Scaramuccia and Scaramouche

From the linguist who wrote Last of the Annamese:

When I read of the appointment of Anthony Scaramucci (nicknamed “the Mooch”) as White House Communications Director, I was struck by the similarity of the name to a stock commedia dell’arte character, Scaramuccia or, in French Scaramouche, a cowardly buffoon. “Scaramuccia” by itself in Italian means “skirmish,” and the character’s name is sometimes rendered “little skirmisher.” In English, “Scaramouche” means a rascal or scamp.

Early reports on the effectiveness of the revised communications system are not encouraging—see today’s Washington Post front page headline: “Message misfire follows overhaul.”

Given the current state of the Trump White House and the endless bickering between the president and the press, I can’t help but wonder if the name of the new Communications Director presages even more skirmishes.

Third Person Address in the Marine Corps

Early in my years in Vietnam, I worked with Marine units in combat. That’s when I discovered the Marine Corps practice of never addressing a superior in the second person, that is, avoiding the word “you.” That usually meant using the rank in place of “you.” For example, one would say “Is the Colonel ready to depart?”

The practice even extends to the first person occasionally. A Marine is trained to refer to himself by rank rather than using “I.” In training, a Marine would say, “The recruit has finished the drill, sir.” Once in a while, I ran into that practice in the field.

When I was with the troops in Vietnam, I was, of course, a civilian employee of the National Security Agency (NSA) operating under cover. To maintain secrecy, I usually wore the uniform of the unit I was with, had my hair cut like troops, used their latrines, ate C-rations sitting in the dirt with them, and slept by them in the open or in tents. I’ve always looked younger than my age, and at a distance I could pass for a twenty-year-old enlisted man even when I was in my thirties.

To do my job, I had to work hand-in-glove with the enlisted men. That meant my cover was as a grunt, not an officer. The troops knew who I was, and, as I noted elsewhere in this blog, found my presence among them hilarious.

For me to be effective, the troops had to accept me as one of them. That was easier with Army units than with the Marines. Respect for superiors is so deeply ingrained in Marines that they resisted calling me “Tom” and treating me as just another snuff. They knew that I often outranked their unit commander and had a hard time bringing themselves to see me as an ordinary guy.

Addressing me in the third person was a challenge. My rank was civilian and labelled according to the GS (government service) rating system. So properly, an enlisted Marine should say, for example, “Would the GS-14 care for coffee?” That didn’t sit right. Instead, they used the term normally reserved for speaking to multiple superiors with different ranks, namely “gentlemen.” But with me they made it singular. The first time a Marine enlisted man asked me, “Would the gentleman like some water?”, I didn’t know who he was referring to, so my answer was, “I don’t know. Why don’t you ask them?”

With time, the troops and I learned to work together as a team of equals. I couldn’t be effective any other way. And when the Marines finally called me “you,” I knew we were home free.

Salvation: Helping Others to Help Yourself

A man who served in Vietnam and suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Injury wrote me that Last of the Annamese moved him. He told me he’s considering working with other veterans who struggle with the trauma. I urged him to use his experience to help others. And I told him of my experience.

As I’ve said earlier in this blog, I was in Vietnam at least four months every year from 1962 to 1975. I had two complete tours in-country and so many shorter trips I lost count. Because I was providing signals intelligence support to combat units, I went into battles with the troops even though I was a civilian operating under cover. After the withdrawal of U.S. military forces in 1973, I headed the covert NSA operation in Vietnam and escaped under fire when Saigon fell.

In the process, I lived through catastrophes that I still can’t talk about, even though I’ve forced myself to bring the memories into my consciousness. I struggle with classic Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (I use the term “injury” rather than “disorder” because the damage to my soul was clearly externally inflicted) that will be with me for the rest of my life.

For so many years I thought I was the only one with nightmares, panic attacks, irrational rages, and flashbacks. Until a few years ago, Americans looked on the war in Vietnam as a shameful thing. When I came back to the U.S. with the troops, we were met at the San Francisco airport by crowds who called us baby killers and butchers and spat on us. That sickened my soul. So for decades I never spoke to anyone about my experiences. I had top secret codeword-plus clearances, and if I’d gone for psychological help, I’d have lost my clearances and my job. I gritted my teeth and sweated through it. Writing down what happened turned out to be good therapy. Hence my novels and short stories.

But the biggest help came from volunteering, starting in the 1980s. I worked with AIDS patients, the homeless, the dying in the hospice system, and finally with sick and dying soldiers in a VA hospital. I learned that when I was with people worse off than I was, my memories faded into the background. I found out that compassion heals.

So I profoundly hope that the brother in arms who wrote to me will follow through and help other veterans. Just knowing that others share that wound to the soul helps more than most people could imagine. God bless him.

Reading from Last of the Annamese

Yesterday afternoon, I did a reading/book signing from Last of the Annamese for a group of seniors. As so often happens when I read from Annamese, I choked up and had to blink away tears at several points in the story. Why does my own writing move me so deeply? Because the book is really my story. It’s an autobiographical novel, historically accurate and as complete as I could make it. I put the protagonist, Chuck Griffin, through the travails I suffered myself during my years in Vietnam and the fall of Saigon. And those events, especially the deaths of so many people I knew, are still and always will be a cause of grieving for me.

As I always do when I’m reading or doing a presentation, I stopped for a moment here and there and listened. Dead silence. I looked up. Every eye was on me. The audience was with me.

As time goes on, I’m finding that my preferred audience for readings and presentations is seniors. Granted, I’m a senior myself, but more important, these are people who have lived through the tragedies that life inflicts on us. They know what it is to lose someone they love. They have faced life and death.

Younger audiences, especially millennials, react very differently to my stories. They are curious, especially about what happened in Vietnam and why the U.S. lost the war. They wonder what being a veteran is like since almost none of them ever served. The losses I write about move them less because they haven’t experienced anything comparable. Loss is, for so many of them, an aspect of life they haven’t yet faced.

In the same way, most of the reviews of Last of the Annamese have been positive, some glowing. The only one that wasn’t was written by a graduate student. He simply hadn’t lived enough to understand the book.

When I finished my reading yesterday, as so often happens, people came up to talk to me. They told me of their own experiences. If the interlocutor was a woman, she most often talked about her relatives who went to war. If it was a man, he related to me his military service experience. That’s another difference in dealing with seniors—nearly all the men are veterans and nearly all women had fathers, husbands, brothers, even sons, who had served in the military.

So I share with these people an understanding of war, the pride that comes from serving and the pain that combat inflicts. The bond between me and them is instant. These people are my brothers and sisters.

Corpsmen

During the years that I provided signals intelligence support to combat units in Vietnam, a number of times I ran into men called “corpsmen” serving with Marine units. Eventually I came to understand that these men were not Marines but enlisted men in the US Navy. I knew that other services have medics on the battlefield—they’re called field medics or combat medics—but I learned that the Marine Corps does not. Navy corpsmen fill this role.

Over the years in Vietnam, I learned more about corpsmen. They are officially referred to as US Navy Hospital Corpsmen. My understanding is that there are no officer corpsmen. All are enlisted. Because of the urgent work they do, corpsmen are the most decorated rating of all branches of the service. And the US Navy has named fourteen of its ships after corpsmen.

Twice recently I’ve come across two former corpsmen. One was at the Naval Support Activity USO celebration of Vietnam veterans last Friday in Bethesda, Maryland. When another vet introduced himself as “Doc,” I knew immediately what his service had been. How often did I hear the call for “Doc” among Marines on the battlefield. All corpsmen are called “Doc.”

The other is a reader of my books who is in prison. I mentioned him in an earlier blog. I knew he was a Vietnam vet, but I only recently learned he was a corpsman. I knew he suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Injury from his experiences in combat, but only now am I beginning to imagine what he must have gone through. I suspect that had he not been soul-damaged, he never would have gotten into trouble with the law.

I am humbled and grateful that he reads my writing and sees me as a brother who shares his affliction.

Self-Reliance and Keeping in Shape (2)

Being able to depend on myself has seen me through a good many tight spots. I learned during my Vietnam days, when I went into combat with the soldiers and Marines I was supporting, that staying in good shape was essential to my success. So I went out of my way to keep my body operating at maximum efficiency. I became a runner and a weight lifter, watched my diet, and eventually quit smoking.

The latter didn’t come soon enough. In 2013, more than twenty-five years after I gave up tobacco, I developed lung cancer, though it wasn’t diagnosed until 2015. I underwent maximum chemotherapy and radiation and finally had the upper lobe of my right lung removed. My doctors marveled at how well I withstood the rigors of treatment and credited my recovery to the excellent shape I was in.

I acknowledged another element in my battle against cancer: my long-ago formed habit of depending on myself. I was determined that I wasn’t going to let a little thing like cancer keep me from writing the books I still had in me. I’m still in recovery with a cough that won’t quit and an irritating lack of energy. But I cheat and steal and trick my body into doing what I want it to do.

As age takes its toll, my resilience is working overtime. I can’t run any more thanks to failed knee replacement surgery, but I follow a regular regimen of weight lifting and keep my weight to the recommended level for my body type. My diet stresses healthy foods, especially vegetables and fruits, and I stay away from sweets and fried food. I allow myself half a gimlet and a small glass of wine each day. I assure that I get enough rest.

It’s working. At least so far. I’ve been able to maintain a demanding schedule of presentations, readings, and book signings to promote Last of the Annamese. As usual, I have to depend on myself for my appearances. No one’s going to help me.

As it was in the beginning, so it is now: it’s up to me.

Self-Reliance and Keeping in Shape

As I mentioned earlier in this blog, I essentially raised myself from the age of six because my mother was an alcoholic and my father was in prison. I had to do everything from preparing my own meals to doing my own laundry to figuring out where I was going to get money for everything from carfare to school to buying new shoes. I started with a paper route as a young boy and graduated to working in a drug store as delivery boy and clerk, pumping gasoline, washing dishes in a restaurant, and waiting tables. I accepted the general view that I wasn’t very bright and didn’t do well in school. Even though high school advisers recommended that I not go to college (I didn’t have the brains to make it, they said in so many words), I still enrolled in the University of California in Berkeley and worked twenty hours a week at any job I could get that fit with my academic schedule. True to my advisers’ predictions, I didn’t do well and graduated with low B average.

Meanwhile, I was fascinated with languages and greatly attracted to music. I taught myself to play the piano—even though I didn’t own one—and learned on my own to speak Italian and French. In high school I had four years of Latin, and in college, I added German. Upon graduation, I enlisted in the army to study Chinese at the Army Language School in Monterey, California, the best language school in the world, later called the Defense Language Institute. The army directed that I study not Chinese, but Vietnamese, a language I had never heard of—this was 1959, and we still called that part of the world French Indochina. So I had intensive training in Vietnamese, six hours a day in the classroom plus two hours of private study every night, five days a week, for a full year. I loved it. I graduated first in my class and was sent to the National Security Agency (NSA) at Fort Meade, Maryland. Once there, I enrolled at Georgetown to study Chinese.

I knew I had a flair for languages, but that didn’t mean I was intelligent. In my forties, determined to go on learning despite my lack of intellect, I returned to graduate school and earned a masters and a doctorate. Once again, I loved the study, graduated with honors, and finally realized that I wasn’t dumb at all.

I see now, looking back at a long life, that I succeeded by virtue of being forced to depend on myself. I was strong-willed and stubborn. Since no one was going to take care of me or help me, I had to develop self-reliance.

As I wrote earlier in this blog, my ability and willingness to fend for myself was instrumental in surviving the fall of Saigon and getting all forty-three of my subordinates and their families safely out of the country in the face of opposition from the U.S. Ambassador and lack of help from any quarter. Now in the ranks of seniors (a politically correct term for old people), I’m coming to realize that staying active and healthy is up to me. No one’s going to help me.

More tomorrow.