born like grapes are clearly documented. People thought the deadly mist was bug spray, just as soldiers in Vietnam did. A lot of money was both spent and saved by using Agent Orange, rather than manual labor, to clear weeds.

Blowback mentions a lawsuit filed by workers of New Brunswick Power against Dow Canada. The lack of safety instructions led the workers to believe that Agent Orange was so safe that they could drink its deadly ingredients. The workers even sprayed their sandwiches with it.

Arsenault highlights other interesting and horrifying aspects in Blowback, as well as the legal aspects. This is where things get highly political. The American class action lawsuit against the chemical companies ended in a sellout of veterans who became victims after the $180 million settlement had been depleted. Despite the evidence, the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals turned the veterans down.

This is the best exposé on Agent Orange that I have ever read. It is imperative that veterans and civilians read it.

George Claxton is the former chair of the VVA Agent Orange/Dioxin Committee.



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