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A Reckoning for Kings by Chris Bunch and Allan Cole (Atheneum: $17.95; 384 pp.) Beach House 7by Paul Roadarmel (St. Martin's: $17.95; 320 pp.)

April 26, 1987|Larry Heinemann | Heinemann is the author of two Vietnam novels, "Close Quarters" and "Paco's Story" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux).

The Vietnam War is a benchmark of American history if there ever was one. Before the fall of Saigon in April, 1975--positively and absolutely the end of U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia--you were hard pressed to find more than a handful of novels on the subject. Now, 12 years later, there are well over 200 novels, and no doubt as many histories, biographies, fictional memoirs, as well as stage plays, volumes of poetry, documentary and dramatic films.

"A Reckoning for Kings," a novel by Chris Bunch and Allan Cole, is about the Tet Offensive of 1968, a military victory for the United States and its South Vietnamese allies, but an extraordinary political defeat. The title is taken from "Henry V," one of Shakespeare's great sword-rattling historical plays. The offensive raised questions about a bankrupt and overbearing foreign policy, the Johnson Administration's credibility, and the workaday spirit of atrocity of the American armed forces. The novel, an excellent piece of work by two journeymen writers, makes one think.

Their story switches back and forth between the Vietnamese and the Americans, ranging across a vast scene that begins with the whole of Southeast Asia and ends with bitter street fighting in the fictional city of Song Nhanh. Gen. Duan (earthy and genuine, ambitious to liberate his country) moves the crack 302nd NVA Division south from Hanoi to join the general offensive in the Province of Song Nhanh. Hard-working and professional Maj. Shannon, on a recon patrol along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, sees Duan and his suite of staff officers and political cadre cross the Cham River on the Cambodian border. It can only be the headquarters staff of an NVA division--7,000 strong.

The reckoning is set in motion when Shannon tries to report to his new division commander, the hard-charging old tanker, Gen. Sinclair. The general is in Vietnam to punch his ticket and make some rank. The conventional wisdom from Saigon says there can't be an NVA division poised in the Song Nhanh Province, so Sinclair does not believe Shannon's report. Gen. Duan, a veteran of Dien Bien Phu, and his march-weary troops move to a prepared tunnel complex dug into a mountain called the Octopus.

Despite some telltale skirmishes, the division manages to remain undetected, and lies in wait for the general uprising scheduled to begin with the celebration of Tet, the Vietnamese New Year.

As the story moves back and forth among the many scenes of the Vietnamese and Americans coming inexorably closer to the landmark day, Jan. 30, 1968, the story also moves in and out. The large overall scenes cover the whole of the war in historical summary, neatly accomplished with the biographical asides of the main characters. The broad summaries lay the ground work for the close-in fire fight scenes of single well-aimed shots with M-16s and RPGs or discreet bursts with an M-60 machine gun or the solid volley of Chicom mortars. Young Sgt. Mosby and his squad (reluctant but fiercely competent) slug their way through many a fire fight, but not many of them drop by the wayside. All the characters meet in the capital city of Song Nhanh and fight street by street and doorway by doorway, eyeing each other over sandbag revetments and windowsill embrasures.

Bunch and Cole often talk in code--"Ossifer's Club" for Officer's Club. And they have a habit of using unfamiliar words: cut a chogie , the GI pronunciation of a Korean word that is the same as didi mau , which is Vietnamese for get out of here , scram! Bunch and Cole's combined knowledge of the war in Southeast Asia is encyclopedic--how to rig your pack, what a starlight scope is, what is the sound of a company-size air assault, what it is to wallow in the squalor of the aftermath of a fire fight, on and on.

Overall, what the story gives you is a sense of the inevitable chaos of a military campaign; the incredible personal, physical pain; the extreme ugliness of the death that awaits even the most savvy line animal-- as grunts are called here. There is an elegant epilogue in which we learn the fate of the survivors--what happened to the survivors after the war.

"Beach House 7," a novel by Paul Roadarmel, is a post-Vietnam War spy thriller that takes place in Bangkok--that most exquisite and beautiful of cities.

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