The Official Voice of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress
March/April 2006
BOOKS IN REVIEW
 
 

In the Jungle Again:  Another
Top-Notch In Country War Novel
 

REVIEWS BY MARC LEEPSON


In last issue’s column we waxed euphorically over Richard Galli’s terrific new novel Of Rice and Men, because it was an excellent piece of fiction and because it was a very rare breed, an in-country Vietnam War novel of merit published for the first time in the early years of the 21st century. Well, that breed isn’t so rare with the publication of James Janko’s Buffalo Boy and Geronimo (Curbstone, 261 pp., $15, paper), a beautifully crafted Vietnam War novel set entirely in the war zone.

First-time novelist Janko served as a medic with D Co., 2nd of the 27th in the 25th Infantry Division in Vietnam and in Cambodia during the May 1970 incursion. He’s lived the archetypal novelist’s life since then, driving a cab, working as a flower vendor and a strawberry picker, and for fifteen years as a night watchman on Alcatraz Island. Janko’s novel stems from his experiences in the war and from what he has learned by taking part in Maxine Hong Kingston’s Vietnam Writers’ Workshops.

Janko, who teaches at City College in San Francisco, has created a unique, sensual look at the Vietnam War, and he has done it by breaking one of the unwritten laws of literary fiction: constantly changing the point of view. This novel is told primarily through the thoughts and deeds of the title characters, an Army medic and a teenaged Vietnamese peasant boy. But Janko also brings in the interior monologues of other Vietnamese villagers, platoon mates of the medic, and—get this—a water buffalo, a tiger, and an elephant.

This is not easy to do. But Janko pulls it off. The result is an engaging look at the war in the jungles from the ground up. The writing evokes the smells, the feel, and the sights of living things that grow and walk in the jungle. The plot works, as well. The boy and the soldier run into each other at the start of the tale; many crucial things happen to both after that, and then they come together for more fateful events in the novel’s concluding passages.

MEMOIRS, ETC., IN BRIEF
Ed Rasimus flew more than 250 combat missions in Vietnam in F-105s and  F-4 Phantoms. He chronicled his first Vietnam War tour in When Thunder Rolled: An F- 05 Pilot Over North Vietnam (2003). Rasimus did a second tour, in 1972, flying, as he did earlier, with the Air Force’s 469th Tactical Fighter Squadron, the “Fighting Bulls.”

During that second tour Rasimus flew out of Korat in Thailand and into the teeth of heavily defended targets in the Red River Valley in and around Hanoi. He took part in Operations Linebacker I and II, including the so-called “Christmas bombings.” Rasimus brings the action alive, recounting his experiences in and out of the cockpit in his new book, Palace Cobra: A Fighter Pilot in the Vietnam War (St. Martin’s, 320 pp., $24.95).


Christy W. Sauro, Jr., was sworn into the U.S. Marine Corps on June 28, 1967. Nothing special about that; there was a lot of that kind of thing going on at the time. But consider this: Sauro was one of more than a hundred new Marines taking the oath that evening in, of all places, Metropolitan Stadium in Minneapolis during the pre-game ceremonies of a Minnesota Twins baseball game.

Sauro spent 15 years tracking down many of the Marines who were sworn in that night. The result is The Twins Platoon: From the Ball Field to the Battlefield (Zenith Press, 288 pp., $24.95), in which Sauro tells the pre-, post-, and Vietnam War stories of a good number of those men (and four women). Like nearly all the others, Sauro did a 1968-69 tour of duty in the Vietnam War. In his case, as he relates in the third person in the book, he was assigned to Marine Helicopter Squadron 362.


Barbara Birchim chronicles her long, exhaustive effort to find out what happened to her husband, Army Special Forces 1st LT Jim Birchim, in Is Anybody Listening? A True Story About the POW/MIAs in the Vietnam War (AuthorHouse, 476 pp., $31.50, hardcover; $21.75, paper). Jim Birchim was listed as missing in action on November 15, 1968, and as KIA/BNR in 1971. Barbara Birchim, who had a young child and was pregnant with a second when she learned that her husband was missing, provides a detailed account of the significant obstacles she has faced trying to determine her husband’s fate. For more info, go to www.is-anybody-listening.com


Retired National Guard Gen. Ezell Ware, Jr.’s 2005 autobiography, told with journalist Joel Engel, By Duty Bound: Survival and Redemption in a Time of War, is now out in paper (NAL Caliber, 321 pp., $14.95). Ware, who escaped capture for three weeks after his helicopter crashed in the South Vietnamese jungle, was one of the few black pilots with the Army’s 61st Helicopter Assault Company.

NONFICTION IN BRIEF
James H. Willbanks took part in the protracted April-May 1972 Battle of An Loc as a U.S. Army ARVN adviser. He brings a participant’s eyewitness experience, along with a historian’s expertise (he has taught at the Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth), to The Battle of An Loc (University of Indiana Press, 240 pp., $29.95), a first-rate military analysis of that long, costly battle.

ARVN troops, aided significantly by American advisers and by USAF B-52 strikes, barely defeated the NVA at An Loc, which was part of the latter’s ill-fated 1972 Easter Offensive. But, as Willbanks notes, North Vietnam drew a lesson from that experience and waited three years until after the United States had all but completely withdrawn from South Vietnam to launch the military campaign that toppled the Saigon regime.


Robert J. Wilensky served as a military doctor in the Army Medical Corps based at the 588th Engineer Battalion at Tay Ninh during his 1967-68 Vietnam War tour. That experience, along with his Ph.D. in history, makes him uniquely qualified to chronicle the American civilian military effort in Vietnam, something Wilensky does exceptionally well in Military Medicine to Win Hearts and Minds: Aid to Civilians in the Vietnam War (Texas Tech University Press, 192 pp., $29.95).

Wilensky shows clearly that American civilian and military leaders thought very differently about the purposes of medical civic action than did those who performed the hands-on medical work. “While command might have publicized the altruistic elements of the programs, medical benefit to the rural population was truly a secondary consideration,” he notes. American doctors, nurses, and corpsmen, on the other hand, he says, “sincerely felt they were helping the people. They participated in the programs without ulterior motives or even the realization that they were part of a greater plan.”


Former Marine Cal Snyder includes a chapter on the stirring Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Manhattan, along with New York City’s other memorials to Vietnam veterans, in Out of Fire and Valor: The War Memorials of New York City from the Revolution to 9-11 (Bunker Hill Publishing, 240 pp., $25). The book contains in-depth reports on dozens of memorials, along with evocative photographs.


Jonathan B. Tucker offers passing mention of Agent Orange in his long, detailed look at the last hundred or so years of chemical warfare history in War of Nerves: Chemical Warfare from World War I to Al-Qaeda (Pantheon, 479 pp., $30). Tucker is a chemical and biological weapons specialist at the Monterey Institute’s Center for Nonproliferation Studies in California.


Part of the proceeds from Lift Every Voice: A Celebration of Freedom (FMR, 125 pp., $22.90), a compilation by Dan Zadra of dozens of short, uplifting quotations, is being donated to VVA’s Michigan State Council. For info, go to http://www.hmbgroup.com/martech

THE WAR AT HOME
One theme in At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-68 (Simon & Schuster, 1,039 pp., $35), the massive third volume of Taylor Branch’s masterful examination of the life and times of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is the war in Vietnam. King began speaking out about the war on March 2, 1965, soon after President Lyndon B. Johnson launched the first bombing of North Vietnam. “I know that President Johnson has a serious problem here,” King said in a speech at Howard University that day. “The war in Vietnam is accomplishing nothing.”

Branch, who won the Pulitzer Prize for the first volume of the series, Parting the Waters, goes on in this third volume to chronicle King’s evolving views on the war and his deteriorating relationship with LBJ because of those views. The book is compellingly written and deeply researched, and is propelled by the immediacy of Branch’s extensive use of direct quotations from previously undisclosed wiretaps and presidential phone calls.

At the Water’s Edge: American Politics and the Vietnam War, (Ivan R. Dee, 241 pp., $26), the latest book by Melvin Small, the Wayne State University history professor who has written widely on the Vietnam War and the antiwar movement, examines and analyzes the crucial role that domestic politics had in influencing Vietnam War policies of Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon. “Domestic political considerations, including the congressional and presidential election cycles, were never far from their minds,” he notes, “as they fashioned military tactics and strategies and contemplated decisions about escalation, de-escalation, and negotiation.”

Near the end of this well-written book, Small singles out Vietnam Veterans of America for its early, strong commitment to securing Vietnam veterans’ rightful benefits from the VA, especially in regard to the health effects of Agent Orange. VVA, he notes, “took the lead in demanding government recognition that [Vietnam veterans’] increased deaths from cancer and other diseases were related to exposure to carcinogens such as Agent Orange.”


Jerry Elmer expressed his opposition to the Vietnam War by refusing to register for the draft when he turned 18 in 1969 and by going on to destroy records at more than a dozen draft boards. He calls draft-board-trashing “the most powerful, most active, most effective thing I could think of to stop the war.” Elmer was subsequently arrested, tried, and convicted for those illegal actions. 

He tells all in Felon for Peace: The Memoir of a Draft Resister (Vanderbilt University Press, 267 pp., $54.95, hardcover; $22.95, paper). Elmer, who graduated from Harvard Law School in 1990, made headlines late last year when his book was published in Hanoi in Vietnamese—the first time a book by an American antiwar activist was published in Vietnam.

POETRY
Chalk up another way in which the Vietnam War was different than America’s other armed conflicts: its soldier poets. Compared to their brethren in the two world wars, Vietnam War veteran poets “were open to another sense of what poetry could or should do,” opines Lorrie Goldensohn in the introduction to the Nam section of her American War Poetry: An Anthology (Columbia University Press, 413 pp., $27.95), a sterling collection of verse from the colonial wars to today.

The poets of the Vietnam War, Goldensohn says, “widened the subject matter of the war poem beyond the practice of either [of the world wars]. Less reluctant to use the first person singular or plural, the Vietnam War poets made unapologetic and fresh use of the stance of the witness. They used a more vernacular language, stole liberally from prose genres, and in their own terse version of modernism, emphasized techniques borrowed from cinema, adding montage and jump-cuts, often wryly reflecting on how pop culture, notably the macho of the Hollywood film, makes the heroic stale.”

Goldensohn offers works from the best Vietnam veteran poets and from first-tier civilian poets expressing their views (almost always of the dovish persuasion) on the war. The list of the latter includes Robert Lowell, Denise Levertov, Robert Bly, Allen Ginsberg, and W.S. Merwin. The vet-poets in the anthology include Walter McDonald, David Huddle, Horace Coleman, Basil Paquet, Dale Ritterbusch, Gerald McCarthy, Yusef Komunyakaa, David Connolly, W.D. Ehrhart, and Bruce Weigl.


Based on the poems in Black Marble Wall (Taylor’s Ridge, 60 pp., $8.95, paper), William A. Campbell served a very difficult tour in the Vietnam War, was seriously wounded, and has had trouble adjusting to life back home since then. His short, accessible poems convey those facts very well. For more info, go to www.lulu.com


Several of the poems published in English and Vietnamese in Lam Thi My Da’s Green Rice (Curbstone, 148 pp., $14.95, paper), translated by Martha Collins and Thuy Dinh, deal with the writer’s experiences living in the central part of Vietnam during the American War. While the war is the subject, the poems also evoke the feel of the land, as in “Garden Fragrance.” To wit: “Last night a bomb exploded on the veranda/But sounds of birds sweeten the air this morning/I sense the fragrant trees, look in the garden/Find two silent clusters of ripe guavas.”

The correct title of Carey Spearman’s newest book, which we reviewed in the January- February issue, is 36 Years and a Wake-Up: An American Returns to Vietnam (Truman Publishing).

   

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