My Addictions

I have in my life activities that I find so fulfilling that I am addicted to them. They feel to me as though they are critical to my health, survival, and sanity. Without them my life would be drab and incomplete.

One is weight lifting, sometimes called weight training. For many years, I’ve had my own weight bench, barbells, dumbbells, and an exercise bike. I was also a runner until several years ago when I had knee replacement surgery that went awry. I haven’t been able to run since.

I didn’t run or lift weights for health reasons. I did it because I thoroughly enjoyed it. Nothing matches a runner’s high or the sense of sheer vitality that comes from a good, hard session of lifting weights.

Unfortunately, as injuries and illnesses affected me, I became less able to engage in my favorite exercises. I haven’t been able to run at all for several years. Then a couple of years ago, I was diagnosed with lung cancer. I underwent chemotherapy and radiation and finally has the upper lobe of my right lung removed by surgery. I have tried several times to resume weight lifting but haven’t had the bodily strength. I’ll try again this spring.

Another of my predilections is music. I discovered classical music as a child, and my fondness for it soon grew to love. For years, I composed and even took a BA in music from the University of California. These days, I have less free time than ever before, but I still squeak out an occasional hour for listening to my recordings. My all-time favorite composer is Bach, with Brahms not far behind.

My love for music led me to teach myself as a child how to play the piano, even though I didn’t own one. While in high school, I scraped together the money to buy the cheapest piano I could find, an ancient upright that lasted me all the way through college. Today I have a Steinway grand, a gift from my daughter, that doesn’t get the attention it deserves because I’m too busy writing and doing readings and presentations.

More tomorrow.

My TG-3 Desk Name Plaque

On my writing desk in my office, I have a name plaque made of black stone, presumably marble. It’s a triangular wedge, a foot long and three inches high, an inch and a quarter wide at the bottom and pointed at the top. On the back of it is a fanciful black dragon among white clouds. On the front is a long white rectangle with “TG-3” in black in the center, surrounded by dragon fins.

The plaque has a crack in it. Years ago, I dropped it and broke it, then carefully cemented it back together. I had to repair it. It’s one of my prized possessions from the Vietnam war.

Army troops I was working with in the Da Nang area of Vietnam in the late 1960s gave it to me. They told me they had paid a craftsman to carve it from marble quarried from Marble Mountain, close to the seashore not far from Da Nang.

They were especially pleased with the plaque because it memorialized my radio callsign, TG-3. The troops came up with that letter-digit combination. They took it from my payroll signature, Thomas L. Glenn III, which they found hilarious.

I didn’t explain to them that I used that silly moniker because my father, Thomas L. Glenn, Jr., had forged checks against my personal account, under the name I used, Thomas L. Glenn. I added the “III” to my payroll signature to foil him. It worked, but I have been stuck all my life with a ridiculously pretentious name. I reduced it to “Tom Glenn” for my author’s name.

My presence among the troops was already the source of mirth. Here I was, a civilian who outranked some of their officers, pretending to be an enlisted man. I lived with the troops and dressed in their uniform and went into combat with them. The disguise was to prevent the enemy from discovering that they had a spy in their midst. When I finally got the guys to call me “Tom” and not “Mr. Glenn” and “sir,” I knew I was a member of the team. When they gave me the TG-3 plaque, I knew I was one of them.

Some of the men who gave me the plaque were killed close by me on the battlefield.

I’ll never forget them. I’ll never cease to grieve over those who were lost. And I will always treasure the plaque they gave me.

Max Hastings’ Vietnam (2)

And I was taken aback when I came across a half dozen names of people I knew in Vietnam. Hastings interviewed them. I know why Hastings never tracked me down for an interview. My work in Vietnam was still classified when he was researching his book. I could have added rich details to many of his stories, especially about the fall of Saigon in April 1975.

For all his masterful research, Hastings nevertheless failed to see that the Viet Cong and the National Liberation Front (NLF) were extensions of the North Vietnamese, completely under the iron control of Hanoi and never independent. In fact, the NLF never existed at all. It was a fiction created by the North Vietnamese communist party.

My only other criticism of Hastings’ work is his consistent negativity. He finds little to admire in the actions anyone involved in the war. That hurt. So many of the men and women I knew in Vietnam were devoted patriots, trying their best to defeat what they considered an evil enemy. Many gave their lives in that endeavor. They deserve respect. I honor them.

Hastings arrives at conclusions almost identical to mine about why the U.S. lost the war. I devoted a series of posts here on that subject late last month. It was a combination of our failure to understand the enemy—his guerrilla strategy and limitless determination and willingness to suffer enormous casualties—combined with the corruption of the South Vietnamese government and our own national hubris. But Hastings added an element I hadn’t thought of: the U.S.’s decision-making was based solely on what was good for the U.S., not on what was good for the Vietnamese or would work in Vietnam. And our leaders too often decided on moves that would improve their electability. That ended up costing thousands of lives. Such an approach was doomed to failure.

Hastings chose the right subtitle for the book: an epic tragedy. Millions died and nothing was gained.

Max Hastings’ Vietnam

I have come up for air after submerging myself in Max Hastings’ massive Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy, 1945-1975 (HarperCollins, 2018). The book is 755 pages of text plus 43 pages of notes and 24 of bibliography, which includes “only titles that have had a direct influence on my narrative.” It is the longest and most detailed of the books I have read on Vietnam—and I try to read every major work on the subject. Only volumes that devoted their entire content to single events during the war, such as Gregg Jones’ Last Stand at Khe Sanh (Da Capo Press, 2014) and Mark Bowden’s Huế 1968 (Grove Atlantic, 2017) offer more particulars on what occurred and who was involved.

Reading the book was, in many ways, like reliving my own history. I was in Vietnam at least four months every year between 1962 and 1975 and was repeatedly on the battlefield supporting combat units, both army and Marine Corps, in fighting all over South Vietnam. Ironically, the photo on the book’s dust cover is from the 1967 battle of Dak To that I was deeply involved in (see my 2017 New York Times article on the battle at https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/03/opinion/vietnam-tet-offensive.html).

I came away admiring Hastings’ no-holds-barred style that plunged the reader into the grisliness of combat. With journalistic detachment, Hastings gives the facts of bodies torn apart, severed limbs, organs ripped out, and soldiers burned alive. It’s not that I savor the gruesomeness of the battlefield. It’s that I want people to how ghastly combat is so that when they decide we must go to war, they’ll bear in mind the consequences to which they are subjecting our young men and women.

What surprised me most about Vietnam was Hastings’ reporting of wide-spread drug use and the failure of military discipline among U.S. forces in the early 1970s. During my many trips to Vietnam during that period, I caught hints that there were problems, but I had no idea how widespread they were. My best guess is that these curses were concealed from me, a visiting high-ranking civilian. I saw no evidence of them during my time with the troops in combat.

I was also shocked at the deliberate and cynical dishonesty of the Nixon administration. Hastings quotes at length the tape-recorded conversions between Nixon and Kissinger which demonstrated that they knew well what was going on in Vietnam and were fully aware that the U.S. was losing the war but chose to lie to the American public for political advantage.

More tomorrow.

Writing to Help Others (2)

The second of the two issues that has driven my writing is combat and the damage it inflicts on the human soul.

Friendly Casualties, The Trion Syndrome, and Last of the Annamese center on the Vietnam war. Friendly Casualties, a novel-in-short-stories, tells of people damaged by the war. The Trion Syndrome is about a Vietnam vet suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI), just as I do. And Last of the Annamese catalogues the horrors of the fall of Saigon, which I survived.

I wrote all three novels because I wanted people to know how unspeakably ghastly war is. And I wanted to show the psychic wounds that combatants are subject to. I wanted to convey to the reader the suffering exacted by memories so hideous that they will never rest.

To my surprise, readers’ response has so often been to express gratitude. Combatants thank me for letting people know the horrors they have endured. Ordinary citizens who have never been to war thank me for helping them understand. And sufferers of PTSI are grateful that someone else understands their torment. Many talked about how my insights helped them handle their memories.

I know another Vietnam vet who is struggling to write about his bouts with PTSI. I urge him to write because he can help other men and women with the malady. I tell him how men who went through combat and grapple with their unbearable memories have thanked me for helping them cope.

And what greater fulfillment can a writer have than to know that his work has helped others?

Writing to Help Others

I start with a quote: “A musician must make music, an artist must paint, a poet must write, if he is to be ultimately at peace with himself. What one can be, one must be.” That’s from Abraham Maslow, psychologist (1908-1970), one of my favorite writers.

As I explained early in this blog, I write because I have to. To refuse to write would be to accept damnation. In my mind, there’s no question that I was put here to write.

Feedback from readers includes compliments on my style and ability to tell a story, but far more often than I would have expected, readers thank me for helping them. That is, perhaps, my greatest satisfaction.

I write about issues that won’t leave me in peace—experiences from the past that still roil my soul and force themselves into my stories. One is my time caring for men dying of AIDS. But the biggest among them is what combat does to the human spirit.

In the 1980s, to help me cope with Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI), I spent five years taking care of men dying of AIDS. I had seven patients. They were all gay, and they all died. I was a volunteer at the Whitman-Walker Clinic in Washington, D.C., a gay organization. I was the only straight guy there. I was forced to confront my unconscious biases about gay men—that they were weak and effeminate and trivial. The men I worked with were among the bravest and hardest-working I’ve ever encountered. Their courage and self-sacrifice put me in mind of the men I’d served beside in combat. And the patients matched them in bravery. They faced their inevitable deaths with resolve and peace.

My experience moved me so deeply that I wrote a novel about a straight man caring for a gay man dying of AIDS. It’s No-Accounts. That book is arguably my greatest critical success. And it is the only one of my published books not about the Vietnam war.

One of the reasons I wrote No-Accounts was to inform the public about the sheer gruesomeness of AIDS. It’s a monstrous disease. In the book, I catalogued AIDS’ destruction of the human body. And I wrote of the bravery of the care givers and the patients.

So many readers have thanked me for No-Accounts. Some have praised me for debunking myths about gay men. Others have expressed gratitude for helping them understand AIDS and the brutality the disease visits upon its victims.

The response of readers is my fulfillment.

More next time.