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.

The Cassandra Effect

Repeatedly during my years in Vietnam, senior military officers didn’t believe me when I told them their unit was about to be attacked. The troops believed me—I was working side by side with them and they saw what I and my fellow SIGINTers were doing, intercepting and exploiting North Vietnamese communications. But colonels and generals couldn’t grasp how a handful of guys, known more for their spit than their polish and abetted by a civilian under cover as a soldier, could use radios and a tangle of antennas to divine the intentions of the enemy.

After many instances, I came to call the recurrence of nonbelief “the Cassandra Effect,” named after the Greek mythological heroine who was given the gift of true prophecy and cursed with never being believed.

Maybe the most monumental case was in the highlands in the autumn of 1967—the battle of Dak To. Through intercepted communications, I could see that several North Vietnamese divisions had covertly moved into position and were preparing to assault the U.S. 4th Infantry Division and the 173rd Airborne Brigade. I warned the commanders, but they waved me away in disbelief.

Then the enemy struck. One battalion was virtually destroyed. The U.S. counterattacked, and one of the largest battles of the Vietnam war followed. By the time it was over, both sides had suffered huge numbers of casualties, but no ground had changed hands.

Why I Wrote No-Accounts

As I mentioned earlier, I returned from the fall of Saigon, after 13 years on and off in Vietnam, an emotional wreck. I had no name for it then, but I was suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI). I couldn’t seek psychological help because I would have lost my intelligence clearances and would have been fired. So I turned to helping others. I discovered that compassion heals.

At the beginning of the AIDS crisis, I became a buddy to AIDS patients. At that point the nation was in panic over AIDS, and many in the medical community wouldn’t treat AIDS patients for fear of contracting the disease. Men were literally dying on the streets because no one would touch them. I couldn’t tolerate watching that go on. I volunteered to take care of AIDS patients.

We buddies did everything for our patients—bathed them, fed them, even gave them injections because there was no one else to do it. And in the end, because all of society, even their own families, had abandoned them, we stayed with them while they died.

I saw that being with the ostracized dying was like combat: you stay with your brother no matter what the danger. And when he dies, part of you dies, too. In the five years I worked as a buddy, I had seven patients, all gay, all died. I grieved over every one of them as I did over the men who died in combat next to me.

Working with the dying did help me cope with PTSI. My attention was so focused on my patients that my brutal memories receded. But each death brought with it a fresh wound. So I turned to the other therapy I found for PTSI, writing, and I wrote about my patients. That ended up being the novel No-Accounts, the story of straight man caring for a gay man dying of AIDS. As in my books about combat, I made no attempt to gloss over the ugliness of death, this time from AIDS.

Has it helped? Yes, but the memories, like those of combat, never go away. But I wouldn’t do it any differently if I were I were in the same place today.

Annamese: Bookend to The Quiet American?

I was surprised and flattered by Steven Phillips’ endorsement of Last of the Annamese in which he said, “Tom Glenn’s novel is a proverbial bookend companion to Graham Greene’s The Quiet American,” I have always admired Greene’s work. For many years I was troubled by his unflattering view of Americans and their actions in Vietnam. But since the fall of Vietnam, I’ve come to understand his insights more. And I see for the first time that Last of the Annamese could be understood as a critical portrait of U.S. policy. That wasn’t my intent when I wrote the book—I simply wanted to tell the protagonist’s story and record for posterity what really happened during the fall of Saigon now that the details are finally declassified.

I’m disturbed by the implication that my protagonist, Chuck Griffin, is analogous to Greene’s Alden Pyle, but I see the resemblances. Griffin is indeed innocent and even in error about how his son died in Vietnam. Unlike Pyle, though, he becomes more cynical and saddened as he sees the end coming. In those respects, he’s very much like me. As disturbing as it is, maybe I need to reflect on my own attitude during my 13 years on and off in Vietnam. Maybe I was more like Alden Pyle than I’d like to admit.