Book Review:

For those who served their country honorably, the horrors of Vietnam are best left forgotten. But for Burbank freelance journalist Marc Phillip Yablonka, the Vietnam War served as the inspiration for his life's work. Yablonka's first book, “Distant War: Recollections of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia” is an expansive collection of Vietnam-related articles he wrote for various military magazines and newspapers, and quite an interesting read.

In the prologue, Yablonka admits that he came to the Vietnam War “eight months after it was over.” Yet the war was never more than an earshot away. Like most baby boomers, he grew up in an era when American body counts were broadcast live and in color via the evening news. It was a contentious time in American history, and one that Yablonka saw himself ill prepared for.

That is until a small film called “The Killing Fields,” based on the New York Times reporter Sydney Schanberg's reportage of the Cambodian War, changed his life. As Yablonka notes of his initial reaction to the film, “it eventually became clear to me that if I had a true purpose in life, it was to be a chronicler of war.”

One of the rather unlikely figures Yablonka chronicles is that of TV host, and former Armed Forces Radio disc jockey Pat Sajak. Sajak spent 13 months in Vietnam and never saw combat.

“There was a war going on,” Sajak said, “and I was playing records and going to restaurants every night. It was a fairly normal life.”

After a brief stint as a clerk typist, Sajak earned a spot as the morning man for a top-40 radio station based out of Saigon. Much like Robin Williams' character in the film “Good Morning Vietnam,” Sajak began each broadcast with that now iconic phrase. As Yablonka notes, Sajak looked upon his time spent in Vietnam as the best radio gig he ever had.

Some of the more interesting stories Yablonka includes are those of people who became historically significant in the war simply by chance. Along the way we meet photographer Nick Ut, who received international acclaim for his 1972 photograph of 9-year-old Phan Thi Kim Phuc, more commonly known as “the Napalm Girl.”

Yablonka recounts how Ut captured the iconic image of the little girl running naked down a village road after being bombed by napalm while he was on assignment in the Cao Dai village of Trang Bang.

“I had seen napalm before, but never dropped on a village,” Ut recalled.

The photos Ut shot that day became symbolic of the millions of Vietnamese whose lives were devastated by the war, and earned him the Pulitzer Prize and World Press Photo Award for 1973.

The war still lingers in the minds of those who lived through it. For Yablonka, the life's work he set out to complete nearly 30 years ago is on full display in “Distant War.”

He approaches each subject with an unquenchable curiosity that could only be the result of a man obsessed. His subjects' honesty and frankness are beyond commendable, given the circumstances, and we have Yablonka to thank because of it.

“Distant War” gives a wonderful insider's perspective of a war most Americans want to forget, but simply cannot.


About the writer JAMES FAMERA has been reviewing books for more than five years. About the writer JAMES FAMERA has been reviewing books for more than five years.

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