Descriptions of Combat in Current Literature

I recently came across the following quote from James Jones, the author of From Here to Eternity:

“I don’t think that combat has ever been written about truthfully; it has always been described in terms of bravery and cowardice. I won’t even accept these words as terms of human reference any more. And anyway, hell, they don’t even apply to what, in actual fact, modern warfare has become.”

I think Jones was correct when he was writing (he died in 1977), but current authors, it seems to me, have gotten much gutsier. Some readers have complained about my explicit descriptions of combat, particularly in Last of the Annamese. My purpose in conveying the grisliness of the battlefield is that I want the American people to know what they are sending their young men and women into when they decide to go to war.

Other current authors are more specific than I am. Lucia Viti in her Dr. Tom’s War: A Daughter’s Journey (Rogue Books, 2011), quotes combat veterans at length as they describe in gross detail the gruesomeness of combat. And Doug Stanton’s The Odyssey of Echo Company (Scribner, 2017), which I reviewed for the Internet Review of Books (the review is due to be published on 27 November), pulls no punches in depicting the carnage of men fighting to the death.

I think we writers have changed for the better. Fighting men and women do show great courage and self-sacrifice, but based on what I lived through and observed, their motivation is to protect and save the person fighting next to them, not patriotism or love of country. Those two virtues may have prompted men and women to join the military, but on the battlefield, the guy fighting next to me is more important than anything else. The bond between men and women fighting side by side is the strongest human commitment I’ve ever experienced.

So I’m glad writers now tell it like it is. A small fraction of 1 percent of all Americans have ever experienced combat. Maybe writers like Viti and Stanton will show them what their brothers, son, husbands, and fathers have suffered. And nowadays, our women are facing the same brand of slaughter.

Source of the Characters in Last of the Annamese

I’m regularly asked by readers if the characters in Last of the Annamese are based on real people. The answer is an unqualified yes. But each is an amalgam.

The protagonist, Chuck, is in part based on me. I attribute to him the travails I went through as the South Vietnamese military forces and government collapsed under the assault from North Vietnam. Each of the catastrophes he faced really did happen during the fall of Saigon. As one review noted, Annamese is fiction in name only.

But I wasn’t the only source for Chuck’s character. I drew on the many American men I knew who lived through the collapse and escaped as the North Vietnamese were entering Saigon. I gave Chuck the features, strength, and raw courage I saw in my own men, the forty-three guys who worked for me. I made him a retired Marine officer because nearly all my men were, like me, former military. And so many men in the DAO Intelligence Branch (a real entity located next door to us) spent a life in the military before signing up as civilians to do intelligence collection and analysis in South Vietnam after 1973 when U.S. forces were withdrawn. I had plenty of courageous models to choose from.

Tuyet is based on women from the nobility and royal family I met during my years in Vietnam. I gave to her the traits I had seen in them—a preference for French over Vietnamese (they considered their native tongue crude and ignorant), a feeling of superiority, and disdain for the lower classes. But Tuyet has a depth of insight and nobility that I never saw in the aristocratic models.

Thanh is like half a dozen South Vietnamese military officers I knew—courageous, dedicated, and willing to sacrifice himself. He is the character that moves me the most. He, like so many of the men I knew, plans for the escape of his family while he stays behind to face the North Vietnamese conquerors.

A half dozen readers have asked me if Colonel Macintosh is based on Al Gray, the Marine colonel who saved my life during the fall of Saigon. Yes, in part. I portrayed Macintosh doing what Al Gray actually did, but I didn’t give Macintosh the nobility of Al Gray. Macintosh is an ordinary guy who isn’t promoted because he insists on warning his superiors that Saigon will fall. Gray did all that and more, but he was such a superb leader that the Marine Corps kept promoting him. By the way, I don’t call him Al anymore. That stopped the day he became Commandant of the Marine Corps. Now I call him “sir.” I’ve never met a Marine who doesn’t know who Al Gray is. He’s a legend in his own time. I’m privileged to know him.

I made the characters in Annamese as real as I could. I want people to know what happened to the brave men and women, Vietnamese and American, who lived through or died during the fall of Saigon.

Vietnamese Orphans with French Names

In Last of the Annamese, I described the use of French instead of Vietnamese in Saigon orphanages. During my years in Vietnam, I volunteered to work in orphanages and was surprised to find that the nuns who managed them, all of whom were Vietnamese, spoke French among themselves and to the children. Moreover, they gave the children French names. Two children who appear prominently in the novel are Philippe and Angélique, both killed on 4 April 1975 in the crash of the C-5A Galaxy aircraft. That flight was the first of the Operation Babylift airlifts organized by President Ford to get orphans out of Vietnam before the south fell to the North Vietnamese.

Another feature of the orphanages was the nuns’ severity and what seemed to me like coldness in the way they dealt with the children. I saw little warmth and sympathy. The nuns spoke sharply to the children and demanded instant compliance with commands. As a result, I was all the more outgoing and friendly with the children, doing all I could to make them smile and laugh.

I concluded that the nuns’ use of French and their attitude toward the children derived from what they believed to be French common practice. The nuns shared with upper-class Vietnamese the belief that their native language was crude. The way they treated the children presumably came from their perception of French child-rearing practices. It was a spare-the-rod-spoil-the-child attitude. I spent too little time with French families in both France and Vietnam to know if the nuns’ understanding was accurate. All I knew was that the orphans led bleak lives.

In the C-5A crash on 4 April 1975, 78 orphans died. I still grieve over the loss.

Bufes

My house is decorated with odds and ends from Vietnam. I have half a dozen paintings, oils and water color, done by South Vietnamese artists that I bought over the years in Vietnam. On my desk is a coffee tile, now cracked, mounted in wood, showing the character for dao (道) in Chinese or Ðao with a low glottal stop in Vietnamese, meaning “way” or “path”—the source of Taoism. A fish basket table stands beside my piano, and rounded wooden stools are by the fireplace. Two white ceramic plant holders, two to three feet high, stand on my deck. One is perforated as if the holes in leaf pattern allowed empty random spaces. The other is three elephant heads formed into a single column—it’s reportedly from Laos, the land that once worshiped an elephant with one head surrounded by three faces, each with a trunk.

But the items that get the attention are my bufes, that is, “big ugly f**king elephants,” as the soldiers and Marines used to call them. These are three-feet tall ceramic figures of elephants with ornamental head dresses and decorated saddles. I have them in a variety of sizes and colors.

I bought the bufes in Vietnam and displayed them in the various villas I had with my family over the years in Saigon. I couldn’t resist talking about them in Last of the Annamese. Early in the story, Ike and Chuck, housemates, are entertaining a visiting U.S. Marine colonel. Also present is Molly, the nurse known for her irreverence and rangy language. The scene reads as follows:

After dinner, the guests adjourned to the living room for brandy. Molly sat next to the colonel, munched chocolates served by Oanh, and asked for an ice cube in her snifter. Chuck gave her one without comment, but [Colonel] Macintosh laughed.

“Sorry,” she said to the colonel, “but if it’s worth snorting, it’s worth snorting on the rocks.”

Macintosh eyed the ceramic elephants—one green, one purple—supporting the glass top of the cocktail table. “I see a lot of these. Are they a Saigon special?”

“We call them bufes—big ugly fucking elephants.” Molly ignored Ike’s wince. “Yeah, you can pick them up on Tu Do for a few thousand pee [GI slang for piaster].” She held her glass to Chuck. “Would you?”

End of quote.

Dak To Article

The New York Times just published my article about the battle of Dak To, which started fifty years ago today, in its “’67 Vietnam” series. You can read it at https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/03/opinion/vietnam-tet-offensive.html?action=click&pgtype=Homepage&clickSource=story-heading&module=opinion-c-col-right-region&region=opinion-c-col-right-region&WT.nav=opinion-c-col-right-region
Feel free to comment at the site.

New Review of Last of the Annamese

Another review of my novel, Last of the Annamese, was just published, this one in the October edition of Baltimore Style. You can read it at http://baltimorestyle.com/voices-from-home/

So many reviewers and readers have remarked on my anguished memories of the fall of Saigon. I’m sure readers of this blog have seen plenty of evidence of my feelings. As I do my presentation on the fall of Saigon, I invariably choke up when I talk about the bravery of Bob and Gary who stayed with me to the end. My eyes get moist when I describe the South Vietnamese officer who killed his family and himself rather than surrender to the North Vietnamese. And I have to wipe away tears when I describe the 2700 South Vietnamese soldiers who worked with my organization and were all killed or captured when the North Vietnamese conquered South Vietnam.

By the end of this month, I’ll have done that presentation more than fifty times. Some grieving never fades.

The Character of Lan in Last of the Annamese

Early in Last of the Annamese, the reader comes across the character of Lan, whose name means “orchid.” She is the niece of South Vietnamese Marine Colonel Pham Ngoc Thanh. Lan first appears at the U.S. Marine Corps Birthday Ball, held at Saigon’s Gia Long Palace on 10 November 1974. She is there because Thanh’s wife, Tuyet (her name means “snow”), insisted that Lan attend the party with the objective of meeting a young man who might, in the long term, become Lan’s husband. Tuyet came along, ostensibly as a chaperone for Lan.

Over time it becomes apparent to the reader that Tuyet’s real objective in attending the ball was to meet Chuck Griffin, a retired American Marine working as an intelligence analyst for the U.S. embassy’s Defense Attaché Office. Tuyet seduces Chuck in hopes that he will help her and her six-year old son, Thu, escape when Saigon falls to the North Vietnamese.

Lan learns of Tuyet’s treachery and becomes her enemy. In a sardonic twist, Lan escapes the fall of Saigon in Tuyet’s place. I sometimes amuse myself by imagining Lan’s life in the U.S. following the North Vietnamese victory.

As with most of the happenings and character portrayed in Last of the Annamese, these events and people are based on fact. I attended the Marine Ball that year at the Gia Long Palace. I knew American men drawn into intimate relationships with Vietnamese women whose objective was to escape the country before it fell.

On the Marine Corps birthday—10 November—this year, I won’t be attending a ball. I’ll be at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory giving my presentation on the fall of Saigon. The next day, Veterans Day, I’ll be reading from my published work on the Vietnam war on the National Mall.

History, as we live it, has a tendency to turn ironic.