Rerun: Return to Vietnam?

I return to a post I did several years ago because I’m still getting asked if I have gone back to Vietnam since the North Vietnamese conquered the country in 1975. 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 know 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 Vietnam is an astonishingly beautiful place, filled with glorious wetlands and amazing highlands. But there are also some ugly locations 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 reality.

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.

Father-Son Relations: Masculinity

My post about Gene Westmoreland’s relationship with his son, as told in my novel Secretocracy, reminded me of one of my fascinations: the masculinity inherent in relations between a father and his son.

I have three daughters. Being a father to them meant tenderness and caretaking and feelings very much like those I felt for my wife, minus the sexual aspects. My job as a father to daughters meant protecting them and looking after their needs. It brought out my gentle emotions.

Fathering a son is different. The presence of another male in my family called for gentleness but also aroused a set of emotions quite different from those I felt for my daughters. I was responsible for helping my son become a man. I was required to encourage his masculine traits—physical strength, dominance, aggressiveness. I had to be a model male for him to imitate. But I also had to teach him the finer attributes of masculinity: love, tenderness, and devotion. I had to model those virtues for him. And I had to help him learn which traits were appropriate to any given situation.

Raising a son, I knew, was going to be more difficult than raising daughters. But I had a powerful aid: my overwhelming love for him. That love made me realize that I had to be the best model of masculinity I was capable of. The result was that I worked hard to be a better man to offer my son an example he could follow.

Having a son, it turned for me at least, was finding the fulfillment of my own masculinity. Over time, we, the men in our family, found ourselves coming together to fend off the feminine power of those family members who outnumbered us. We learned together how to be the best men we could be.

So having a son taught me manhood. I’m grateful.

Secretocracy: Father and Son Bonding (2)

The reason I spent so much time in Vietnam under cover was that I was the best man for the job. I knew North Vietnamese radio communications intimately—I’d been intercepting and exploiting them since 1960; I spoke Vietnamese, Chinese, and French, the three languages of Vietnam; and I was willing to go into combat with the units I was supporting. I felt it was my patriotic duty to do all I could to win the war. We lost the war. My wife and children were evacuated secretly from Saigon twenty days before the city fell. I escaped under fire after the North Vietnamese were already in the streets.

I can’t talk about my work after the loss of Vietnam in April 1975 because it’s still classified. Suffice it to say that I had proven my usefulness, and NSA exploited my ability and willingness to work in dangerous situations in places other than Vietnam. I was comfortable in seven foreign languages. I’ll let my readers guess where I was sent and what I did. Once again, I was all too often an absent father.

While I’m proud of my service to my country, I’m mindful that my children suffered from my repeated and extended absences. All four of them grew into adults I’m proud of. And the two who have children of their own have proven to be better parents than I was.

So writing about Gene, my protagonist, and his son in Secretocracy was deeply personal to me. Gene, who like me grew up fatherless, is deeply shamed that his son, Michael, sees him disgraced and banished by the Trump administration. One of the moments that I wrote in tears is that in which Michael tells Gene that he is proud to be the son of a man who risked everything to do what is right.

So writing of Gene Westmoreland’s relationship with his son was deeply personal for me. My sense is that fatherhood is the noblest and most demanding of a man’s roles. It requires less the manly traits most men cherish—physical strength, dominance, aggressiveness—than the finer attributes of masculinity: love, tenderness, and devotion. Being a father is the final test of a man’s worth.

Secretocracy: Father and Son Bonding

Much of the story told in my most recent novel, Secretocracy, is that of bonding between a father and son. The paternal-filial relationship is very important to me personally. I have a son who is a fine man of whom I am immensely proud. We are not as close as I’d like simply because we are both so busy. He is a fulltime teacher and has a family of his own—three rambunctious children that take up his attention. And I am a fulltime author with six books out and two more in the hopper.

But I can’t claim a good relationship with my father any more than the protagonist of Secretocracy, Gene Westmoreland, can. My father was a lawyer who embezzled $40,000 and was sent to prison. Disbarred before he was released, he became a street bum, went back to jail, and finally died in a bar brawl. I spent my childhood essentially fatherless. As a young man, after my father forged my signature and cashed checks against my bank account, I changed my bank signature and made it my business to be sure he didn’t know where I was or how to get in touch with me. In short, I had no paternal-filial relationship. I promised myself that when I had children, I’d go out of my way to be the best father possible.

The Vietnam war intervened in my plans. Between 1962 and 1975, as an employee of the National Security Agency (NSA), I spent more time in Vietnam operating under cover and providing signals intelligence support to U.S. combat troops than I did in the states. I had two accompanied tours in Vietnam, the first with my oldest daughter, the second with all four of my children. But even then, I was so busy and away from home so much that my children had to do without me most of the time. When I and my family were in the U.S., I was working twelve-hour days. And I was regularly sent to Vietnam on trips that lasted four to six months each.

More tomorrow.

Secretocracy’s Cover

Why does a book about the Trump administration show a throne on the cover? I thought the answer to that question was obvious, but I’ll answer it anyway.

The cover of Secretocracy points to President Trump’s moves toward grasping more and more power unto himself—i.e., seizing the throne—leaving less and less to the governed. A significant threshold was crossed when police pushed back protestors in Lafayette Square on 1 June using tear gas and pepper spray to allow Trump to proceed for a photo op—a violation of the Constitution.

The book cover raises the specter of a man who would be king with absolute power. Like the story told in the novel, the cover is a warning.

All the current polls that I know of show a clear citizen preference for Joe Biden over Donald Trump in November’s election. But what if Trump contests the election’s outcome? He could claim malfeasance or vote counting errors or illegally cast votes. In other words, what will Americans do if Trump is defeated but refuses to yield the presidency?

The picture of a throne on the cover of Secretocracy is a warning: get ready for the worst.

Secretocracy: Why the Title?

A reader asks: why the title Secretocracy? Because it implies what I think exists but cannot prove: a classified structure under President Trump that undertakes whatever international operations the president wants, legal or otherwise.

I used that title because I wanted to suggest to readers that the Trump administration is an unparalleled threat to our wellbeing as a nation. Because the work of our intelligence agencies and their survival under Trump is classified, we citizens know nothing of what damage may be going on even as I write. Trump has demonstrated repeatedly his willingness to violate the law of the land. He ignores and even attacks intelligence. Who knows what classified programs he may have launched? Who knows what damage he intends to inflict on our allies whom he now considers our enemies?

Secretocracy: Why the Title?

A reader asks: why the title Secretocracy? Because it implies what I think exists but cannot prove: a classified structure under President Trump that undertakes whatever international operations the president wants, legal or otherwise.

I used that title because I wanted to suggest to readers that the Trump administration is an unparalleled threat to our wellbeing as a nation. Because the work of our intelligence agencies and their survival under Trump is classified, we citizens know nothing of what damage may be going on even as I write. Trump has demonstrated repeatedly his willingness to violate the law of the land. He ignores and even attacks intelligence. Who knows what classified programs he may have launched? Who knows what damage he intends to inflict on our allies whom he now considers our enemies?

Secretocracy at Risk

My newest novel, Secretocracy, published at the end of March, is probably my most incendiary. It deals with the Trump administration’s attacks on an intelligence budgeteer who refuses to fund an illegal program being pushed by the president. The fiction is based on real happenings during the Trump presidency. It’s like all my novels and short stories, fiction in name only.

As I noted earlier in this blog, in normal times I’d busier than I’d like doing readings and presentations to promote the new publication. Instead, thanks to the pandemic lockdown, I’m struck at home practicing social distancing and protecting my health. Because of my age and past history, I’m a prime target for covid-19. Five years ago, I had the upper lobe of my right lung removed because of lung cancer. As a consequence, I suffer from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). If the coronavirus attacked me, my survival chances would be less than ideal.

I’ve ordered a webcam so that I can do virtual presentations, but the delivery of the camera has been delayed by the lockdown. I don’t know when it will arrive.

As Trump becomes more flagrant in his violations of law and even the Constitution, Secretocracy would be high interest fiction right now if it weren’t for the pandemic. As it is, bookstores are closed and Secretocracy isn’t getting much attention. I hope that changes as the pandemic winds down.

Rerun: Việt Cộng and North Vietnamese

A reader of this blog has asked again why I always refer to the communists in Vietnam as the North Vietnamese and never the Việt Cộng (VC). To repeat in part a post of several years ago, here is the answer.

First of all, “Vit Cng” is short for the Vietnamese Vit Nam Cng-sn which simply means Vietnamese Communist. The communists themselves never used the term. Americans used Việt Cộng or VC to mean the communists native to South Vietnam, independent of the north, as opposed to the North Vietnamese army regulars who infiltrated South Vietnam. The Americans who used the term bought into the fiction North Vietnam had created that an independent movement developed in South Vietnam that rebelled against the South Vietnamese government. That movement, according to the fiction, was named the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam (Mt trn Dân tc Gii phóng min Nam Vit Nam), shortened to National Liberation Front or NLF. The front was never a real organization. It was a cover for North Vietnamese operations in South Vietnam.

Second, the entire effort to defeat the South Vietnamese government and the American forces was a North Vietnamese endeavor. Every aspect of it was controlled by Hanoi. There was no independent rebellion in the south. So the American distinction between “North Vietnamese Army” (NVA) and “Việt Cộng” (VC) addressed a difference that never existed. The North Vietnamese army, called the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) by the north, included three categories of forces: regulars, regional forces, and guerrillas. The latter two were what we Americans called Việt Cộng, but troops in these categories were neither independent of the north nor native to south Vietnam. All three types of PAVN soldiers included northern, central, and southern natives.

The evidence that southern communist forces were an integral part of the North Vietnamese armed forces and under the iron control of Hanoi was apparent in the communications structure of the communists. The entire operation, both military and political, was controlled from Hanoi. Confirmation of Hanoi’s control came from messages we intercepted and decrypted in the early 1960s. In those messages, the politburo of the Vietnamese Workers Party (Đng lao đng Vit Nam—the name of the communist party) in Hanoi transmitted to covert party members operating in South Vietnam the manifesto of the Liberation Front, proclaiming it was an independent southern organization opposed to the legitimate government of South Vietnam. The front never existed. It was a propaganda invention of Hanoi.

Therefore, the most accurate term for the forces fighting the South Vietnamese and the Americans is the North Vietnamese. That’s who they were, and that’s what I call them.

Rerun: Who Shot at My Escaping Helicopter?

My mention of escaping under fire when Saigon fell in April 1975 brought a question from a reader: who was shooting at me? So I resurrected an old blog post on the subject. Here it is, revised with recent information:

On the evening of 29 April 1975, I escaped from Saigon after the North Vietnamese were already in the streets of the city. My flight from Tan Son Nhat, on the northern edge of Saigon, was part of Operation FREQUENT WIND, the evacuation of Americans and some South Vietnamese. I flew out on a slick, a little Huey, rather than one of the big CH-53 helicopters. As soon as we were airborne, I saw the tracers coming at us. We took so much lead in the fuselage that I thought we were going down. But we made it. In the dark and the rain, we flew out to the South China Sea where the ships of the U.S. 7th Fleet were waiting. The pilot, despite the pelting rain and the pitch black, circled repeatedly. Finally, very slowly, he descended and landed on the floodlit helipad of the Oklahoma City, the flagship of the 7th Fleet. He told me later that he, an Air America civilian pilot, had never before landed on a ship.

One aspect of the escape intrigues me even today: who was firing at us?

Background: During FREQUENT WIND, 71 American military helicopters flew 662 sorties between Saigon and elements of the 7th Fleet. The operation succeeded in extracting more than 7,800 evacuees from the Defense Attaché Office and U.S. Embassy on April 29 and 30, not counting the U.S. Marines that had landed that day. The North Vietnamese by the evening of 29 April were already in the streets of Saigon. They had a full complement of anti-aircraft weapons. And yet, as far I know, not one chopper was shot down. They could have brought down dozens, but they didn’t.

In puzzling through what happened, I’ve concluded that the North Vietnamese didn’t want to impede the U.S. flight from Vietnam. Had they fired at our helicopters, we could have inflicted great damage on them with the combat aircraft we had in the vicinity. All they wanted was for us to leave.

So who shot at the Huey I was in?

My best guess is that it was the South Vietnamese military whom we were abandoning to their fate. They had large weapons with tracer ammunition—used to show the shooter if his bullets are hitting the target. And they were both furious and desperate as we flew away and left them to the mercies of the North Vietnamese.

I escaped alive, though they certainly tried hard to bring me down. I can understand how they felt. In the end, I was the lucky one. They were all killed or captured by the North Vietnamese.