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September/October Issue

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Books in Review

Reviews by Marc Leepson

Among the many litmus tests to uncover historians’ political views about the Vietnam War is the question of whether Ho Chi Minh was a nationalist or communist. Historians who are hawks trumpet the fact that Uncle Ho was a founding member of the French and Vietnamese Communist Parties and worked for the Communist International, a.k.a. the Comintern. Historians who are doves, on the other hand, take pains to point out that Ho lobbied the United States after World War I for Vietnamese independence, worked with the Americans against the Japanese during World War II, and was the George Washington of Vietnam.

In Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954-1965 (Cambridge University, 400 pp., $30), historian Mark Moyar puts himself firmly in the hawk camp. He goes to great lengths to stress Uncle Ho’s communist ties and ideals, and he turns the father of his country idea on its ear, making a case that South Vietnamese Premier Ngo Dinh Diem, not Ho, was the George Washington of Vietnam.

Moyar, a U.S. Marine Corps University professor and the author of Phoenix and the Birds of Prey: The CIA’s Secret Campaign to Destroy the Viet Cong, trumpets his membership in what he calls the “revisionist school” of Vietnam War historians. He firmly believes that the war was “a worthy but improperly executed enterprise.” His fiercely argued book covering the early years of American involvement in the war is a salvo against what he calls the “orthodox school” of Vietnam War historians. Said school sees American involvement in the war, he says, as “wrongheaded and unjust.”

Members of that cohort include liberals, intellectuals, and newspaper correspondents. The main villains in Moyar’s book are former Vietnam War correspondents David Halberstam and Neil Sheehan, former U.S. Ambassador to South Vietnam Henry Cabot Lodge, and just about anyone else who had bad things to say about Ngo Dinh Diem and good things to say about Ho Chi Minh.

Moyar marshals a good deal of evidence to make his points. Nearly all of the primary sources he uses buttress his political point of view. He disparages those he disagrees with (calling Sheehan and Halberstam, for example, “indignant,” “vengeful,” and “self-righteous”) and showers praise on those who backed Diem, the autocratic leader who stifled the press and muzzled his political opponents. “Revisionists” will embrace the book; the “orthodox” will see it as more evidence of a vast, right-wing conspiracy.


In 1994, six years after his death from a sudden heart attack, Steerforth Press published War of Numbers, the unfinished memoir of former CIA intelligence analyst Sam Adams. In 1982, Adams had made national headlines when he went public with convincing evidence that the American military purposely underestimated the size of the enemy forces in Vietnam prior to and during the 1968 Tet Offensive. The media vehicle he chose was “The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception,” a CBS-TV documentary that contained the evidence that

Adams had first uncovered while working in and out of Vietnam in 1966.
The documentary portrayed Gen. William Westmoreland, the MACV commander, as the mastermind of a conspiracy to convince the Pentagon and the American public that the war effort was going well. Westmoreland reacted by suing CBS for libel. At the very last moment, just as his $120-million suit was about to go to jury, Westmoreland dropped the suit, and CBS issued a statement saying it never meant to say that he was unpatriotic.

Adams’ working title for his memoir was “Who the Hell Are We Fighting Out There?” Hence the title of C. Michael Hiam’s engaging biography of Sam Adams: Who the Hell Are We Fighting? The Story of Sam Adams and the Vietnam Intelligence Wars (Steerforth, 326 pp., $25.95). Hiam does a good job of telling Adams’ compelling life story, complete with blow-by-blow accounts of his muckraking at the CIA, and fascinating details of the CBS-Westmoreland trial, which some people called “the libel trial of the century.”


Glenda Carter’s husband, Bruce Landon Carter, was killed in Quang Nam Province on September 11, 1968, less than a month after arriving in country and joining Fox Company, 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines. He was 18 years old. Glenda Carter received the “we regret to inform” news three days later. It took her more than three decades to come to grips with the impact of her young husband’s death.

Glenda Carter tells the story of her life after September 14, 1968, with grace and power in Sacred Shadow, Sacred Ground: A Vietnam War Widow’s Journey Through Unresolved Grief (Two Rainbows, 188 pp., $18.95, paper). The journey was a painful one in many ways. Glenda Carter grieved, tried to go on with her life, then floundered emotionally for many years with a severe case of PTSD. Her pain only began to ease in recent years after a religious experience, after contacting several of the men her husband served with, and after writing this heartfelt book. For more info, go to

Tom A. Johnson’s To the Limit: An Air Cav Huey Pilot in Vietnam (Potomac Books, 396 pp., $26.95) is an evocative retelling of his June 1967-68 tour of duty as a young warrant officer flying Hueys for the 1st Cav’s 229th Assault Helicopter Battalion. Johnson accumulated 1,150 combat hours, including many precarious missions during the Battle of Hue and at Khe Sanh during and after Tet ’68. He tells his war story mostly in the present tense and with lots of recreated dialogue.
“We were aviation specialists who had contempt for everyone outside the aviation family,” Johnson says in his introduction. “Most of us sported a strictly-against-army-regulation mustache, and our don’t-give-a-crap attitude kept us in hot water with other ‘non-rated’ military officers.”

Dr. Ronald J. Glasser is best known as the author of 365 Days (1971), a powerful chronicle of his 1968-69 tour in the medical trenches at the U.S. Army Hospital in Camp Zama in Japan in 1968-69. That book, which is still in print, is regarded as a Vietnam War classic, revealing as it does the war stories and the physical and psychic pain of the wounded Americans Glasser treated after they were medevaced to Japan.

Glasser’s newest book, Wounded: Vietnam, Iraq (Braziller, 151 pp., $15.95, paper), covers similar territory. Glasser describes the advances in technology and medical science that have led to fewer deaths on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those same breakthroughs, though, also have led to more servicemen and women surviving the war with more severe wounds—a situation that is similar to what happened in the Vietnam War compared to Korea and World War II. In this short, incisive text, Glasser also includes an instructive chapter on combat-related PTSD, past and present. Much of what is in the book is not easily digestible; then again, neither is the personal cost of war.

The latest between-covers tribute to American Medal of Honor recipients is Barrett Tillman’s Heroes: U.S. Army Medal of Honor Recipients (Berkley Caliber, 273 pp., $26.95), a chronological recounting of 100 Army MOH stories, beginning with the Civil War. The 40-page Vietnam War section includes sidebars, such as a list of the fifteen Army medics who received the award from 1965-70.

Two of the legends profiled by military historian Dick Camp in Leatherneck Legends: Conversations with the Marine Corps’ Old Breed (Zenith, 320 pp., $24.95) are Ray Davis and Bob Barrow, multi-starred generals who commanded Marine units in the Vietnam War. Davis fought in World War II, received the Medal of Honor for his actions at the Chosin Reservoir in Korea, and commanded the 3rd Marine Division in Vietnam. Barrow also served in WWII, Korea, and Vietnam, commanding the 9th Marine Regiment in the latter war. He went on to become the 27th Commandant of the Marine Corps.

Thomas M. Hawley, a government professor at Eastern Washington University, offers a highly detailed analysis of the continuing Vietnam War POW/MIA issue in The Remains of War: Bodies, Politics, and the Search for American Soldiers Unaccounted for in Southeast Asia (Duke University, 296 pp., $22.95, paper). Hawley takes into consideration, among other things, political, cultural, and literary factors to come up with “a genealogical perspective” on what’s behind what he calls “an effort unlike any undertaken by any nation in history.”

Andrew Dodds’s American Heroes Remembered: 230 Years of American Military History (Braveheart Publishers, 175 pp., paper) is a collection of poems, historical facts, photos, and stories that pay tribute to America’s fightingmen and women throughout our history. For info, write: 271 County Road 1000, Booneville, MS 38829.

Is the war in Iraq another Vietnam? That’s the question Vietnam War specialist Robert K. Brigham, a Vassar College history and political science professor, addresses in the appropriately titled Is Iraq Another Vietnam? (Public Affairs, 207 pp., $24). The answer, according to Brigham, is, in many ways, yes. There are “overwhelming differences” between the two wars, he says. But there are three striking similarities.

They are: overwhelming political problems despite overwhelming American military power; declining public support; and what Brigham believes is the most important similarity, “the challenge that each war presented to American beliefs about the use of power.” In both wars, he says, “the United States learned that there were limits to what it could accomplish through force.”

If you’re looking for a book that trashes Jane Fonda, Mary Hershberger’s Jane Fonda’s War: A Political Biography of an Anti-War Icon (The New Press, 228 pp., $24.95) is not for you. Hershberger, who wrote Traveling to Vietnam, a book about American peace activists who went there during the war, documents Fonda’s antiwar work and examines the bitter controversy that continues to this day over what she did back then. Hershberger’s conclusion: “allegations that Fonda betrayed her country and caused harm to American POWs in Hanoi are false.”


How does James Lee Burke do it? His 15th Dave Robicheaux detective novel, Pegasus Descending (Simon & Schuster, 354 pp., $26), closely follows the pattern of the earlier books but still has the immediacy and appeal of a brand new exemplary work of genre fiction. Burke offers yet another fast-moving melodrama set in Cajun country in southern Louisiana, in which our morally upright but demon-battling sheriff’s detective hero tries to solve three grisly murders and deal with a fearsome line-up of murderous sociopaths. The murders may have something to do with the violent death of an old friend twenty years earlier—a death that Dave has on his conscience.

As usual, Dave is abetted in his unorthodox crime fighting by his former fellow New Orleans beat cop and fellow Nam vet buddy, Clete Boyer, a “jarhead who still [hears] the downdraft of helicopter blades in his sleep.” Burke, as usual, puts many roadblocks in Dave’s path, including his own ferocious temper and his constant battle to stay sober. You know Dave is going to overcome, but you have your doubts, and you really don’t know what will happen till the last few pages of this great read.


Thomas Holland’s One Drop of Blood (Simon & Schuster, 337 pp., $24) is a spell-binding detective thriller set in the present day that delves into two murders that took place in 1965 and 1966—one in a small Arkansas town and one in Quang Nam, Republic of Vietnam. Holland, who directs the Pentagon’s Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii, skillfully brings together a northern, fish-out-of-water FBI agent and a put-upon forensic anthropologist to clear up both interlocked mysteries.

Stephen (Flight of the Intruder, et al.) Coonts’s latest thriller, The Traitor (St. Martin’s, 370 pp., $25.95), is a fast-paced, cleverly plotted production. Former Vietnam War A-6 Intruder pilot Coonts brings back the intrepid Intruder hero Jack Grafton in this novel to help undo a nasty Al Qaeda plot with a big French accent.

Chris Boucher’s first novel, Frank’s War (Aventine, 104 pp., $10.95, paper), deals with 18-year-old Frank Prince and a band of anarchist-terrorists in the wake of the September 11, 2001, attacks, as well as the discovery of his father’s Vietnam War journal. Boucher based the fictional journal on the real war journal kept by his late father-in-law. For more info, go to http: //

Marciano Guerrero’s The Poison Pill (iUniverse, 289 pp., $18.95, paper) is billed as a “business (Gothic) thriller.” This fast-moving novel tells the strange tale of what happens to two Vietnam War veterans turned business entrepreneurs when their empire is threatened. The novel follows the quest of the son of one of the founders of Bates Pharmaceuticals, an MIT professor who tries to outwit an unscrupulous corporate raider. Guerrero served in the Vietnam War.

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