Annamese: Bookend to The Quiet American?

I was surprised and flattered by Steven Phillips’ endorsement of Last of the Annamese in which he said, “Tom Glenn’s novel is a proverbial bookend companion to Graham Greene’s The Quiet American,” I have always admired Greene’s work. For many years I was troubled by his unflattering view of Americans and their actions in Vietnam. But since the fall of Vietnam, I’ve come to understand his insights more. And I see for the first time that Last of the Annamese could be understood as a critical portrait of U.S. policy. That wasn’t my intent when I wrote the book—I simply wanted to tell the protagonist’s story and record for posterity what really happened during the fall of Saigon now that the details are finally declassified.

I’m disturbed by the implication that my protagonist, Chuck Griffin, is analogous to Greene’s Alden Pyle, but I see the resemblances. Griffin is indeed innocent and even in error about how his son died in Vietnam. Unlike Pyle, though, he becomes more cynical and saddened as he sees the end coming. In those respects, he’s very much like me. As disturbing as it is, maybe I need to reflect on my own attitude during my 13 years on and off in Vietnam. Maybe I was more like Alden Pyle than I’d like to admit.

The Author as a Musician

I’ve spent much of my life trying to escape the blessing/curse of being a writer. By age six, I knew my vocation was dyed in the wool. That didn’t stop me from trying other callings. I studied to be an actor and a dancer, spent a good portion of my youth as what amounted to a spy, and worked as a linguist in seven languages. The major alternative to writing, though, was music.

My consuming passion for music started even before I knew I was a writer. I ended up taking a BA in composition from the University of California, but by the time I graduated, I already knew I wasn’t good enough to create first-class music. When I listened to Mozart, and especially Bach, I saw my own limitations all too clearly. That didn’t stop me from composing reams of music that I now see really wasn’t bad.

I went on to take work-related advance degrees—a master’s in Government and a doctorate in Public Administration—and I found time to work with church choirs and folk groups and even wrote music for them.

Finally, by the time I was in my thirties, I surrendered to my vocation and began restructuring my life so that I could eventually write fiction full time.

I have found over the years that depth understanding and work in disciplines other than writing can enrich the writer’s soul and make his writing more effective. The system and logic of music is relevant only to itself, and the logic of no other discipline applies to it. But learning to think in that logic gave me the power to think in words with new insight and perspective. The only comparable training that has lifted my way with words was the study of languages other than English, especially Asian languages whose logic is totally alien to English. I find a cunning irony in the discovery that because Asian languages are often tonal, my understanding of the way tones work in music was an immense help to me in learning to speak those languages. I conclude that any depth training of the human brain can invigorate the writer’s soul.

The Quote from a Passage about Thanh

A friend recently asked me if any single passage in Last of the Annamese offers a microscopic picture of the entire story. I think the answer is no—but if readers disagree with me let me know. The publishers, The Naval Institute Press, picked out one passage they chose to highlight as a way to introduce the reading public to the book. I quoted that passage earlier, but to save you hunting through previous blogs, I quote it again here:

“Thanh boarded his aging C-47 for the flight from Binh Tuy Province back to Saigon. As the aircraft whined upward, its two engines shuddering, he looked down on the wandering La Nga River, the war-scarred town of Hoai Duc, and the mountains northeast, soaking in the January sunshine. Only a matter of time before Hoai Duc and its sister towns of Tanh Linh and Vo Xu fell to the North Vietnamese. Three North Vietnamese regiments and a newly formed division were on the move. He’d talked to the anxious soldiers, urged them to pray and seek serenity, and, although he didn’t use these words, to prepare for defeat and death. The young faces looking up as he spoke, the frightened eyes pleading for hope, had left him depleted. He must not allow himself to sink into despondence as he had the day Phuoc Binh was lost. Too much work left to do. Too many hearts to unburden. Too many souls to comfort.”

Characters in Last of the Annamese: South Vietnamese Marine Colonel Pham Ngoc Thanh

Like other characters in Last of the Annamese, Colonel Thanh turns out to be a composite. He is a mix of South Vietnamese officers I knew in Vietnam. I didn’t create him at the conscious level; he came to my imagination fully formed, and, as I got to know him, he slowly revealed his complex history. He is a monk turned soldier and charismatic leader ready to sacrifice himself for his fellow man or his country.

Thanh surprised me with the choices he made during the writing of Last of the Annamese. Already in a failed marriage from which society will not allow him to escape, he accepts his wife’s infidelity, and, toward the end of the story, delivers his son, Thu, into the care of the man who is sleeping with his wife. He tries valiantly and fails to persuade the U.S. to return to Vietnam to keep South Vietnam from falling to the Communist North. Despite serious wounds, he continues to comfort his fellow Vietnamese and prepare them for the end of the country.

Tomorrow, I’ll post a quote from Annamese that to me seems to sum up Thanh, the man, the ascetic, and the leader.

Could the U.S. Have Won the Vietnam War?

To me, the final days during the fall of Saigon were hours of shame. Not only did the U.S withdraw from Vietnam in disarray, we also abandoned our allies who had fought at our side. Was that defeat inevitable?

Militarily, no.

Until 1968, the U.S. had followed the Westmoreland strategy of search and destroy, assuming that if we killed enough Vietnamese Communists, they would give up. We underestimated the will of North Vietnam to win the war no matter what the cost. Ho Chi Minh had told the French, “It will be a war between and elephant and a tiger. If the tiger ever stands still the elephant will crush him with his mighty tusks. But the tiger does not stand still. He lurks in the jungle by day and emerges only at night. He will leap upon the back of the elephant, tearing huge chunks from his hide, and then he will leap back into the dark jungle. And slowly the elephant will bleed to death. That will be the war of Indochina.”

More succinctly he said, “You will ten of us, and we will kill one of you, and in the end it is you who will be exhausted.”

When Creighton Abrams took over the command of U.S. forces in Vietnam in 1968, he altered the way the U.S. fought to stress working with the South Vietnamese people, shifting the focus from body counts to population security, that is protecting the people from the Communists. He emphasized small unit operations aimed at defending villages and hamlets, forcing the North Vietnamese to attack U.S. forces in places and at times advantageous to the U.S.

It was working. But by then the U.S. population had turned against the war, and, after the peace accords of 1973, Congress eventually stopped even our air support to the South Vietnamese and withheld weapons, supplies, and funds from the South Vietnamese military, assuring that the North Vietnamese would win the war.

Whether the U.S. could have had the wisdom to shape Vietnamese politics so as to assure democracy and the rule of law in South Vietnam is another question entirely. But militarily, we were on our way to victory when the people of the U.S. decided the war must end, even if that meant shame and defeat.

That said, if we as a nation have learned nothing else from our failure, let us learn not to abandon the allies who have fought at our side and leave them to the mercy of our joint enemy. Our actions in Afghanistan and Iraq suggest to me that we have not learned that lesson.

The Character to Tuyet in Last of the Annamese

Of all the characters in Last of the Annamese, Tuyet came as the greatest surprise. She appeared to me, as I wrote, fully formed, as all of my characters do. But she was the most alien to me—a woman in her early twenties, a Vietnamese, and a member of the royal family.

She is in some ways the most conflicted of my characters in Annamese. Her first priority throughout is to save her son, Thu. She knows Vietnam will fall. She foresees that her husband, Thanh, will forego evacuation and stay to face the North Vietnamese when Saigon is invaded. Her solution is to seduce Chuck Griffin so that she can prevail upon him to rescue her and her son. Then the greatness of Thanh slowly becomes apparent to her. She is loath to abandon him. When she comes to love Chuck, her dilemma becomes all but unbearable.

Do readers find her convincing? Several have told me they do. That I was able to create a female figure that women would find believable persuades me once again that it is my unconscious that does the writing. And my unconscious often knows better than I do.

I ask that the readers of this blog let me know if Tuyet comes across to you as a credible portrait. It is invariably by feedback from readers that I know if have succeeded.

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.