Vietnam vets tell their favorite Vietnam books; San Diego booksellers do the same

The war had a vocabulary so different from the rest of the world that it was almost a language apart.

Vietnamese postage stamp
  • Vietnamese postage stamp
  • Image by Veronika Roosimaa/iStock/Thinkstock

Veteran Readers

The first three Vietnam Vets whom I asked, "What novels about the Vietnam War have you read?" hadn't read many. All three served in the Marine Corps, all were in boot camp in the summer of 1968 at Camp Pendleton and have been sent as "resupply" to units located in the far north of South Vietnam, near the DMZ, we're fighting was fierce. A year later, in June 1969, two of the three had been severely wounded. One — Ray — had been hospitalized for a year. The other, Dan, who lives in North Park, was hospitalized for 3 years. "Just about every bone in my body was broken," Dan said (none of these three Marines wished to have his last name used. The third Marine, Dave, in Mission Beach, didn't want to talk at all. He allowed as how he'd read Michael Herr's nonfiction Dispatches, Robert Mason's nonfiction Chickenhawk, and James Webb's Fields of Fire; about the latter he said that from what he'd heard from men who served in the Marines under its author the book wasn't all that authentic period and concluded by saying, "I'm not into the subject. Period."

Ray, a high school English teacher and Athletics coach, said that in his English classes he sometimes taught William Golding's novel, Lord of the Flies (British prep-school boys marooned on a desert island go bad), and they were days he said and laughed when he thought Golding's book could be the prototype for much of the Vietnam combat fiction. He'd read Fields of Fire and thought the characters "wooden" but the action "too much" he said that he remembered combat action to be. When his students asked him to suggest of Vietnam combat novel, Fields of Fire was what he recommended. He'd read Going After Cacciato, but had found its premise — from a squad that is stationed near the Laos border, one member takes off, heading for Paris, and the entire squad is ordered to track and capture him — "shaky." Stephen Wright's Meditations in Green he'd liked "for the risks he took, using poetic language, for the description." The Short-Timers by Gustav Hasford he'd found particularly realistic. He liked its rapidity, it's quick cuts and splices. "Hasford's book, yep, that's pretty much what it was like up there."

Ray couldn't, he said, easily read fiction about Vietnam. He'd built a "wall in his mind" to keep himself from remembering what happened to him, to friends, in Vietnam. He could and did, he said, read lots of nonfiction about Vietnam. But the fiction and he mentioned a dozen titles he'd read had an emotional impact upon him that nonfiction didn't. "It seems truer, the fiction does."

Like Dan, I thought the genre of fiction about the Vietnam War suffered from sensationalizing. "On a good day very few of us were actually out in the bush, in contact with the Enemy. 90% of the troops in Vietnam were behind the lines."

Dave was looking up into his bookcase. He read off 9 or 10 Vietnam fiction titles. Of that number, he thought he'd finished only Fields of Fire, the Short-Timers, and The Thirteenth Valley. "Too many of the novels are so sensationalized. The movies also. The movies don't interest me either. They're awfully bloody." Like Ray, Dave (who went to Vietnam as a 180-pound 18 year old and returned to the states weighing barely 100 pounds) said he was sure he simply didn't want to remember. The books, the movies brought it back.

I mention to Dave scenes in Fields of Fire and Joseph Ferrandina’s Fireflight in which men sent into units as resupply — "cherries," FNGs (Fucking New Guys), were ostracized by the longer-term members of the unit. Did it actually happen that way? It did, he said and worse. He has seen FNGs ignored for five, six weeks after their arrival. "You were inexperienced," Dave said. They were afraid you'd get them killed.

The brutal boot camp scenes in The Short-Timers, said Dave (and Ray), were drawn as brutally as they were lived. He suggested that the actuality of boot camp was worse than anything he'd read or seen in films. And, he added, so was combat.

Ron Flesch, a resident of Scripps Ranch and the sales manager at Crown Chemical for the past 9 years, was at Camp Pendleton in the summer of 1964. He was 19. Unlike the first three Marine vets with him I talked, Flesch went in as a member of an intact group, landing on June 16th, 1965, with company D, 1st Battalion, 9th Marines. Assigned as a "point" rifleman, he served the majority of his tour in the Danang area. He saw combat, saw friends killed, several times came within seconds of losing his own life, and on 3 x 5 index cards and in letters home wrote it all down. Discharged, he graduated from college, married, went to work.

" I went 18 years," Flesch told me, "without reading about Vietnam. Then, in summer of 1984, quite a few books about Vietnam started appearing on the market. I thought, "Sure, this makes sense. 1985 will be the 10th anniversary of the end of the war. And after 10 years, Publishers are starting to test the waters, see what people's reactions will be to these books." Flesch began reading, then, about the war. Most of what he read was nonfiction. A Rumor of War by Philip Caputo, The Killing Zone by Frederick Downs, The Grunts by Charles Anderson, Ron Kovic's Born on the 4th of July. He read two novels, Fields of Fire, and Steven Smith's American Boys.

That same summer, 1984, 20 years after he'd entered the Marines, Flesch, who'd never written anything but those 3 x 5 index cards and letters home, college papers, and business memos, decided he'd write his own book about Vietnam. He had a specific audience in mind - "people who wouldn't normally dream of reading a war book." He knew how he wanted to write the book. "I wanted to tone down the language and do away with the graphic violence that is so much a part of most books about war, and at the same time, I didn't want to whitewash or falsified the experience. He retrieved the letters home he'd written his family, got out the hundreds of photos he'd taken, the note cards, sat down and wrote. Book finished, Flesch went to the library, took down from the shelf a copy of Writer's Market, copied down addresses of a half a dozen publishers, sent off his manuscript, and within weeks, Berkley Publishing Group had accepted it. Flesch's nonfiction memoir, Redwood Delta, has been in bookstores since last year and selling well.

Like many nonfiction books about the war and several of the novels, Flesch's included a glossary. The war, Flesch explained, had a vocabulary so different from that of the world that it was almost a language apart. There was the highly technological aspect of the war, and then Vietnam itself with its villes and hamlets in Indian Country, it's Yards, sappers, VC, ARVN, NVA. There was the "vietnamization" for so many tools of War — Huey's, mules, Puff the Magic Dragon, spooky, Willie Peter, smoke, LAW. There were the euphemisms — hump, skate, wax, waste, dust. To make this accessible to a reader who hadn't been in Vietnam, Flesch decided upon the glossary.

I asked Flesch why he decided upon the non-fiction memoir rather than, as many vets had, turning his experience into fiction. He felt, he said, that fiction would not be taken as seriously. "The war in Vietnam really tore this country up, divided us. People made terrible sacrifices in the Vietnam. I wanted to do what I could to make sure that Americans remembered those sacrifices."

Ron Argo was 25 when he went to Vietnam in 1970. He served in the Army at Long Beach as a military journalist, writing for the Stars and Stripes. His first novel, Year of the Monkey (Simon and Schuster), is due out next month. He began the book 12 years ago as his master's thesis at San Diego State. Argo, who now lives in Golden Hill, has read a great deal about the war. Dispatches he admires for the way in which Herr capsulized hundreds of vignottes that express what it was to be in Vietnam. He likes Chickenhawk. Among the novels, he recommends Larry Heinemann's Close Quarters, The Bamboo Bed by William Eastlake, Scott Ely's Starlight. "That novel was a little sleeper. I was always sorry it didn't get more recognition."

Going After Cacciato Argo liked for perhaps the very reasons Ray didn't, that it wasn't "realistic", that it seemed phantasmagoric, fabulistic. Argo brought up Heller's Catch-22, the very archetype for war-as-absurd. The experience of Vietnam, Argo said, was in many ways so absurd that one way to capture that experience was, as O'Brien did, to tell a story that on the face of things seemed absurd. Also, Argo noted, it was important to remember that Cacciato was written during the 70s, when responses to the war were still highly emotional and volatile. For all that it is a dreamlike story, Cacciato did, Argo emphasized very realistically evoke sensory impressions of Vietnam.

Argo's novel (which Kirkus Reviews describes as "compelling reading that delivers an important piece of the Vietnam puzzle") changed over the years. It began, he feels now, to ambitiously, as a trilogy, and had many dreamlike scenes. As years passed and more information about the war in Vietnam became public, "as more skeletons were released from the closet," said Argo, my novel became more realistic. Argo believes that the novels beginning to emerge now that reflect in some way on the Vietnam experience — Susan Schafer's Buffalo Afternoon, for instance — will tend to be more realistic. As part of that realism, he believes these novels will do what few novels about the war written during or shortly after the war did, and that is to portray the Vietnamese in nonstereotypical ways.

— Judith Moore

'Nam Lit

B. Dalton Booksellers, Carlsbad — This store dose a lot of business with “boys from the base” (Camp Pendleton) and has a large collection of military books, according to senior clerk Diane Thomson. They “concentrate on nonfiction” but do carry some military action/adventure series. Among these, W.E.B. Griffith’s Brotherhood of War collection sells very well, along with Eric Helm's Vietnam Ground Zero a close second. Crown Carlsbad also carries the Chopper 1 books by Jack Hawkins. Other fiction titles Thomason remarked on: Fields of Fire by James Webb, Joseph Fernandina's Firefight, and The 13th Valley by John Del Vecchio, author Philip Capote has several titles on the shelves here, but his Vietnam-set Del Corso’s Gallery is not among them.

Brentano's, Horton plaza — One top seller in this store lately is Susan Fromberg Schaeffer's Buffalo Afternoon, released last month. Manager-in-training Frank Walsh attributes the brisk sales to good reviews. Another recent title selling well is The Memorial, by ex-Marine James Amos.

The fiction work with most “overall staying power” through the years says Walsh, has been John Del Vicious 1982 work, The 13th Valley. Other top sellers include The Aviators (book VIII of W.E.B. Griffin’s Brotherhood of War series), Year of the Monkey by Ronald Argo, The Fire Dream by Franklin Allen Leib and the Chopper 1 books by Jack Hawkins. Most of these Vietnam series are filed in Brentano’s extensive Men’s Adventure section. “It’s Vietnam vets that buy that fiction. For a lot of people the war’s not over reading is a way of coping with it,” suggests Walsh, “or maybe, for some it was the most exciting part of theirs, and they just want to return to the excitement of it.”

Crown Books, Oceanside — Assistant manager Mike Parks says this beach city near Camp Pendleton has a large community of Vietnam veterans and Marines and estimates that he sells an average of 12 Vietnam fiction titles a day. The 13th Valley tops the list, says Parks, selling out as soon as it comes in. The more recent Rolling Thunder by Mark Brent is currently sold out, and The Memorial by James Amos is going last, Charley Mike by Leonard Scott is very popular with younger Marines, along with Charlie Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, by David Sherman. The novelization of the film Platoon by Dale Dye was very popular following the movie’s release, but sales have dropped off. Other top-selling titles here: Del Corso’s Gallery, by Philip Caputo, James Fernandina's Firefight. The Short-Timers by Gustav Hasford, Fields of Fire by James Webb, and Robert Stone's Dog Soldiers.

F street Bookstore, University Avenue — Fiction dealing with Vietnam includes a slew of anonymously written pornographic titles, most going quickly out of print. But adult book sales fall far short of magazine sales and video rentals, and inventories are being reduced. Locally, the F street chain carries something called Straight to Hell — a series of books that are collections of personal experiences, says one clerk. Complied around a military theme, the books, with names like Cum and Trash are gay-oriented and some stories are set in Vietnam.

Wahrenbrock's Book House, Seventh and Broadway — Interest in and the availability of books on Vietnam are on the increase according to the store’s Jan Tennyson, who has just created a separate section for these books. Used paperbacks currently in stock here: The Bamboo Bed by William Eastlake, The Five Fingers by Gayle Rivers, F.N.G. by Donald Boney, American Boys by Steven Smith, The 13th Valley by John Del Vecchio, J.C. Pollock's Mission MIA, The Short-Timers by Gustav Hasford, Ronald Glaser’s Another War Another Peace, Huey by Jay and David Groan, and Dale Dye’s novelization of Platoon.

Other books Tennyson notes are still in print but not currently in stock. Semper Fidelis by Johnnie Clarke, Charlie Mike by Leonard Scott; The Soldiers Prize by Dan Cragg; John Cassidy's Station in the Delta; Robert Butler’s Alleys of Eden, On Distant Ground, and Sun Dogs; and Kenn Miller’s Tiger, the Lurp Dog.

The most popular titles, he ventures to guess are The Thirteenth Valley (in stock at interview time) and Fields of Fire, a book that sells out quickly. Those who buy the books are a mostly masculine assortment of veterans and military and political history enthusiasts. Tennyson declined to discuss Vietnam action/adventure series, except to note that they were very popular and that Griffin's Brotherhood of War books were fairly well written .

Wild Blue Yonder: The Aviation Store, Fashion Valley — Although not a bookstore per se, this aviation hobbyists enclave stocks some Vietnam-related literature, mostly nonfiction and biography, but several Vietnam fiction titles as well. Assistant manager peter Klockenbrink estimates that he has sold two dozen hardback copies of Stephen Coont's Flight of the Intruder since Christmas, which qualifies here as brisk sales. The boutique also carries the Chopper 1 series by Jack Hawkins. The action series has disappointing sales, notes Klockenbrink. These are too “Rambo.” Customers, he feels, are looking for realism in their 'Nam literature.

— Mary Lang

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