A German Reader

A young woman in Germany has been reading my books and contacts me periodically to give me feedback. She is a poet and fascinated by Vietnam—one of her poems is about the Tet Offensive, another about the siege at Khe Sanh. I find her poetry, even in less than idiomatic translation, to be quite moving. She sends me the German texts, too. I speak German but know very little poetry in German beyond Rilke. Reading it aloud makes me think it is quite good. The language is musical.

The young lady has just read the first one hundred pages of Last of the Annamese and showed great insight in her comments. She noted that the story is really the narrative of what I went through during the fall of Saigon. She pointed out that the loss of a son recurs in my writing. The theme ripples through Friendly Casualties, and the redemption of the father by the son is a major part of the story in The Trion Syndrome.

I’m intrigued that a reader whose native language is not English can cope with the odd usages in Annamese. So much of the dialogue is American military slang, and the exchanges between the protagonist, Chuck, who is a retired Marine officer, and his housemate Ike, an active duty Marine officer, use Marine lingo with no explanation. Granted, I included some of the more arcane terms, like “splib” and “gunji,” in the glossary of acronyms and slang at the end of the book. Even so, I admire this lady’s sticktoitiveness and tolerance for the vulgar language. I’m enormously complimented.

Vietnam In My Soul

Last of the Annamese is a cry of pain. As one reviewer noted, the novel is haunted by the feelings expressed by Sparky, late in the story: “Did it have to end like this? After 58,000 American military dead, at least a million Communist soldiers, and who knows how many million civilians? Chuck, what the hell have we done?”

One of the reasons I wrote the book was to vent my memories. I suffer as much today as I did in 1975 from Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI). I learned early that to go on living I had to confront my buried memories, bring them into conscious focus, and learn to manage my own emotional response. I’d done what so many victims of PTSI do—I’d pushed my unbearable memories into my unconscious. They haunted me, caused flashbacks, irrational rages, nightmares, and panic attacks. Because I held top secret codeword-plus clearances, I couldn’t seek psychological help. Had I gone into therapy, I’d have lost my clearances and my job. I had to sweat it out on my own.

I learned early on that writing down what happened forced me to face the past. So I wrote novels and short stories about the events I lived through, culminating in Last of the Annamese, the story of the fall of Saigon.

PTSI is soul damage. Vietnam is in my soul. I spent thirteen years there on and off. I speak Vietnamese, Chinese, and French, the three languages of Vietnam. My children spent years in Vietnam. I loved the country and its people. And I went through experiences in combat and during the fall of Saigon that I still can’t talk about.

I’m regularly asked by readers if I’ve been back to visit Vietnam since the end of the war. The answer is no. I have no desire whatever to return to the scene of the memories I can’t escape.

I think on the whole that I am a better man for what I did in Vietnam. I risked my life for the good of others. I’d do it again if called upon. But the wounds are deep and resilient. They’ll always be with me.

My Children and Vietnam (2)

In talking to my children now that they are adults, I have learned what they felt about being in Vietnam. My youngest, Paul, doesn’t remember much—he was a toddler. But Meghan, my second youngest, remembers everything clearly. She didn’t like Vietnam. She was keenly aware of the poverty and remembers seeing wounded South Vietnamese soldiers on the streets, some of them beggars missing limbs. My oldest, Susan, was a teenager and enjoyed being with the other American teens in Saigon. But she, too, was revolted by the beggary and destitution.

The oldest three all remember the day before they left Saigon. On 8 April 1975, a renegade pilot dropped bombs on the presidential palace, close to our house. My family, busy packing to depart Vietnam the next day, watched the attack, horrified. They were ready to leave as soon as possible. They boarded a plane for Bangkok the next day, on the first step of a grand trip around the world. They toured Asia and Europe before arriving back in the states in May, about the same time I did.

My children left Saigon twenty days before it fell to the North Vietnamese—even though the U.S. Ambassador had forbidden me to evacuate my employees and their families. I sent everybody out on false pretenses. My family was officially going for a vacation trip to Thailand.

To this day, I’m grateful that I got my wife and children out before the final collapse. I’m so thankful they didn’t have to endure what I went through during the last days of South Vietnam.

My Children and Vietnam

Sunday three of my four children and my four grandchildren came to my place for a family feast of hamburgers, hot dogs, potato salad, and strawberry shortcake. Seeing them together made me remember having them with me in Vietnam.

My oldest, Susan, was with her mother and me on my first accompanied tour from 1963 to 1965, although she and her mother left Vietnam in 1964 because of the influx of U.S. troops and the heating up of the war.

All four children were with me and my wife during my last tour that began in 1974. U.S. military forces had been withdrawn in 1973 following the signing of the cease-fire, and the attitude outside the intelligence community was that the war was over. Tours in Vietnam were “gentlemen’s tours,” and it was safe enough for families to accompany assigned personnel.

I had reservations about bringing my wife and children to Vietnam in 1974. I was in intelligence, and I knew that the North Vietnamese were as determined as ever to conquer the south. But I also knew that the Republic of Vietnam Armed Forces (RVNAF), the South Vietnamese military, were combat effective, in no small measure because so many of the members were passionately devoted to keeping the south free.

But the populace of the U.S. had turned against the war. Their elected representatives in Congress stopped U.S. air support to the RVNAF in 1973. In 1974, Congress reduced the funding going to the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) to finance the war, even though China and Russia continued to fund the North Vietnamese effort. In 1975, they reduced it again. The Republic of Vietnam had no money with which to pay its troops and replace lost and destroyed weapons and equipment. Congress’s actions were the death knell for the Republic of Vietnam.

By the beginning of 1975, I foresaw that the Republic of Vietnam would fall to the North Vietnamese. I panicked at the prospect of my children facing an attack against Saigon.

More tomorrow.

Scaramuccia and Scaramouche

From the linguist who wrote Last of the Annamese:

When I read of the appointment of Anthony Scaramucci (nicknamed “the Mooch”) as White House Communications Director, I was struck by the similarity of the name to a stock commedia dell’arte character, Scaramuccia or, in French Scaramouche, a cowardly buffoon. “Scaramuccia” by itself in Italian means “skirmish,” and the character’s name is sometimes rendered “little skirmisher.” In English, “Scaramouche” means a rascal or scamp.

Early reports on the effectiveness of the revised communications system are not encouraging—see today’s Washington Post front page headline: “Message misfire follows overhaul.”

Given the current state of the Trump White House and the endless bickering between the president and the press, I can’t help but wonder if the name of the new Communications Director presages even more skirmishes.

Third Person Address in the Marine Corps

Early in my years in Vietnam, I worked with Marine units in combat. That’s when I discovered the Marine Corps practice of never addressing a superior in the second person, that is, avoiding the word “you.” That usually meant using the rank in place of “you.” For example, one would say “Is the Colonel ready to depart?”

The practice even extends to the first person occasionally. A Marine is trained to refer to himself by rank rather than using “I.” In training, a Marine would say, “The recruit has finished the drill, sir.” Once in a while, I ran into that practice in the field.

When I was with the troops in Vietnam, I was, of course, a civilian employee of the National Security Agency (NSA) operating under cover. To maintain secrecy, I usually wore the uniform of the unit I was with, had my hair cut like troops, used their latrines, ate C-rations sitting in the dirt with them, and slept by them in the open or in tents. I’ve always looked younger than my age, and at a distance I could pass for a twenty-year-old enlisted man even when I was in my thirties.

To do my job, I had to work hand-in-glove with the enlisted men. That meant my cover was as a grunt, not an officer. The troops knew who I was, and, as I noted elsewhere in this blog, found my presence among them hilarious.

For me to be effective, the troops had to accept me as one of them. That was easier with Army units than with the Marines. Respect for superiors is so deeply ingrained in Marines that they resisted calling me “Tom” and treating me as just another snuff. They knew that I often outranked their unit commander and had a hard time bringing themselves to see me as an ordinary guy.

Addressing me in the third person was a challenge. My rank was civilian and labelled according to the GS (government service) rating system. So properly, an enlisted Marine should say, for example, “Would the GS-14 care for coffee?” That didn’t sit right. Instead, they used the term normally reserved for speaking to multiple superiors with different ranks, namely “gentlemen.” But with me they made it singular. The first time a Marine enlisted man asked me, “Would the gentleman like some water?”, I didn’t know who he was referring to, so my answer was, “I don’t know. Why don’t you ask them?”

With time, the troops and I learned to work together as a team of equals. I couldn’t be effective any other way. And when the Marines finally called me “you,” I knew we were home free.

Salvation: Helping Others to Help Yourself

A man who served in Vietnam and suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Injury wrote me that Last of the Annamese moved him. He told me he’s considering working with other veterans who struggle with the trauma. I urged him to use his experience to help others. And I told him of my experience.

As I’ve said earlier in this blog, I was in Vietnam at least four months every year from 1962 to 1975. I had two complete tours in-country and so many shorter trips I lost count. Because I was providing signals intelligence support to combat units, I went into battles with the troops even though I was a civilian operating under cover. After the withdrawal of U.S. military forces in 1973, I headed the covert NSA operation in Vietnam and escaped under fire when Saigon fell.

In the process, I lived through catastrophes that I still can’t talk about, even though I’ve forced myself to bring the memories into my consciousness. I struggle with classic Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (I use the term “injury” rather than “disorder” because the damage to my soul was clearly externally inflicted) that will be with me for the rest of my life.

For so many years I thought I was the only one with nightmares, panic attacks, irrational rages, and flashbacks. Until a few years ago, Americans looked on the war in Vietnam as a shameful thing. When I came back to the U.S. with the troops, we were met at the San Francisco airport by crowds who called us baby killers and butchers and spat on us. That sickened my soul. So for decades I never spoke to anyone about my experiences. I had top secret codeword-plus clearances, and if I’d gone for psychological help, I’d have lost my clearances and my job. I gritted my teeth and sweated through it. Writing down what happened turned out to be good therapy. Hence my novels and short stories.

But the biggest help came from volunteering, starting in the 1980s. I worked with AIDS patients, the homeless, the dying in the hospice system, and finally with sick and dying soldiers in a VA hospital. I learned that when I was with people worse off than I was, my memories faded into the background. I found out that compassion heals.

So I profoundly hope that the brother in arms who wrote to me will follow through and help other veterans. Just knowing that others share that wound to the soul helps more than most people could imagine. God bless him.