I enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1958, immediately after graduating from college, because I knew I was about to be drafted. I enlisted with the proviso that I would attend the Army Language School, now known as the Defense Language Institute, in Monterey, California. I wanted to study Chinese, a language that had always fascinated me, but once I arrived at the school, the army told me I was to study Vietnamese, a language I had never heard of—back then we called that part of the world French Indochina. That by-chance assignment was one of the two factors that allowed the army to totally change my life. The other was basic training.
My memory is that basic training lasted about ten weeks. It was the most rigorous training I ever experienced. Because of the endless physical exercise, my body was transformed from that of a boy into that of a man. I learned self-control and physical achievement far beyond anything I thought I was capable of. I learned that I had depths of courage and endurance that had never before been called to the surface. Through the endless humiliation inflicted on me and the other trainees by the drill sergeants, I learned a self-respect I had never known before. I learned teamwork, an invaluable lesson.
I have written here several times that I continue to believe that we should restore the draft. I never would have enlisted had it not existed. The army taught me the courage and self-reliance that allowed me to excel during my many years in Vietnam as a civilian operative. And it changed me into the man I am today, a man I am proud to be.
Let’s restore the selective service so that other young men can benefit as I did.
Today is the fifty-fifth anniversary of the Tết Offensive launched by the North Vietnamese in South Vietnam. I was there and caught up in the midst of it. The attacks ran on for days. On January 31, 1968, a squad of communist guerillas attacked the U.S. Embassy in Saigon. The soldiers seized the embassy and held it for six hours until an assault force of U.S. paratroopers landed by helicopter on the building’s roof and routed the Vietnamese communists.
The reaction of U.S. forces and those of the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) were slow because everyone was off celebrating the lunar new year holiday. Before that, every year there had been an undeclared ceasefire during Tết because both the communists and the non-communists agreed to opt out of fighting during the holiday festivities.
In the long term, the U.S. and Republic of Vietnam won the many battles throughout the country and inflicted huge losses on the North Vietnamese. But friendly losses were also staggering. In effect, both sides suffered overwhelming casualties but no territory changed hands.
North Vietnam gained in a way we didn’t understand at the time. The Tết Offensive and two other offensives launched later that year began the conversion of the American public to opposition to the war. Over the next several years, that antagonism became more pronounced until it forced us to withdraw and, for the first time in our history, to lose a war.
That loss was a wound to my heart that has not healed to this day.
During my many years in Vietnam, the monsoons caught my attention. I learned early on that it was better to avoid the downpours if possible because they were so intense. But they were also brief, rarely lasting more than a few minutes. My memory is that during the monsoon season (mid-May to early November in Vietnam), the heavy rains occurred only in the afternoons. More than once, I was drenched by them while I was at the market in Chợ Lớn (which means “large market”), Saigon’s Chinatown and the site of the Bình Tây (“western plain” or “western peace”) Market. I was so struck by the sight of the street market turned into haze by the concentrated downpour that I bought a painting, now hanging in my living room, that captured that unique view.
Only much later did I come to understand that “monsoon” refers not to rainfall but to a wind blowing part of the year from one direction alternating with a wind from the opposite direction. I gather that it only occurs in south and southeast Asia and the Philippines.
The term, monsoon, first appeared in English in the 1580s. Back then it meant “alternating trade wind of the Indian Ocean,” from Dutch monssoen, from Portuguese monçao, from Arabic mawsim, “time of year, appropriate season” (for a voyage, pilgrimage, etc.), from wasama “he marked.”
I can’t say that I pine for the monsoons. I found them unpleasant. But when I recently came across a reference to them, I felt an intense yearning to recover the feelings of those years in Vietnam. They were some of my best years, the years of my youth, spent in assisting U.S. forces with signals intelligence. They began when I was 25 and ended when I escaped Saigon under fire at age 38.
Those years shaped the rest of my life.
Last Tuesday, I offered my presentation with slides titled “Bitter Memories: The Fall of Saigon” at the Elkridge 50+ Center. I had a full house and very responsive audience.
The presentation is always very emotional for me, even after having given it more times than I can count. Every time I do it, I choke up when I talk about the South Vietnamese officer who didn’t escape at the end and had told me that he would shoot his family and himself rather than live under the communists. I get tears in my eyes when I relate how two brave men, Bob Hartley and Gary Hickman, agreed to stay with me to the end and risk their lives to help me after everybody else was evacuated. And I still get breathless when I describe my escape under fire.
My two most precious possessions, even today, are my Civilian Meritorious Medal, given to me to recognize the lives I saved during the debacle, and a plaque from my guys. Something like a year after the fall of Saigon and our escape, my guys got together for dinner in Washington, D.C. and invited me to join them. At the completion of the meal, the presented me with a plaque in effect thanking me for saving their lives.
The background is that the Ambassador, Graham Martin, refused to allow me to evacuate my people. He didn’t believe that the North Vietnamese would attack Saigon, despite the overwhelming evidence I gave him from intercepted North Vietnamese radio communications. So I lied and cheated and stole to get all my guys out safely. At the end, when our travel funds ran out, I used my own money to buy an airplane ticket for the last of my guys and got him out safely on the last Pan Am flight out of the country. My guys were reading the messages I was sending to my boss, the Director of the National Security Agency (NSA), and knew what was going on. They recognized that I saved their lives by risking my own by staying in Saigon until the very end when the North Vietnamese were in the streets of the city.
Today is the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Paris Peace Accords by the U.S., South Vietnam, the Viet Cong, and North Vietnam, supposedly ending the war in Vietnam. After that signing, in 1973, I returned to Vietnam as the Department of Defense Special Representative (DODSPECREP), but because the war was over, tours in Vietnam were now “gentlemen’s tours,” not wartime tours, so I was allowed to bring my family, my wife and my four children. My job was secretly to monitor the radio communications of the invading North Vietnamese, and I knew perfectly well that they were continuing their effort to conquer South Vietnam and that Saigon, where I and my family were living, was in danger.
As my readers know all too well, I succeeded in getting my family safely out of the country just twenty days before the North Vietnamese communists seized Saigon in April 1975 and I escaped under fire. I lost many good friends among the South Vietnamese who were caught unawares.
So January 27, “Vietnam Peace Day,” is a bitter day for me. I observe it in silence and with a heavy heart.
Robert Reich just put out a summary of gun statistics. They’re worth repeating. I start with the number of mass shootings in the United States, by year: 2014: 273. 2015: 336. 2016: 383. 2017: 348. 2018: 336. 2019: 417. 2020: 610. 2021: 690. 2022: 647. And in the first three weeks of 2023: 39.
He goes on to say that guns killed more than 44,000 people in the U.S. last year. Gun violence is the leading cause of death for American children. There are 393 million firearms in America, which has a population of roughly 334 million.
Other nations have passed laws controlling guns. When Australia took action on guns after a mass shooting, gun deaths fell by over 50 percent. Britain tightened gun laws after a mass shooting, and gun deaths dropped by almost 25 percent. New Zealand banned most semi-automatic weapons immediately after a mass shooting, resulting in a massive reduction of gun deaths.
Why can’t we pass gun laws to stop the killings? At the risk of repeating myself: the first step should be abolishing the Second Amendment to the Constitution which we interpret to mean that there will be no limits on gun ownership in the U.S. Next would be laws prohibiting citizens from owning guns and a buy-back program whereby the government would pay citizens to give up their weapons. That’s what other nations have done. Why can’t we?
Such laws would make us like all other advanced nations in the world. Isn’t it time that we rejoined the sensible world?
Saturday night’s shooting in Monterey Park, California, was carried out, according to the press, by a man named Huu Tran Can. News sources are now identifying him as a Vietnamese immigrant, but that was obvious to me from his name. With tones and diacritical marks, his name would be rendered Hữu Trần Cận or Cẩn or Căn.
His victims, all residents of what was, for all practical purposes, a Chinatown, were presumably Chinese Americans celebrating the lunar new year. As one who has spent a good deal of time with Vietnamese, I know that hostility towards the Chinese goes back many centuries among the Vietnamese. China and Vietnam were at war with each other repeatedly over the centuries. I think it is entirely possible that Can’s killing spree was based on that age-old hatred.
This is merely the latest mass shooting in the U.S. this year. So far, we have had 39 of them, according to CNN. They are only possible because of our unwillingness to take measures to reduce the number of guns available to our people. At the risk of repeating myself, we must repeal the Second Amendment to the Constitution and find ways to get guns out of the hands of our population.
The sooner the better!
Chinese characters are the oldest continuously used system of writing in the world. They are also among the most widely used writing systems by number of users. How many characters exist is open to debate, but there are 47,035 Chinese characters in the Kangxi Dictionary (康熙字典), the standard national dictionary developed during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Most speakers of Chinese know and use far fewer—Chinese newspapers and magazines tend to use no more than 3,500 basic characters.
A character consists of two elements, the radical and the phonetic. There are 214 radicals, ranging in construction from one to 17 strokes. The number of phonetics is probably multiple thousands, but I could find no number listed in sources I checked.
In principle, the function of the radical is to suggest meaning, that of the phonetic to imply sound, but as characters have developed over thousands of years, those roles have become remote. There are thousands of characters in common use in which neither the radical nor the phonetic suggest either current meaning or sound. A student of Chinese has no choice but to memorize characters one by one.
Writing characters is an art to which the Chinese devote years of effort. The drawing of a character is properly done with a brush and black paint. I never tried to create characters that way but still spent literally years trying to perfect the art of inscribing them and never really succeeded. My rendering of characters, even after all these years, still looks more like the efforts of a child than that of a mature man.
The Chinese Communists have introduced a simplified system of drawing characters called Chinese Character Simplification Scheme. Simplified Chinese characters may be referred to by their official name above or colloquially as 简体字, Jiǎntǐzì. The end result is a reduced number of characters that are also easier to write and remember. But the new system also reduces one of the great arts of all times to a level of everyday practicality.
Given a choice, I’ll take the old system with all its intricacy. It also introduces great beauty into ordinary life.
This morning, the press reports the killing of ten people in a mass shooting at a dance studio in Monterey Park, California. The leading news item in the papers reinforces the message of my latest book review, just published by the Washington Independent Review of Books, of Paul Auster’s Bloodbath Nation (Grove Press, 2023). You can read it at https://www.washingtonindependentreviewofbooks.com/bookreview/bloodbath-nation.
Bloodbath Nation is a brief book, less than 150 pages—of which 50 pages are photographs by Spencer Ostrander—laying out the statistics of gun deaths in the U.S. I open the review quoting the book that between 1968 and 2017, more than one and a half million Americans were killed by guns. From data I read in the daily newspapers, I’m sure those figures have gone up from 2018 on.
I am deeply disturbed that we Americans accept the gun death status quo without complaint. We allow to stand the Second Amendment to the Constitution which says, “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” We interpret those words to mean that there will be no limit on the number of guns anyone can own. And in fact, the U.S. population has 393 million guns, more guns per 100 people, 120.5, than any other nation. We have twenty percent more guns than people. And each year, some 40,000 Americans are killed by guns.
It’s long since time that we Americans change our laws to reduce the number of guns and gun killings in our country. We can start by abolishing the Second Amendment. Then will come buy-back laws allowing us to pay gun owners to give up their weapons. Until we radically reduce the number of guns in the hands of our citizens, our number of gun deaths will remain as high as always.
It’s time to act.
Today is the Lunar New Year’s Day. The Chinese zodiac sign for the year is the rabbit. The lunar new year is far and away the largest holiday celebrated in Asia. China’s public holiday for Lunar New Year is seven days, from Chinese New Year’s Eve to the sixth day of the lunar calendar new year.
Offices, banks, factories, shops, and most non-essential services will close doors for a week’s holiday. Hotels and large retail outlets stay open and may even be busier than usual. School holidays are four weeks long, and migrant workers abandon their factory and construction jobs for weeks to return home. People in China will get the entire week off, but those in Hong Kong, Macao, and other Asian countries such as Malaysia, Singapore, and Korea only give one to three days off.
In Vietnam, the lunar new year is called Tết. It is by far the biggest holiday of the year. The celebrations often go on for a week or more. And it was during the Tết holidays of 1968 that the North Vietnamese launched the famous Tết Offensive, a country-wide series of attacks launched during the new year holiday which took both the Americans and the South Vietnamese by surprise because the week-long holiday was normally observed by both sides resulting in an unannounced temporary cease- fire.
I was in Vietnam during the 1968 Tết Offensive and remember all too well the numbers of civilians as well as military killed by the North Vietnamese. So while I welcome the holiday, I have indelible memories of the suffering inflicted by the North Vietnamese. My personal celebration, as a result, is minimal.