Tuyet’s Conversion

Toward the beginning of Last of the Annamese, the reader learns that Tuyet is in a marriage of convenience, a marriage in name only. She has not shared a bed with her husband, South Vietnamese Marine Colonel Thanh, since the birth of their son, Thu, six years before. Tuyet both scorns and is in awe of Thanh. She married him at the command of her family which needed a connection to a rising star in the South Vietnamese military. Because she is Catholic and a member of the royal family, divorce is out of the question.

But as the fall of Saigon comes closer, Tuyet sees Thanh in a new light. While they are in the street, a VC assassin shoots Thanh, wounding him in the arm.  When a grenade is tossed into a crowd, Thanh throws himself on it to protect others, knowing it will kill him. It turns out to be a dud and Thanh survives. Tuyet is stunned to see that Thanh was willing to sacrifice himself to save others and sees that everyone around Thanh reveres him.

When they get home, Thanh asks Tuyet why she didn’t run away during the attack. Tuyet says she was afraid for him. Thanh tells her he is glad she is with Chuck Griffin now—he will get her and Thu out of the country safely. So Thanh knows that she and Chuck are lovers. The following passage describes Tuyet’s reaction to the conversation:

As the door clicked closed behind Thanh, Tuyet fluttered, out of control. He knew [about Chuck]. He saw in a way that was more than seeing. She was defenseless against him. He could watch her soul.

She crumpled onto the bed. She’d lied to herself—and to him. She hadn’t stayed by his side because she was afraid for him. She’d wanted to be with him, to keep him in her sight. She’d been blind but now was only starting to see. He lived at a level far beyond her understanding. That was why he could see what others could not. That was why the generals feared him and the common people loved him. And that, now that she could see it, was the beacon that drew her: This man was transcendence. If Thanh was to die, she had, in that moment in the street, wanted to die with him.

Radio Interview

For those interested: I’ll be interviewed live on the Jim Bohannon Show at 11:00 ET on 20 March. The show is broadcast on some 500 AM stations across the country. The closest to me, as far as I can tell, is WFMD-AM, freq: 930, in Frederick, MD.

If you hear the interview, let me know what you think.

The Pain of Memories

The reviews and endorsements of Last of the Annamese underline the sorrow I express in the book over the fall of Vietnam. They have it right. My memories hurt. At the beginning and again at the end of the novel, the protagonist, Chuck Griffin, asks himself, “Do all memories have to hurt?”

For me they do. I’ll never cease grieving over the 2700 South Vietnamese soldiers who worked with my organization who were then left behind to face the North Vietnamese. I’ll always remember with pain the two U.S. Marines killed when the gate of our compound was hit. I’ll never get over the deaths of two of my staff members, Americans, who later killed themselves.

And that, frankly, is all to the good. Wounds to the soul never heal. Only forgetting would allay my pain. And forgetting would be unforgivable.

Literary Device: Personal Names

In a recent review, my friend and fellow writer, Grady Smith (Blood Chit), outed me and one of my favorite literary devices, the use of personal names to convey character. My intent is that the reader will not be consciously aware of the personality hints inherent in the names I give my characters. I want the effect to be subliminal, to convey a feeling not expressed. In Last of the Annamese, I used the stratagem sparingly for the American characters. Only the protagonist, named Griffin, has a name with covert meaning. My intent was to suggest that Griffin is like the mythical creature with the head and wings of an eagle and the body of a lion, fierce and versatile, even though he himself does not recognize his own strengths.

Since Vietnamese names always have a meaning, I was freer. Thanh means pure, unsullied. Tuyet means snow, cold and clear. Lan literally means orchid, suggesting fragility and vulnerability.

In the novel I’m currently shopping around, Secretocracy, I was more blatant. The organization ranged again the protagonist is peopled with characters whose names have a common thread: Hacker, Cutter, Pierce, Shafter, and Dellaspada (Italian for, literally, “of the dagger”).

I wonder if my readers will find me out.

Ben Griffin’s Death

The protagonist of Last of the Annamese, Chuck Griffin, returns to Vietnam in 1973 to do all he can to win the war. He can’t tolerate the idea that his son, Ben, killed in combat near Bien Hoa in 1967, had died in vain.

Yesterday, I blogged about Colonel James Carver who tells Chuck how Ben died—he didn’t die in combat but was killed by another soldier whom Ben had approached for sex. Chuck is shocked. His reason for returning to Vietnam is demolished. His son didn’t die fighting the North Vietnamese. He was murdered. Chuck decides he doesn’t care whether Ben was homosexual or not. The loss of his son, the boy he loved, is all that matters.

In Last of the Annamese, the true story of Ben’s death is not told. What really happened is related in a short story called “Trip Wires (published in the Antietam Review, Spring, 1999, and in my book Friendly Casualties, 2012). That story was the source of Annamese. I couldn’t help thinking about the soldier named Ben Griffin, killed in the story. I had a son. How could I live through losing that son the way Ben’s father had to?

In “Trip Wires,” a soldier named Kerney hates Ben Griffin, referred throughout the story only by his last name as is common in army units. Griffin is everything Kerney wants to be and can’t be—handsome, strong, an exemplary soldier. Kerney hints to their commander, Major Caver, that Griffin is gay. Griffin discovers that the unit is about to be attacked, but Carver doesn’t believe him. Frantic, Griffin decides to confront the enemy hiding at the perimeter and expose them. The following is the end of the story:

Griffin got to the perimeter first. He snatched an M-16 from the guard on duty, dashed to the jeep inside the concertina wire, started it, and smashed through the perimeter fence toward the river. Flares fired as the jeep hit trip wires. Before Kerney reached the bunker, the guard shot flares into the air. They burst, high above, and bathed Griffin and the bounding jeep in orange light.

“Griff, come back here, you bastard!” Kerney screamed.

Griffin kept going. He called toward the river as more flares burst over him. Thirty yards out, he slammed on the brakes, leaped to his feet, and sprayed the shoreline with fire from his M-16. Then he roared forward, stopped again, stood, and fired. Roused by the shouting and gunfire, the detachment came to life.

Kerney stood watching it all happen as if it were a soundless movie in slow motion. The screaming inside him drowned out everything else. He was sobbing, out of control. “Goddam you, Griffin. Goddam you, goddam you, goddam you.” Then no more words, nothing but screaming.

He shoved the guard aside and swung the M-60 [machine gun] toward Griffin. He fixed the jeep’s strapped-on gas cans in the sights through a blur of tears and squeezed the trigger. The weapon shuddered. Tracers flew from the barrel to the jeep vaulting over the grass and sand. The cans exploded in a burst more beautiful than any Kerney had ever seen. Through the smoke, the burning figure standing in the jeep tilted and fell to the ground, limbs askew, like a broken marionette.

Colonel James Carver, US Army

In the second half of Last of the Annamese, Chuck Griffin comes to understand that he must find out how his son, Ben, died. All Chuck knows is that Ben had burned to death as a result of enemy fire in fighting near Bien Hoa in 1967. Chuck had written to Ben’s commanding officer, a Major James Carver, asking for details but was never answered. In March 1975, he learns that Carver, now a colonel, is accompanying General Weyand on a fact-finding trip to Vietnam. Chuck arranges to meet the colonel and find out what happened to Ben.

Carver turns out to be one of the least likeable characters in the novel. He is based on a number of colonels I knew over the 13 years that I went back and forth between the states and Vietnam. At the time, service in Vietnam became something of a prerequisite to promotion in the U.S. Army, and officers worked hard to garner an assignment there. That meant that some of the least admirable officers managed to spend time in-country. Many of those men reached the rank of colonel and returned to Vietnam where I ran into them.

They were in the minority. Most of the senior officers I worked with were fine men and excellent commanders, like the characters of Colonel Troiano and Colonel Macintosh in Annamese. But a few Carvers made it through. They were memorable for their incompetence.