Book Review of Tin Can by Allen Leonard Meese, for VVAW by Daniel C. Lavery

Tin Can is a new book on an old subject with an urgent and creative voice demanding and deserving attention. Written as a fictitious novel, the subject matter builds into a crescendo of action into a mutiny by thirteen determined sailors on an American Destroyer. Meese knows his subject well and speaks with authority on all naval matters having had three years on a destroyer, affectionately called a Tin Can, probably because it bobs up and down in a rough ocean much like a can despite its weight, speed and accuracy at gunnery operations. Meese describes his awakening to the reasons so many protested this unpopular immoral war including, “pride, profit, and big shots on power trips. So noble.” Meanwhile although President Johnson had admitted “We can’t win it and we can’t get out of it” Meese describes this war as being “clamped in a grand mal seizure of blood lust” when a simple solution was to declare peace and end it. But no, Johnson pressed it until fifty-eight thousand American and a few million local civilians had died meaninglessly and unnecessarily.

From the beginning Meese points out Article 94 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice on Mutiny or Sedition is punishable by death as well as desertion under article 85. Meese opines that the “poor enlisted man who hates the crimes which he is ordered to commit is forced to mutiny or to die a little within himself.” The first couple of chapters introduce the reader to rituals at sea, the routines on a destroyer, gunnery drills, the details of his destroyer and then eventually ordered shooting into jungle areas inhabited by Vietnamese obviously killing anyone the victim of such bombardment. Liberty in port usually meant a quick short time with a whore for the best price and all the beer or whisky one could find. Friendships and loyalties developed to combat the incessant message that sailors were meaningless while “lifers” mattered. He decried that he would have been an officer had he not failed his eye exam for Annapolis in 1964.

Mutiny in Vietnam has been a subject of historian interest as University of Massachusetts’ Professor Christian G. Appy described with the help of an army of grad students’ research in his treatise, American Reckoning, THE VIETNAM WAR AND OUR NATIONAL IDENTITY. He reported anti-war protests included four antiwar sailors from the Aircraft Carrier Intrepid in October 1967 who deserted to Japan after a bombing mission in the Gulf of Tonkin who worked the catapult to launch countless navy jet bombers on Vietnam missions.  Appy reports Col. Robert Heinl (ret) said: “Our army that remains in Vietnam is in a state approaching collapse, with individual units avoiding or having refused combat, murdering their officers, and non-commissioned officers, drug-ridden and dispirited where not near mutinous.” Five aircraft carriers were kept out of the combat zone by acts of sabotage and protest by active duty sailors, and some antiwar pilots who were refusing to fly combat missions.

Meese used the Gulf of Tonkin for the beginning scene of his mutiny after a few chapters that discusses tedious but necessary naval procedures aboard a destroyer and the role of subservient sailors in a navy filled with bombastic traditions in our most unpopular war. Eventually another sailor Obie, reveals his commonly held anti-Vietnam War views, at least among Jack’s friends, to the brass. They send him to the brig where he is beaten unmercifully, then tortured, and dies! This caused his crewmembers like Jack who hung with other anti-Vietnam War sailors to pledge retaliation. John “Jack” Mason, raises the stakes much higher leading a mutiny with his thirteen comrades.  That left over one hundred men, including, of course, the “Lifers” like the Captain, Chief Petty Officers who had spent more than ten years in their “profession”, locked physically out of interference with the twelve instigators by a quick show of weapons and force. I must leave the details of this exciting mutiny for the reader to discover and ruminate over. So much happens so fast, and at such potential cost to one’s future it is an amazing task Meese does well in scrambling together from his imagination based on the details he knew and amassed from his research. You will not regret discovering how these 12 men managed to take their destroyer with many naval hostages five hours up a river to China where this writer leaves you to imagine what happens next or find out by reading this action-packed adventure with the most severe of all possibilities with which the mutineers contend.

Bio: Dan graduated Annapolis, navigated a Navy jet, was carrier qualified, and earned NAO wings in Florida, and then a ship to Vietnam. He resigned, turned peace activist, joined VVAW, and became a civil rights lawyer for Cesar Chavez's UFW, the ACLU, and private civil rights practice. His memoir, All the Difference, describes his change from a pawn in the military to a crusader for justice. (Author website)

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