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.
Reading Thurston Clarke’s Honorable Exit brought back vivid memories of the last days of Vietnam. I wrote several days ago about the 2700 South Vietnamese soldiers I failed to evacuate at the end. Today I want to tell the story of the general commanding those troops and about one of the 2700, an army major, who was sacrificed at the end.
The general, whose name is still classified, headed the South Vietnamese signals intelligence effort against the North Vietnamese. During the last week of April 1975, as the North Vietnamese surrounded Saigon and prepared for the final attack, the general became despondent. He sat alone in his darkened office sobbing hysterically. I urged him to evacuate his men before Saigon fell, but my words went unheard.
Meanwhile, I visited one of his officers, a major I had known for years. I wanted to be sure he and his troops knew where to go when the U.S. ordered the evacuation, something I couldn’t discuss on an unsecured phone line—the North Vietnamese were already in Saigon’s outskirts and were monitoring my telephone. Always a model of Asian politeness, he invited me in and served me tea. He told me that his wife, who worked for USAID, had been offered the opportunity to leave the country with her family. That included him. But he wouldn’t go because he was unwilling to abandon his troops—no evacuation order had been issued—and she wouldn’t leave without him. Alarmed, I asked him what he would do if he was still in Saigon when Communists tanks rolled through the streets. He told me he couldn’t live under the Communists. “I will shoot my three children, then I will shoot my wife, then I will shoot myself.”
The major didn’t escape at the end, and I have no doubt that he carried out his plan; many other South Vietnamese soldiers did precisely what he described.
The darkest days of my life began in May 1975 when I returned to “the world” (the U.S.) after escaping under fire when Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese. I was suffering from amoebic dysentery and pneumonia brought on by inadequate diet, sleep deprivation, and muscle fatigue during the final days in Saigon. Worse, I had a full-blown case of Port-Traumatic Stress Injury from by my years in combat and the horrors during the final sweep of North Vietnam in its conquest of the south.
My wife and children, who had escaped Saigon twenty days before it fell to the North Vietnamese, were staying at her father’s house in Massachusetts. I telephoned her and begged her to come to Maryland. I told her I was very sick and needed her. She said no. She would only come back to Maryland when we got back our house. We had leased it to another family for three years, the length of our tour in Vietnam, now interrupted by the North Vietnamese conquest of the south. The lease had several years to go. It cost me considerable time and money to break the lease. My wife finally returned with the children the following July when we could move in. Her refusal to help me made me understand how little she cared about me. It was the beginning of the end of the marriage.
Meanwhile, when I was well enough, I returned to the National Security Agency (NSA) where I was employed. Nobody at NSA wanted to hear about Vietnam. It was a shameful war, best forgotten. People avoided me as if I smelled bad. Eventually I was placed in a new job and resumed my career.
A year or so after my return, the U.S. government decided to recognize me for the work I had done during the fall of Saigon, especially my successful effort to evacuate my 43 subordinates and their wives and children as Saigon came under attack. I got them out even though the U.S. ambassador had forbidden me to do so, requiring me to lie, cheat, and steal. It meant, among other things, that I had to stay in Saigon until the night of 29 April. By then, the North Vietnamese were in the streets. The helicopter I flew out on was nearly shot down.
The government’s recognition came in the form of a medal. It was the Civilian Meritorious Medal. I was reminded that usually only the military are awarded with medals. That makes me prize it all the more.
That medal, to this day, is one of my most precious possessions.
As I worked my way through Thurston Clarke’s Honorable Exit (Doubleday, 2019), I read of the heroic efforts of Americans to rescue South Vietnamese during the fall of Vietnam. I honor those Americans. They were successful. I failed.
Working with my organization over entire thirteen years I was in and out of Vietnam were 2700 South Vietnamese soldiers. As the fall of Saigon loomed, I tired frantically to get those men and their families evacuated. Because of the U.S. governments’ on-again off-again policy for evacuation and Ambassador Graham Martin’s failure to arrange and execute an evacuation plan, many thousands of South Vietnamese were left behind to face the vengeance of the North Vietnamese conquerors. I didn’t know that Colonel Bill LeGro, chief of the Intelligence Branch of the Defense Attaché Office (DAO), had arranged what Clarke calls an underground railroad to sneak vulnerable South Vietnamese out of the country.
I knew the men I failed to rescue. I’d worked with them, tramped through the jungle with them, sat beside them as we intercepted North Vietnamese radio signals. With so many of them, we’d gotten to the point that we dispensed with the formal Vietnamese-language address system and used the more casual and intimate forms. That was the equivalent, in English, of calling each other by first names.
All of them were killed or captured by the North Vietnamese. If they survived, they were sent to “re-education camps,” really concentration camps, where the death rate was very high. Some probably spent many years imprisoned.
I’ll never cease grieving over them. They were among the finest men I’ve ever known. We Americans abandoned them and left them to their fate.
One of my duties as an author is to review the work of other writers. I’ve been writing reviews for more years than I can remember. It’s a job I enjoy, and it’s been immensely helpful in improving my own writing.
Being a reviewer means being required to study the writing of other authors I might otherwise have never encountered. Because of my background, I’m usually asked to review books on Vietnam and war. As a result, I’m rarely assigned fiction—novels and short story collections. Yet fiction is my medium.
Whether I am given works by first-class authors or inferior ones, I learn about writing from reading their work. From the unpolished, I discover what to avoid—long sentences, strings of sentences with lengthy present participial phrases tacked on the end, over dependence on complex vocabulary drawn mostly from Greek and Latin origins.
From excellent writers, I learn simplicity. I study their alteration between short and long sentences and their dependence on words with Anglo-Saxon roots. I come to understand their reliance on word choice, the exact right word to convey what they want to say.
Beyond writing skills, the books I review open my mind to new worlds of which I previously knew nothing. I came to understand the British and Irish time of trouble that lasted for many years. I arrived at a new appreciation of espionage. But mostly, I learned facts new to me about the Vietnam war and what it entailed.
I’m fortunate to be able to review books. I’m a better writer as a consequence. But mostly I am enriched with new knowledge. That’s the gift to the reviewer.
One of my jobs as a writer is to review other authors’ books. I do reviews for the Internet Review of Books and the Washington Independent Review of Books. A few weeks ago, I came across an announcement that my friend, Thurston Clarke, has a new book coming out. It’s Honorable Exit: How a Few Brave Americans Risked All to Save Our Vietnamese Allies at the End of the War (Penguin-Random House, 2019). I immediately volunteered with the Independent to review it only to discover that my friendship with Thurston disqualified me. But I learned that we can do an interview. I’ve now finished the book and drafted questions for Thurston. I’ll post the URL of the interview once it’s published.
As I began reading, I was shocked to discover that Thurston included stories about me in the book. My work in Vietnam was classified for so long that previous volumes on the history of the war made no mention of my involvement. But Thurston covers my whole story.
As I read the book, I repeatedly come across events I watched happen. Thurston writes about dozens of people I knew. It’s like living through the fall of Saigon all over again.
I don’t know Thurston’s motivation for writing Honorable Exit, but he stresses the bravery of so many Americans who risked their lives to save South Vietnamese at the end of the war. I hadn’t understood that so many of us went to extremes to rescue our Vietnamese brothers and sisters as Vietnam collapsed. The book is one more testament to accomplishments we can be proud of after decades of being shamed for our participation in the Vietnam war.
So many of us who have struggled to find peace of mind can now take pride.
You can learn more about the book at https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/246218/honorable-exit-by-thurston-clarke/9780385539647/
I’m currently preparing to show a video of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. I’ll be introducing the opera and offering a commentary before the showing begins and between the acts. So I’ve been studying the opera to prepare.
I’ve known Butterfly since childhood. Early in my career, I spent the better part of thirteen years in Asia during the Vietnam war and saw Butterfly’s story played out in real life. The opera captures reality.
While going through the score at the piano, I was struck once again by Puccini’s genius. For episodes involving primarily American characters, he relies on the standard major and minor scales, typified by the “Star-Spangled Banner” which is his leitmotif for Americans.
But for sections of the score dealing with the Japanese, he uses at least ten authentic Japanese melodies and several other themes that might be adaptations of Japanese folk tunes. To depict Butterfly herself and the Japanese that surround her, he employs modes, scales different from what we are used to—the Aeolian mode, the pentatonic scale, and the whole tone scale. The effect is to create a unique musical world inhabited only by Japanese.
Puccini portrays the Americans in the story as shallow, rough, and ruled by a superiority complex. He got that right. As I’ve noted here before, the Americans I’ve observed in my many years working abroad act as though they are a cut above people of other cultures and nationalities. We don’t even bother to learn other languages; people from other countries should learn to speak English.
My sense is that Puccini captured the American character in his portrayal of the American naval lieutenant Pinkerton. His superficiality and scorn for the Japanese lay the groundwork for the tragedy that ends the opera.
My recent posts about my father brings to mind a change in culture I’ve been observing lately—how often I see fathers with their children.
When I was growing up and during the years when my children were young, we believed that a man’s family role was to earn the living, and the woman’s role was to keep house and care for the children. Men were supposed to be strong, women gentle. It was unmasculine for a man to be caught looking after the little ones.
I personally violated those rules. When I was home, not in Vietnam, I often fed the children, bathed them, got them into their pajamas, played with them, and put them to bed. I did that in part because their mother wasn’t very good at those jobs and wasn’t interested in doing them, in part to make up for the fact that I was so often absent because of my many trips to Vietnam, and in part because I loved doing it. But I didn’t share with other men that I took care of the children. It wasn’t a man’s job.
Nowadays, wherever I go, I see men with children, often with no women in sight. I watch them furtively, to see how good they are at the job. I’m impressed with their gentleness and the closeness of their attention. I see no signs of embarrassment or shame. They’re doing what they want to do. I sense their pride in what they are doing.
Our society has changed the way we think about the roles of men and women. The change has come in part, it seems to be, from the progress we’ve made in liberating women from the inferior and submissive role we used to assign them to. These days, both men and women have jobs to support the family. Soon, the wages women earn will equal those of men. Housework and childcare of necessity are now shared responsibilities. And the men, God love them, have proven themselves competent caregivers.
Society has changed for the better. Both men and women are the beneficiaries.