|Vietnam Veterans of America|
|Books in Review, July/August 2021|
Jeff Danziger Explains How Dangerous He Was in Vietnam
In 1991, Jeff Danziger, the acclaimed political cartoonist, wrote an offbeat Vietnam War novel, Rising Like the Tucson. In it, Danziger told the wacky story of a befuddled Army lieutenant who bumbles his way through a tour of duty as a non-Vietnamese-speaking translator.
So when I read Lieutenant Dangerous: A Vietnam War Memoir (Steerforth Press, 208 pp. $14.95, paperback), I wasn’t surprised to learn that Danziger actually was a U.S. Army lieutenant translator who barely spoke or understood Vietnamese. He explains all that and much more in this cleverly written account of his four-year military career, centering on his 1970-71 year in the war zone.
Danziger, who at 77 continues to produce cutting-edge political cartoons, was described by his publisher in Rising Like the Tucson as “an intelligence officer with the First Air Cavalry Division.” That was true. But as Danziger explains in Lt. Dangerous he did much more than 1st Cav intel work in Vietnam.
Danziger had been drafted after graduating from college. At Basic training at Fort Dix he signed up for intelligence school rather than risk being sent to infantry AIT. Then came a year of Vietnamese language training at Fort Bliss in Texas. Along the way, he applied for OCS and instead received a direct commission. Not that he was motived to lead men. Danziger mainly aimed to stretch out his training and avoid going to Vietnam. As he puts it, he became an officer “for the sole purpose of avoiding getting shot at in a war that no one wanted or understood.”
Then the Army sent Danziger to Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland to train as an ordnance officer and, after that, to Fort Belvoir in Northern Virginia. He had a nothing desk job there for six months and forgot just about all the Vietnamese he’d learned. After all that training and dealing with the stateside Army life, Danziger says he resolved “to be as ineffectual an officer as I could be.” Then came orders for Vietnam.
In country he bounced around to different units, starting as an ordnance officer with the Cav near Tay Ninh. He and his men helicoptered to remote firebases replacing artillery tubes, often a hazardous undertaking. He took part in the Cambodian incursion in May 1970, and ended his tour as an ineffective translator helicoptering into Laos during the chaotic Operation Lam Son in February 1971.
Very few war memoirs by former Vietnam War officers bitterly attack the military and the war as Danziger does in this book. On the other hand, very few officers were like Jeff Danziger. ARVN troops mispronounced his name, calling him “Lieutenant Dangerous,” an ironically fitting name for the reluctant American in their midst. “I was probably the worst soldier in the American army,” Danziger says, tongue somewhat in cheek, “and certainly the worst officer since Captain Yossarian,” the bedeviled main character in Catch 22.
Jeff Danziger has little good to say about his four years in the Army. He bashes his superior officers, the Army bureaucracy, ARVN officers, the U.S. Air Force, the state of Maryland, Gen, Westmoreland, Henry Kissinger, and Richard Nixon. On the other hand, he writes that the “Vietnamese are among the bravest and most wonderful people on earth,” adding that he “never gained much mastery of their musical language. And they never could pronounce my last name.”
“There was a war,” a young man says to his younger brother. “Things happen.”
The war in question is the American war in Vietnam. It’s the late nineties, and the man, Tuan, is a Vietnamese American who came to these shores with his mother when he was a toddler in 1978. His younger brother, Binh (who goes by Ben) was born after Tuan and his mother survived a harrowing escape from their homeland and made their way to a refugee community near New Orleans.
Tuan, Ben, and their mother Huong are the main characters in Eric Nguyen’s captivating first novel, Things We Lost to the Water (Knopf, 304 pp. $26.95, hardcover; $13.99, Kindle). This engagingly written coming-of-age tale bores in on what life was like for that small Vietnamese family. A family minus the father, however, as he decided at almost the last second not to leave communist Vietnam with his pregnant wife and young son.
Much of the story is set in the Vietnamese expatriate community of Versailles, fifteen miles east—and another world—away from downtown New Orleans. Vietnamese boat people were funneled there to a large, subsidized apartment complex called Versailles Arms by Catholic Charities of New Orleans beginning in 1975. Eric Nguyen effectively evokes what it was like to grow up there amid the Vietnamese-speaking older folks while enmeshed in American culture in a story that appears to be at least partly autobiographical.
Tuan has the most difficulty adjusting to life in the U.S.A. By the time he’s high school age he’s hanging out with a Vietnamese gang, hating school, agonizing about what happened to his father (who does not answer his mother’s letters), and seething about the anti-Asian racism he faces on a daily basis. Ben, the studious younger brother, thrives in school and develops a close friendship with a female classmate. Through dogged determination, Huong overcomes extreme poverty and an absent husband, devoting all of her energy to raising her sons and working menial jobs to bring them into a middle-class life.
Ben goes through big changes, including becoming a brilliant college student and realizing he is gay. Huong begins a relationship with a Vietnamese man. Tuan realizes a life of crime is not for him. And then—no surprise here as the book’s theme is water—Katrina happens, and the action picks up markedly as the hurricane bores in. Eric Nguyen fashions a thrilling and exciting ending to a book that illuminates the interior lives of a Vietnamese family whose fortunes were upended by the American war in Vietnam.
There’s no such thing as a typical Vietnam War tour of duty, but it’s a good bet that James Allen Logue had one of the least typical, at least for an infantryman. Drafted into the Army in May 1969 after graduating from photography school and working in a camera shop, Jim Logue arrived in Vietnam in October a newly minted infantryman. Among the things he carried: a new Nikon camera.
For the next year Logue humped the boonies with Alpha Company of the 196th Light Infantry Brigade’s 4th/31st in the Americal Division. He also took pictures. Lots of them.
“Jim was not capturing award-winning scenes of combat. He did not click a frame of dead or badly injured civilians or soldiers, friendly or enemy,” Gary D. Ford writes in the introduction to Rain in Our Hearts: AlphaCompany in the Vietnam War (Texas Tech University Press, 224 pp. $45), which he and Logue co-wrote. “Jim instead was building an archive as someone rare: a combat soldier and professional photographer who both fought and documented this last major conflict shot in black-and-white and color film.”
Rain in Our Hearts is a large-format book that effectively shows off about a hundred of Logue’s evocative in-country photos. Each of the ten chapters focuses on one or two former members of Alpha Co.
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