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Book Review: A Haunting Beauty: Vietnam Through the Eyes of an Artist by James John Magner

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A Haunting Beauty, a new Vietnam memoir by author and artist James John Magner, offers a different perspective on this war than I have encountered in numerous other books on this subject. This would seem clearly to be the result of Magner’s two conflicting viewpoints as both artist and soldier. But in the book’s Preface the author explains that “Art has always been an integral part of my life … I spent the first six years in a tough Irish neighborhood in Chicago where I had to fight just to get across the street. That became an integral part of me as well.” That dichotomy continued at the University of Arizona from which Magner graduated with a degree in art and received a commission through ROTC. For Lt. Magner, the officer, Vietnam was where the action was; for the passionate artist it was an exotic place full of imagery and humanity, an artistic treasure.

A Haunting Beauty is full of stories, and Magner is a gifted storyteller. They are graphic, sometimes jolting, frequently funny and occasionally sad. The book is populated by a diverse and intriguing cast of characters that are each described in strongly engaging word portraits. One such is First Sergeant Naipo Mokuwahna, the Legend.

Captain Tiller, looking down again, (told me) “He’s full -blooded Hawaiian. He learned his jungle warfare in the Pacific fighting the Japs during World War Two. He had a couple of Silver Stars by the time you were born and picked up more medals in Korea. And this is his second tour in Nam. He taught hand-to-hand combat in ranger school. He’s black belt in everything.” He looked at me in earnest. “You can learn a lot from him, but don’t let him take over… And Magner, no heads on stakes.”

The young officer learned quickly that his primary job was trying to keep everyone alive. Even in relating this aspect of his experience, Magner relies on his artist sensitivities to create an impressionist-style picture of the frequent firefight circus that became a way of life. Often, keeping his men alive meant keeping them safe from themselves. “Suddenly there was a blast of gunfire, a lot of rounds, all American. They ‘got somebody’ who tried to sneak up on them,” Magner writes. “We all had the same sickening questions at the same time: What about the guy sent to guide them in? Who was looking for him? Didn’t anyone tell the troops? … It was too tragic, and yes, too ironic to comprehend.”

Magner writes with a keen intellect and a straight-forward but moving writing style. His journal-like, short chapters draw the reader into the day-to-day occurrences of his life in combat. His powerful, sometimes surreal descriptions of full-scale and hand-to-hand combat rivet the reader to the page and sometimes leaves them feeling as if they had actually been there in that jungle instead of inside Magner’s mind. Magner can write and what he writes crafts crystal clear, vivid imagery.

It has been 45 years since James John Magner served in Vietnam. In a recent interview with BurkeConnection.com Magner said it wasn’t a deliberate decision. “But I’m glad I did, because as details fade, the whole picture and perspective become clearer. As you get older you get a better sense of what it was about. In A Haunting Beauty, John James Magner does indeed — like his art on the book’s cover — offer a different tone and a different impression of the Vietnam War. This is a beautiful read about a subject that has been dominated in its documentation by its horror. Now, readers can share another sense of what it was all about.

A Haunting Beauty: Vietnam Through the Eyes of an Artist
James John Magner
CreateSpace (2011)
ISBN 9781461057543

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