The Writing of Friendly Casualties

The novel-in-stories called Friendly Casualties arose from my need to confront my memories of what I lived through and witnessed during my 13 years, on and off, in Vietnam. The eight individual stories that make up the first half of the book, “Triage,” each came to me from an incident I was involved with. After those stories were completed and published, I realized that they were connected in ways I hadn’t understood when I first wrote them. Characters from one story appeared in another story; timing of stories overlapped; the settings were connected. I came to understand that the stories formed a tapestry. All that was needed was a narrative that drew the loose ends together. That pushed me into writing the novella that forms the second half of the book, “Healing.”

Once again, characters from earlier stories showed up in my writing. I sensed that I had to bring into harmony the various themes and threads, the anguish and fulfillments that permeated the entire text. So I wrote a scene for Maggie, the State Department intelligence specialist at the embassy in Saigon, and Sam, the soldier who had lost an arm. I had to show that the only way we who suffered through Vietnam could get on with our lives was to help each other. I ended the book with an unplanned meeting between Sam and Maggie when he asks her to have lunch with him:

“I haven’t had lunch with a beautiful woman in a very long time. The first time I saw you—”

“Sam,” Maggie said, “are you flirting with me?”

He blushed.

“I’m too old for you,” she said.

“No, you’re not. I mean . . . Miss Nilsson—”

“Maggie.”

“Maggie.” He hunched his shoulders. “I apologize. It’s just that  . . . What I mean is, you’ve been hurt. So have I. We’re what they call ‘friendly casualties.’ Maybe you’d let me comfort you. Just a little bit.”

“Sam, it wouldn’t be—”

“And maybe you could comfort me. Only just a little.”

Maggie started to shake her head.

“Maggie.” He took her hand. “We have to start somewhere. Have lunch with me.”

Maggie looked up into his lined face, so full of hope and pain. Her heart hurt for him.

“Sure,” she said at last. “Sure.”

 

Return to Vietnam?

So many people ask me if I’ve returned to Vietnam since the war ended. The answer is no. I have no desire whatever to go back. Vietnam is the place of my nightmares. I don’t want to relive them.

A good many men I knew there have revisited the places where they fought, and a few have even gone to Hanoi. They talk about what a beautiful country Vietnam is and how happy and welcoming the people are.

I agree that there are beautiful places in Vietnam. But there are also some ugly ones that the government of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam (the new name of the country, replacing the old name, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam) do not allow tourists to see.

I am inclined to remind the visitors that the population is under the strict control of the government. It is, after all, a police state. The people are required to look content and friendly to support the tourism industry. They have no personal freedom at all. Were tourists allowed to go to off-limits locations, for example the slums and the highlands, they might encounter a very different attitude.

But I don’t speak my mind. Let those who return reach their own conclusions. Let my nightmares remain private. I vent them in my writing.

What My Guys Knew

Since my blog post of yesterday, I’ve heard from two of the men who served with me in Vietnam and were evacuated before Saigon fell. Apparently both of them knew what was going on between me and the ambassador, even though I never told them. Maybe all of them knew. Sometimes the boss thinks he’s a lot smarter than he really is. It’s the guys who do the work who know what’s going on.

I Misled My Men

I had 43 men working for me in Saigon. In the past week or so, two of those men have expressed regret that they didn’t stay with me to the end. One other has said that he knew he and two others were not the guys I needed to have with me in-country during the attack and so agreed to go. And almost at the end, one guy I ordered out refused to go—he didn’t want to leave me there without him. It took a direct order from me, delivered with colorful language I don’t normally use, to get that man on a plane out of Vietnam. None of them knew that the Ambassador, Graham Martin, had refused my request to evacuate my staff and that I resorted to subterfuge to get my people out.

Over the years, various men have asked me why I didn’t tell them what was going on. My feeling at the time was that they had enough on their minds as it was, with the city under siege and their lives endangered. They didn’t need the extra worry of learning that the man with final authority over all U.S. personnel in the city had condemned them to stay through the final attack. I concealed from them that I was using every ruse I could think of to get my staff and their families out of Saigon before it fell. It worked. Nobody got killed. And only three of us, me and the two communicators who volunteered to stay with me, Bob and Gary, were still in Saigon when the North Vietnamese invaded the city. I got Bob and Gary out in the afternoon of 29 April, on a chopper that ferried them to the 7th Fleet in the South China Sea, and I went out under fire that night.

I didn’t tell that story in Last of the Annamese. That was my story, not the story of Chuck, the book’s protagonist. And maybe I owe my guys an apology. They were strong men who could handle whatever came their way. I admired them for their courage and calmness under stress.

So I ask for their pardon for withholding information from them. I did it with the best intentions in the world. I think they forgive me. At a gathering some months after the fall of Saigon, they gave me a plaque labelled, “Last Man Out Award.” The words inscribed on it thank me for my leadership and getting them all out safely.

Doing the Fall of Saigon Presentation

Five days ago and again yesterday, I gave the presentation called “Bitter Memories: The Fall of Saigon.” I’ve now done it more than 40 times, and I keep getting asked to do it again. Granted, it’s a very exciting story, but I’m still a little surprised that folks still want to hear it.

As I mentioned earlier, until a few years ago, nobody wanted to hear about Vietnam. It was a shameful episode in our history—a closed subject. But then Americans changed their attitude. Now Vietnam is of keen interest. My writings on Vietnam sell. And people want to know what happened.

The story I tell in the presentation is the same one told in Last of the Annamese. The difference is that in the novel, the protagonist is not me but a retired Marine officer, Chuck Griffin. But the historical facts in the novel are as accurate as I’m able to make them. And what Chuck goes through is what I went through.

I don’t like to read through the text of the novel. It still makes me choke up. The memories of those days haven’t faded. They never will.

What continues to surprise me is that when I’m giving the presentation, I still get tears in my eyes every time when I talk about the events that still break my heart. As I describe the South Vietnamese officer who shot to death his children, his wife, and himself when the North Vietnamese took Saigon; as I talk about Bob and Gary, the two men who agreed to stay with me to the end and risk their lives; as I tell of the crowds outside the compound throwing babies over the fence—those moments move me to the core of my existence, even today, even after I’ve told the story so many times.

I believe that soul-scarring events stay with us, fresh in our memories, despite the passing years. Even as I get older and my memory becomes unreliable, those recollections are as vivid as the instant they happened. They are as much a part of me as my hands or my heart. They are with me always.

Dark Writing and the Audience

My friend, Ferd, and I had again yesterday a discussion we’ve had several times over the years. He told me he reads for entertainment, and while he admires my writing skill, my topics are too dark for him. If I’d lighten up, I’d sell more books. My answer has always been and still is that I don’t write to entertain. I write to delve into the human condition with its up and down sides. That puts me into a writing tradition that goes from Shakespeare through Dostoyevsky, Thomas Mann, Steinbeck, Hemingway to Ian McEwan. Ferd points out that few if any of those writers produced best sellers during their lives. But I don’t write to sell books, I tell him. I write because I have to.

Last of the Annamese is a prime example. My time in Vietnam changed me as a human being. I lived through unspeakable events that permanently damaged my soul. Even today I still can’t talk about some of my experiences, but they show up in my writing.

On the one hand, writing forces me to face my grisly memories which in turn helps me come to terms with them. I learn to channel my anguish into my writing, not into my living.

On the other, I write to inform readers of experiences they may have never encountered so that they can understand what others have suffered. No-Accounts relates the ugliness death from AIDS. The Trion Syndrome describes what it’s like to go through Post-Traumatic Stress Injury. And Last of the Annamese tells what really happened during the fall of Saigon.

Maybe my readers will come to feel what my characters feel. Maybe they’ll be less condemning of other human beings different from themselves. Maybe we can even learn to love one another a little. I devoutly hope so. But even if we don’t, I still have to write. And maybe more to the point, I don’t get a choice about the subject matter. My soul commands me, and I obey.

The South Vietnam Highlands

The western highlands (sometimes called the central highlands to distinguish from the mountainous regions of North Vietnam) in South Vietnam are located in the central part of the country, along the borders with Laos and Cambodia. It’s rugged country, mountainous and in places barren. Many of the inhabitants are not Vietnamese but tribesmen called Montagnards by the French (meaning mountaineers or mountain people). They are quite different ethnically from the Vietnamese who have historically persecuted them. For more on these people see http://factsanddetails.com/southeast-asia/Vietnam/sub5_9d/entry-3395.html

Key developments in Last of the Annamese take place in the highlands. Thanh invites Chuck to travel with him on a visit to Pleiku and Ban Me Thuot. In Pleiku, they meet the commander of II Corps, General Tran van Tri, who refuses to believe that the North Vietnamese are about to launch an offensive. Thanh and Chuck then immediately fly south to Ban Me Thuot where they know that the first strike will occur. The attack takes place while they are still there, and they take off in Thanh’s C-47 just as the airstrip comes under fire.

I spent a good deal of time in the highlands during the sixties and returned there with my counterpart, a South Vietnamese general, in early March, 1975. Our trip closely paralleled Chuck and Thanh’s trip as told in the novel, including the takeoff just as the airstrip was raked with bullets.

Thanh takes Chuck to the highlands to test him before ceding his son, Thu, to Chuck’s care. The trip tested me, too. That travel, and the fall of the highlands shortly thereafter followed by North Vietnamese seizure of the northern half of South Vietnam, persuaded me that the end was near in Vietnam. And I learned that I had the stamina to withstand the final collapse.

Huong, Molly’s Chinese Maid in Last of the Annamese

I enjoyed working on the character of Huong. Among other things, it allowed me to explore the enmity between the majority Vietnamese population and the minority Chinese, who suffered what was frankly racial prejudice.

Huong is a composite of the female Chinese servants I knew over my years in Vietnam. Unlike most of the native Vietnamese I met, the Chinese had a knack for picking up American slang and using it not quite right. That made me laugh, and they seemed to enjoy my amusement.

Huong is the major bread winner of her family. Her husband is in the military, assigned to a combat unit in the highlands. As a Chinese, his chances or promotion are poor, and low-ranking enlisted men in the army of the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) were poorly paid. Huong has found a way to work for Americans living in Molly’s apartment building, and her bosses pay her well by Vietnamese standards. So she leaves her children in the care of her mother and works long hours, taking no days off.

Her use of American slang is so pervasive because before the withdrawal of American servicemen in 1973, she worked for U.S. Special Forces soldiers and picked up English from them. That means that her speech is strewn with off-color expressions, but she has learned not to use that terminology with her civilian employers, especially women. Even so, her language is a long way from the King’s English.

To me, Huong is distinctly Chinese. She lacks the delicacy and demureness of the majority of Vietnamese that I knew. She’s down-to-earth and earthy and finds it natural to call a spade a spade. She speaks in a loud voice rather than the quiet tone favored by the Vietnamese. Sex is as normal to her as food; she speaks of both with nonchalance.

Huong’s end is sad, like that of most of the characters in Last of the Annamese. To me she is a symbol of what happens to people in war, no matter what their ethnic origin.

The Character of Molly in Last of the Annamese

I knew Molly. Throughout my years in Vietnam, I kept running into her in various forms, shapes, and sizes—American women in Vietnam risking their lives for the good of others. I never understood, still don’t understand, what drove them to make such sacrifices. Somehow, it seemed to me, we men were supposed to risk our lives for the good of the country. That’s what it means to be a man. But why should women be called upon?

Molly, like all my characters, came to me on her own and only slowly revealed herself to me. I grew to understand that she really does love Ike, even though she knows their time together is temporary and he has a wife and children to go home to after his tour in Vietnam is finished. She knows she’ll never see him again after he leaves. But she makes the most of him while she has him.

Men have used Molly, and she knows it. She lost her ability to bear children thanks to an abortion after an older man seduced her and abandoned her. She’s sensitive about her size and her weight and is subject to feelings of inferiority. Tuyet, a diminutive grande dame, intimidates her; she compensates by treating Tuyet as a weakling. But when Molly is confronted by people in need, especially children, her strength comes to the fore.

In some ways, I think I love Molly the most of my characters. On the surface, she’s unseemly—she loves chocolate, alcohol, and well-endowed men. And yet, in her quiet, self-effacing way, she is willing to give up everything to help those less fortunate. In the end, she is the most virtuous of them all.

The Cassandra Effect During the Fall of Saigon and Now

Friday, I wrote about the Cassandra Effect—failure of U.S officials to believe and act on intelligence, using the 1967 battle of Dak To in the Vietnam highlands as an example. An even more serious case of it occurred during the fall of Saigon. I’m struck by the similarity of my predicament then to the current stand-off between the U.S. intelligence community and the president-elect.

Before the end of March 1975, I knew from intercepted communications that the North Vietnamese were pushing for the final assault on South Vietnam to end in an attack on Saigon. The U.S. Ambassador in Saigon, Graham Martin, received reports including that warning. By the beginning of April, with the northern half of South Vietnam now in their grasp, the North Vietnamese tightened their noose around Saigon. I, like Chuck, the protagonist of Last of the Annamese, reported to Martin, in a face-to-face meeting, that an attack on the city was imminent. He simply didn’t believe me. During the last week of April, I pleaded with him to call for an evacuation. I repeated to him what I had been reporting hourly—the 16 to 18 North Vietnamese divisions now surrounded Saigon, and one unit just north of the city was awaiting the order to attack. He showed me out.

No evacuation was ordered until the early hours of the morning on 29 April, when Washington finally countermanded the Ambassador. By then, the North Vietnamese were already in the streets of the city and it was too late to rescue the 2,700 South Vietnamese soldiers who had worked with my organization over the years. All of them were killed or captured by the North Vietnamese, and I barely escaped under fire.

The current warning by the intelligence community that Russia is launching cyber attacks against U.S political parties and the president-elect’s dismissal of that warning as “ridiculous” and his belittling of U.S. intelligence brings back bitter memories. May the Cassandra Effect turn out better this time than it did for me.