As I noted in a recent post, I write by unleashing my unconscious and let the characters live out their lives before me. All I do is write down what I see. I’m so often unaware of a theme in my stories until a reader calls my attention to it. A friend recently pointed out to me that some of the most important characters in Last of the Annamese are Marines. That surprised me. I didn’t set out to write about Marines, but apparently the story dictated their allegiance.
Chuck Griffin, the protagonist of Last of the Annamese, is a retired Marine. He was ostensibly estranged from his son, Ben, because Ben chose to join the army instead of becoming a Marine. That’s how strong Chuck’s bond to the Marine Corps is.
Chuck’s housemate and closest friend in Saigon is Ike, a Marine captain who is assigned to the U.S. Embassy. To me, Ike is typical of so many Marines I worked with in Vietnam. He is an honorable man whose motto is “Do what you have to do, whatever it takes.”
Chuck’s closest associate among the South Vietnamese is a Marine Colonel named Pham Ngoc Thanh. Unlike some of the Joint General Staff generals Thanh serves under, he is incorruptible and devoted to his country which he calls An Nam (an ancient name for Vietnam which means “peace in the south”).
All three of these characters are called upon to do what they have to do, whatever it takes, even if it means giving up their lives. I suspect they turned out to be Marines because of that.
I wrote an earlier post about Marines and talked about General Al Gray who saved my life during the fall of Saigon and went on to become the Commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps. General Gray never articulated his leadership principles to me. But three things stood out: (1) accomplishing the mission was always his first priority; (2) taking care of his followers was a very close second, and (3) never asking a follower to do anything or take any risks that the leader wouldn’t do or take undergirded everything he did. As a result, his Marines were devoted to him and would follow his orders, even if that meant giving up their lives.
So in some ways, General Gray was the model for the Marines I wrote about in Last of the Annamese. I couldn’t have chosen better. Maybe letting the unconscious lead the way is the best way for a novelist to write.