From Vietnam Veterans Against the War,

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what's going on: A History of the Vietnam Era

By John Ketwig (reviewer)

what’s going on: A History of the Vietnam Era
by Michael Hayes
(Trine Day, 2020)

what's going on: A History of the Vietnam Era by Michael Hayes is a thin trade paperback that includes a quote from yours truly on the back cover. "what's going on by Michael Hayes is not quite a history book, and it's not quite an oral history, but the mix, like the organization of individual notes in a piece of music, combines to create a moving, insightful, powerful and important multi-faceted portrait of the Vietnam War era. Hayes is non-judgmental, allowing his subjects to voice their opinions and relate their stories. The result is as colorful and poignant as the times. A very worthwhile study."

Further down, the back cover informs us that "Mike has been a long-time high school social studies teacher." This information certainly applies to my review of this unusual book. High school social studies or history teachers are always rushed, especially in the crucial final semester. In many states, they have to cram in a large chunk of twentieth century history after approximately World War I, and the Vietnam War is always the final piece of the puzzle. As a result, it becomes a cramped little presentation, almost an afterthought before the students take their final exams. Just outside the classroom windows, spring is firmly established, summer is fast approaching, and students are restless. For many, their fathers or grandfathers are Vietnam veterans, so there is a natural curiosity about "our" war. They want to talk about Vietnam and all the turbulence that took place in this country, and they feel cheated when so little time or attention is paid to the subject.

what's going on reads like a lesson plan prepared by an energetic high school history teacher to address a multitude of questions from his students. Don't get me wrong; that is a good thing! Hayes doesn't hesitate to include a lot of information about the anti-war movement, and the tragedy that was America's involvement in Southeast Asia. He labors to present all sides, but only dribs and drabs of each. That's not a criticism. He is used to preparing concise lessons, without intricate detail. His book is a fine example, and it offers young students a very worthwhile introduction to the subject. This is not a detailed history like John Prados's or Stanley Karnow's Vietnam; it was never meant to be.

what's going on begins with a very concise history of the war, thirty pages including the Prologue and An Introduction, presented as LZ Alpha. The next chapter, actually the first, Making War, is LZ Bravo. The second actual chapter, LZ Charlie, is entitled Rearranging Their World, devotes twenty-four pages to a study of personalities from the era, and a brief discussion of how the war rearranged their lives. A sub-titled section called Awake and Rise looks at the women's movement, and students are introduced to folks like Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, and college students Hillary Rodham and Bill Clinton. Unwelcome Patriots looks at homosexuality, and offers examples Dr. Tom Dooley and Sergeant First Class Perry Watkins. The Cruel Irony examines the role of Blacks, and …Pay Any Price, Bear Any Burden… compares the experiences of John McCain and John Kerry. Out Now! touches upon the anti-war movement via the requisite Jane Fonda, then Daniel Berrigan, and SDS spokesperson Paul Booth. The Whole World is Watching includes Yippies, Hippies, pot, LSD, Timothy Leary, and the 1968 Democratic National Convention, while Violent Revolution is about SDS (Students for a Democratic Society), the Weathermen, and the Black Liberation Army. America, Love It or Leave It describes the kickback to the anti-war movement and hardhat violence, followed by a mention of the shootings at Kent State University. Throughout all of this, the author avoids taking sides.

LZ Delta is a chapter titled Living the Era, an abbreviated oral history from veterans Jim Slattery and William Sims, a "gung ho" Bill Lane, Jose Flores, Michael Smar, Pat O'Leary, Jim Schmidt, and yours truly. Intermixed are profiles of anti-war activist Heather Booth, Black Panther Billy X. Jennings, and student activist and Weatherman Mark Rudd, a cop who leaned to the Right, Canadian-born Judy Gumbo who had been raised by Communist parents and leaned far to the Left, Susan Schnall who protested in her Navy uniform, Dean Kahler, who was shot at Kent State and spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair, gay veteran Denny Meyer, Vietnam vet and Woodstock attendee Jim Connelly, pacifist and activist E.J. Dionne, Jr., Vietnam vet and nurse Kathleen Gunson, and a very moving story by Vietnam vet Michael Hayes, the author of this book. These first-person accounts are very skillfully combined to leave the reader with a troubling, confusing picture of the Vietnam era, and it must be said, the clash of those passionate views combine to give a condensed but very accurate impression of what actually happened.

LZ Easy, or Their Own Words, allows another collection of disparate voices. The chapter starts with a heart-wrenching statement by Chuck Searcy, the veteran who has spent the last twenty-odd years working with the Vietnamese to clear the land of UXO, or unexploded ordnance. A tragic legacy of the war, the Vietnamese countryside is littered with thousands of "duds," the defective, unexploded bombs or artillery rounds that inexplicably explode today and grievously wound hundreds of children and adults. Thanks to the efforts of Searcy and others, more than 70,000 have been found and disarmed or blown up, at great risk to the workers. Following that terribly important testimony of today's Vietnam and the horror and suffering our war left behind, each of the people featured earlier in the book are allowed to contribute a brief "last word" about how the memories of America's war in Vietnam are affecting them today.

what's going on is a title taken from a classic 1971 tune by Marvin Gaye, composed after his brother Frankie had returned from Vietnam "changed." If there is a failing in Michael Hayes' book, it is that he does not mention the tune, or why he titled his book after it. It's a perfect title, but I doubt that many high school social studies students will recognize its significance.

Mother, mother,
There's too many of you crying
Brother, brother,
There's too many of you dying

John Ketwig is a lifetime member of VVAW, and the author of two critically-acclaimed books about Vietnam, ?and a hard rain fell and Vietnam Reconsidered: The War, the Times, and Why They Matter.

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