Vietnam and My Children

Between 1962 and 1975, I was in Vietnam at least four months every year. I had two PCS (permanent change of station, meaning at least two years) tours there and so many shorter trips (called TDYs, temporary duty, usually four to six months long) that I lost count. That meant that I was absent from my four children for long periods. In some respects, it was for them like growing up without a father.

But both of my PCS tours in Vietnam were accompanied—I had my family with me. They lived in Saigon while I was in the field with the troops. On the first, from 1963 to 1965, I only had one child, my oldest daughter, Susan. But she and her mother were forced to return to the states in 1964 when the war heated up and U.S. troops were committed in large numbers. On the second PCS, beginning in 1974, all four of my kids and their mother were with me until twenty days before Saigon fell when I evacuated them surreptitiously (the ambassador had forbidden evacuations, sure that the North Vietnamese would not attack Saigon) by sending them to Bangkok for a “vacation.”

I was allowed to have my family with me starting in 1974 because the fiction deliberately perpetrated by Henry Kissinger was that the war was over. South Vietnam was now a “gentleman’s tour,” gracious, even luxurious, and devoid of danger. I knew better, but I reasoned that Saigon was safe enough.

It wasn’t. Terrorist incidents through the city became rife. As the North Vietnamese came closer, we could hear shelling in the distance. I got my family out as soon as I could.

Hence, all four of my children remember Vietnam. Susan, who was a teenager during my second PCS has the best memories. She and her American friends had parties and gatherings and spent endless hours at the embassy pool. She reminded me recently that she and her girlfriends spotted Frank Snepp (whom I’ve written of in recent posts) there. He was a strikingly handsome man, and the teenage girls idolized him. I knew nothing of that at the time, or I would have been alarmed. Frank was well known for his womanizing.

More next time.

Saigon, 1975: Atrocities and Butchery (2)

Forbidden by the ambassador to evacuate my people, I did it anyway, putting them on flights out of the country for fake business travel, phony vacations, and trumped-up home leave. But I couldn’t help the 2700 South Vietnamese soldiers who had worked with the NSA organization. I struggled in vain to get them evacuated. They were all left to the carnal mercies of the victorious North Vietnamese who killed or imprisoned them when Saigon fell.

Meanwhile, I did all I could to get as many Vietnamese as possible safely out of the country. Thurston Clarke, in his Honorable Exit: How a few brave Americans risked all to save our Vietnamese allies at the end of the war (Doubleday, 2019), tells of some of my efforts. How he ever came to know of them is still a mystery to me.

The last week in Saigon was chaos incarnate. I’ve described elsewhere in the blog the horrific events that played out in a city gone berserk—the streets were impassable, mobbed with refugees jamming into the city to escape the communists. Our compound was surrounded by throngs pleading for evacuation. The hysterical crowds trampled to death those who fell. Death was already commonplace before the North Vietnamese set foot in the city.

After 41 of my subordinates and their families were safely evacuated, three of us were left—me, whom the ambassador had forbidden to leave, and two communicators who volunteered to stay with me to the end. On the afternoon of 29 April, I succeeded in getting my two communicators safely out. They flew via helicopter to a ship of the U.S. 7th Fleet that was cruising in the South China Sea. I escaped that night under fire.

Reading the two books Bloodstained Sea and Irreparable Harm force me to face afresh the scenes of those hideous days. Those bloodstained memories will never fade.

Saigon, 1975: Atrocities and Butchery

I have just finished reading Bloodstained Sea, a novel by Chau Thuy, and I’m in the middle of Frank Snepp’s Irreparable Harm, his recounting of how he wrote Decent Interval, his nonfiction description of the fall of Saigon. Both books detail the monstrous sacrifice of life that happened when communist North Vietnam conquered noncommunist South Vietnam.

Thuy’s novel describes in detail the thousands of horrendous deaths of those trying to escape. Snepp’s books document the abject failure of the U.S. to evacuate vulnerable Vietnamese allies during that disaster. Both writers brought back into my conscious memory the terrible days I lived through when Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese. As readers of this blog know, I was at the time head of the National Security Agency (NSA) covert operation in Saigon. My job was to work with the South Vietnamese in intercepting and exploiting the radio communications of the invading North Vietnamese. Through our efforts, the U.S. and the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) were warned repeatedly of the coming attack on Saigon. Our alerts were mostly ignored.

The U.S. ambassador, Graham Martin (excoriated by Snepp), refused to allow me to evacuate my 43 subordinates and their wives and children and made no plans for getting the hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese who had worked side by side with the U.S. safely out of the country. He was convinced that the North Vietnamese would not attack Saigon but would instead negotiate the formation of a coalition government. That struck me as foolhardy in the extreme given that the North Vietnamese had already conquered all of South Vietnam around Saigon and had no reason to negotiate with a conquered foe. And I was producing evidence by the pound that the attack on Saigon was imminent.

More next time.

Trump: Damage to Intelligence

As I’ve mentioned before in this blog, I try to keep politics out my posts. I write here to share my life experiences, especially as they have to do with novels and short stories. But the doings of President Trump have forced me to speak out.

On 28 October 1975, NPR, in its “All Things Considered” broadcast, offered a long segment on the damage Trump has done to the intelligence apparatus of the U.S. government. I spent 35 years in intelligence, and I’m enraged.

It all started in 2016 when the agencies that make up U.S. intelligence community agreed—and accurately, at that—that Russia had worked nefariously to see to it that Donald Trump was elected president. Trump attacked the intelligence agencies and compared them to the Nazis.

I am reminded of the days in 1975 when I warned, based on signals intelligence, that the North Vietnamese would attack Saigon. The U.S. ambassador in Saigon rejected my warning and refused to prepare or evacuate threatened U.S. and Vietnamese. When the attack came, multiple thousands of Vietnamese who could otherwise have been saved were left to perish at the hands of the conquering North Vietnamese.

My forecasts of the coming assaults were not in line with U.S. policy as dictated by the ambassador, that the war would end with negotiations leading to a neutral government. He and others in the civilian side of the U.S. government (but not the military who were never deceived) denigrated the intelligence agencies who accurately foretold the brutal ending of the Vietnam war.

It looks to me like a similar episode has been developing in this country since 2016. Because everything that affects the intelligence apparatus of the U.S. and the results it produces are classified, we have no way of knowing how Trump may have punished the intelligence producers. Maybe their budgets have been cut. Maybe their staffs have been shorn.

The prospect frightens me. This nation depends on its intelligence agencies to reveal the truth, unvarnished and unswayed by political motives. If that capacity is undermined, disaster is close.

Tom Glenn, the Musician

I was born to write. That was clear to me by the time I was six. But I spent a good many years challenging that verdict. I trained to be an actor, worked as a linguist, and became a spy to support my family. But the command to write was clear through it all.

One major alternative I worked toward was to be a musician, specifically, a composer. Music has always awed me. So as a child, I taught myself to read music and to play the piano (my family was too poor to pay for lessons). The internal logic of music enthralled me. No other logic applied to it, and its internal rules applied to nothing else. I even went so far as to earn a BA in music at the university of California in Berkeley. I earned enough money from part-time jobs (including as a barista in an Italian coffee house where I had to speak Italian, which I had taught myself as a child) to buy a cheap used upright piano. I composed reams music, ran church folk groups and choirs, and arranged hymns with parts for piano, organ, guitars, and wind instruments.

Over time, after I married and fathered children, I became a linguist and spy and spent thirteen years trundling between the U.S. and Vietnam before escaping under fire when Saigon fell in 1975. There was little time for music. I still listened and played the piano when I could, but it was no longer the focus of my life.

Through it all, I kept returning to writing. My work in intelligence required that I write well to report the results of information gathering. And I had to translate foreign documents and messages into English. I learned to think in the languages I was working in and to find ways to express nuances into English.

But music never left me. I still listen and play the piano every chance I get. Some piece of music is always playing inside my head, sometimes at a level of consciousness buried so deep that I’m hardly aware of it.

The biggest and most beautiful room in my new house is the piano room, dominated by my Steinway grand, a gift from my oldest daughter. When I am finally settled in my new house, I’ll return to a practice of many years, playing the piano every day.

In ways I couldn’t have foreseen, music has contributed to my writing. The sense of rhythm, melody, harmony, and phrasing shapes the way I use words. It enlightens me on subtle differences in constructing sentences and paragraphs so that beauty emerges.

Yes, my occupation is (and has been for many years) writing. But music enhances my writing in a way nothing else could.

Writing: Craft Versus Art

On Saturday, I gave my presentation on fiction craftsmanship to a small collection of writers at the Palette and the Page, a book/gift shop in Elkton, Maryland. I had undergone hernia surgery only twelve days before. I wasn’t at the top of my form, but, thanks to a friend who accompanied me and carried everything for me, the presentation was a success.

While preparing for the presentation in my impaired state, the contrast between the craft and art of writing, especially fiction, seemed starker than ever. Everything I had to say during the presentation was about craft, a left-brained function. But the assembled writers wanted to talk about the art, a right-brained task.

As I point out in the presentation, a fiction writer needs both craft and art. The creative side of writing fiction—art—can’t be learned. It’s inborn. But the craft is the opposite: it’s not inherent and must be learned. Worse, learning the craft is a life-long endeavor. I’ve been working at it all my life but still learn new things as I write.

The creative side also matures. It took me some years to learn how to ease the grip of my rationality so as to allow my unconscious to seed its visions into my mind. I had to figure out how to put myself into a meditative state and let the characters, stories, and scenes seep into my consciousness so that I could write them down.

Then I had to learn how to let the creative side violate the principles of the craft for artistic reasons. I discovered that sometimes portraying a character’s dialect accurately is more important than following the rules of grammar. Occasionally writing a sentence without a predicate (verb) was more effective than insisting on proper structure. And once in a while, a single word can be a sentence.

And then there’s ultimate creative demand: create beauty. That means varying sentence and paragraph length and structure. It means finding words that not only evoke beautiful images but create beautiful sounds. It means creating rhythm and harmony and melody in the way the words come together and set each other off.

In short: craftsmanship in writing is a life-long pursuit. But so is creativity. The latter can’t be learned, but it can be refined and expanded and deepened.

The writer must never stop learning.