A friend who follows this blog asked me why I never mention my battle with cancer. Somehow, it seems irrelevant. But just to set the record straight, here’s the story:
In 2013, I coughed up blood. My doctor at the time said it was nothing to worry about. He diagnosed me with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD). Early in 2015, I brought up blood again. Since my doctor had told me not to worry about it, I didn’t go see him until time for my regular checkup in May. He sent me for a chest x-ray. I had a large tumor in the upper lobe of my right lung.
I underwent maximum chemotherapy and radiation, and then, in November 2015, a surgeon removed the tumor from my lung. Recovery is continuing. I still have a bad cough, and I lack energy. But the cancer is gone so far as we can tell.
The surgeon and my oncologist were frankly thrilled at my ability to withstand the treatments and the surgery. I was, in every other respect, a pinnacle of health. I was a runner until my right knee gave out in 2013, and I’ve always been a devoted weight lifter. That meant that I had to watch my diet to be sure I stayed healthy enough to run and work out. The end result was that I survived both the cancer and the treatment with flying colors. And I’ve never returned to the physician who failed to diagnose the cancer in 2013.
The other factor that helped me was that I never stopped working. Even on my worst days, I wrote. When the Naval Institute Press (NIP) accepted Last of the Annamese for publication in 2016, I redoubled my efforts. I worked on the proofs of Annamese and struggled through the editing process with a genuinely excellent editor from NIP to get the book ready for publication in March 2017. At the same time, I completed work on The Secretocracy, a novel based on my years in intelligence, and I’m shopping it around to publishers. Now that I’m up to my elbows in promoting Annamese with presentations and still doing readings and book signings of my earlier books, I’m working ten-hour days and loving every minute.
So thanks to devotion to work I love, I’m well on my way to complete recovery. And I’m deeply grateful for my good luck.
A blog reader questioned me about Chuck’s gift for foretelling what the North Vietnamese would do next. How could that be? How did it work?
In Last of the Annamese, I describe Chuck’s ability to foresee the future with the sentence “. . . he’d let his consciousness rove over patterns and trends and the flow of events until he knew what was going to happen next.” That depiction is derived from my own experience. How does it work? I have no idea. I discovered how to let my consciousness blur while I studied events. I’d let my mind wander over the data. Then, sometimes suddenly, I’d know what would happen next. I don’t know how I did it. Others with the same gift were equally puzzled.
One result was that we developed over the years a series of indicators. When the North Vietnamese did x, y followed. The system was too vague to be called scientific; it was intuition at work. I’ve always thought that the best analogy was the sense of smell: it was almost as if when a certain combination of scents appeared, I’d foresee the next event. My guess is that the gift springs from an ability to be in touch with one’s unconscious. That ability dominates my writing.
The protagonist of Last of the Annamese, Chuck Griffin, briefs the U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) once a month. His boss, Colonel Troiano, chief of the DAO Intelligence Branch, assigns that job to Chuck because Chuck has the rare ability to look at a series of events and know what’s going to happen next.
This is one more case where Chuck’s experiences almost exactly match mine. I briefed the U.S. Ambassador, Graham Martin, regularly, and, like Chuck, warned him of North Vietnamese preparations to attack Saigon. He didn’t believe me. Instead, he believed the assurances of the Hungarian member of the ICCS that North Vietnam had no intention of invading Saigon; it wished, instead, to form a coalition government “with all the patriotic forces” and rule jointly. That gentleman was a representative of a communist government allied to North Vietnam. And the Ambassador accepted his statements in the face of the overwhelming evidence I was providing him that the attack was imminent.
Chuck’s gift for foreseeing the future was another trait he and I have in common. Over my many years of working on intelligence about North Vietnam, I found a small handful of analysts who possessed that same insight. They and I worked together to warn the U.S. government and military commanders of what was coming next. We successfully foretold each major North Vietnamese offensive from 1964 on. Our fate was like Chuck’s in Annamese: all too often we weren’t believed. It happened so often I coined the name “Cassandra Effect” to describe it.
In the final pages of Last of the Annamese, the protagonist, Chuck Griffin learns that South Vietnamese Air Force officers have forced their way into the DAO building (on the northern edge of Saigon at Tan Son Nhat) and are demanding evacuation at gun point. Chuck and his office mates receive orders to proceed immediately to the evacuation staging area.
The event described really happened. In the early hours of the morning on 29 April 1975, Bob, Gary, and I—the only ones left of the 44 men who had been assigned to my office—received a telephone call telling us that the officers were roaming the halls, guns drawn. We were to leave our office suite and go immediately to the evacuation staging area, another office the Marines had secured. So we sent our last message. It’s a personal message from me to my boss, General Lew Allen, the Director of NSA. It’s now declassified so I can quote it:
- HAVE JUST RECEIVED WORD TO EVACUATE. AM NOW DESTROYING REMAINING CLASSIFIED MATERIAL. WILL CEASE TRANSMISSIONS IMMEDIATELY AFTER THIS MESSAGE.
- WE’RE TIRED BUT OTHERWISE ALL RIGHT. LOOKS LIKE THE BATTLE FOR SAIGON IS ON FOR REAL.
- FROM GLENN: I COMMEND TO YOU MY PEOPLE WHO DESERVE THE BEST NSA CAN GIVE THEM FOR WHAT THEY HAVE BEEN THROUGH BUT ESPECIALLY FOR WHAT THEY HAVE ACHIEVED.
I added “from Glenn” before the final paragraph to assure that General Allen would know these words were from me personally.
We destroyed our crypto and comms equipment and went to the staging area. Bob and Gary flew out on a helicopter at 1400 hours that afternoon. I followed later carrying the two flags that had stood beside my desk, the stars and stripes and gold and orange banner of the now defunct Republic of Vietnam. Those two flags are now in the Cryptologic Museum at Fort Meade.
The prologue to Last of the Annamese is set in Da Nang in 1967. Chuck and Ike visit an orphanage, and in the infirmary, they find a small boy with phosphorus still burning in his skin. They rush off to find an American military doctor to treat the boy, but when they return, the boy has died. This episode sets the stage for the drama that follows.
The boy’s death has several ramifications. First, it mirrors the way Chuck’s own son, Ben, died. Second, it establishes the theme of the boy-child in Chuck’s life. The theme recurs throughout the book.
Third, and in some ways most important, it underlines in unspoken terms the U.S. responsibility for the tragedies that the various boy-children in Chuck’s history endure. Ben, it turns out, didn’t die in combat; he was killed by another GI. Thu, the child of Thanh and Tuyet, is orphaned during the final U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam.
And the unnamed boy in the prologue? He dies of white phosphorus burns. The North Vietnamese and Viet Cong didn’t use phosphorus. Only the U.S. did. So it was U.S. fighting forces that delivered the weapon that killed the boy.
I don’t mean to use this theme to accuse the U.S. of deliberately killing innocent civilians. I meant to underline that in war even the side with morality on its side causes the deaths of innocents. That thought is endemic to Chuck’s struggle throughout the book—he tries with all that’s in him to win the war against the North Vietnamese, but in the end witnesses the destruction of South Vietnam caused in large measure by the Americans’ decision to abandon Vietnam to its fate.
The novel, The Trion Syndrome, tells of the struggle of Dave Bell, the protagonist, against Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI). His marriage fails, his children won’t talk to him, and he loses his job. Rather than fight back, he runs away to northern Maine, where he gets a job in a gas station and lives in a storage shed while he contemplates suicide.
Dave’s story is similar to my own. After the fall of Saigon, I returned to the world (that’s what we called the U.S.) a physical and emotional wreck. I had amoebic dysentery, pneumonia, and ear damage. And I was a living example of PTSI, although we didn’t have a name for it back then. My wife and four children had just returned to the U.S. after a grand tour of the world (Asia, Europe) following their evacuation from Vietnam 20 days before Saigon fell. They were staying at her father’s house in Massachusetts. I telephoned her and asked her to come to Maryland as soon as possible. I told her I was very sick and needed her help. She turned me down.
That was May 1975. She and the children finally came home in July after I’d been able to get our house back from the family that had leased it for three years in 1974. I had to face my ghosts on my own. The marriage was over.
Dave Bell finds salvation through his son. I found mine by writing and helping others. By the end of Trion, Dave understands that he’ll never be free of his memories—he’ll have to face them and come to terms with them. In that respect, he and I are the same.
After I learned that the Naval Institute Press would be publishing Last of the Annamese, I sent copies of the ARC (advance review copy) to men who had seen combat in Vietnam. I wanted to know how they reacted to the book and, if they wanted to, I hoped they’d write and publish reviews.
They’re feeding back to me now, a little at a time. I’m moved by the mix of pride and pain they show in their responses—pride that they stood their ground for their country and risked their lives for what they believed was right; and pain at remembering the gruesome experiences they went through in combat.
They’re all younger than me. So many of them were 18 or 19 when they arrived in Vietnam. By the time I got there in 1962, I was already 25 with a wife and my first child. I’d finished my military service and was a civilian operating under cover. Most of the guys I knew went to Vietnam after 1964. When Saigon fell (I was 38), most of them were still in their twenties.
So I was more mature than the guys I served beside on the battlefield. I looked so young that they assumed I was their contemporary when I was actually old enough that I qualified for the name “Pops” as they called men serving with them who were already in their mid-twenties. Worse, in civilian-to-military equivalency, I outranked their commanders. Nevertheless, once they saw that I was going to be with them through it all, even in combat, they accepted me and we worked together.
What I’m starting to understand is how rough it must have been on them. I was older, more experienced. By the mid-sixties, I’d already been through combat; they hadn’t. Besides, they were fighters. I was just there to help and was armed, at most, with a pistol. They were there to kill or be killed. I struggle with my own memories. How much worse it must be for them.
I do sense their pain, and I understand their unwillingness to talk about their memories. But I also feel—and share in—their pride. To paraphrase Ike in Annamese, they did what they had to do, whatever it took. I salute them and honor their pride.