Toward the end of Last of the Annamese, Chuck Griffin drives early in the morning through the streets of Saigon to his office at Tan Son Nhat, on the northern edge of the city. The text describes Chuck’s view of Saigon at the end of the dry season, in April 1975, before the onset of the monsoons and weeks before the city fell to the Vietnamese Communists:
“The city was already writhing in the heat. Dust trailed after everything that moved. The canals and gutters that riddled the city had turned black, oozing with clots of human waste. The morning mist, suffused by exhaust and smoke from charcoal fires, hung in the blighted trees and discolored eaves. Orange and white [propaganda] banners sagged, some falling into the street. Refugees choked byways and alleys and spilled over the boulevards and parks. Chuck smelled the raw force of incipient panic.”
This passage, like so many others in the novel, reflects my memories of a city crumbling in the prelude to defeat. Despite declarations to the contrary by the South Vietnamese government and the U.S., a foreboding of destruction hung in the air indistinguishable from the dirty smoke that dissipated only when the monsoon downpours washed it away and replaced it with steam rising from the Saigon River. Ironically, the cleansing monsoon rains started the night of 29 April as the city fell to the North Vietnamese and I escaped under fire to the safety of the 7th Fleet cruising in the South China Sea.
Earlier in this blog, I wrote about Huong, Molly’s Chinese maid. In December, 1974, Chuck, the protagonist, persuades Molly to allow him and Tuyet to use her apartment for several days. As Chuck is preparing for Tuyet’s arrival, Huong suddenly appears and offers to fix their evening meal. When Tuyet arrives, she has her own personal maid, Mai, with her. The two Vietnamese women demand that Huong leave and that Mai take over the cooking duties. When Chuck later asks Tuyet to explain, she responds:
“. . . Huong is Chinese.”
“How do you know?” Chuck said.
“She looks Chinese.” Tuyet wrinkled her nose. “The way she dresses. Her accent. Her name . . .”
The episode is based on my experience with the Vietnamese. They were prejudiced against the Chinese and accused them of faults regularly cited in any prejudice, that they smell bad, they’re dirty, ignorant, dishonest.
The irony was that these same Vietnamese looked own on Americans because of their bias against African-Americans. The difference was the source of the bias. The Vietnamese and Chinese have been at odds for more than a millennium. They have been at war repeatedly, and each looks down on the other as primitive and uncultured. The dislike is particularly striking on the Vietnamese side since their culture, language, music, and art is so deeply influenced by the Chinese. Even the name of their country, Vietnam, is Chinese. It is derived from the Chinese words yuëh nan, meaning “the troublemakers in the south.”
In short, the prejudice is illogical and not based on fact. In that respect, it is like all other prejudice.
I’ve spoken earlier in this blog about my bouts with Post-Traumatic Stress Injury. I refer to it as “injury” rather than “disorder” because it is an externally inflicted wound. Some writers call it soul damage; others refer to it as a moral wound. I know from my own experience that it is the result of an experience (or series of experiences) so brutal that the psyche is permanently damaged and never heals.
So one learns to cope. Facing the memories is requisite. Writing about them is one of the best methods of confronting them. Hence so much of my writing, including Last of the Annamese. But sometimes a scent, a sound, a brief glimpse will ignite them all over again.
That happened to me when the reporter from the Howard County Times interviewed me a couple of weeks ago. She asked questions and prodded my memories. They came back at full strength.
You can read the results in her article: http://eedition.howardcountytimes.com/Olive/ODN/HowardCountyTimes/default.aspx
I never know when the haunting will return full bore. My job is to bear them and keep on working.
My letter to the editor is published in today’s Washington Post:
Regarding Mark Feldstein’s Feb. 19 Sunday Opinions essay, “Leaks: As American as apple pie and presidents”:
During my more than 30 years working in intelligence for the U.S. government, it was rare, if ever, that a member of the intelligence community leaked classified information to the media. The source of leaks nearly always turned out to be an intelligence customer, that is, a recipient of the finished intelligence. The culprits, more often than not, were members of Congress or their staffs or, occasionally, members of the executive branch.
Yet the media, The Post included, consistently refer to the leaks as being from intelligence agencies. Intelligence professionals have nothing to gain and much to lose with public exposure of the information they have worked so hard to unearth. Until and unless we have confirmation of the leak sources, the media would do well to stop blaming intelligence professionals, some of whom, like me, risked their lives to learn the truth about our enemies.
Tom Glenn, Ellicott City
Last of the Annamese opens with the protagonist, Chuck Griffin, preparing to attend the Marine Corps Birthday Ball at the Gia Long Palace in Saigon. One of his housemates, Sparky, is, like Chuck, a retired Marine officer; the other, Ike, is an active duty Marine officer, assigned to the embassy. All three will be at the celebration.
The Marine Corps birthday is 10 November. Among Marines, a private joke is that 11 November, Veterans Day, is really a national holiday to allow them to recover from the birthday bash. In my time working with Marines, the celebration was always major. During my years in Saigon, the Marine Corps Birthday Ball was the social highlight of the year. It was a formal affair, and, as an office head, I was required to attend. That meant a tuxedo for me and a full-length evening gown for my wife.
The ball described in Annamese is the last one I attended in Saigon, on 10 November 1974. It was formal to the nines, even though there were few Marines in country. All traditions were observed, even the cake-cutting with a ceremonial sword. Yet amid the festivities was a detectable unease—so many of us knew from intelligence that the North Vietnamese forces were growing stronger through massive infiltration of men and matériel. Some, myself included, doubted that South Vietnam would survive another year. It didn’t. It fell six months later.
Early in the story of Last of the Annamese, Chuck Griffin learns of the fall of Phuoc Binh, the capital Phuoc Long Province, on 6 January 1975, as the province itself is conquered by the North Vietnamese. Never before during the entire Vietnam war had the North Vietnamese captured an entire province, including its provincial capital, and held it.
Even though it never rains during the dry season and January is in the middle of the dry season for Saigon, it rains. South Vietnamese Marine Colonel Thanh had warned Chuck that Phuoc Long would fall. “Then the highlands, then I Corps, then Saigon,” Thanh had said. Chuck goes to visit Thanh and finds him sitting in his garden in the rain:
“Thanh’s face turned upward again. His eyelids quivered as raindrops splashed down his forehead. ‘The Heaven.’ He pointed upward. ‘The Heaven weeps. An Nam no more. An Nam was. You listen to her weep now.’”
Thanh uses the name he prefers for his country. “An Nam” means “peace in the south.” “Vietnam,” the name given by the Chinese, means “troublemakers in the south.”
The story in the novel is once again drawn from what really happened. I remember the day Phuoc Binh fell. We all thought it odd to the point of being sinister that it rained that day, even though none of us could remember rain ever occurring during the dry season.
I waited for the U.S. to respond. When we signed the peace accords in 1973, we vowed to return in force if the North Vietnamese violated the terms of the agreement. The seizure of Phuoc Long was a gross violation of the agreement. The U.S. did nothing. With an uneasy shift in the pit of my stomach, I reviewed our evacuation plan. I knew the end was coming.
A friend (another author) sent me the URL of a web site of The New York Times called Author’s Note so that I could read the thoughts of another writer about why we write. I was so struck with his words that I quote them here for you:
By JAMES ATLAS FEB. 10, 2017
. . . I published my first book, a biography of Delmore Schwartz, almost 40 years ago. It, too, will soon begin its long journey to oblivion. I can imagine the stages: from that fabled used-books emporium the Strand to the remainder shelf of a secondhand book shop in a Maine resort town to the “de-acquisition” bin of a public library in Iowa to the bookshelves, if I’m lucky, of a country inn.
Is that such an ignominious fate? I didn’t write my books for posterity (not that posterity would have cared): I wrote them for myself. Which doesn’t mean I didn’t hunger for readers and fame. I never could have endured so much hard, solitary labor without the prospect of an audience. But this graveyard of dead books doesn’t unnerve me. It reminds me that I had a deeper motive, one that only the approach of old age and death has unlocked. I wrote to answer questions I had — the motive of all art, whatever its ostensible subject. There were things I urgently needed to know. Why did Schwartz, the most promising poet of his generation, end up dying at the age of 52 in a fleabag hotel in Midtown Manhattan? Why did my next (and last) biographical subject, Saul Bellow, tear up his life to feed his fiction, marrying five times, tormenting himself and others, finding in his self-inflicted suffering the elixir of his art? And what traumas buried within myself was I trying to unearth by spending decades on their stories? It wasn’t the hope of immortality that goaded me to write: It was obsession.
End of quote. I couldn’t have said it better.
Easter Sunday was on March 30 in 1975, one month before Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese. In Last of the Annamese, the protagonist, Chuck Griffin, goes to English-language Catholic mass that morning after working all night at the Intelligence Branch at Tan Son Nhat on the northern edge of Saigon—he is deluged by intelligence indicating that the North Vietnamese are preparing to attack Saigon. He attends the service not because he is Catholic (he’s not) but because Molly, the American nurse at the Saigon clinic, is singing in the folk group for the mass.
My description of the mass and the music accompanying it comes from my own recollections. I was the director of the folk group at the American chapel, and I, like Chuck, had been up all night reviewing evidence of a forthcoming assault on the city. The folk group hymns sung at that Mass are the ones I remember: “I am the Resurrection,” “Lord, Make Me an Instrument of Your Peace,” “My peace I Leave You,” and “How Great It Is to Be Alive.” I recall my feelings of cynicism at the joy of the prayers and music of the feast of Easter, the greatest feast in the Catholic church, contrasted with the brutal reality we were all facing. I knew then that the attack on Saigon was weeks away, even though I couldn’t persuade the Ambassador that the end was coming.
That was the last mass I attended in Vietnam. After that, every ounce of energy I had went into getting my people out of the country before the attack came. I went from 10-hour days to 16-hour days to no time at all for sleep. I never saw the members of the folk group again. When I was evacuated on the night of 29 April, I had amoebic dysentery and pneumonia from inadequate diet and sleep deprivation, but those illnesses weren’t diagnosed until I was back in the world (the U.S.) in May.
The meaning of Easter has never been the same for me.
A friend pointed out that almost everything I talk about in this blog dates in 1975 and before. Why don’t I talk about what happened after 1975?
Because I went on with my career for another 20 years, but none of that is declassified. In other words, I can’t legally reveal any of it. What happened in Vietnam that forms the basis for the fiction in Last of the Annamese was all declassified by 2015. What happened after that appears nowhere in my writing and probably never will. All I can really say is that I did a lot of travelling, but I can’t say where.
The languages I used to speak (I don’t claim to anymore—I’m getting rusty) are public information: French, Italian, German, Spanish, Vietnamese, and Chinese, and I read Latin. Good luck in trying to figure out how they apply to my post-Vietnam career.
Toward the end of Last of the Annamese, the U.S. Ambassador dismisses intelligence indicating that the North Vietnamese will attack Saigon. That intelligence comes from the intercept and exploitation of North Vietnamese communications. The Ambassador claims, in a message to the U.S. President and Secretary of State, that the North Vietnamese have used communications deception to fool the U.S. signals intelligence specialists into believing that an attack is forthcoming. When Chuck Griffin, a retired Marine and intelligence officer working in Saigon, asks for the evidence to support such a conclusion, he is ignored.
Once again, the fiction follows fact. In March and April, 1975, I repeatedly warned the U.S. Ambassador, Graham Martin, that a North Vietnamese attack on Saigon was imminent. My signals intelligence data was rejected as successful North Vietnamese communications deception. The Ambassador forbade evacuation and even preparations for evacuation. I cheated and got 41 of my 43 subordinates and their wives and children out of the country before the end. Fortunately, General Homer Smith, the Defense Attaché, disobeyed the Ambassador and proceeded with evacuation planning in conjunction with the Department of Defense and Command-in-Chief, Pacific. The two communicators who volunteered to stay with me to the end went out by helicopter on the afternoon of 29 April. I went out that evening under fire.
To my knowledge, labelling signals intelligence data as communications deception has been rare in our history. I never knew of a case in which the label was accurate. Those of us who worked on North Vietnamese communications knew the target backwards and forward. Anything false transmitted for the purpose of fooling us would have been immediately obvious. That’s because communications deception is extremely difficult to design and carry out and it’s so easy to detect.
My memories of the Ambassador’s refusal to accept the intelligence warning of a forthcoming attack make me all the more uneasy about what’s going on right now with President Trump. He dismisses valid intelligence and blames the intelligence agencies for leaking. In my years in the business, it was rare if ever that a member of the intelligence community leaked classified information to the press. When leaks occurred, the source nearly always turned out to be an intelligence customer, that is, a recipient of the finished intelligence. The culprits, more often than not, were members of Congress or their staffs.