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Susan Moger reviews More Than A Memory

More Than a Memory, Reflections of Viet Nam

More Than a Memory, Reflections of Viet NamMore Than a Memory,
Reflections of Viet Nam

Victor R. Volkman, Editor

Modern History Press, 2009; 224 pages; $21.95
ISBN 978-1-932690-64-4; paper

by Susan Moger

The writers who contributed to More Than a Memory, Reflections of Viet Nam, edited by Victor R. Volkman (Modern History Press, 2009) grab us by the lapels, lean in close, and compel our attention. And “attention must be paid” (in Arthur Miller’s words) to these stories, not only by those of us who lived through the Vietnam era, but also by those who know it only as history.

The pieces in More Than a Memory are not easy stories and poems to digest; it took courage to write them and requires a measure of courage to read them. But the rewards are many—an understanding of what war meant to these particular men; an appreciation of the abiding power of memory and of storytelling, and satisfaction in paying due attention to ordinary men who “lived to tell the tale.”

The power of recall is a thread running through More Than a Memory. Prose or poetry, polished or raw, these pieces were written by men who know the truth of Marc Levy’s words, “…whatever you did in war will always be with you. Always.” (p. 206) Memories of homecomings, of killings, of betrayals, of flashbacks, and nightmares are told in rushed, awkward sentences, or short, stuttered phrases, in imagery-packed paragraphs or tight, heartfelt expletives.

The stories and poems are mirrors, in which readers are repeatedly challenged to see themselves. The most discomfiting piece, for this reader, was Tom Skiens’ “Witness to Rape.” The piece demands not only, “what would you have done?” but “what would you have had me do?” Skiens’ powerful account of a rape spares the reader nothing. He describes the second-by-second reactions of the onlooker—including the hope that “God would fill these three grunts [the rapists] with a lifetime of guilt and shame and remorse.”

But Skiens doesn’t let us think that this was an isolated event. He includes the chilling statement, “As a result of this one experience I learned to recognize the sounds of rape at a great distance…Over the next two months I would hear this sound on the average of once every third day.” Nor did the event described end in the distant past. “This event occurred in 1968 and it still has an impact on my…relationships with women.”

But “Witness to Rape” goes further. Skiens includes descriptions of subsequent encounters with rapists…on film and in real life, among Vietnam veterans he met after the war. His piece ends with this challenge to readers: “…you had to be there to make a call.”

I single out “Witness to Rape” because it represents both the undeniable power of these pieces and editing that occasionally lets writers off the hook with careless language. In Skiens’ piece, for example, he writes, “I wonder about the gook chick” (referencing, years later, the girl in the first rape he describes) and “I wonder if the three grunts give a shit” (talking about the rapists now). This is first-draft phrasing that doesn’t serve the story and that an editor should have questioned.

I single out three other pieces all very powerful that could have been even more effective with additional editing. I felt these authors, and all the authors in the book, were speaking directly to me, confronting me, challenging my assumptions and my complacency.

Tony Swindell says “Call It Sleep” (pp. 86-87) was “written in 1991 for Dr. Jonathan Shay…to document symptoms of post-traumatic stress.” The piece, appropriately included in the section “Poems IV, describes nightmares experienced by the author and incorporates stunning sensory details—”blinding silent flashes”; “hot sand whipping against my face”; “buzzing sounds of shrapnel.” The piece describes Swindell’s experiences as of 1991. It would be useful to have a postscript in which Swindell or the editor addresses these questions: How did writing about these nightmares, this “literal hell…right in front of me” help the author at the time? Does he still have nightmares in 2009 and if so are they the same?

Richard Boes’ “My Blue Block of Wood” (p.7) is another example of fine writing that would have benefited from copy edits and proofreading. A sentence like this one on p. 11 is confusing without correct punctuation: “Yeah, I was feeling anxious, afraid, guilty I think about coming home.” And a capital “F” in “After” (last paragraph on p.11) gives an impression that the book was incompletely proofread pre-publication.

None of this detracts from the actual homecoming Boes describes. It is heart-stoppingly intense, a tribute to his powerful writing. “I felt this knot in my stomach like the whole fucking war was twisting up inside me…” Once home, Boes’ narrator’s memories of the war ambush him unexpectedly. For example, “…downstairs, Bugs Bunny [is] askin’ “What’s up, Doc?” Doc took one tiny piece of shrapnel in the temple sitting on his cot reading letters from home…” His comment, “This wasn’t the place I thought home would be” is reinforced in the final paragraph after he threatens his young sister, seeing her as the enemy. He writes, “This fear [in the family’s eyes], it’s mine, I thought, from the depths of the dead and the missing….I’d brought the trauma home. I’m the fuckin’ enemy here.”

“My Blue Block of Wood” is a terrific choice for the first piece in the book. The reader believes him when he says “I’m the enemy here” and is ready to explore the reasons behind that feeling, in the pieces that follow.

If Boes’ piece is a fitting opening to More Than a Memory, then Marc Levy’s magnificent “Whatever You Did in the War Will Always Be with You” is a fitting conclusion—summing up and putting in a context the stories that precede it and allowing readers closure, a chance to move on and deal with wars of the present and future. It’s a powerful combination of personal reflection and factual information about PTSD. From the opening paragraphs: “I’m kneeling. Tears streak my face, drip down, fall to earth. It’s only my second time in combat…That was thirty-seven years ago. Or was it last night?” to the final chilling run-down of wars, past and present, Levy’s “Whatever You Did in the War Will Always Be with You” is gripping, sobering, and as practical as a tourniquet on a spurting wound.

Levy’s comprehensive list of “the symptoms of PTSD, in plain bloody English…” is an invaluable, plain-spoken summary that includes the following illustration of Denial: “Problems? What problem? I don’t have a fuckin’ problem.” The summary concludes with a moving definition of PTSD: “These symptoms are normal responses to extraordinary events outside the range of normal human experience…” This piece should be required reading in every high school in the U.S.

All of Marc Levy’s work in this collection is outstanding. In the case of “How Stevie Nearly Lost the War” and “Torque in Angkor Wat,” his voice and his artistry reach the highest literary achievement. Both short stories address war and its aftermath in the author’s masterfully controlled-yet-seemingly-out-of-control style. In “Stevie” Levy depicts a combat vet struggling through a typical post-war day that includes his approach-avoidance attempts to relate to a woman he seems to genuinely like. The various threads of the story—some hopeful, some sad, some crazy—marry past and present in a virtuosic linguistic brew that boils over in sentences like this: “Stevie’s words jet from his mouth like thunderous out-going shells, like sleek napalm canisters spinning through air, like the pure pop pop pop of forty mike mike grenades fired by Cobras going in for the kill.”

“Torque in Angkor Wat” is a disquieting travel tale, where the protagonist, a Nam vet, tours the ruins of Angkor Wat. The eternal beauties of the setting contrast with the turmoils of his inner world, which come to a head during a surreal scene where war memories and a Frisbee game intersect: “Howling with laughter, Jack picks up the Frisbee and tosses it to me. But I don’t want to see it. Where are the foxholes? Where are the Claymore mines?…The war is everywhere and Jack is blind to it.” Writing like Levy’s lifts readers out of their comfort zones and into the scary heights it is impossible to be “blind to war.”

“Kangaroo Court Martial” is in a category all its own (the authors are not listed in the alphabetical list of authors in the Acknowledgments) and needs editorial notations to be truly useful to 2009 readers. Notes to explain the context are essential for polemic like this. For example, what is the date of the account of the case starting on page 109? Why are an address and phone number for the ASU and a promo/price for The BOND included in this 2009 book? The account says the accused are “presently” serving time. An Editor’s note or introduction would help readers who might think this refers to 2009. I’m sure other readers will wonder: What is the date of “An Appeal from the Brig,” p. 119? What was the ultimate fate of Daniels and Harvey? Is the ASU still “the foremost organization of soldiers in the US Armed Forces”?

Regarding the arrangement of the book’s contents, I found that the alternate prose and poetry sections (and the grouping of poems within sections) was useful and flowed well. The photographs that are included were welcome, but more, and more descriptive captions, would have been even better. Present-day comments on images of the past would have been ideal. For example, there are two pictures of Marc Levy (pages 50 and 71). I would be interested in his comments on the evolution of the man from age 19 in 1970 (p. 50 ) to the man who posed with an ex-NVA sapper and writer in 1998 (p. 71). (A note on layout: the photo of Marc Levy on p. 50 would ideally have appeared in a spread with his poem, “At Nineteen,” on page 49, rather than on the page following.)

Another editing opportunity related to photographs: the photo caption on p. 87 focuses on the man in the center (“one of my buddies”), perhaps because he is the only one whose face is visible. But readers will wonder about the Vietnamese people in the foreground—why they are there, what they are doing.

I understand that several formatting issues have been addressed in the hardback edition of More Than a Memory.

Cavils aside, a rousing “bravo” to all the writers and to Victor R. Volkman for paying attention to their stories and collecting, editing, and sharing them with us.

VVA Veteran review by Horace Coleman

Spring 2009 – THE VETERAN
More Than a Memory
More Than a Memory: Reflections of Viet Nam,
Victor R. Volkman, editor (Modern History Press, 1009)

Some people say “There’s only two kinds of music: Country & Western!” Duke Ellington said “There are only two kinds of music, good and bad.” Both broad statements exclude much that’s worthy.

More Than a Memory: Reflections of Viet Nam is a collection of poetry and prose. In one of the essays in the collection called, “Nothing So Bad It’s Not Poetry,” Alan Farrell talks about what he calls “Vietvet or Namvet poetry,” He writes

“As I look back at my favorite war poems, poems I’ve learned in school, I find that-to the extent that they meant any thing to me–they do so for reasons mostly of form, of structure, of rhyme, of rhythm, of image … of craft in short.”

What it really comes down to is something that gets your attention about something the writer makes you care about as he pleases you. Something worth saying said well. Craft is how well you use the tools picked to get the job done. The worth of the job is how well it does what it’s supposed to do.

Farrell reincarnates and updates Rudyard Kipling’s Tommy Atkins in Nam in his poem The Man Who Outlived His Lieutenant. Its refrain goes:

That’s a combat man ‘ere talkin’ Sir
Seen the bear an’ smelt ‘is fur
Shots in anger, CIB
Get in a fight, jus’ do like me

Before the review copy arrived, I was rereading Obscenities by Michael Casey (published in 1972) and enjoying, once again, the poem “A Bummer,” which ends:

 If you have a farm in Vietnam
And a house in hell
Sell the farm
And go home

Did you hear someone way back there, way back in the day say “…Sell the farm and keep the house!?” It don’t mean nothing if you didn’t hear some variation; you know the feeling. The combination of content, remembrance and comment do the job. However, often the more you have to bring to the work to “get it” well the less work the writer has done well.

Casey made the mold-or caught the spirit-of much of the early published poetry of Nam vets: Flat in tone, matter of fact, direct and conversational, stripped of rhyme and meter; short on imagery.

For a long time vets who’d been there and lived that found it hard to publish in mainstream outlets-no matter the quality of their work. The academic and “professional” poets held the high ground-they deserved it (supposedly) because of their reputations and for bravely “speaking out.” Who were those people who thought their experience equaled others “proven talent” and “experienced eloquence?”

Everything vets wrote was just the same old story, a fight for survival-not glory-‘ comic grossness, callous humor. Although More Than A Memory is uneven in quality, it has high points.

Marc Levy uses the Casey approach well in his poem Peace Time. It lists the names soldiers had for combat and describes what happened in spare and matter of fact language like Jack Webb’s policeman Sgt. Friday or cowboy John Wayne or Clint Eastwood might (with effective repetition).

One verse goes:

They walked into our patrol
Or we walked into theirs
Or we ambushed them
Or they’d ambushed us
Or we walked into each other
Or they hit us with mortars
Or overran us with sappers
Or booby-trapped our automatics
Or we called in Arty

Repetition with variation of the same ol’ deadly same ol’ recreated with words describing the ways death and numbness came.

Levy’s short prose piece Whatever You Did in War Will Always Be with You gives the lowdown on the lingering regret too many still have, says what PTSD is and briefly describes some treatments for it.

 Levy’s prose pieces “Torque in Ankor Wat” and “Off the Road” are gritty travelogues of his odysseys in Cambodia and Vietnam respectively. Preston Hood, the writer with the most publishing credits in the contributors’ notes, paints an image of Boats Near Hue. Vietnam, 1997 with lines like

“The sea: white beach in formless prayer” and “Dark clouds shoulder into a gathering storm.” In the last verse of Pop Smoke, Dayle Wise brushes aside the macho shield of invulnerability warriors carry:

We’re tired and want to go home.
Mother take us back.
Let us suckle in your arms.
We’ve been very bad.

There’s a thing called Cowboy Poetry. It has its own form, style, subject matter, situations, types of people and behaviors, locale and target audience. It’s of the people, populist and not academic or traditional–except in its own tradition. Vietvet/Namvet poetry same same. You pay your money, spend your time and some of it satisfies. Which implies the obvious and opposite.

Horace Coleman was an Air Force Air Traffic Controller / Intercept Director in Vietnam (/967-68), he also served in Tactical Air Command, Pacific Air Command and North American Air Defense. He speaks at grade schools, high schools and churches and lives in Long Beach, CA.

Memorial Day thank you to vets

Superior Book Promotions

New Books

Milly Balzarini has written The Lost Road Home to spread awareness of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)–what it is and how veterans can get the help they need if they suffer from it. Included in the book are both stories of veterans and stories of family members who struggle to understand a loved one who suffers from PTSD. Balzarini explains the symptoms of PTSD and the process of being diagnosed with it; suggestions are also included for ways the military can better help soldiers and their families cope with the soldier’s return to civilian life. The book’s easy-to-read style will provide hope and understanding to many families.

For more information, visit The Lost Road Home


  More Than a Memory:  Reflections of Viet Nam is a stunning anthology of writings by veterans that includes first-person non-fiction narratives of serving in Vietnam, fictional stories about the war, poetry, tales of adjusting to civilian life after the war, and many memories of the war and how it continues to affect veterans’ lives today. The diversity of More Than a Memory provides a more thorough understanding of the war experience than any one soldier’s story could provide. Twelve authors have contributed forty-five different pieces of Vietnam war literature that leave a reader both shocked, grieving for the veterans’ experiences, and better educated about what war does to an individual and a nation.

For more information, visit More Than a Memory: Reflections of Viet Nam


  Donald Bodey’s Vietnam War novel F.N.G. is a powerful, engaging story about one man’s tour of duty. While few ex-soldiers could masterfully write a novel of war, Bodey’s skill has created for the Vietnam War what Erich Maria Remarque accomplished for World War I in All Quiet on the Western Front.At the center of Bodey’s novel is Gabriel Saunders, the “F.N.G.” (F—ing New Guy). Gabriel has been drafted into the army, and when he arrives in Vietnam, he is scared and unsure of himself. To make matters worse, he has the horrendous experience of seeing his newly made friend killed before his eyes the first day he arrives. From there, the reader is taken through Gabriel’s tour of duty over the course of a year as he matures as a soldier, going from being the new guy to the leader of his squad.

For more information, visit F.N.G.

My Tour in Hell is Powell’s detail of his tour of duty in Vietnam. The time Powell spent there and the experiences he had were enough to make anyone have PTSD. Powell faithfully and truthfully exposes his personality flaws and strengths as he recounts his experiences.The book opens with his first day in the field and the fear he felt. He then discusses various patrols and operations in which he was involved. His memory of events is excellent, and I was fascinated by his experiences several times of seeing events in slow-motion when something traumatic happened such as his watching an atrocity or realizing he was being shot.

For more information, visit My Tour in Hell: A Marine’s Battle with Combat Trauma


Tyler’s Tips

Tyler R. Tichelaar, Ph.D., President of Superior Book Promotions and award-winning author of The Marquette Trilogy, Narrow Lives, and The Only Thing That Lasts.


Welcome to Issue 5, Our Special MEMORIAL DAY Issue of the SUPERIOR BOOK PROMOTIONS newsletter!

We honor our Veterans this weekend with four books by or about Veterans, including memoirs, poetry, novels and interviews with Veterans.

I encourage all of you to talk to the Veterans you know. Interview them. Record their conversations. Remember that every person has a story, and every story matters. Don’t let those stories be lost.

Thank you, Veterans, for all you’ve done for us!


Thank you for reading the Superior Book Promotions newsletter!

VVA’s Marc Leepson reviews MTAM

The following review appeared in the April 2009 issue of The VVA Veteran:

More Than a Memory: Reflections of Viet Nam (Modern History Press, 221 pp., $21.95, paper) is an anthology of essays, stories, and poems by fifteen Vietnam veterans. There is a wide range of material here, all well worth reading. That includes an excellent essay, “Whatever You Did in War Will Always Be With You,” on PTSD by writer Marc Levy, who also contributes two first-rate short stories. The other contributors include Don Bodey (the author of the novel F.N.G.), Alan Farrell, and Preston Hood.”

Be sure to visit our complete archive of More Than A Memory book reviews

Tyler Tichelaar, PhD reviews MTAM

March 24, 2009

More Than a Memory: Reflections of Viet Nam
Edited by Victor R. Volkman
Modern History Press (2009)
ISBN: 9781932690651 (hardcover) $34.95
9781932690644 (paperback) $21.95

“More Than a Memory: Reflections of Viet Nam” is a stunning anthology of writings by veterans that includes first-person non-fiction narratives of serving in Vietnam, fictional stories about the war, poetry, tales of adjusting to civilian life after the war, and many memories of the war and how it continues to affect veterans’ lives today. The diversity of “More Than a Memory” provides a more thorough understanding of the war experience than any one soldier’s story could provide. Twelve authors have contributed forty-five different pieces of Vietnam war literature that leave a reader both shocked, grieving for the veterans’ experiences, and better educated about what war does to an individual and a nation.

It is impossible to discuss the merits of all the works included in this anthology. Many of the stories are what the reader might expect—depictions of veterans experiencing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder upon their return home, veterans trying to understand what it meant to have to kill other people, soldiers coping with the loss of comrades in battle, and soldiers returning home to a nation that failed to treat them with respect. In addition are many unexpected themes that add to a fuller understanding of the Vietnam War and how war haunts a person for the rest of his life. If the book is lacking in any way, it is the absence of women explaining how the war also haunted “her” life as a soldier or soldier’s wife, but that is a small complaint compared to the multiple voices in this volume.
Continue reading Tyler Tichelaar, PhD reviews MTAM