Is Chuck Me?

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.

Why Marines in Last of the Annamese?

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.

Why I Served So Long and So Often in Vietnam

A reader asked me why I was sent to Vietnam so often over a thirteen-year period. The answer is two-fold.

First, I have an inborn knack for languages. I was comfortable in the three languages commonly spoken in Vietnam—French. Vietnamese, and Chinese. That made me a rarity. The U.S. government had a real find in me and sent me as often as I would go.

Second, few civilian signals intelligence experts were willing to risk the danger of combat. I was. To this day I don’t know why. Part of it was patriotism; part was my sense that it was my duty to share the danger combatants faced. I knew I could be killed, but I didn’t know that repeated exposure to combat would sicken me with Post-Traumatic Stress Injury. But I would have done it anyway. Somehow it was a sacred calling: I was gifted with a flair for languages. I was obligated to use the gift for the good of others.

Nowadays, time, age, and deafness (from artillery hits during the fall of Saigon) have weakened my ability to work in other languages. And I no longer have the physical stamina required for the battlefield. Instead, I write. I earnestly wish people to know what combat veterans have suffered through, and I want other Americans to know what happened in Vietnam, especially during the fall of Saigon. That’s why I wrote The Trion Syndrome and especially Last of the Annamese.

Christmas in Vietnam

During the thirteen years I was trundling between the U.S. and Vietnam to provide signals intelligence support U.S. combat units, I spent a good many Christmases on the battlefield. It seemed to me at the time that the soldiers and Marines I was working with missed their families less than I did, but, unlike most of them, I was married with children.

But between 1963 and 1965 and again in 1974, my family was with me at Christmas in Vietnam. In both cases I was on an ”accompanied tour,” that is, my wife and my children went with me to Vietnam. In the sixties, I had one child, my daughter, Susan. In the seventies, I had four children, Susan, Sarah, Meghan, and Paul. My wife, a former NSA employee who spoke French and Vietnamese, loved it. My children, much more sensitive to the poverty and misery of war, barely tolerated it.

The second accompanied tour, 1974-1975, was “a gentleman’s tour.” The U.S. had bought into the notion that the 1973 peace accord ended the war and that U.S. presence in the country—minus the military who were withdrawn as part of the agreement—would be concerned with diplomatic matters, not war.

Intelligence specialists knew differently. The first flaw was that the peace agreement required the withdrawal of U.S. forces but not North Vietnamese forces. And intercepted North Vietnamese communications made it clear that they were preparing for major offensives in Phuoc Long Province, some 60 miles north of us, and in the northern half of the country.

On Christmas Day, 1974, I, like the character of Chuck in Last of the Annamese, went to the office. And like him, I reviewed the evidence that the North Vietnamese were about to launch an offensive in Phuoc Long. Towns were falling to the North Vietnamese, and it was obvious that Phuoc Binh, the provincial capitol, would be next.

I considered sending my family home right away. Then I reasoned that the U.S had promised that if the North Vietnamese violated the peace accord, the U.S. military would return in force. Surely that threat would prevent the enemy from pushing further in the conquest of Phuoc Long.

When I got home from the office, my youngest daughter, Meghan, asked me when it would snow. “We always have snow on Christmas,” she said.

The North Vietnamese did pursue their offensive in Phuoc Long and did take Phuoc Binh in January 1975. The following March they launched major attacks in the northern half of the country. The U.S. did nothing. For the American people, the war was over. I evacuated my wife and children on 9 April, one day after a renegade pilot bombed the Presidential Palace near our house, and 20 days before Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese.

My children have vague memories of Christmas, 1974, but they vividly remember escaping from Saigon as it came under attack.

Military Pride

My posts for the last two days stressed the pain so many veterans suffer as they recall what happened in combat. What most noncombatants don’t understand is that in combat, in those moments when men fight one another to the death, those deaths are grisly. I’ve confronted my memories, but I still have experiences I can’t talk about. Men died by my side in hideous ways. Why them? Why not me?

The other side of the coin is intense pride. We risked out lives, willing to die for the good of our country. We didn’t question our orders or shirk from mortal danger. That’s why the jeering crowds who spat on us and called us butchers and baby-killers hurt so much. I was shamed. I didn’t speak of Vietnam for many years after the fall of Saigon. And my writing about what happened in Vietnam was uniformly rejected by editors.

But my pride and my love of the men who fought at my side survived intact. Soldiers and Marines don’t use the word “love”—it’s too sentimental. But that’s what it is. The strongest bond I know of is between men who fight side by side. We share a pride and honor totally unknown to the vast majority of Americans who have never seen combat.


My Brothers Weigh In

Since I began promoting Last of the Annamese and started this blog, I have been receiving email notes and Facebook postings from other men who served in Vietnam. They have reinforced my memories with stories of their own and, in effect, confirmed for me that others have unspeakable memories, too.

Sufferers of Post-Traumatic Stress Injury from combat invariably go off by themselves because they can’t talk about what they did and what they witnessed. That makes them feel isolated, as if they alone are tortured by monstrous memories. When they find the courage to face their experiences directly, they nearly always go through the maelstrom by themselves, away from their loved ones. On the one hand, they feel shame for what they have done; on the other, they don’t want to burden those they care most about. It makes for a lonely life.

So when other men speak to me of the combat they have seen, I come to understand that I am not alone. I am one of a band of brothers. We suffer alone, but we reach out to help each other when we can. I am comforted because I wrote both The Trion Syndrome and Last of the Annamese in part to confront my memories and in part to help others who suffer as I do. Annamese begins with the following dedication:

“This book is dedicated to those who suffered through Vietnam, were jeered and spat upon when they returned to the world, and have yet to be thanked for their service. May our country awaken, recognize your sacrifice, and honor you.”

My brothers, I thank you.


Is Last of the Annamese a Sequel to The Trion Syndrome?

A writer friend who knows how fixated I am on Vietnam asked me that question. My immediate answer was no. The two stories are quite separate and unrelated to one another. And yet . . .

Trion is about a Vietnam vet suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Injury and how he finds his way home. Annamese tells in fiction one of the stories that cause me to suffer from PTSI. Like so much of my work, it was written in part to help me come to terms my memories, to learn to live them. I found out shortly after the fall of Saigon that writing down what happened forced me to bring my unspeakable memories to the conscious level and face them head on. I learned that putting my memories into words brought me an imperfect peace.

To be sure, Chuck, the protagonist, is not me. I never lost a son killed in action, nor am I a retired Marine officer. He’s older than I was during the fall of Saigon. But he’s as clueless as I was, and he and I share a certain toughness in outlook. The tingling at the base of his spine in dangerous moments is identical to what I feel—a kind of signal from my unconscious to beware.

Most important, almost every disaster Chuck endures in Last of the Annamese were ones I faced, including his physical collapse at the end of the book. So maybe one could make an argument the Annamese is a psychological or spiritual sequel to Trion. In a very real sense, the PTSI of the protagonist of Trion is my PTSI. And telling Chuck’s story allowed me to pour the resulting pain out on the page. I was able to channel my anguish into my writing, not into my living.

The March 1975 Trip to the Highlands

In Last of the Annamese, the protagonist Chuck Griffin accompanies South Vietnamese Marine Colonel Thanh on a trip to the Vietnamese highlands, a mountainous swath of land in the central section of the country along the borders with Laos and Cambodia. After a courtesy call on the commanding general of II Corps, described in an earlier post, they fly to Ban Me Thuot in the southern reaches of the highlands, just as that town comes under attack from the North Vietnamese.

My description of that trip closely parallels the one I took with my counterpart, a South Vietnamese general in the second week of March, 1975. The attack on the airstrip where we landed began almost immediately after our arrival. We took off in a hail of bullets and escaped back to Saigon. Ban Me Thuot fells within days, followed all of II Corps, then I Corps.  With the northern half of South Vietnam firmly in their grasp, the North Vietnamese moved toward Saigon. It fell a little over a month later.

The details reported in Last of the Annamese are accurate.

The Character of Ike in Last of the Annamese

I find Ike likable. He’s the housemate of the novel’s protagonist and a Marine officer working with the Marine guards at the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, the only Marines left in-country in 1975, after the withdrawal of U.S. troops two years earlier. Ike’s character is drawn from the many Marines I worked with during my years in Vietnam. He’s down to earth—and earthy, too—and unpretentious. He is an honorable man. His honor is unspoken and inherent. It’s the quality that defines him, built in and always operational. I suspect he’s not even aware of it.

In that respect, he’s like all the Marines I knew and worked with. Typical was Al Gray, a captain when I first met him in Vietnam in the early 1960s, a colonel when he saved my life during the fall of Saigon in 1975, and finally, as a general, the commandant of the Marine Corps. I’ve never met a Marine who didn’t know of and honor Al Gray.

Ike’s motto is “Do what you have to do, whatever it takes.” Those words become a guide for the protagonist, Chuck Griffin, himself a retired Marine officer. At the end of the story, the motto leads Chuck to do the right thing even though it hurts more than he thinks he can stand.

The reader may notice that I always capitalize “Marine.” I do it to show my deep respect for the Marine Corps.