Vietnam Veterans of America
He’s Mike Fink—In the Novel ‘King of the Mississippi’
Mike Freedman’s King of the Mississippi (Hogarth, 256 pp. $26) is a war-heavy literary novel filled with sardonic humor. That’s a good thing. So is the fact that the novel, Freedman’s second, is a fast-reading, satirical tale with over-the-top characters, plenty of yuks, and a few serious meaning-of-life insights.
Freedman, who served three Army Special Forces tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, gives us two flawed but in-the-main compelling main characters: Mike Fink (original family name, Finkelstein), an uncouth, former Iraq War Green Beret, and his bête noire Brock Wharton, a social-climbing former athlete with a wayward ethical compass.
Fink comes to work at the semi-slimy Houston consulting firm in which Wharton is trying to claw his way to the top basically by telling big businesses how to make more money by eliminating jobs. Fink is an unkempt boat-rocker who’s constantly trumpeting his military experiences and off-the-wall consulting ideas. Wharton hates Fink’s very essence from the minute they meet. Fink and Wharton’s figurative hand-to-hand combat over who will prevail in the company is the core of the book.
To Freedman’s credit, I started out loathing both men and then slowly appreciating each one’s qualities. Freedman cleverly brings the two men’s metamorphoses to fruition in the last part of the book when Fink and Wharton arrive in Iraq and begin working together. In the final scenes in Iraq, Freedman gives us a realistic taste of what it was like for U.S. military men and women on the ground there. That includes a bit of lead flying, Iraq-War style.
Freedman includes a handful of Vietnam War references in the book. We learn, for instance, that Wharton’s father, an obnoxious bully, is a classic Vietnam War chicken hawk. Freedman skewers the “The Greatest Generation” as “another sentimental label given to a mostly drafted generation by another generation of males who felt so guilty for dodging service in Vietnam that they later had to mythologize their disappointed dads and ‘The Good War.’ ” Take that, Tom Brokaw.
Then there’s his description of an American operations center in Iraq “devoid of any of Hollywood’s Vietnam War baby boomer personality: neither peace signs alongside born-to-kill slogans, cold beer, hazy marijuana smoke, nor R&R whores.”
In the last sentence of his Acknowledgements Freedman writes that he is indebted to the “generation of writers who have reflected on returning home from war, especially many of our greatest living literary lions who both courageously served in the Vietnam War and then fought to write about their experiences in a way that reverberates fifty years on.”
It’s no coincidence that six of those literary lions—Robert Olen Butler, Philip Caputo, Winston Groom, Karl Marlantes, Tim O’Brien, and Bruce Weigl—provide ringing endorsements for King of the Mississippi. That’s another very good thing.
AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN
Boy on the Bridge: The Story of John Shalikashvili’s American Success (University Press of Kentucky, 396 pp., $36.95, hardcover and Kindle) is not a standard, cradle-to-grave biography. Instead, author Andrew Marble has come up with something much better: a deeply researched, well-written “investigation,” as he writes, “into how an unlikely American success story was made” and “how an unconventional and complex man came to be.”
John Shalikashvili was born in Poland in 1936. After fleeing Warsaw during World War II, he and his parents and sister emigrated from Germany to the United States in 1952 when John was sixteen. Even though he spoke only a few words of English, the young immigrant quickly thrived at Peoria High School in Illinois and later at Bradley University.
He was drafted into the Army soon after he’d graduated from Bradley and became a naturalized American citizen in 1958. Shalikashvili capped his military career as a much-admired four-star general who succeeded Colin Powell as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1993—the first immigrant, draftee, or OCS graduate, as Marble points out, to hold that important and prestigious position. A year earlier he had served as Supreme Allied Commander of NATO in Europe.
Gen. “Shali” ’s many other military accomplishments included commanding the rescue of 500,000 Kurdish people who were trapped along the mountainous Turkish-Iraq border following the first Persian Gulf War, part of Operation Provide Comfort. And later “securing,” as Marble puts it, “loose nuclear weapons in the former Soviet Union.”
In spinning out Gen. Shali’s fascinating and eventful life story, Marble jumps back and forth in time, and concentrates less on dates, times, and places than on illuminating characters, including his Russian and Polish ancestors and Colin Powell. Marble devotes just three-and-a-half pages in this not-short book to Shalikashvili’s 1968-69 tour of duty in the Vietnam War.
Maj. Shalikashvili arrived in country in June of 1968 and served for a year as a MACV senior district adviser in northern South Vietnam. He worked with Marines, Air Force personnel, CIA operatives, Australian military advisers, and Philippine pacification workers, as well as South Vietnamese Army commanders. The men lived, Marble writes, “alongside 150 Vietnamese and ten to fifteen other nationalities in a triangular French-built fort” that was short on amenities. Shalikashvili saw plenty of combat action during search-and-destroy missions. He received a Bronze Star with a “V” device after leading an assault on an NVA command post.
Gen. Shali, who died in 2011, will be remembered not for his exploits on the field of battle (although he certainly acquitted himself well in combat in Vietnam), but for “the many lives he helped keep from harm,” Marble makes clear, “defusing current and future conflicts.” He did so using “a low-key style of treating others with respect, rather than a more dramatic confrontational or self-promotional approach.”
HEARING AMERICA SING
Best-selling Pulitzer-Prize-winning presidential historian Jon Meacham joined with country music star Tim McGraw to put together the coffee-table-ish Songs of America: Patriotism, Protest, and the Music that Made a Nation (Random House, 320 pp. $30, hardcover; $14.99, Kindle). In it, Meacham provides a concise narrative history of the country (and its music), and McGraw offers his thoughts on American songs and performers in sidebars.
The short section on music and the Vietnam War reads like an annotated laundry list of popular tunes of the era that had some connection to the fighting and the antiwar movement. “We can hear the sounds of [the political divisions in the country] in the music of the era,” Meacham informs us. “Social customs and values largely taken for granted were under assault.”
The Vietnam War section includes five of McGraw’s three-paragraph, first-person sidebars. He reports and opines on performers such as Merle Haggard (“he was a voice for the so-called ‘Silent Majority’ ”) and Johnny Cash (“an iconic artist and totally underrated as a songwriter”) and songs, including Army Sgt. Barry Sadler’s mega-hit, “The Ballad of the Green Berets” (“a great patriotic song”) and the Animals’ “We Gotta Get Out of this Place” (“an anthem for Vietnam soldiers and antiwar protestors”).
Nothing about Meacham’s history here nor McGraw’s thoughts on songs and performers rings false. On the other hand, neither comes up with anything new, or anything that anyone who follows popular music or knows the basics of U.S. history will find particularly enlightening.
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