The Fall of Cities: Phuoc Binh, Ban Me Thuot, Xuan Loc (2)

The fall of three cities during the North Vietnamese conquest of South Vietnam marked significant milestones in the ending of the Vietnam war. Yesterday I told of Phuoc Binh. Today my subject is Ban Me Thuot, the capital city of Darlac Province in the highlands.

The loss of Ban Me Thuot happened to coincide with a trip I made to the highlands during the first two weeks of March 1975. I landed on an airstrip near the town after the battle had already started. The South Vietnamese general I was travelling with and I were still there when the airstrip came under fire. As described in Last of the Annamese, here’s what happened, told from the point of view of the protagonist, Chuck Griffin:

“Clouds hid the sun. Rain fell in a delicate patter. Thanh wandered between the columns [of the men in formation on the airstrip]. He spoke in high-pitched bursts, punctuated by long silences as his eyes searched the soldier’s faces.

“Small arms fire erupted far below in the valley to their west. Chuck could see tiny flashes and puffs of smoke followed by a chattering of muzzle reports. The soldiers stood stock still, their backs to the valley, seeing nothing.

“Thanh continued his speech. He moved among the troops, his hands behind his back. Tension in the ranks stiffened the soldiers. Still Thanh spoke on. Strain darkened the lined young faces as the sound of battle grew louder. At last Thanh became silent. He walked the full length of the rows, reading the faces. Now close to the plane, he called out a single short sentence three times. His voice gone soft and tired, he said something low. The sergeant screamed them to attention and issued an order. They scattered on the run.

“The rain pounded. The C-47 started its engines. Thanh, Chuck, and the junior officers dashed to it. All around them, soldiers hurried to their battle stations. They saluted and waved at Thanh as they ran by.

“A pepper of small arms fire raised plumes of mud at their feet. The airstrip was under attack. They scrambled on board the plane, which rushed down the runway before the door was closed. Once aloft, it strained into a steep ascent. Chuck held on. He hoped the bellowing engines wouldn’t fly apart.”

Ban Me Thuot fell within days. The president of the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) Nguyen van Thieu, ordered the evacuation of the highlands. Chaos followed. The end result was the loss of the northern half of South Vietnam to the North Vietnamese who then turned their eyes south towards us in Saigon.

More tomorrow.

The Fall of Cities: Phuoc Binh, Ban Me Thuot, Xuan Loc

The story of the fall of Vietnam to the communists was punctuated by the capture of strategic cities. The news reaching me in Saigon of each loss notched up the volume of Vietnam’s death knell.

Last of the Annamese narrates the reaction of Americans and Vietnamese to each disaster.

The third part of Annamese is called “Heaven Weeps: December 1974.” It begins with the protagonist, Chuck Griffin, preparing for the morning briefing at the Defense Attaché Office Intelligence Branch. He notes that “in Phuoc Long Province, Bunard had fallen, and Don Luan was under heavy bombardment. Two North Vietnamese divisions and a tank battalion plus local forces were preparing an assault on the provincial capital, Phuoc Binh. The North Vietnamese had interdicted the roads. If they took Phuoc Binh airfield, resupply would be impossible. If the province and its capital fell, it would be the first time in the Vietnam War the Communists took and held an entire province.”

Later that day, when Chuck visits South Vietnamese Marine Colonel Thanh, Thanh says to him, “Tell Colonel Mac to watch Phuoc Binh. When Phuoc Binh falls, Vietnam falls.”

The North Vietnamese took Phuoc Binh on 6 January 1975. It rained that day, in the middle of the dry season. Chuck goes to Thanh’s house to give him the news, but Thanh already knows:

“He found Thanh alone, sitting on a Chinese garden seat at the rear of the compound in a grove of bamboo. He was in utilities but hatless, wet to the skin, his sparse hair streaming down the sides of his head. Chuck sat next to him. Together they watched the rain.

“At last Thanh turned to him and spoke. ‘Phuoc Binh fall.’

“‘Yes, sir.’

“‘You tell Mac for me, yes?’

“‘Yes, sir.’

“Thanh’s face turned upward again. His eyelids quivered as raindrops splashed down his forehead. ‘The heaven.’ He pointed upward. ‘The heaven weeps. An Nam no more. An Nam was. You listen to her weep now.’

“Chuck listened to the rain. He heard the weeping.”

An Nam was the old name for Vietnam. Thanh prefers that name because it means “peace in the south.”

More tomorrow.

Helping Others

Reacting to my blogs about Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI), a reader asked about my description of coping with the disease by helping others: how did that work?

The answer is that when I was focused on people worse off than I was, my grisly memories retreated into the background. I was a buddy to AIDS patients at the height of the epidemic (that led to my novel No-Accounts), later worked with the homeless, and finally ministered to the dying in a hospice. For close to twenty years, I volunteered to help those less fortunate than me.

I don’t pretend that I was moved by goodness of heart. I needed help myself. I learned that devoting myself to others was one of the best therapies for my condition. But in the process, I learned more about what it means to be human. My writing was greatly enriched.

I learned that helping others is basic to a healthy and fulfilled life. That’s why leadership is so much better than management. Leadership is about people. Management is about things.

People matter.

The Enrichment of Post-Trauma Stress (2)

Yesterday I listed the symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI) and talked about how I cope with them. Today I want to get into the plus side of the disease. It has enriched me and greatly deepened my writing.

First comes the question of pride. I—and I suspect all who have survived combat—feel a sense of fulfillment and pride that I stood and fought beside my brothers. We combatants are proud that we risked everything for God and country and family and democracy, but our first priority was the man fighting next to us. The bond between men who have fought side by side is the strongest love I’ve ever experienced. And I know that what I did on the battlefields of Vietnam saved lives. That gives me a quiet pride that doesn’t need to be expressed.

Second, I am a richer and fuller man for having suffered through the rigors of serving beside others in combat. I have a depth of understanding and sympathy I could never have developed any other way. As hideous as my untamable memories are, I cherish them. I know and understand and can write about the human condition with a wisdom earned by shared pain.

And finally, I know that I am not alone. When I meet with other veterans, especially those from Vietnam, we don’t need to express our comradeship. A quick handshake, a brief look into the eyes, a half-smile of recognition—it’s enough. I’m a member of a band of brothers who will always be there for me, just as I will always be there for them.

It’s only in recent years that I’ve come to appreciate the benefits of PTSI, but it has always shaped my writing. Dave in The Trion Syndrome and Chuck in Last of the Annamese go through the things I went through. From the reaction of readers, I believe that I’ve been able to tell the stories of these men in ways that help other victims of PTSI to cope with their condition. And I’m confident that my books have led to a deeper understanding by those who have never experienced combat.

I’m grateful. I’m content.

The Enrichment of Post-Trauma Stress

I’ve written several times in this blog about Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI). I explained that I call it “injury” and not “disorder” because it is a condition brought on by experience so brutal that the psyche is permanently damaged. It’s an externally inflicted wound, not the mind gone awry from internal misfunctioning. I suffer from it, and I suspect that anyone who has been through combat is subject to its symptoms—nightmares, panic attacks, flashbacks, and irrational rages.

I contracted the malady by repeatedly being caught in combat with the soldiers and Marines I was supporting with intelligence on the battlefield in South Vietnam between 1964 and the withdrawal of troops in 1973. My escape under fire when Saigon fell in 1975 added to my trove of indelible memories that won’t recede or even weaken. They are with me always.

No therapy will cure PTSI, but some steps will help the victim to cope. The two most effective I’ve found are helping others worse off than I am (the homeless, the dying) and writing down what happened. The latter forced me to confront the terrible scenes forever in my brain. That’s prerequisite to dealing with the disease.

One result is that most of my published writing is drawn from my thirteen years on and off in Vietnam. My most recent novel, Last of the Annamese, tells the story of the fall of Saigon from the point of view of five characters, three Americans and two Vietnamese. As one review noted, the novel is fiction in name only.

What I haven’t addressed here is the enrichment that the tortures of PTSI bring with them. I’ll delve into that tomorrow.

Leadership versus Management (2)

More on why leadership works:

Depending on leadership was successful for me even when I wasn’t a designated leader. When I worked with army and Marine combat units on the battlefields of Vietnam, I put the welfare of the men I was with first. They responded with astonishing achievements.

And during the fall of Saigon, my job was to keep our government leaders informed of what was happening. I turned over that task to the forty-three guys working for me, and I devoted myself to assuring that none of them would be killed or wounded when the North Vietnamese took Saigon. That meant that I escaped under fire as the last person left in my office. It was worth it. We carried out or mission with honor and superior results. And my people, all of whom got out unscathed, showed what they could do if led and not managed.

My superiors have occasionally criticized me for my inattention to management. One deputy director of the National Security Agency, my employer, observed that leading was all well and good as long as I kept my subordinates under control. Never mind. I never controlled, and even though I gave scant attention to my numbers, I didn’t have to. They were always top of the line.

I continue to be mystified by the American focus on management to the detriment of leadership. My best guess is that it’s because management is a whole lot easier. Leadership is the hardest work I’ve ever done. It demands the untiring commitment to the welfare of the followers. It requires, frankly, love. But it’s dividends are worth every drop of blood, sweat, and tears.

In short, if you want results, lead. That’s the path to glory.

Leadership versus Management

I’ve written several times here about leadership and its importance. I certainly have no objection to management, but it’s clear to me that while management is necessary to most enterprises in life, leadership leads to excellence.

The issue came up the other day when a workman from a large service company came to my house for repairs. As I always do, I engaged the repairman in conversation. He described his company as committed to numbers—hours worked, jobs finished, time required, costs, income—but it was unconcerned with the welfare of its employees. The net result was a hostile workforce and, not surprisingly, poor efficiency as reflected in the numbers and broad customer dissatisfaction.

I was reminded of my years as the head of various organizations. I learned very young that if I wanted results, I had to lead, not manage. That meant putting the mission and the welfare of my subordinates first. The two went hand in hand and were inseparable.

My job as a leader was to support my followers and help them to be the best that they could be. My most important duty was to look after the health, welfare, and safety of my guys. I drew the organization diagram of the various operations I headed showing me at the bottom lifting up my people, elevating them, watching what wonders they could achieve with my help.

More tomorrow.