The catastrophes that the protagonist of Last of the Annamese suffers through are, with rare exceptions, the same ones I lived through. So is that protagonist me in disguise?
The principal character in Last of the Annamese is Chuck Griffin, a retired Marine officer who returns to Vietnam after the withdrawal of U.S. troops in 1973. He is determined to do everything he can to help win the war against the North Vietnamese because he can’t tolerate the idea that his son, Ben, who was killed in action in Vietnam, died in vain.
That’s very different from me. I returned to Vietnam in 1974 as head of the covert NSA operation in-country because I was a signals intelligence expert on Vietnam and spoke the three languages common in Vietnam—Vietnamese, French, and Chinese. I had mastered the signals intelligence disciplines used to intercept and exploit North Vietnamese communications, and I knew those communications better than I knew my own body. I had eleven years of experience trundling between the U.S. and Vietnam—I’d been there at least four months every year from 1962 on. In short, I was the right person for the job.
And the character of Chuck is not me. He is a Marine (I regret that I never was) and lost a child in the war (I didn’t). He is older than I was and in many respects stronger than I was. I don’t detect in him any of the terror I felt toward the end. In some ways, he’s the man I wish I had been
Finally, I didn’t write Annamese to tell my story. I’d already done that in a nonfiction article. I wanted to tell the story of what happened with complete historical accuracy—including details previously classified—and to show how ordinary people, both Vietnamese and American, lived through it. The character of Chuck come into my consciousness fully formed. I ended up liking him. I admired his courage and toughness, and I knew he’d make it through to the end and survive. I ended up telling his story, not mine.