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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.

 

Rerun: Who or What is the “Last of the Annamese”?

The title of my 2017 novel, Last of the Annamese, is deliberately ambiguous. It could be understood to mean the end of the Annamese as a nation, or it could refer to that nation’s last surviving native. I intended both meanings.

As of Last of the Annamese progresses, the definition of “Annamese” becomes clear. The reader learns that Thanh, the South Vietnamese Marine colonel at the heart of the story, dislikes “Vietnam,” a name conferred millennia ago by the Chinese which means “troublemakers in the south.” He prefers the name “An Nam,” which means “peace in the south.” An Nam was one of the original names for the country now known as Vietnam, and in English, a resident of An Nam is an Annamese.

In the novel, as the final conquest of South Vietnam by the north comes closer, the end of the Annamese as a people is imminent. Thanh considers himself the last of the Annamese in the sense of being the last of his race. All his loyal brethren have fled or been killed or have gone over to the North Vietnamese. But Thanh has a son, Thu, six years old. He will survive Thanh in the long run. Toward the end of the book, Thu’s mother, Tuyet, refers to Thu as the last of the Annamese. She understands that Thu will end up in the United States and will grow up as an American. That doesn’t alter the fact that he, in her view, will be the last surviving member of his nationality.

So “last of the Annamese” has several meanings. All are fulfilled by the end of the story.

Rerun: Communications Deception

In March and April 1975, I repeatedly warned the U.S. Ambassador, Graham Martin, that a North Vietnamese attack on Saigon was imminent. My signals intelligence data, the result of intercepting and exploiting North Vietnamese radio communications, was rejected as successful North Vietnamese communications deception. The Ambassador forbade evacuation and even preparations for evacuation. I cheated and got 41 of my 43 subordinates and their wives and children safely out of the country before the end. Fortunately, General Homer Smith, the Defense Attaché, disobeyed the Ambassador and proceeded with evacuation planning in conjunction with the Department of Defense and Command-in-Chief, Pacific. The two communicators who volunteered to stay with me to the end went out by helicopter on the afternoon of 29 April. I went out that night under fire after the North Vietnamese were already in the streets of the city.

To my knowledge, labelling signals intelligence data as communications deception has been rare in our history. I never knew of a case in which the label was accurate. Those of us who worked on North Vietnamese communications knew the target backwards and forward. Anything false transmitted for the purpose of fooling us would have been immediately obvious. Communications deception is extremely difficult to design and carry out, and it’s so easy to detect.

My memories of the Ambassador’s refusal to accept the intelligence warning of a forthcoming attack makes me all the more uneasy about what’s going on right now with President Trump. He dismisses valid intelligence and blames the intelligence agencies for leaking. In my years in the business, it was rare if ever that a member of the intelligence community leaked classified information to the press. When leaks occurred, the source nearly always turned out to be an intelligence customer, that is, a recipient of the finished intelligence. The culprits, more often than not, were members of Congress or their staffs.

Trump ignored intelligence warning that the coronavirus posed a severe threat to the nation. The result was worsening of the pandemic. I shudder to think what else he may have dismissed.

Corruption in South Vietnam in 1975

A reader recently noted that the character of Pham Ngoc Thanh in my novel, Last of the Annamese, is remarkable for his lack of corruption in a society riven by corruption. The reader was right. South Vietnam during my years there was a nation in which corruption was a way life. The habit of private citizens giving money to public servants for their carrying out their obligations went back centuries. The accepted way of doing business was that the government paid functionaries so little that, to survive, they were forced to sell their services. It was so commonplace as to be unremarkable.

Pham Ngoc Thanh’s pay as a colonel is paltry. He is expected to siphon off the salaries of his subordinate soldiers, exact taxes from the civilian population, and accept payment for protection. But Thanh, a monk turned warrior, refuses to participate in such practices. As a consequence, he is dirt poor. He’s used to poverty. His family, before the communists murdered them, were poor dirt farmers.

One of the causes of the fall of South Vietnam was poverty driven by corruption. The North Vietnamese exploited the situation with great success. Some U.S. personnel in-country, as early as the beginning of the 1960s, saw what was happening. They were at a loss to ameliorate the situation. The loss of South Vietnam to the communists was inevitable.

Rerun: Highlands Pink

Much of the soil in the Vietnam highlands, along the border with Laos and Cambodia, is red. During my time there working with U.S. combat forces, my fatigues and boot socks looked fine after laundering, whether I washed them myself or a hired laundress did. But my white socks and all my underwear came back a brilliant baby pink. And, as it turned out, no amount of later washing or bleaching would remove the pink.

Most embarrassing was during the second half of 1967 and the beginning of 1968. I was in the highlands in support of the U.S. 4th Infantry Division and the 173rd Airborne Brigade during the battle of Dak To, then moved south to Bien Hoa to work with other units. When the troops in the Bien Hoa area got a glimpse of my underwear, I thought I’d never hear the end of it. Did all civilian males wear pink jockey shorts, they wanted to know, or was it just NSA guys operating under cover? Were there queer mail order houses where they could order pink jock straps like mine? And could they specify a different shade of pink for the pouch and the leg straps?

The razzing didn’t stop until we were well into detecting and forecasting the Têt Offensive. By then we had no time for anything but work.

The memory of my pink undies reminds me of how much fun I had with the troops. As one lieutenant observed, you get a bunch of young men together and they always find a way to make each other laugh. Even when they know some of them will be dead the next day.

Where Have All the Flowers Gone

Some 58,220 American military men died during the Vietnam war. I knew some of them. I stood by their side on the battlefield, not as a soldier but as an intelligence provider. Their average age at time of death was nineteen.

I’ll grieve over those young men as long as I live. And I cry every time I hear Pete Seeger’s “Where have All the Flowers Gone.” Here are the words:

Where have all the flowers gone, long time passing?
Where have all the flowers gone, long time ago?
Where have all the flowers gone?
Young girls have picked them everyone
Oh, when will they ever learn?
Oh, when will they ever learn?

Where have all the young girls gone, long time passing?
Where have all the young girls gone, long time ago?
Where have all the young girls gone?
Gone for husbands everyone
Oh, when will they ever learn?
Oh, when will they ever learn?

Where have all the husbands gone, long time passing?
Where have all the husbands gone, long time ago?
Where have all the husbands gone?
Gone for soldiers everyone
Oh, when will they ever learn?
Oh, when will they ever learn?

Where have all the soldiers gone, long time passing?
Where have all the soldiers gone, long time ago?
Where have all the soldiers gone?
Gone to graveyards, everyone
Oh, when will they ever learn?

Oh, when will they ever learn?

Where have all the graveyards gone, long time passing?
Where have all the graveyards gone, long time ago?

Where have all the graveyards gone?
Gone to flowers, everyone
Oh, when will they ever learn?
Oh, when will they ever learn?

The Battle of Xuân Lộc

I just learned that the South Vietnamese General Lê Minh Đảo died in a Hartford, Connecticut hospital on 19 March 2020 at the age of 87. General Đảo commanded South Vietnamese forces at Xuân Lộc, some twenty miles northeast of Saigon in the final days of the Vietnam war. His 18th Infantry Division fought bravely from 9 to 21 April 1975 against three North Vietnamese divisions before being withdrawn to defend Saigon. Xuân Lộc was the last obstacle to the communists. After the North Vietnamese captured it, they surrounded Saigon. The city fell to the communists on 29 April 1975.

I was in my office at Tan Son Nhat on the northern edge of Saigon when the North Vietnamese captured Xuân Lộc. I was struggling to evacuate my 43 subordinates and their wives and children as the communist threat against Saigon grew. The fall of Xuân Lộc was Saigon’s death knell. By dint of sheer determination, I was able to get all my people safely out of the country before the final conquest. I escaped under fire on the night of 29 April.

General Đảo did not escape. After surrendering to the North Vietnamese on 9 May 1975, he was imprisoned for the next seventeen years. When he was finally released in 1992, he fled to the U.S.

The courage and self-sacrifice of General Đảo and others like him remain the unwritten story of the end of Vietnam. I am grateful for their acts of bravery.