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A Different Face of War

Memories of a Medical Service Corps Officer in Vietnam (North Texas Military Biography and Memoir Series #8)

James G. Van Straten


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Paperback (9/25/2018)


Selected by Major General Pat Sargent, Chief of the U.S. Army Medical Service Corps, for the Corps Chief’s Reading List, May 2016.

A Different Face of War is a riveting account of one American officer in the Medical Service Corps during the early years of the Vietnam War.

Assigned as the senior medical advisor to the Army of the Republic of Vietnam in I Corps, an area close to the DMZ, James G. Van Straten traveled extensively and interacted with military officers and non-commissioned officers, peasant-class farmers, Buddhist bonzes, shopkeepers, scribes, physicians, nurses, the mentally ill, and even political operatives. He sent his wife daily letters from July 1966 through June 1967, describing in impressive detail his experiences, and those letters became the primary source for his memoir.

The author describes with great clarity and poignancy the anguish among the survivors when an American cargo plane in bad weather lands short of the Da Nang Air Base runway on Christmas Eve and crashes into a Vietnamese coastal village, killing more than 100 people and destroying their village; the heart-wrenching pleadings of a teenage girl that her shrapnel-ravaged leg not be amputated; and the anger of an American helicopter pilot who made repeated trips into a hot landing zone to evacuate the wounded, only to have the Vietnamese insist that the dead be given a higher priority.

Praise For A Different Face of War: Memories of a Medical Service Corps Officer in Vietnam (North Texas Military Biography and Memoir Series #8)

"Daily letters home are the basis of this important memoir. The author’s insight into all that was swirling around him was outstanding. He was on the move all the time, in the air and on the ground, in hostile territory and in the relative sanctuary of the cities. He witnessed what is recorded. If you have any interest in the history of the Vietnam War, the age-old culture, values, and religions of the Vietnamese people, the terrible effects of the war on the civilian population and the challenges of providing medical advisory support—this book is for you. I had one problem with it. I could not lay it down."—LTG Quinn H. Becker, U.S. Army Retired, Former U.S. Army Surgeon General
"This is a fine memoir that will add significantly to the historiography of the Vietnam War. Van Straten witnessed more death and destruction than most combat soldiers, and his memories of those moments are riveting. No one can tell the story of the devastating effect of war on civilians better than a medical department officer."—Ron Milam, Texas Tech University, and author of Not a Gentleman's War: An Inside View of Junior Officers in the Vietnam War
“In this sensitive and compassionate account of his year as an advisor, Colonel Van Straten provides valuable insights into the lives and culture of ordinary South Vietnamese struggling to survive a hellish war. An important addition to the literature of the conflict. Highly recommended.”—Lewis Sorley, author of A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America’s Last Years in Vietnam
"The outcome of the Vietnam War might have been different if President Johnson had had the insights and information of then-Major Jim Van Straten, so thoughtfully shared in A Different Face of War. His stories of little Ho Thien, the gifted Dr. John Henry Giles and the German hospital ship, the Helgoland, presage what we know today as ‘medical diplomacy.’ He is inspired—and inspiring—as he describes ‘winning the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people’ through the best of medicine and education."—John P. Howe III, M.D., Former president and CEO of Project HOPE
"Van Straten was a very attentive observer and has thoughtful and detailed observations of numerous aspects of Vietnamese culture. The book is full of great snapshots of Vietnamese life during the war, and of many aspects Western accounts rarely discuss.”—James E. Westheider, University of Cincinnati-Clermont, and author of Fighting in Vietnam: The Experiences of the U.S. Soldier
“In stark, yet humane language, Jim Van Straten has rendered a great service for those who still seek  to understand America’s failure to win the ‘hearts and minds’ of the Vietnamese people. In graphic detail he describes tragedies witnessed by few Americans, and provides clues for today’s leaders of America’s wars on behalf of, and against, indigenous peoples. He was true to the principle that a soldier is charged with protection of the weak and unarmed.”—Thomas M. Hatfield, Director, Military History Institute, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin

"Beyond describing his everyday activities, Van Straten tells stories about revelatory encounters with a long list of people, from the famous to the unknown. He explores nuances of Vietnamese culture overlooked in many other Vietnam War memoirs. He provides memorable word pictures of scenes such as the difference between American and Vietnamese casualty wards. He editorializes against the tactic of search-and-destroy."--The VVA Veteran

"[Van Straten] has written about the Vietnamese people and soldiers in a way that is honest, yet compassionate and personal. As a result, he enables us to see the war through the eyes of an American Advisor, immersed in a difficult, dangerous and often baffling environment. . . . A Different Face of War offers a valuable look into the developing confidence, tempered with a growing sense of frustration that characterized the journey of most Advisors, regardless of their assignment, rank, or duties."--Counterparts

"A Different Face of War presents a soldier and practitioner of medical diplomacy discharging his duty to conserve fighting strength while fully meeting the requirement to protect the weak and the unarmed. One hopes Van Straten's legacy will inspire serving and future MSC officers."--On Point, the Journal of Army History

"[A] captivating account of Americans serving in Vietnam during the early days of a tumultuous time in our nation's history. While written as a memoir, it also serves as a heartfelt tribute to military service members and the South Vietnamese who battled communism a half century ago in the hopes of a better tomorrow."--San Antonio Express-News

"These stories are poignant and range from heartwarming to soul-crushing and everything in between. . . . Van Straten does a great job of illuminating the impact an effective medical program can have when it operates within the cultural norms of a society. His work brings out a very human, redeeming side to the conflict, which I believe readers will embrace."--H-WAR

"[T]he narrative of A Different Face of War is accessible to all readers interested in learning more about the day-to-day realities of living and working in a war zone, and will also provide insights into the myriad complexities of a successful corps-level medical advisor in Vietnam."--Military History of the West

"This book is gold. The reader is privileged to peer inside the personal thoughts and experiences of war from a different perspective. Van Straten’s story is unique because it uncovers an aspect of the Vietnam War rarely told, that of the 'softer' side of war. . . . The reader can easily apply the observations from 50 years ago to very similar circumstances today."--The AMEDD Historian, U.S. Army Medical Department's Center of History and Heritage

"For those interested in the medical care of a civilian population in a war zone, this book provides an excellent case study of the successes and failures of the U.S. Army and NGOs in trying to provide medical care to a third world country's army and civilian population during an insurrection. I believe that any account written by any medical officers concerning his or her service in Iraq or Afghanistan would contain accounts of the simpler problems Major Van Straten encountered in Vietnam."--Journal of America's Military Past

"Anyone wanting to broaden their understanding of our military’s service in foreign countries would appreciate this very personal book. . . . Van Straten displayed all of the qualities we desire to see in our field grade officers."--Military Review

University of North Texas Press, 9781574416176, 528pp.

Publication Date: November 15, 2015

About the Author

After his thirty-year military career ended in 1986, JAMES G. VAN STRATEN moved into academia. In 1990 he was appointed dean of the School of Allied Health Sciences at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio. He and his spouse now reside in Windcrest, Texas.