This is the post excerpt.
I have been writing since I was six years old. I now have four novels and seventeen stories in print. Adelaide Books in New York will publish my latest novel, Secretocracy, early in 2020.
My first published book, Friendly Casualties, was a novel in short stories derived from experiences in the 13 years I trundled between the U.S. and Vietnam to provide signals intelligence support to U.S. Army and Marine combat units fighting in South Vietnam. The first half of the book is a series of short stories in which characters from one story reappear in another. The second half is a novella that draws together all the preceding tales.
No-Accounts came from my years of caring for AIDS patients. It tells the story of a straight man caring for a gay man dying of AIDS. I got into helping men with AIDS to help me cope with the horrors of Post-Traumatic Stress Injury. When I was with my patients, men suffering more than I was, my unbearable memories went dormant.
Next came The Trion Syndrome. It begins with the Greek Trion legend about a demigod so brutal to the vanquished that the gods sent the Eucharides, three female monsters, to drown him. The protagonist, Dave Bell, is haunted by half-remembered visions of the war in Vietnam. At his lowest point, he recalls that he killed a child. Dave considers suicide, but a young man appears and helps him. It is his illegitimate son, a child he had tried to kill through abortion, who now helps him find his way home.
Last of the Annamese was published in March 2017. I used this novel to confront my memories of the fall of Saigon from which I escaped under fire. Once again, the image of the boy-child recurs, as the protagonist, Chuck Griffin, a retired Marine, grieves over the loss of his son, killed in combat in Vietnam. He returns to Vietnam as a civilian intelligence analyst after the withdrawal of U.S. troops and encounters Vietnamese boys whom he tries to save during the conflagration.
Secretocracy tells the story of an federal intelligence budgeteer persecuted by the current administration because he refuses to approve finds for an illegal operation.
I’ve lost touch with a good friend. For years, once a month, this man and I got together for lunch. When I was getting ready to move late last Spring, I told him I’d have to forego the lunches for a while until I got settled in my new house. A month ago or so, I emailed him that I was ready to resume our lunch dates. When I got no response, I emailed him again, then twice telephoned him. No answer.
My friend was close to ninety. It was obvious to me he was failing in several different ways. He was having more and more trouble getting around, walking, sitting, getting into the car. But my guess had been that he’d be with us a while longer. He had moved just before I did, and I don’t have his new address. I have no way of locating him.
My best guess is that he is sick or perhaps has died. That fits the pattern I see with growing regularity. Barely a week goes by that I don’t hear about another of my contemporaries who has died.
I accept that losing friends is a part of getting older. So is dealing with a failing body and the inability to perform tasks we’ve always done as a matter of routine. My hearing and eyesight aren’t what they used to be. I have a bad right leg, a bad left arm, lungs that don’t work right.
I see the effects of aging on friends and acquaintances. I see them in myself. The worst, from my point of view, is that the brain doesn’t work as well as it once did. I have trouble remembering names. I reach for words when I’m writing, and they’re not there. I have more trouble that I have ever had thinking in modes that I’m not skilled at.
None of this is easy. It puts new demands on my ingenuity and creativity. And I have to plan on taking more time than I used to do simple tasks.
I and others my age, in short, face new challenges that test our ability to overcome difficulties. Aging ain’t for sissies.
We now have testimony that President Trump is a major threat to our security. In Kiev on July 26 2019, Gordon Sondland, in an outdoor café, discussed classified information with Trump using his insecure cellphone. This came a day after Trump’s call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in which he pressured Zelensky to investigate the Bidens. We know about the Sondland call from the testimony of David Holmes, the political counsel at the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine, that he was at the restaurant in Kiev—a public place where anyone might have overheard the conversation—on July 26 when Sondland spoke to Trump over the phone.
All of us who, as government employees, have worked with classified information, are trained never to mention anything classified outside secured spaces or on an unsecured telephone. The same applies to email and internet chatter. We already knew that Trump gave Vladimir Putin a highly classified document during a discussion sometime ago. I wonder how many other security violations Trump may have committed.
Those not familiar with the government’s classification system may not understand the seriousness of this issue. Intelligence is the eyes and ears of our government. It allows us to know what our adversaries are doing and sometimes what they plan to do. To the degree that the intelligence we hold, all of it classified, is revealed to our intelligence targets, to that same degree we lose the ability to know what are our adversaries are doing. A major source of information is monitoring telephones and especially cellphones. Those surveilled can easily block the surveillance once they know it is going on. That puts us in great danger.
We already knew that Trump dislikes the U.S. intelligence establishment because it revealed in detail Russia’s effort to get Trump elected in 2016. I have expressed my concerns in this blog about what Trump may have done to intelligence in retaliation for its reporting of the truth. Since all actions by intelligence agencies are classified, we may never know what damage Trump has inflicted. All of us will suffer for the loss.
Featured on the wall of my piano room is a photograph, taken by the artist-photographer Ann Gonzalez, of the jungle combat boots I wore for many years in Vietnam. At the bottom are the words, “Do what you have to do, whatever it takes.” That’s the motto of my novel Last of the Annamese, set during the fall of Saigon. And it is the theme of the book—how those of us in Vietnam knew we had to be prepared to give our all for our country.
The photo of the empty boots suggests, almost subliminally, that their owner did just that and that now all that is left of him is his boots.
Men and women who put their lives on the line for the country are a manifestation of the can-do attitude writ large. We do what we have to do, whatever it takes. And we know that our sacrifice is worthwhile and honorable.
The tragic irony is that those who fought in Vietnam were undercut by the downside of the American can-do attitude, the assumption by our commanders that we superior Americans would easily defeat that “raggedy-ass little fourth-rate country,” as Lyndon Johnson called North Vietnam. We were too blinded by our arrogance to understand how to fight the North Vietnamese. And we lost the war. Some 58,000 of us died.
So we Americans need to rethink our way of seeing the world. Let us make the most of the good side of out can-do attitude and learn the humility to grant equality to others who are not like us. Let us do what we have to do, whatever it takes.
My blog post of yesterday brought a thoughtful response from Rose Kent, a writer of wonderful children’s books: “Some assets can also be liabilities. Our can-do spirit has served us well at times. Surely it brought us independence from the most powerful nation in the world in the 18th century. It saved the world from totalitarianism as well. We Americans need to do a better job of learning from our mistakes. Vietnam became a topic nobody wanted to speak of from early on after the war. But there was a great deal there to unpack.”
As usual, Rose brought balance to my thoughts. Despite my intent, my words came off stressing the negative. What I meant to say is that our can-do attitude is admirable but can mislead us. As colonies and later a young nation, we faced challenges that required us to be stalwart and positive. Our westward push to the coast of the Pacific Ocean succeeded because we held our heads high and carried on. And our performance in the two world wars bespoke our optimistic leadership. Our can-do attitude on the whole is a good thing.
But we as Americans need to learn not to look down on other cultures who have suffered defeats and disasters we have never known. We must learn the humility to see others, who are different from us, as our equals. We especially need to overcome out linguistic arrogance and learn other languages. In the process, we’ll learn deeply about how people in other cultures think.
And Rose is right that we need to look at the Vietnam war and understand why we lost. A good many books have come out in the last half-dozen years examining in detail where we went awry. We can’t afford to lose wars because we don’t understand the culture and strategy of the enemy and can’t figure out how to counter it.
My sense is that younger Americans, those under fifty and especially those in their twenties and thirties, have learned from the mistakes of their parents and grandparents. They will do better than we have done. I pray that they study the languages of those who oppose us. I propose that they start with Chinese, a language that taught me volumes about how to think in general and particularly about how the Chinese think.
We Americans are a positive and optimistic bunch. We start out assuming that we’ll find a way to be successful at whatever we attempt. We expect good weather and happy outcomes. And we never doubt our ability to deal with whatever lies ahead.
We also assume, without saying so, that we are a superior culture. We find other civilizations quaint and faintly amusing. We take for granted that American English is superior to the English spoken in other countries and get impatient with foreigners’ struggle with our language. We seem to believe that if others were superior like us, they wouldn’t have any trouble speaking American English.
We make little effort to learn the languages of other countries, expecting, instead, that others will learn our language. We are alone in the world at assigning ambassadors to other nations who do not speak the language of those nations.
Our can-do attitude served us particularly badly in Vietnam. We judged, correctly, that we were the strongest and best-equipped military in the world. Defeat of the Vietnamese communists was never more than a year away. We were baffled when, time after time, we set out to attack the enemy but found that he’d decamped before we got there. We never understood the North Vietnamese fighting strategy, summed up by Mao Tse Tung:
Enemy advances, we retreat.
Enemy camps, we harass.
Enemy tires, we attack.
Enemy retreats, we pursue.
It’s telling that we won every major battle we were able to engage in during the war, but for the first time in our history, we lost the war.
The can-do attitude is a flawed perspective.
I’m embarrassed to admit it, but sleep is becoming one of my favorite pastimes. I can’t seem to get enough, and I prefer it to almost every other way to spend my time.
Granted, recent events turn me toward sleep. The most important of those was my hernia surgery in the middle of October. I’m annoyed and frustrated that it’s taking me so long to recover. And I am amazed that I’m capable of sleeping such long hours. During the week after the surgery, I slept twelve hours one night and then took a two-hour nap the next afternoon.
But it’s more than the surgery. I hate to admit it, but much of it is aging. I find that I can sleep at any hour of the day or night. My energy level is failing. That’s at odds with my very busy life and full schedule.
The message I’m getting is that I’m going to have to slow down and do less. Not acceptable. Instead, I’ll try to prioritize and eliminate non-productive but time-consuming chores (like eating and house cleaning) to allow more energy for essential tasks, like writing and doing presentations.
Sometimes I feel like the decks are stacked against me. But that’s been true many times in my life. In Vietnam, the odds were often against me, but I survived. I’ve always managed to squeak by doing what needs to be done, and I’ve suffered few permanent wounds. I’m good at conniving and cheating.
I bet I figure out how to beat this latest downturn, the need for sleep. Stay tuned.
For reasons I don’t understand, the area I where live in Columbia, Maryland, is alive with deer. I see them on the streets, and I see them in back of my house in the land surrounding the pond. I wonder why they are so numerous here in the middle of a city.
A couple of days ago, I looked east through the windows in my piano room and spotted a stag and a doe. They wandered through the open grass munching and investigating. Then the doe wanted to move further into the area, but the stag decided he didn’t want her there. He moved toward her, and she took off back into the woods. A little later, I spotted another doe moving through the grass. The stag watched her but did nothing. They were still there when I moved on to other ventures.
Why are they here? Why don’t they migrate to woodsy areas free of humans? That’s among the many things I don’t know.