The last U.S. combat troops left Vietnam 17 years ago, but today the Vietnam War remains very much alive in the national publishing world. At least a half-dozen books are published every month examining virtually every facet of that war. Most are memoirs by ex-soldiers, political and military analyses by experts or in-country and aftermath novels. A pile of recent Vietnam books includes a novel and a non-fiction narrative that stand among the best published in recent years.
The novel is David Eyre's wonderfully written "Float" (Doubleday, 393 pages, $19.95). It's an original, ironic, sometimes funny, sometimes cynical, often insightful and always biting look at the war and many of those who took part in it.
Mr. Eyre's hero is Navy Lt. (jg) J. P. Dubecheck, a chronically malaise-ridden, physically large, one-time college football star. Dubecheck, who commands a patrol boat on the Mekong Delta, finds himself immersed in the muck of the war, constantly wondering what Vietnam and life are all about. Mr. Eyre, a Navy Vietnam vet, surrounds the unkempt (and frequently naked) Dubecheck with a wondrous cast of sharply drawn characters.
The action consists of an assortment of evocatively written adventures that are as wacky as they are believable. Mr. Eyre sprinkles "Float," his first novel, with creative and insightful witticisms, insights into the human condition, clever wordplay and just plain good writing.
The plot is not the strongest point of "Float." The story involves the assorted weird mess Dubecheck gets into during several months in country, and some of the characters' oddities are too farcically exaggerated. Lt. Kooseman, Dubecheck's overbearing superior, is a cardboard brown-nosing, ticket-punching young lifer. Mr. Eyre also does not evince what can be called an enlightened attitude toward female nurses in the military in Vietnam.
But he does not have many kind words for anyone else in the book, including U.S. enlisted men, officers of all grades, intelligence operatives, South Vietnamese civilians and sol
diers of all ranks, newspaper correspondents, anti-war protesters and pro-war cops. His cynical dismemberment of virtually every character ultimately becomes an important part of the book's considerable charm.
In "Facing the Phoenix: The CIA and the Political Defeat of the United States in Vietnam" (Norton, 416 pages, $22.50), Zalin Grant -- an Army officer and later a Time correspondent in Vietnam -- uses the amazing story of Vietnamese nationalist politician Tran Ngoc Chau as a vehicle to describe how U.S. military strategy evolved from the politically oriented "hearts and minds" pacification approach to full-scale warfare. Mr. Grant calls the American decision virtually to abandon pacification and to wage a shooting war in Vietnam "perhaps the least known, and certainly the most misunderstood aspect of the Vietnam war."
He does a good job of shedding historical light on the evolution of U.S. policy in Vietnam. In doing so, he makes a convincing case for the pacification approach advocated by Chau, who served as a South Vietnamese province chief and secretary-general of the South Vietnamese National Assembly, and wound up a victim of both the South Vietnamese government and, later, the victorious communists.
Chau's ideas of fighting communism were shared by one of his biggest American backers, Edward Lansdale, the legendary CIA operative who first went to Saigon in 1954. Lansdale is a co-star of sorts of "Facing the Phoenix," which is based primarily on hundreds of interviews Mr. Grant conducted. Other main players include Lucien Conein, the colorful former OSS and CIA operative; Daniel Ellsberg, a Lansdale and Chau associate who later leaked the Pentagon Papers; William Colby, the CIA man who headed the controversial anti-Viet Cong Phoenix program in Vietnam; and John Paul Vann, the celebrated American military man who was profiled in Neil Sheehan's masterful 1988 book, "A Bright Shining Lie."
Mr. Leepson is book editor of The Veteran magazine. He served with the U.S. Army in Vietnam in 1967-1968.