MY LAI: VIETNAM, 1968, AND THE DESCENT INTO DARKNESS by Howard Jones

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From the outset of his new book MY LAI: VIETNAM, 1968 AND THE DESCENT INTO DARKNESS notable historian Howard Jones argues that the massacre that took place on March 16, 1968 killing 504 Vietnamese villagers “laid bare the war, revealing that it was unwinnable and that, in the process of fighting for democracy and a way of life; America had lost its moral compass.”  .  When it comes to examining American opinion on My Lai one finds that it is split.  On the one hand, during his four month trial Lt. William Calley argued that he was innocent and that he was just following orders.  However, at the time Americans were polarized and the massacre fed opposition to the war, which addition to the Tet Offensive, the invasion of Cambodia, and the Kent State shootings helped unite Americans against the carnage in Southeast Asia and for many it had turned our young men into “baby killers.”  On the other hand, many saw Calley as a scapegoat for a war gone wrong, with a flawed military approach that hindered the prosecution of the war correctly.  Calley’s conviction would harden support for the war and no matter what one’s point of view is the fissures in American society were exacerbated by events at My Lai.

Jones is to be commended for attempting to produce the most balanced and accurate account of the massacre and its aftermath as possible.  He employs all the tools of a good historian by exploring all documentation available, secondary sources on the topic, interviews, and film to present a fair representation as to what happened.  As historians we are aware that total objectivity in reporting and analyzing historical events is almost an impossible task, but Jones comes very close in achieving his goal.  What sets Jones’ effort apart is the availability of Vietnamese accounts which are skillfully integrated into the narrative that were not available for authors who have previously engaged this topic.

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(Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson, President Richard Nixon, Lt. William Calley)

Jones does an excellent job in setting the scene of the area known as “Pinksville” where the My Lai villages were located.  It is clear that events leading up to March 16th were fraught with booby traps, land mines, snipers, and other obstacles that resulted in the death of many soldiers.  Jones captures the mindset of men who were ordered to take part in the sweep that targeted the 48th Viet Cong Battalion that dominated the area.  Men were told that Vietnamese civilians would be absent in large part as they usually walked to the market in Quang Nai City, and that the Vietcong force would be double the size of the American units.  The instructions given to American troops by Captain Ernest Medina, Lt. Calley, and other higher ups was poorly conceived and left a number of gaps for troops to deal with.  Jones stresses the relationship between Medina and Calley as a major issue as Medina held a very low opinion of his Platoon commander and often humiliated him in front of the troops.  Jones further stresses the weak intelligence that was provided and orders that zeroed in on a “search and destroy” mission that applied to anything that could possibly be used by the Viet Cong (anything, including civilians who supported the VC).

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(Capt. Ernest Medina)

Jones describes what feels like a minute by minute account of the slaughter that took place.  The actions of certain soldiers receives greater attention as they were actively involved in the killings.  Jones has mined trial transcripts, Army reports, and interviews and with a historians eye for detail and lays out that happened on March 16, 1968 in a cogent fashion.  He explores the command structure, personalities involved, as well village life for Vietnamese peasants.  Captain Medina is center stage whose orders were to kill any Vietnamese present, because if they were in the villages they must be Viet Cong.  For Medina “search and destroy” meant burning the villages and killing its inhabitants.  Since the troops were told no civilians would be present, for the soldiers once the killing started it could not be controlled.  For Platoon One under Calley another component was his need to prove himself to Medina.  For Calley the way to impress Medina was the body count.  Taken with racism and fear infused in the men, and Calley’s psychological needs it was a disaster waiting to happen.

At times the reader will become sickened by what Jones describes.  Wanton murder, gang rapes, sadism are all present as Jones relates the actions of deprived men like SP4 Gary Roschevitz, PFC Robert T’Souva, PFC Paul Meadlo and numerous others, a list that is too long to reproduce.  Calley as the officer in charge saw himself as judge, jury, and executioner.  Eventually a number of men refused to continue to take part or refused from the outset.  Men became concerned as Stars and Stripes reporter Jay Robert and photographer Ronald Haberle were present and creating a record of events.

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(Helicopter gunner Lawrence Colburn)

One of the most important characters that Jones introduces is Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson, a helicopter pilot who flew over the battlefield, landed and confronted the perpetrators, and even got into an argument with another officer that almost turned violent.  Once the massacre ended Thompson would report what he witnessed which takes the reader into the second part of the book entitled “Aftermath and Cover up” which is exactly what took place.  Jones does a good job following the trail of “investigations,” written reports, denials, and collusion that was designed to cover up the actions taken by those in charge.  Men like Colonel Frank Barker, Colonel Oran Henderson, and their commander Major General Samuel Koster are seen pursuing an investigation with blinders on.  First, trying to discredit Thompson; Second, obfuscating and fabricating as much as possible in the hopes that the evidence would not produce war crimes; lastly, arguing that 128 Viet Cong were killed, however it could never explain why only 3 weapons were captured, which made no sense and reflected their disparate reasoning.   Jones pinpoints the strategy used to white wash events and zeroes in on the lack of accountability taken by those in command from General William Westmoreland on down.

Perhaps the most important person in pursuing the truth was helicopter gunner Ronald Ridenhour who came in contact with PFC Charles “Butch” Gruver who was present at My Lai in April, 1968.  Gruver told Ridenhour what had happened which conformed to what he saw on the ground during a fly over of the region.  Ridenhour would continue to run into men who were at My Lai, but fearing retribution would wait a year before sending out a five page description of what really occurred to military, administrative, and congressional leaders.  This would finally lead to a series of contacts within the government, one of which was the Inspector General’s Office.  Colonel William Wilson was charged with investigating Ridenhour’s allegations.  Jones follows Wilson’s journey across the United States and as he interviewed a number of former soldiers who had been present on March 16, 1968.  Based on his information General Westmoreland directed Chief Warrant Officer Andre Feher of the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division to conduct an inquiry as to what happened in My Lai.  Jones reproduces important aspects of his conversations with Calley, Thompson, Meadlo and others as well as the Army’s attempt to keep the charges against Calley out of the media.

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Throughout the narrative Jones’ presentation is impeccable and it continues as he presents and analyzes the results of the Peers Commission which found that American troops had massacred between 175 and more than 400 Vietnamese civilians.  The commission blamed Major-General Samuel Koster for suppressing information, falsely testifying, and initiating a conspiracy to withhold facts.  Further, it found evidence that Medina and Calley were guilty of war crimes.

The role of the Nixon administration fits the pattern of illegal actions they were engaged in at the time.  Nixon personally became involved as he tried to discredit witnesses to the massacre and believed that Calley was “getting a bum rap.”  Nixon set up “Task-Force My Lai” under H.R. Haldeman to undermine negative press reports.  Nixon’s strategy was to reduce opposition to the war as My Lai was causing the opposite.  He would pressure Senator Mendel Rivers, who headed the Senate Arms Services Committee investigation to discredit witnesses, and the Sub-Committee headed by Senator F. Edward Herbert which zeroed in on Thompson and Colburn.

Jones follows the legal trail that led to a series of trials, though fewer than recommended.  Since many witnesses were unavailable or refused to cooperate, in addition to the defense argument that you could not convict someone for obeying an illegal order held sway making it very difficult to obtain convictions.  The result was that the Army dropped the charges against numerous individuals.  The trials that receive the most attention are those of Calley, Henderson, and Medina.  Jones has carefully examined the trial transcripts and reconstructed the courtroom scenes of each, in addition to the public and military reactions to the verdicts.  In Calley’s case many saw him as a scapegoat for a war no one wanted to fight.  For President Nixon, the verdict was superfluous as he decided to “commute” the sentence before it was even imposed.

Much of what Jones has written reads like a “Grisham” type novel as rape, murder, deceit are all on full display inside and outside the courtroom.  My Lai was the worst massacre in American military history and it deeply affected American politics and society for the years that followed.  One must ask the question was My Lai an aberration or one of many atrocities American troops engaged in.  The answer based on available evidence is no, as there are numerous examples of this type of behavior, but were not on the level of My Lai because of the numbers involved – over 500 dead, a result of the actions of at least 40 American soldiers.  Jones brings his study to a conclusion by talking about the lives of many soldiers including Hugh Thompson, Lawrence Colburn, and many others and how it affected their lives following military service.  The conclusion that can be drawn is we still do not know why allows why people that appear to be normal commit such acts of horror.  Jones has written the penultimate book on My Lai and its historical implications and it should be read by all considering a military career and those civilians who are in charge of the military and are involved in the conduct of foreign policy.

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PLAYING WITH FIRE: THE 1968 ELECTION AND THE TRANSFORMATION OF AMERICAN POLITICS by Lawrence O’Donnell

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(The 1968 Democratic Convention demonstration on the streets of Chicago)

The publication of MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell’s new book, PLAYING WITH FIRE: THE 1968 ELECTION AND THE TRANSFORMATION OF AMERICAN POLITICS comes at a propitious moment in American political history.  According to O’Donnell 1968 is the watershed year that set our current politics in motion – a partisan conflict were by ideology and party affiliation has become more important than the needs of the American people.  O’Donnell argues that before 1968 the terms conservative democrat and liberal republican existed, today they are pretty much extinct.  By examining 1968 we can discern the origin of this political schism and conjecture on how it affects the United States domestically and in the realm of foreign policy.  The comparison between our current politics and 1968 is fascinating as Donald Trump seems to have adopted the populist message of Alabama governor George C. Wallace, be it state’s rights or white nationalism, and Bernie Sanders can be compared with Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy and his liberal socialist agenda.  We must also mention the emergence of Roger Ailes and the role of Fox news in molding a certain part of the electorate, because in 1968 Ailes joined the Nixon campaign, which over decades led to the creation of his successful news outlet and helped formulate the term “fake news.”

 

The election of 1968 was about life and death as the war in Vietnam controlled people’s lives.  A person’s draft status dominated their waking hours be it soon to be high school graduates, college students, and recent college graduates.  The United States found itself in this situation due to the machinations of the Johnson administration in late July and early August, 1964 that resulted in the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution which provided Lyndon Johnson with almost imperial powers to conduct a war.  According to Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach appearing before Senator J. William Fulbright’s Senate Foreign Relations Committee the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution authorized the president to use “the armed forces of the United States in any way that was necessary,” and argued further that the constitution did not require the Senate to play a role in foreign policy.  Johnson would take the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution as almost carte blanche in getting the United States into a quagmire in Vietnam.  Keeping with the theme of comparing the past to the present, the Patriot Act passed by Congress and signed into law on October 26, 2001 in response to 9/11 has been used in a similar fashion by three presidents; Bush, Obama, and Trump to conduct war on their own terms in the Middle East, and currently it appears, in Africa.

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(President Lyndon Johnson agonizing over Vietnam)

For O’Donnell the key figure in 1968 is Senator Robert Kennedy who appeared as a political “rock star.”  People believed that he would never send America’s youth to fight in Vietnam a subject he rarely spoke about in his speeches.  People related to Kennedy because they recognized the pain he was in and believed his empathy for the electorate was real.  Many believed that it was only justice for Robert Kennedy to reclaim the presidency that was lost in Dallas when his brother was assassinated in November, 1963.  The 1960s was an era of change, and no one’s view of the world changed more than Robert Kennedy.  By 1968 the Senate began questioning Johnson’s “monarchial” approach to Vietnam and this would help foster the political upheaval we are still dealing with today.

O’Donnell does a wonderful job replaying the events leading up to 1968 and what took place that incredible year.  My main problem with O’Donnell’s approach is that it mostly based on his own experience and writing and a slew of secondary sources and in some cases not even the best ones.  A case in point is the Johnson-Kennedy rivalry and contempt for each other.  The best study of rivalry is Jeff Shesol’s MUTUAL CONTEMPT: LYNDON JOHNSON, ROBERT KENNEDY, AND THE AND A FEUD THAT DEFINED A DECADE an in depth nuanced look that O’Donnell might have consulted.  There are many other examples including his over-reliance on Evan Thomas’ biography of Kennedy, which reinforces my belief that O’Donnell needs to broaden his research, with the integration of more primary materials that would further his arguments as a significant part of the book reads like Theodore White’s THE MAKING OF THE PRESIDENT 1968.

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(New York Senator Robert F. Kennedy)

To O’Donnell’s credit there are many fine chapters and insights interspersed throughout the narrative.  By delving into the different factions on the left and the right the reader is exposed to the ideological struggle that existed in both the Democratic and Republican parties.  The introduction of Allard Lowenstein, the role of Gene McCarthy’s candidacy, in addition to the rise of the radical left, we can see the beginning of the splintering of the Democratic Party.  The chapters dealing with the Kennedy-McCarthy competition for the Democratic nomination is well played out as is the candidacy of Hubert Humphrey after Robert Kennedy is assassinated.  Republicans also experienced many fissures in their quest for the presidency.  The discussion involving the reinvention of Richard Nixon, the liberal quest of Nelson Rockefeller, and the rise of Ronald Reagan on the right within the Republican Party are all artfully explained and we see the end result, and the type of campaign the “new Nixon” ran.

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Among O’Donnell’s most important points include the machinations within both major political parties, the role of the Tet Offensive in Johnson’s withdrawal from the race, Kennedy’s candidacy, and the politics of fear employed by George Wallace.  Perhaps O’Donnell’s most interesting comments encompass the rise of Ronald Reagan as a conservative spokesperson for General Electric allowing him to develop into a viable political candidate.  O’Donnell’s is right on when he argues that Reagan was GE’s tool in educating workers, and indirectly the public in the evils of unions, government interference in the economy, and the benefits of giving freer rein to corporate America embodied in General Electric.

In addition, O’Donnell is correct in pointing out that the militarization of America’s police forces that we experience today began in 1968 following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King.  King’s death led to burning and rioting in 30 US cities that called for 18 Army Brigades, consisting of 50,000 troops to restore civilian control.  The result was 20,000 arrests and 39 dead.  Another example of how the past formed the present is the concept of “premeditated confrontation” that ABC introduced as a way to save money on their coverage of the Republican convention.  By pitting the well-known conservative intellectual William F. Buckley against Gore Vidal, novelist and liberal commentator the expected explosions took place.  When we watch PBS, the networks, and cable television today, we can easily discern where these types of panels originated.

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(Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago yelling anti-semetic comments toward  Senator Abraham Ribicoff at the Democratic Convention)

O’Donnell forces the reader to relive or learn for the first time the impact of the assassination of Robert Kennedy and to contemplate a counter factual approach to history by conjecturing what America might have experienced had he been elected to the presidency.  Vietnam, civil rights, and numerous other issues would probably have played out much differently than it did under the Nixon administration, an administration that came to power based on the treason Nixon committed by interfering with the Paris Peace talks at the end of October, 1968 thereby contributing to the ongoing war in Vietnam and perhaps lost the opportunity for peace that led to the death of over 20,000 more Americans.

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(President Richard Nixon)

What is clear from O’Donnell’s narrative is that Donald Trump copied the 1968 Richard Nixon playbook in his presidential run.  First, the slogan “America First” began with Nixon as did the concept of the “silent majority” that Trump also followed.  Second, Nixon’s approach was one of anti-tax, anti-government, anti-abortion, pro-law-and-order, just as was Trump’s.  It is also clear that 1968 was a dividing line in the evolution of partisan politics and a realignment of the American electorate, it is just a question of how long the American people will suffer because of these changes.  For O’Donnell, Eugene McCarthy is his hero because he was the first one to take the risk and try and end the war.  Bobby Kennedy, is also his hero, but he was not the first to challenge an incumbent president as McCarthy had.  In conclusion, I would recommend that O’Donnell include more of his comments that have been on display recently on various programs on MSNBC, because they strengthen his overall narrative argument.

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(The 1968 Democratic Convention demonstrations on the streets of Chicago)

FILM AND GENOCIDE: READINGS

FILM AND GENOCIDE:

Armenian Genocide:

Akcam, Tanker  A SHAMEFUL ACT: THE ARMENIAN GENOCIDE AND THE QUESTION
OF TURKISH RESPONSIBILITY.

Balakian, Gregoris  ARMENIAN GOLOTHA: A MEMOIR OF THE ARENIAN GENOCIDE,

1915-1918

Balakian, Peter  THE BURNING TIGRIS: THE ARMENIAN GENOCIDE AND AMERICA’S
RESPONSE.

Bloxham, Donald  THE GREAT GAME OF GENOCIDE

de Bellaigue, Christopher  REBEL LAND: UNRAVELING THE RIDDLE OF HISTORY IN A
TURKISH TOWN.

Kiernan, Ben  BLOOD AND SOIL: A WORLD HISTORY OF GENOCIDE AND EXTERMINATION
FROM SPARTA TO DARFUR.

Lowy, Guenther  THE ARMENIAN MASSACRE IN THE OTTOMAN EMPIRE:  A DISPUTED
GENOCIDE.

Molson, Robert F.  REVOLUTION AND GENOCIDE: ON THE ORIGINS OF THE ARMENIAN
GEOCIDE AND THE HOLOAUST.

Power, Samantha  A PROBLEM FROM HELL: AMERICA IN THE AGE OF GENOCIDE.

The Holocaust:

Anderson, Alan, Ed. THE DIARY OF DAWID SIERAKOWIAK: FIVE NOTEBOOKS FROM THE
LODZ GHETTO.

…………………………….  LODZ GHETTO: INSIDE A COMMUNITY UNDER SIEGE.

Burleigh, Michael THE THIRD REICH: A NEW HISTORY.

Cesarean, David  FINAL SOLUTION: THE FATE OF THE JEWS 1933-1949.

Crowe, David M. OSKAR SCHINDLER

Dawidowicz, Lucy  THE WAR AGAINST THE JEWS: 1933-1945.

Dobroszycki, Lucian  THE CHRONICLE OF THE LOD GHETTO 1941-1944.

Evans, Richard  THE THIRD REICH AT WAR

Friedlander, Saul  NAZI GERMANY AND THE JEWS 1939-1945, THE YEARS OF EXTERMINATION.

Hackett, David A.  THE BUCHENWALD REPORT.

Hilberg, Raul, Ed. THE DIARY OF ADAM CERNIAKOW: PRELUDE TO DOOM.

Ihrig, Stefan  ATATURK IN THE NAZI IAGINATION.

Kath, Abraham Ed. THE WARSAW DIARY OF CHAIM A. KAPLAN.

Kielar, Westlaw  ANUS MUNDI 1500 DAYS IN AUSCHWITZ AND BIRKENAU.

Lanzmann, Claude  SHOAH: AN ORAL HISTORY OF THE HOLOCAUST.

Mark, Ben  UPRISING IN THE WARSAW GHETTO.

Rotem, Simha  MEMOIRS OF A WARSAW GHETTO FIGHTER.

Sloan, Jacob Ed.  NOTES FROM THE WARSAW GHETTO: THE JOURNAL OF EMANUEL
RINGELBLUM.

Tory, Avraham  SURVIVING THE HOLOCAUST: THE KOVNO GHETTO DIARY.

Wachsmann, Nicokolaus  KL: A HISTORY OF THE NAZI CONCENTRTION CAMPS.

Wentz, Eric D.  A CENTURY OF GENOCIDE: UTOPIAS OF RACE AND NATION.

The Killing Fields:

Brinkley, Joel  CAMBODIA’S CURSE: THE HISTORY OF A TROUBLED LAND.

Karnow, Stanley  VIETNAM: A HISTORY.

Kiernan, Ben  THE POL POT REGIME: RACE, POWER AND GENOCIDE IN CAMBODIA UNDER THE KHMER ROUGE, 1975-1979

Logevall, Fredrik  EMBERS OF WAR: THE FALL OF AN EMPIRE AND THE MAKINGS OF
AMERICA’S VIETNAM.

Ngor, Haing  SURVIVAL IN THE KILLING FIELDS.

Pran, Dith  CHILDREN OF CAMBODIA’S KILLING FIELDS.

Schanberg, Sydney H. THE DEATH AND LIFE OF DITH PRAN.

Shawcross, William  SIDESHOW: KISSINGER, NIXON, AND THE DESTRUCTION OF
CAMBODIA.

Short, Philip  POL POT: ANATOMY OF A NIGHTMARE.

Ung, Loung  FIRST THEY KILLED MY FATHER: A DAUGHTER OF CAMBODIA REMEMBERS.

Rwanda:

Dallaire, Romeo  SHAKE HANDS WITH THE DEVIL: THE FAILURE OF HUMANITY IN RWANDA.

Editor, Gail THE RWANDAN GENOCIDE.

Gourevitch, Philip  WE WISH TO INFORM YOU THAT TOMORROW WE WILL BE KILLED WITH OUR FAMILIES: STORIES FROM RWANDA.

Hatzfeld, Joseph  MACHETE SEASON: THE KILLERS IN RWANDA SPEAK.

Kinzer, Stephen  A THOUSAND HILLS: RWANDA’S REBIRTH AND THE MAN WHO DREAMED IT.

Prunier, Gerard  AFRICA’S WORLD WAR: THE CONGO, THE RWANDAN GENOCIDE AND THE MAKING OF A CONTINENTAL CATASTROPHE.

HUE` 1968: A TURNING POINT IN THE AMERICAN WAR IN VIETNAM by Mark Bowden

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(The evacuation of the wounded from the Battle of Hue` in February, 1968)

For those who enjoyed Mark Bowden’s works such as BLACK HAWK DOWN, GUESTS OF THE AYYATOLLAH, and KILLING PABLO, his new book HUE`, 1968 should be prove to be just as satisfying, if not more.  Bowden relies on the same assiduous research, exemplified by his interviews with all sides of the conflict; American Marines and decision makers, North Vietnamese soldiers and commanders, in addition to civilians caught in the conflict.  Bowden’s fluid writing style along with his in depth knowledge of what transpired in Hue` has created the preeminent account of the 1968 Tet offensive, concentrating on the seizure of the ancient city of Hue`, and the American/ARVN (South Vietnamese) retaking of the city that came at an extremely high cost in terms of casualties and treasure.

Bowden zeroes in on the major players in the war as well as the ground troops who were the main combatants and the civilians who were caught in the crosshairs of the battle.  Bowden correctly excoriates General William Westmoreland, the American commander in charge of the war.  Westmoreland became obsessed with kill ratios and/or body counts to measure American progress.  By the end of 1967 he grew very encouraged that the war was close to an end and instead of taking into account the facts on the ground and cracks in American intelligence he continued to see battles in terms of numbers rather than the ability to maintain control of territory, and who the Vietnamese civilians actually supported.  Westmoreland was convinced that an attack was in the offering, but that it would come at Khe Sanh, and was caught completely by surprise at the strength of the offensive and the fact that Hue` had fallen to the enemy.  At the outset he had shifted US forces around depleting certain areas, thus facilitating the success of Tet.  Westmoreland suffered from the same tunnel vision that most American commanders and politicians, in that they equated indigenous nationalism with communism throughout the Cold War, resulting in the war in Southeast Asia.

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(Don McCullin, a shell shocked Marine at the Battle of Hue`

Personal stories abound be it Che The Mung; an eighteen year old girl whose sister was killed and father imprisoned by the ARVN who became a member of the Viet Cong at age twelve.  Her role was to help prepare for a general uprising in Hue once the offensive began and lead soldiers into the city which she knew like the back of her hand.  We become familiar with a number of American commanders and lesser officers in addition to the “grunts.”  Their personal stories are told and many stick out like Lt. Andrew Westin who enlisted after being married eleven months and found that his efforts to avoid Vietnam were dashed when he was ordered to join the 7th Cavalry.  Bowden makes good use of the daily letters he sent to his wife Mimi back in Ypsilanti, MI and they afford the reader a clear vision of what it was like for American troops.  Richard “Lefty” Leflar, an eighteen year old who grew up outside Philadelphia who had difficulties staying out of the courts, joined the Marines and was dropped into the battle to retake Hue` in mid-February 1968.  We witness the carnage and the brutality of the battle to retake Hue` through Leflar’s perspective and it is not pretty.  Commanders like Colonel Dick Sweet and Lt. Col. “Big” Ernie Cheatham who helped command “on the ground” the US effort to retake Hue will find their stories told in depth, as are reporters like New York Times Saigon bureau chief Gene Roberts whose writings were the first to educate the American people with what was actually happening in Hue.  CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite visits the battlefield during the Tet Offensive and after learning the truth of what was occurring on the ground changes his view of the war – with the most trusted man in America reporting events President Johnson was shaken.

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(Hue` from the air)

Bowden has done a masterful job in recreating the North Vietnamese preparation and assault on Hue`.  The reader is provided an excellent assortment of maps to follow and understand troop movements.  His narrative is enhanced as he tells the story, in part, through the eyes of Nguyen Van Quang Ha and his team who lived in a hole with a thatched cover that made them invisible to US air assets.  As Hue` became the one place in South Vietnam that most directly contradicted Westmoreland’s assurances, President Lyndon B. Johnson began to question his commander’s conclusions.  Clark Clifford’s description in his memoir COUNSEL TO THE PRESIDENT aptly describes Westmoreland’s request for 206,000 more troops in February 1968 and Johnson’s reaction that led to his withdrawal from his presidential reelection campaign at the end of March.  As a result Westmoreland would finally be fired by the president.

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(General William Westmoreland)

Bowden recreates American preparations to retake Hue` very carefully.  His analysis is based on interviews with the participants from both sides.  The difficulty in retaking the city was captured by the phrase, “learning by trial and tragically bloody error…..[as] they all grew accustomed to the smell of death,” civilians, enemy soldiers, and fellow Marines alike.  After reading Bowden’s account of the urban warfare in Hue one wonders about events in Mosul, Iraq today as American forces were not well trained or equipped for street to street warfare.  American Marines had not confronted this type of “room to room, hand to hand” combat since Seoul in 1950.  In fact Bowden is quite correct in stating that the American command was caught completely flatfooted as they believed that such “ a swift and cunning coup was unimaginable.” When confronted with the enormity of Tet, and how severely they underestimated what they were up against as they tried to retake the city with many Marines being sacrificed.  Bowden stresses the ignorance of American commanders who gave many orders without any real knowledge of the actual situation in Hue`  No matter the carnage to US troops many commanders, especially Westmoreland “seemed almost oblivious to the largest single battle of the Tet Offensive, if not of the entire war, underway in Hue`.”

What the Tet Offensive showed was the ability of the enemy to prepare a clandestine attack that was a remarkable feat of planning and coordination, and that the enemy could reach any part of the country it wished, but in the end the invaders made no lasting gains.  What they accomplished was providing fodder for the anti-war movement in the United States, creation of doubt in many Americans and their politicians as they achieved a psychological victory, not a military one as the expected “rise of South Vietnamese civilians” against the Diem regime never occurred.

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Bowden also explores the uglier aspects of war.  American atrocities are described as is the racism that existed by both sides.  Substance abuse is also discussed as for many soldiers it would have been difficult to survive without using drugs.  One of the most haunting aspects that Bowden addresses is the issue of grief, something that there was not time for in Hue.  Death hovered over each combatant and was a daily occurrence, and when one soldier went down, their compatriots did not have the time to deal with it properly – a price that would be paid on the battlefield, and if they were lucky enough to survive, when they returned home.

If there is one major criticism of Bowden’s work it is that the author is determined to include almost every experience the combatants were involved in.  The result is that at times the flow of the narrative becomes somewhat disjointed.  However, this should not detract from the overall quality of his work as he has produced a prodigious account of what occurred in Hue`, particularly in the context of the overall war itself.  Bowden has produced the most complete account of Tet and the Battle for Hue` that has been written and his approach should satisfy historians and the general reader alike.

 

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(The most iconic picture of the evacuation of US Marines from Hue` on February 17, 1968)

A GREAT PLACE TO HAVE A WAR: LAOS AND THE BIRTH OF A MILITARY CIA by Joshua Kurlantzick

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(anti-communist Hmong tribe soldiers in Laos, 1961)

The majority of Americans of my generation are aware of the Vietnam War that resulted in the death of 58,315 soldiers and a 153,303 wounded, with the loss of between 1.1 to 3.2 million Vietnamese.  Further, they are aware of American bombing of Cambodia and various military incursions that helped bring about Pol Pot and the “Killing Fields,” that resulted in the genocide of over 3 million Cambodians.  However, that same generation was probably not aware of the civil war that raged in Laos and the American role in that conflict that witnessed 15-20 air sorties a day against that small Southeast Asian country between 1960 and 1968, that was raised to 300 sorties a day once Richard Nixon took office, resulting in the death of over 200,000 Laotians and 700 Americans.

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By January 1961 Laos appeared to be on the precipice of falling to communism.  Bill Lair, a ten year CIA operative flew up to the central highlands to inaugurate a bold plan labeled, Operation Momentum.  The plan called for the operation and training of Hmong tribesmen, led by Vang Pao, an anti-communist officer in the Laotian army who would lead these men against the Pathet Lao who were supported by North Vietnam.  The civil war in Laos had been raging on and off since the French were vanquished by North Vietnam in 1954, and Laos was declared a neutral country by the Geneva Convention of that year.  Even though Laos was a small country the Eisenhower administration, firm believers in the domino theory, and that a pro-western state in Laos could serve as a buffer between Vietnam and Thailand, an American ally.  Further, Laos would make it easier for the US to assist South Vietnamese forces that could help bleed Hanoi’s troops as they continued to fight the Vientiane government, and lastly it would block any communist threat to India and Southwest Asia.  Joshua Kurlantzick’s new book, A GREAT PLACE TO HAVE A WAR: AMERICA IN LAOS AND THE BIRTH OF A MILITARY CIA chronicles Operation Momentum and its impact on the region and the implications for American strategy to deal with communism for decades.  In addition, it raises the specter of a CIA run war through para military operators, something that continues today.

Operation Momentum was the first secret covert run war by the CIA in American history.   Laos provided the CIA with the opportunity to increase the agency’s powers.   According to Kurlantzick, it saw the Laotian situation as an inexpensive war in terms of money and lives to create a template for proxy wars around the world as presidents looked for ways to continue the Cold War without going to Congress for funding or involving American troops.  For the CIA, after Laos, paramilitary operations would become an essential part of the agency’s mission.

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(North Vietnamese troops fighting South Vietnamese troops on Laotian territory)

Kurlantzick presents a balanced and interesting narrative as he provides the background history that led to the Laotian civil war involving the Royal Laotian Army, smaller armies of different Laotian tribes, Vang Pao’s 30,000 strong Hmong army, North Vietnamese troops, and American bombing and supplying and training of anti-communist forces.  As the narrative is developed the reader is introduced to a number of important characters.  First of which is Bill Lair, a career CIA operative who believed the key to helping the fight for democracy in Indochina was to allow the Laotians, Cambodians, and Vietnamese to do their own fighting.  The US could assist them with equipment and training, but should not be out front and appear to replace the French as a colonial power.  Lair and his CIA cohorts were thrilled with the success of Vang Pao’s army in that they finally found an indigenous force that would take it to the communists.  Pao was a loose cannon, but Lair knew how to control him.  This relationship was successful until Washington decided to expand its operations in Laos and Vietnam under leadership of Ted Shackley who arrived as CIA Laos Station Chief in July 1966.  Lair was against an increased ground war with massive bombing as he correctly believed that it would be unsuccessful in interdicting North Vietnam’s supply efforts to South Vietnam through Laos.  The author’s presentation of Lair’s story is invaluable in understanding what transpires in Laos until he resigns from the CIA in August 1968.  Once Lair resigns no one can control Vang Pao, and his forces who pursue a reckless strategy that has grave consequences.

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(North Vietnamese troops moving supplies through Laos to South Vietnam)

Other important figures that Kurlantzick introduces are Tony Poe, a career soldier who trained and recruited Hmong tribesmen going back to 1961.  After Lair resigned he developed his own 10,000 man force made up of an amalgam of tribes who he could not hold together because tribal ethnic conflict and as a result were not an effective fighting force.  Perhaps the most important character in this drama was Ambassador William Sullivan, an American Foreign Service career officer who was Ambassador to Laos between 1964 and 1969.  Sullivan was sent to Laos to organize the war against the Pathet Lao and became the first American ambassador to run a war from his office.  Sullivan reigned in the CIA and made all operatives report to him what their plan of action was.  He would approve, and even choose targets for the war, something no ambassador had ever done before.  If someone did not comply, because of his relationships in Washington, they would be transferred out.  Once Shackley came aboard, Sullivan supported an expansion of the war and a massive increase in bombing which was further expanded once Richard Nixon entered the White House, as Nixon had his own realpolitik for Indochina involving Communist China, and the Soviet Union in achieving the withdrawal of American troops from Vietnam.

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(William Lair, CIA operative in Laos after he retired)

Kurlantzick tells a fascinating story that at times reads like fiction.  There is some repetition of information, and a few factual errors, i.e.; the Viet Minh did not sign the 1954 Geneva Accords, and according to historian Fredrik Logevall, he misstates the number of American military advisors in Vietnam at the time of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, and he offers no evidence that Kennedy “repeatedly told aides he would not tolerate the loss of South Vietnam during his presidency. (Fredrik Logevall, “Laos: America’s Lesser Known Human Political Disaster in Southeast Asia,” Washington Post, February 2, 2017)

The most disturbing aspect of the war that Kurlantzick brings out has to do with the surreptitious American bombing of Laos.  According to the author by 1969 the United States had dropped more bombs on Laos than it had on Japan during World War II.  Further, by “1973, when the bombing campaign ended, America had launched 580,000 bombing runs in Laos.  A high percentage of these bombs were antipersonnel or fragmentation bombs—which exploded into hundreds of small, deadly metal pellets on impact—antipersonnel mines, and bombs that caused widespread fires.” (177)  Kurlantzick uses the massive bombing of the Plan of Jars during the summer of 1969 to highlight the devastation that resulted in the deaths and maiming of Laotian civilians.  The overall bombing campaign killed civilians in disproportionate numbers and what is even more damning was the American policy of dropping excess ordinance over Laos when they could not find targets in North Vietnam and did not want to return to Thai bases with undropped bombs.  In addition, Kurlantzick describes how Laos was used as a training site for bomber targeting and the indiscriminate dropping of bombs to be rid of them.  America’s disdain for the Laotians can also be seen in the Paris peace talks with North Vietnam as Henry Kissinger and company sacrificed its Laotian allies in order to achieve a semblance of peace with Hanoi.  By the time the Americans left Saigon, a similar withdrawal occurred in Vientiane, as by 1973 Washington had washed its hands of its former ally with devastating consequences for the tens of thousands of refugees and the poor people left behind.

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(William Sullivan, American Ambassador to Laos, and later to Iran)

Despite the fact that it appears that Operation Momentum was a failure when the Pathet Lao was victorious, the CIA saw it as an unqualified success.  The CIA argued that the operation occupied over 70,000 North Vietnamese troops who might otherwise have fought Americans.  Further, it allowed the CIA to develop its war fighting skills to the point where paramilitary operations equaled intelligence gathering as its joint mission.  The paramilitary component could be seen during the Reagan years in arming the mujahedin against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, and arming and training of the Contras to fight against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua.  After 9/11 paramilitary operations seem to have become the center of CIA activities.  Today these operations are involved in Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Mali, Syria, and Pakistan.  Whether through drone attacks under the aegis of the war on terror or training and supplying weapons, Operation Momentum created the CIA template for its paramilitary wars in the 21st century.

Kurlantzick offers a well-researched narrative that helps fill the vacuum of historical monographs pertaining to the war in Laos.  Recently, we were reminded of the cost of that war when Barak Obama became the first American president to visit Laos and announced an increased funding to clean up unexploded ordnance that is still plaguing the Laotian countryside.  Kurlantzick has written an important book that fills in a number of gaps when one thinks back to the events in Southeast Asia between 1960 and 1975 which sadly younger generations seem to be ignorant of.

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(anti-communist Hmong tribe soldiers in Laos, 1961)

67 SHOTS: KENT STATE AND THE END OF AMERICAN INNOCENCE by Howard Means

(Mary Ann Vecchio kneeling over the body of Jeffrey Miller, May 4, 1970-the most iconic photo of the tragedy)

On May 4th, 1970, 28 people died in actions related to the war in Vietnam; 24 on the actual battlefield, and 4 on the campus of Kent State University.  My memories of that day are quite clear as I was a student at Pace University in New York City.  A day or two later I joined a demonstration against the war as Mayor John Lindsay ordered the flag at City Hall Park to be flown at half-staff in remembrance of the 4 student who died at Kent State.  Almost immediately construction workers who were working on the World Trade Center site marched up Broadway beating anyone who seemed to be against the war, while New York City’s finest did nothing to stop them.  The next day my US Army Reserve unit was activated on the St. John’s University campus in Queens to deal with demonstrations.  My experience reflects the split in American society at the time and the total deterioration that existed between generations, and the attitude of many toward the Nixon administration.  Howard Means’ new book 67 SHOTS: KENT STATE AND THE END OF AMERICAN INNOCENCE captures that time period as he reevaluates events leading up to the shootings, the actual shootings themselves, and how people reacted and moved forward following the resulting casualties.

(National Guard use of tear gas on May 4, 1970 at Kent State)

The climate at Kent State was heated long before President Richard Nixon went on television on April 30, 1970 to announce the American “incursion” into Cambodia to root out North Vietnamese sanctuaries that were used to attack American troops.  This announcement exacerbated tensions between the administration and the anti-war movement that was labeled as “bums” by Nixon and his Vice President Spiro T. Agnew.  Means was able to reconstruct events at Kent State through numerous interviews of many of the actual participants as well as conducting research at Kent State’s archive.  This allowed Means to weave his narrative encompassing the actions of students and members of the National Guard and try and determine whether the Guardsmen were under enough of a threat to open fire on the students, or did the climate that existed on campus from May 1-4 make the tragedy inevitable.

Tension on campus was brought to a head when students burned down the ROTC building on May 2nd, and later that day the National Guard was summoned by Governor James Rhodes and deployed on campus.  One of the most important questions that Means explores was why was the Guard was called upon when it lacked the training in crowd control, and the use of M1 rifles, when the Ohio Highway Patrol was trained and ready to intervene.  Means places a great deal of the blame for events on Governor James Rhodes who was running for the US Senate against Congressman Robert Taft, Jr. and wanted to strike a tough persona to enhance his election bid as he stated on the morning of 5/3 when things seemed to be calming down, that he “would eradicate the disease of student unrest, not merely treat the symptoms.”

(National Guard shoot a Kent State student, May 4, 1970)

The inevitability of a crisis at Kent State resulted from disparate forces-the high spirits of the student body (about 4,000 of 21,000 students who participated in the demonstrations), the spring like weather, the war in Vietnam, Nixon’s Cambodia speech, campus radicalism (about 300 students), the exhortations of Jerry Rubin, local anxiety, the generational divide, and growing tensions between the town and the university.  Means argues effectively that outside agitators were not responsible for May 4th, as events were fostered by Kent State’s student body.  Supporters of the National Guard argue that SDS was responsible for organizing students which was not true.  Means presents a frame by frame picture of May 4th and concludes that the shootings did not have to take place.  The National Guard spokespersons argued that there was a snipper who threatened the soldiers, but there was no evidence that one existed.  Further, the students did not rush the soldiers who claimed their lives were in danger.  The problem throughout the crisis was the lack of communication and coordination between the National Guard, the university, and town officials.  Means based his conclusions on evaluating the statements of the main participants and the interviews he conducted over many years.  For Means it is clear that the National Guard was not protecting itself from “imminent danger, instead, there seems to have been a strange mix of intentionality, horrific judgement, terrible luck, preventability and inevitability.”  The generation gap, the Age of Aquarius, all came together on May 4, 1970.

(The 4 students killed at Kent State)

Means describes the moods of students and guardsmen and the shock and outrage that followed the shootings.  He points to the heroes, like Major Don Manley of the Ohio Highway Patrol who convinced the National Guard commander, General Robert Canterbury to allow faculty marshals additional time to convince students to disperse, before further damage could be done.  Other heroes include Geology professor Glenn Frank, a former marine who convinced students to leave when the National Guard reformed and were getting ready to fire again.  However, most townspeople and guardsmen felt that the students brought the shootings on themselves and they got what they deserved.  It is amazing that the actual firing took 13 seconds to unleash 67 bullets!

Means does an excellent job describing the actions and statements of the Nixon administration as well as taking the reader into the White House.  He argues that Nixon became unmoored by events at Kent State that led to his famous 2:00am visit to the Lincoln Memorial to engage young people.  Means also examines the culpability of all the major players in this drama; from university president, Robert White; Kent mayor, Leroy Satron; Governor James Rhodes, and National Guard Commander Robert Canterbury and his officers.  Means explores the legal actions that followed and the Scranton Commission that investigated the shootings.  What emerges is that the death of 4 students and 9 wounded should not have occurred.  It was due to poor training, a lack of communication, and a political climate that was on edge.  Means has written a well-documented account of events and for anyone interested in one of the most iconic tragedies of the Vietnam era, this book is well worth consulting.

(Mary Ann Vecchio leaning over the body of Jeffrey Miller, May 4, 1970)

THE GEORGETOWN SET: FRIENDS AND RIVALS IN COLD WAR WASHINGTON by Greg Herken

(Joseph and Stewart Alsop,  journalists who greatly impacted American foreign policy during the Cold War)

When one discusses the value of real estate one usually encounters the phrase “location, location, location.”  This could be the theme of Greg Herken’s THE GEORGETOWN SET: FRIENDS AND RIVALS IN COLD WAR WASHINGTON, a book centered on a Georgetown, Washington, D.C. neighborhood after World War II, whose residents included the Alsop brothers, Jack and Jaqueline Kennedy, Ben and Tony Bradlee, Allen and Clover Dulles, Dean and Alice Acheson, Philp and Katherine Graham, Averill and Marie Harriman, Frank and Polly Wisner among others.  Within the group you had a future president and Secretary of State, the head of the CIA and other operatives, two ambassadors to the Soviet Union, influential journalists, and the owner and editor of the Washington Post. The neighbors who were known as the “Georgetown Set,” were at the forefront of American policy as the Cold War began and evolved, as Dean Acheson entitled his memoirs, they were PRESENT AT CREATION, and a few of them lived to see the curtain fall on the conflict with the communist world.  These individuals were not only neighbors, for the most part, they were close friends.  They had attended the same boarding schools and universities and “believed that the United States had the power—and the moral obligation—to oppose tyranny and stand up of the world’s underdogs.”  They held a sense of duty and the belief in the “rightness of the country and its causes—which were, more often than not, their own.”

Unlike today, it was a time of consensus in foreign policy in dealing with the Soviet Union, partisanship was an afterthought.  The outset of the Cold War produced the Marshall Plan, the Truman Doctrine, Point Four, and NATO, but the mindset of these individuals would also lead to mistakes embodied in the disastrous coups of the Eisenhower era, the Bay of Pigs, and the Vietnam War.  Greg Herken tells the story of these influential people, how their ideas dominated American policy, and what the ramifications of that influence were.  The reader is exposed to intimate details and tremendous insights as these power brokers are examined, and it makes for a fascinating read.

(Katharine Graham, owner and editor of the Washington Post)

The narrative focuses on the most important foreign policy debates of the 20th century, where the residents of Georgetown aligned themselves, and how their views affected the success or failure of presidential decision making.  Once the Nazis and the Japanese were defeated in 1945, the foreign policy debate focused on the communist threat and the motives of the Soviet Union.  The debate was symbolized by George Kennan, who at one point was head of the Policy Planning Staff in the State Department as well as stints as ambassador to the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia; and Paul Nitze, former Secretary of the Navy, and author of NSC-68 which along with Kennan’s “X Article” formed the basis of American policy toward Russia for well into the 1980s.  The debate centered on “whether it was America’s moral example or material power that kept the Russians at bay” during the Cold War.   Many other individuals draw Herken’s discerning eye during the period, the most important of which were Joseph and Stewart Alsop, the journalism brothers who advised presidents, and helped articulate positions on Vietnam and Cuba that some would argue pushed our nation’s chief executives into making unwise policy choices.

At times the book reads like a biography of the Alsop brothers as Herken develops their careers as the centerpiece of the monograph.  Of the two, Joseph Alsop dominated their relationship and developed numerous sources within the national security apparatus in presidential administrations from Truman through Nixon.  Joseph Alsop had his own agenda and his columns created enough pressure on Lyndon Johnson that many believe forced him to consider Alsop’s readership when making decisions about Vietnam, a subject that Alsop seemed obsessed with and had difficulty accepting any information that contradicted what he believed.  The Alsops hosted numerous dinner parties that were used as conduits to different presidential administrations as conversations yielded information that turned up in their newspaper columns.  Herken almost makes the reader as if they are invited guests to the Sunday night gatherings among the “Georgetown Set” and at times the reader might feel like a “fly on the wall” as you witness history being made.  In addition to the Alsops, the inner sanctum of the Washington Post is laid bare as great events are reported.  We see the newspaper under the stewardship of Philip Graham at the outset of the Cold War until his suicide, when his wife Katharine takes the reigns of the paper and turns it into a strong competitor to the New York Times. Reporting on Watergate, My Lai and other issues reflected Katharine Graham’s growth as the head of a major newspaper and her dominant role in Washington politics.

(Frank Wisner II, the son of an OSS and CIA operative who developed and implemented numerous covert operations during the Cold War.  Wisner II developed his own diplomatic career and did not follow the career path of his father)

The book also centers on the evolution of the American intelligence community from the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) during World War II to the creation of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).  Herken focuses most of his attention on Allen W. Dulles, who worked under Wild Bill Donavan who headed the OSS, and would later head the CIA under President Eisenhower and for a short time under John F. Kennedy; and Frank Wisner, an OSS and CIA operative who was known for his outlandish covert plans, i.e.; trying to overthrow the government of Albania, dropping propaganda leaflets and intelligence operatives behind the “iron curtain” among many of his projects.  CIA involvement in Vietnam, Iran, Cuba, and Guatemala are dissected in detail and Herken correctly points to current issues that date back to Dulles, Wisner, and numerous other individuals in the intelligence community, and how they negatively affected American foreign policy for decades.

(President John F. Kenndy and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy were frequent visitors in the “salons” of Georgetown)

The books serves as an important window into the lives of people who dominated the American foreign policy establishment throughout the Cold War.  Herken seems to assess all of the major decisions that were made during the period, as well as evaluating each of the characters presented and how their lives affected the course of American history.  Many of the individuals that Herken discusses are well known, but others are brought out of the shadows.  One of the most interesting aspects of the book is when Herken muses about the lives of the children of the “Georgetown Set,” and how the generation gap that developed in response to the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s affected the next “Georgetown” generation.

Herken writes with flair and has exceptional command of his material and sources and has offered a unique approach to the causes and results of the Cold War that should satisfy academics as well as the general reader.

THE SYMPATHIZER by Viet Thanh Nguyen

(American Embassy, Saigon, South Vietnam, April 30, 1975)

THE SYMPATHIZER is a unique first novel by Viet Thanh Nguyen.  The story is told from the perspective of a narrator who allows the reader to delve into the mind of a Vietnamese person experiencing the end of the Vietnam War in the spring of 1975, and the aftermath of the fighting focusing on a possible counter-revolution, and how Hanoi is integrating the south into its political agenda.  The narrator highlights the duality that is present throughout the novel.  The protagonist’s own lineage is a case study in ethnic diversity as he himself is considered a half-caste or bastard in Vietnamese society.  He is the illegitimate son of a teenage Vietnamese mother, and a French Catholic priest.  The narrator loves his mother and hates his father, and throughout the novel these feelings are portrayed through a number of poignant vignettes.  The book itself is very important because there are few novels about the war that provide a vehicle for the Vietnamese to speak about their experiences and feelings.  Nguyen’s effort fills that gap in an emotionally charged novel that alternates between the light and the dark aspects of war.

The narrator’s character fits the duality theme in the sense that it is divided by at least two component parts.  First, he is obsessed with guilt as he tries to navigate the demands of being a spy for the north and living in the United States.  He is educated in an American university and after the war he is assigned by his handlers to shadow, “the general,” a former commander in the South Vietnamese secret police who has escaped Saigon, and is set up by the CIA in Southern California to organize the retaking of his country.  The narrator, a Captain and interrogator in the secret police is living a much better lifestyle than his compatriots who did not escape the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong when Saigon fell.  He suffers from tremendous “guilt, dread, and anxiety” concerning his worthiness as compared to his countrymen.  Further guilt is evidenced as he repeatedly flashes back to his role in the assassination of the “crapulent major,” who was suspected of spying for the north, and the murder of Sonny, a Vietnamese who began his own newspaper in Southern California that was seen as a threat by the general.  In the second component part of the narrator’s personality, we witness his movement away from his “sympathizer mode” and carries on as a revolutionary consumed with his role as a police interrogator following instructions from Man and his Aunt in Paris, both who are his handlers, to provide information as to events and political patterns that are being shaped in the United States.  Throughout the novel, the narrator’s role confusion is evident as regrets many of his actions committed during and after the war in the name of revolution.  His anguish evolves to the point that he begins to doubt his beliefs and tries to make amends to those he hurt.

S.  Vietnamese in Da Nang struggle to climb aboard ships that will evacuate them to Cam Ranh Ba

(South Vietnamese struggle to board ship in Da Nang to escape North Vietnamese forces, April. 1975)

The texture of the book is evident from the outset as Nguyen describes the horrific scenes that took place in Saigon as the city was about to fall.  The description puts the reader outside the American embassy and Saigon airfields as frightened Vietnamese who worked for, and, cooperated with the United States sought to escape before North Vietnamese troops took the city.  The narrator returns to his childhood when he, Man, and Bon, three friends become blood brothers for life.  As the novel unfolds we follow the relationship between the three that is rather complex since Man becomes a Commissar for the north, Bon is a soldier in the South Vietnamese army, and the narrator suffers from the duality of being a spy for the north and a police interrogator for the south.

Many important themes are developed in the novel.  The conflict between east and west or occidental and the orient are deeply explored in the dialogue between the characters.  The moral dilemma of what is right and wrong in our daily actions hovers over each page, and how a person tries to cope with their own divided heart. The author’s sarcasm is at times humorous, but also very disturbing as the narrator tries to understand the history of his country and the demands it makes upon him.  The history of the war is explored in the context of certain important decisions by the United States, the Hanoi government, and the remnants of the Saigon regime.  Nguyen descriptions are intense and very pointed, i.e., as the narrator explores who invented the concept of the “Eurasian;” he states “that claim belongs to the English in India who found it impossible not to nibble on dark chocolate.  Like pith-helmeted Anglos, the American Expeditionary Forces in the Pacific could not resist the temptations of the locals.  They, too, fabricated a portmanteau word to describe my kind, the Amerasian.  Although a misnomer when applied to me, I could hardly blame Americans for mistaking me as one of their own, since a small nation could be founded from the tropical offspring of the American GI.  This stood for Government Issue, which is also what the Amerasians are.” (19-20)

The Sympathizer 

The author creates a number of interesting and complex characters that carry the storyline nicely.  The right wing Congressman from Orange County, California who wants to fund and train the South Vietnamese counter-revolution, the Hollywood producer who is making his own movie version combining the Green Berets and Apocalypse Now, the northern commandant who tries to purify the revolution through the reeducation of those who have gone astray, and many others.  The narrator’s plight is very important as he tries to integrate his memories of his country in a heartfelt manner throughout the novel.  Whether he discusses Vietnamese geography, culture, or his family and friends, he seems adrift when in America, and then adrift again, when he returns to Vietnam.

The book is a triumph as a first novel, but at times it can be very dark.  I suppose that is acceptable based on the historical background of the war and the story it tells.  It is a unique approach to trying to understand a war that ended over forty years ago, but that had been fought since the late 19th century when the French first imposed their colonial regime.  The history of the war and the scenes that are presented seem authentic and should satisfy those interested in the literature of the war and how people tried to cope and survive the trauma it caused.

CHICKENHAWK by Robert Mason

(Bell AH-1 Cobra)

One of the most iconic sounds that people relate to the Vietnam War is the “womp, woosh” of American Huey helicopters.  Whether watching a film like Apocalypse Now or reading a book on the war those sounds will reverberate in the reader’s mind.  During the war about 12,000 helicopters were deployed by the United States military.  Of that number 7,013 were Hueys, almost all of which were US Army.  The total number of helicopter pilots killed in Vietnam was 2202, and total non-pilot crew members who died were 2704.  The most accurate estimate of the number of helicopter pilots who served in the war was roughly 40,000. (www.vhpa.org/heliloss.pdf)  As we think about these statistics we can only admire the bravery and fortitude of the men called upon to undertake the many diverse missions these pilots engaged in.  One of the pilots, Robert Mason has written one of the most important accounts of the war available in his memoir, CHICKENHAWK.  Mason’s account is probably one of the most accurate and realistic accounts we have about the American serviceman’s experience in Vietnam.  From the vantage point of a helicopter pilot, Mason explores his daily life during his tour of duty.  Mason’s approach to his memoir is simple, clear, and honest.  As he completes basic training, advanced individual training, and two attempts at passing preflight training, he comments that he never “suspected that the army taught people how to fly helicopters the same way they taught them to march and shoot.  But they did.” (23)  He realized early on that if you washed out of the flight program you would wind up as a PFC in the infantry.  Mason’s journey begins in 1964 and carries him through 1968, a time when the United States, under President Lyndon B. Johnson was ramping up the American commitment to save South Vietnam from communism.  Mason’s insights echo those of historians that were written years later.  Mason’s memoir was first published in 1983, and was reissued in 2005 with a new afterword describing how the war affected his life for decades following his service.

06 Returning Fire

(American “slick” with a machine gun mount)

Mason’s experience in Vietnam was much diversified. Even as a warrant officer he engaged in the activities of a typical grunt rooting out tree stumps, digging fox holes, filling sand bags, and building a perimeter for his assault division.  Mason’s primary activity was flying a Huey helicopter that involved him in support of troops in the Bon Song Valley and Ia Drang Valley where in November, 1965 the United States won its first large scale encounter with the North Vietnamese.  Though it appeared to be a victory, Mason questions what American strategy was as we killed the enemy at an increasing rate, but we would withdraw and not hold the land taken.  Mason points out repeatedly, that later American troops would fight to retake the same territory as it had won earlier, but at an increasing cost for the United States.  Mason’s buddy, Connors summed it up well, “Why the fuck don’t they keep some troops out there.  This is like trying to plug fifty leaks with one finger.” (351)  This is not the only thing that Mason questions.  He did some reading before he went to Vietnam, Bernard Fall’s Street without Victory having had the most impact on him as it describes the political situation in South Vietnam, the corruption of the Saigon regime, and the lack of commitment on the part of the South Vietnamese peasants who just wanted to till their own soil.  The poor training and refusal to fight on the part of the ARVN (South Vietnamese army), the fear in the eyes of South Vietnamese he came in contact with bothered Mason a great deal.  The resentment between ARVN and American officers was readily apparent.   At times when ferrying ARVN troops to a landing zone Mason had to be careful that once on the ground they would not turn and fire on his Huey.  For Mason, there were many times that he questioned why he was in Vietnam.

14 My Chair

(the author in Dak To during his tour)

In exploring the Vietnam War from the lens of a Huey pilot the reader will experience with Mason a myriad of situations. Mason provides an excellent description of how he learned how to fly helicopters.  He also provides a useful amount of technical information about the problems that pilots faced and how they could maneuver their Hueys out of many tough situations.   He engaged in spraying defoliants to eliminate ground cover for the VC (Viet Cong, South Vietnamese communists), not knowing what havoc these chemicals would reap in the future.  Mason’s primary activities centered on transporting troops, wounded, and bodies to and from the battlefield, but he was also involved with relocating refuges, to training missions, as a mail courier, to picking up and delivering supplies to combat areas and rear compounds.  But there were other missions of importance, the pickup and delivery of tons of ice so the officer’s club would be stocked and if any was not needed it would be traded for appliances from other units.  Further, the transport of small groups of officers on their own “secret” missions, as well as using the Hueys to visit friends a hundred miles away.  Some of these tasks were obviously would not be considered “militarily relevant,” but to maintain the sanity of people who have flown over 1000 missions they were none the less very important.

18 Preacher Camp

(the author walking along a trench by his, as he calls it, “spiffy digs”)

Throughout the narrative Mason supplies the reader the historical context of what was occurring on the ground in Vietnam.  The intensity of Mason’s descriptions of his flights and what he observed provides the reader the feel and the smell of war.  Supply shortages were constant in his unit, particularly chest armor that was a necessity for Huey pilots.  Mason highlights it further after he transfers to another unit that is overflowing in chest armor.  A recurrent them is the weakness of American intelligence, provoking Connors to comment after a fire fight that “the intelligence branch must have read their maps upside down, [and was] getting its information from smuggled Chinese fortune cookies.” (146)  Early on Mason was led to believe the reason the French had been forced out of Vietnam was because they weren’t “air mobile.”  Once the American Air Cavalry arrived it was supposed to change the course of the war.  For Mason at times he believed the United States was winning, then doubts would creep in based on his experiences in combat.  It led to a discussion with  his co-pilot, Gary Resler as they tried to determine their attitude toward the war; where they afraid or “chicken,” or after seeing the constant pile of dead American bodies they wanted revenge, making them “hawks.” Their conclusion was a combination of the two, hence, they were “chickenhawks.”

17 Washing Out the Blood

(Cleaning the chopper from the blood and other aspects of war)

Mason provides the reader insights to his thinking about his personal feelings.  He left his wife, Patience, and young son, Jack in the United States, and he integrates his personal letters to his family throughout the narrative.  His feelings of guilt are present as he is honest about his activities during R & R in Saigon, Taipei, and Hong Kong.  It should be obvious that Mason suffered from PTSD before he left Vietnam.  Constant nightmares, anxiety, and fear centered on the murder of VC prisoners, the use of napalm and the damage it caused, and the casualties he witnessed drove him to use medication after his missions in order to complete his tour of duty.  In addition, he pours his heart out about what he witnesses and cannot cope with.  Chickenhawk, though written over twenty years ago provides lessons for future soldiers, and it is an exceptional Vietnam memoir that has stood the test of time.

BLUE-EYED BOY: A MEMOIR by Robert Timberg

(Author Robert Timberg during a book presentation)

As most are aware the Vietnam War has left many scars on those who fought the war and the American people in general.  With 58,000 men dead and roughly 270,000 wounded, many like the author, Robert Timberg suffered life changing injuries that affect them psychologically and physically to this day.  Mr. Timberg, a graduate of the United States Naval Academy, and a Marine Corps officer suffered second and third degree burns to his face and parts of his body on January 18, 1967 when his armored vehicle went over a North Vietnamese land mine in the vicinity of Da Dang, just thirteen days before he was to be cycled out of the war theater as his thirteen month tour was drawing to a close.  Mr. Timberg has written a long delayed memoir dealing with his experiences in Vietnam, his recovery, and his career which was a major component in trying to recapture some sort of normality.

(Timberg writing a letter home from Vietnam)

The book, BLUE-EYED BOY: A MEMOIR is written on multiple levels.  It is an emotionally captivating story by an individual who wages a courageous battle to regain some semblance of what he lost on that fateful day when delivering a payroll to another unit his vehicle hit a land mine.  The book is also a personal journey that takes him through numerous hospitals and thirty five operations with the support of two wonderful women, his first wife, Janie, who Timberg credits for his level of recovery and the family and career he is most proud of.  He readily admits that he was responsible for the end of their marriage and how poorly he treated her.  The other woman, his second wife, Kelly, allowed him to continue his recovery and develop a successful journalism career.  Unfortunately for Timberg, they too could not keep their marriage together.  The last major thread is how Timberg repeatedly lashes out against those individuals that did not go to Vietnam and as he states found, “legal and illegal ways” to avoid doing their duties as Americans.  Despite repeated denials that he is past those negative feelings and no matter how much he pushes his bitterness below the surface employing the correct verbiage of an excellent writer, his ill feelings towards a good part of his generation repeatedly bubbles to the surface.

(Timberg being evacuated from Da Nang area after his vehicle hit a land mine, January 18, 1967)

This memoir is very timely in light of the type of injuries that American soldiers have sustained in Iraq and Afghanistan for the last twelve years.  It brings a message of hope for the future based on Timberg’s remarkable recovery and the success he has enjoyed as a reporter and a writer.  Our wounded veterans face a long road to recovery and Timberg’s story could be a wonderful model that they can try to emulate.  The first two-thirds of the book for me were the most interesting.  Timberg lays his life out for all to see.  His emotions which seemed to rise and fall with each sunrise and sunset are heart rendering.  His descriptions of his treatment with multiple skin grafts and surgeries are a testament to his perseverance.  His tenacity and ability to overcome most of the obstacles that were placed in front of him are truly amazing.  We learn a great deal about the Naval Academy and the United States Marine Corps and what they stand for.  Timberg takes the reader through many stages of recovery by interspersing his relationships with those who are most responsible for his making him whole, his first wife, Janie, and Dr. Lynn Ketchum, the surgeon who like a sculptor put Timberg’s facial features back together as best he could.  Despite his recovery, throughout this period his loss of identity constantly tugged at him, even as he earned the satisfaction of a successful career, but the loss of identity seemed to always be under the surface.  Once Timberg reaches the end of his period of recovery, he must leave “the cocoon of the hospital to home cycle” of constantly undergoing surgery and recovery.  For Timberg it was very difficult, but finally with Janie’s assistance he is able to overcome his fears and earn a Master’s Degree in Journalism at Stanford University and begin his career as a reporter in Annapolis.  That career would lead to a Nieman Fellowship, positions at the Baltimore Evening Standard, and the Baltimore Sun.  Timberg became a leading White House correspondent, and the author of three very important books.

The one area of the book I have difficulty accepting is the sections that deal with the germination of the ideas for the book THE NIGHTENGALE’S SONG, and how the book was finally conceived and reached fruition.  It was fascinating how Timberg pulled together such disparate personalities as John McCain, James Webb, John Poindexter, Robert McFarlane, and Oliver North to create narrative dynamic that made sense.  What sparked this dynamic was the Iran-Contra scandal that rocked President Reagan’s second term in office.  Timberg was able to parlay the scandal and the personalities just mentioned into a coherent and interesting monograph.  I remember when the book was published and after reading it I wondered if Timberg had an agenda that called for damning those who were able to avoid serving in Vietnam, and blaming the prosecution of the Iran-Contra scandal on the media and members of Congress who figured out ways to remain out of the military during the war.

Timberg’s judgment is deeply flawed in attacking, what seems to be everyone who did not fight in Vietnam for pursuing the Iran-Contra scandal.  I understand that he suffered unbelievable horrors as a result of his military service and significant emotional issues remain.  However, his inner drive to become the person he was before he was seriously wounded has clouded his judgment to the point where he deeply hurt, Janie, his first wife, the woman who was mostly responsible for making himself whole as he recovered.  His comments dealing with the need to find another woman to have sex with aside from his wife to see if he could find another person who was attracted to him is deeply troublesome.  It was thoughts like this and leaving her alone with three children for a great deal of time reflects poorly on Timberg no matter how courageous he was.  As Timberg researches and writes THE NIGHTENGALE’S SONG, his obsession with those who did not fight in Vietnam comes to the fore completely.  Though there are repeated denials in the book his understandable prejudice against “draft dodgers,” etc. is readily apparent, i.e., his convoluted logic of going after people who believe that Iran-Contra was a major crime and resulted in violation of the constitutional and legislative prerogatives of Congress, aside from the cover-up and outright lying the of the Reagan administration with a vengeance.  By explaining away the scandal by raising the question; “was Iran-Contra the bill for Vietnam finally coming due?” for me, is a bit much and cannot explain away the illegal acts that North, Poindexter, and McFarlane committed no matter how hard Timberg tries.  For the author it seems like everyone who did not go to Vietnam used money and connections to avoid serving.  Further, those who did not serve, “much of the rest of that generation came up with novel ways to leave the fighting and dying to others.”(213)  Timberg quotes from Lawrence M. Baskir and William A. Srauss’ excellent analysis of the draft, CHANCE AND CIRCUMSTANCE to buttress his arguments, however if he revisits objectively the Pentagon statistics that the authors quote he will find that not all who did not serve in Vietnam committed acts that Timberg finds reprehensible  There are millions who were involved in defense related jobs, duty in the United State Army Reserves and the National Guard, had legitimate medical deferments, or were conscientious objectors.  I agree a significant numbers did avoid service and Baskir and Strauss put the number of draft offenders at about 570,000, accused draft offenders at 209, 517, with about 3250 actually imprisoned.  We must also keep in mind that of the 26,800,000 men of the Vietnam generation, 6,465,000 served but never went to Southeast Asia, and of the 15,980,000 who never served in the military 15,410,000 were deferred, exempted or disqualified -all cannot be painted with the broad brush of being draft dodgers as Timberg seems to strongly intimate.*

Overall, Timberg is correct, Vietnam is still a raw nerve for a generation that witnessed men rallying to the flag, and men who felt the war was wrong.  As history has borne out the American people were lied to by the Johnson administration and the government in general.  I respect Mr. Timberg’s service, the wonderful career he used as a vehicle to become whole again, and I find that he is an exceptional author, who at times goes a bit overboard in his attempt to rationalize why people avoided service in the war.  The book is a superb read, deeply emotional and for my generation dredges up a great deal and provokes deep thought concerning how the experience of the Vietnam War still affects American foreign policy and the conduct of combat to this day.

*See Lawrence M. Baskir & William A. Strauss CHANCE AND CIRCUMSTANCE. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1978, p. 5 for an excellent chart that is reflected in the figures presented.