14 pounds of dwarf

I recently had the pleasure of being interviewed by fellow veteran Tom Glenn for the Washington Independent Review of Books. Glenn’s review of Red Flags is here.

What prompted you to write Red Flags now, more than forty years after your deployment to Vietnam?

No one had yet written about our running battle with the South Vietnamese, our hosts at the war we were paying to attend. I wanted to get into their elaborate, even treasonous corruption and our complicity in it. The Vietnamese were diverting our supplies – medicines, gasoline, ammunition, weapons, rations — to the black market and on to the enemy, and we looked away. They also  avoided engaging the North Vietnamese invading their territory, and left it to their civilian village militias and our forces to bear the brunt of stopping them. Finally, I felt I owed it to the Montagnard tribes people to describe their mistreatment at the hands of the Vietnamese, persecution that got so bad it led to violent mutinies, which in turn caused terrible conflicts for their American advisers who actually felt a greater loyalty to the aboriginal tribes than to Saigon.

What parallels do you see between Vietnam and Afghanistan?

A lot. I can’t believe the US Agency for International Development (USAID) is back at it again, trying to win hearts and minds with paved roads and concrete wells. It’s all too familiar. A sanctuary for the enemy just across the porous border of Pakistan. The corruption – all the way up to family members of the heads of state, the missing millions, warlords with private armies, a besieged government out of favor with Washington, fixed elections, institutionalized heroin trafficking, and another undeclared war against insurgents. How we were inveigled into it also bears an uncanny similarity. Like Kabul, the black-market and aid-corrupted government in Saigon was mainly focused on a) self perpetuation, b) diverting economic and military aid for personal profit, c) the transshipment of illegal drugs, using their military aircraft to haul most of it, and d) oh, yeah – doing just enough about the insurgents to placate the Americans so the cornucopia would stay open for business. Reading about police and Afghan military turning on their American instructors and actually killing them is also alarmingly familiar. As are the recent stories of failed Afghan safe-haven villages (called “strategic hamlets in Vietnam) where our civic assistance has neglected to provide the inhabitants with so much as water.

In the last year, the stream of new books about Vietnam has grown. What are your thoughts on why?

I think the interest is spurred by the constant press references to the similarities with our earliest counter-insurgency war in Southeast Asia. Recently declassified material is also fueling it; many documents are finally seeing daylight. I mean, did you know the first Westerners to covertly attack North Vietnamese territory during the war were Norwegian contractors? Also, we finally seem open to hearing from our former enemies. L. Borton, for instance, has translated a fascinating memoir, due out next year from Persea Books, by a North Vietnamese combat doctor in the highlands. No polemics, just what happened.

For the vets, there is probably an emotional corollary to this uptick in books. My Army friend Harry Pewterbaugh says that guys—like five of us who had served together — started looking for one another as we hit our 60s. There’s a spike on Internet vet forums of old friends looking for each other.

The fiction craftsmanship in Red Flags is exemplary, but your career has been in publishing. Where and how did you master the craft?

I’ve spent my adult life working with writers. My late wife, Laurie Colwin, was an accomplished writer and our daughter is showing signs of carrying her genes. I’ve been around it forever as an editor, mostly working on fixing whatever was ailing an author’s book. I harbored the ambition but had little time to devote to it. The first one took forever as a result. And Red Flags wasn’t so swiftly done either. I obsess about getting the details as right as possible and it slows me down.

Red Flags is beautifully organized, paced, and written. How long did the book take you? How many drafts did you do?

From final first draft to the final-final-draft took two years, but I’d been working on the book for two years before that. Number of drafts? I’ haven’t  counted them up but the forests of North America stand grateful for my computer. Certainly another whole book’s worth of text landed on the cutting-room floor.

You and I were in the highlands at the same time (1967-1968), but our paths never crossed. Did you foresee then how the war was going to end?

I moved around three provinces and passed through all the major coastal bases, so we might have bumped into one another.

Did I see the inevitable end coming? Yes. We had the planes, tanks and technology. But they had General Giap and the ingenious strategies. The American command kept trying to taunt, lure, trap the North Vietnamese forces into big unit battles but rarely succeeded. The NVA didn’t cooperate.  Even when we did manage to interest the VC in this sort of combat, the outcome seemed not to matter. The Vietnamese people didn’t care. They just wanted it to stop. Especially the bombing and the artillery. Their government never came up with some ideal to rally around, as had the North. Forget communism. The rallying cry was independence, a unified country free of foreigners. Ho’s Viet Minh fought the Japanese. Giap flat out defeated the French, and Hanoi promised to wait out the Americans indefinitely. We didn’t often lose battles (assaults really– nothing was ever held) but we absolutely didn’t win the revolution.

I’ve known for a long time about what I call “Vietnam Addiction”—so many of us couldn’t get enough of Vietnam despite the horrors of the war. Your character Miser seems to suffer from the malady. Did you know people who were Vietnam-addicted?

Lots. We teased our “Miser” by running him for mayor of the local town. There were non-coms like him who’d been in Vietnam for seven or eight years, and rarely came closer to the U.S. mainland than Hawaii. They were like centurions who had soldiered around the Asian rim for too long. They were more at home there than in their own culture. They’re still out there too, doing security work in exotic places for three hundred a day, running bars in Bangkok, or living quietly in retirement in South Korea.

Many black noncoms stayed because there were no impediments to making rank in a combat zone, as opposed to serving stateside or in  garrisons in Europe. Their courage was recognized and rewarded promptly, especially by those whose asses they saved. Their experience was needed and respected. Even so, it wasn’t always enough to get them into the mostly white elite outfits like Special Forces.

The seriously addicted ones were the guys who liked bearing arms, liked the actual weapons, the responsibility and the power, the life-and-death risk- taking. Everyone who has ever sighted a weapon for real has felt that kick but it dissipates mighty fast for most of us. For a few the thrill never lessened.

For ordinary mortals Vietnam marked us for life and draws us still.

Do you have any desire to return to Vietnam? If you went back, where would you go? Who and what would you see?

I have a Quaker friend who’s lived in Hanoi for twenty years. I’d liked to see her — and Saigon. I’d liked to see the Montagnards but I wouldn’t like to see what’s happened to them. And it’s unlikely I would be permitted to, either. The highlands were closed to foreigners after the tribes people began protesting their mistreatment. I wouldn’t want to walk around remembering.

What do you most love and regret about your Vietnam experience?

Regret? Marriage number one, I suppose, and that she didn’t write me a Dear John while I was still there (she delivered the news in person on my return). If she had, I would have stayed in Vietnam, mustered out there and maybe signed on with some news outfit as a stringer…maybe gone after an interview with Colonel Kurtz upriver. I would have loved to interview Col. George S. Patton IV, the son. What do I miss most? The guys.

You’ve now written two successful novels. What next? More novels set in Vietnam?

Maybe one more, set in 1963 in Saigon. Then one in Europe, with lots of Nazis.

What part of the Vietnam story needs more attention from writers? Put differently, what books about Vietnam would you like to see written?

Definitely the story of the Montagnards’ mutinies against the South Vietnamese in ’64 and ’65, and in the last hours of April ‘75 as South Vietnam tanked. I’d like to read about the repercussions against their Special Forces leaders who, rumor has it, were scattered afterward for fear of where their loyalties lay. Also, the story of the Special Forces’ agent who they discovered to be a double, maybe triple agent, so they got him drunk, shot him dead and threw him overboard into the South China Sea one night — which resulted in the arrest of the top Green Beret commander. No one’s ever gotten the inside story. And at least a magazine piece on the covert Norwegian contractors’ nocturnal work in the Gulf of Tonkin. Want scandal? How about the cover-up of poison gas that killed Marines at the DMZ? That one’s still deep in the vaults.

Do you still believe in war?  Does it have a purpose that will ever be accomplished?

I was born in a war, grew up a homeless refugee in camps in Germany where our playgrounds were the abandoned, eroded training trenches of Hitler’s army. I was far more skeptical about Vietnam than my peers and had no illusions about warfare. Still, when I saw it up close I was dumbstruck at the audacity of the Johnson administration that they could pose on the lip of the erupting volcano that was Indochina so late in the game, and think they could will it to stop by threatening the lava with superior firepower and Lend-Lease aid. Utter hubris. The one good thing the fall of Vietnam might do, I thought, was discredit such thinking.

Our kids may grow up on video war games but the first military academy in Vietnam was already up and running at the time of Christ. I never thought we would again dare lecture ancient peoples about waging war, certainly not folks whose boys receive AK-47s as birthday presents.

With my mother and sister in Germany, 1947.

Does it surprise you that such an enlightened species still resorts to violence?

Somewhat. The Canadians get it. The Germans and Japanese have learned, albeit the hard way. Why can’t we? But then we don’t know the violence we are suborning. If a photographer covering the Middle East takes truly unnerving photos or pictures of American dead, he’s tossed from the theater. So he doesn’t. Network TV footage versus Al Jazeera’s? – no comparison. If you’d seen Japanese photographs from the Vietnam War, you would think the images from the My Lai massacre were greeting cards. Recently a seventy-dollar medical book on the military’s radical new trauma surgeries was nearly censored lest the public see them. We are insulated. Nor do we have any real sense of being in a state of war — because we’re not. “The army is at war,” says historian David M. Kennedy. “We have managed to create and field an armed forces that can engage in very, very lethal warfare without the society in whose name it fights breaking a sweat.”  Which is why – God help me – we need the Draft back. We would’ve been out of there nine-and-a-half years ago.

What surprises me more is that an enlightened country sends an army thousands of miles after terrorists who’ve attacked New York and Washington and later tried for other domestic targets. I would have expected we install real airport security, radiation detectors in our ports, secure our reservoirs, power plants, nuclear reactors, trains and mass transit, and distribute anthrax antidote doses to every citizen in the country — as Homeland Security started to do but was stopped because it would constitute illegal distribution of a prescription drug. Go figure. I still don’t understand how putting a conventional army there would stop unconventional attacks here. Is any train safe in this country? Apparently a question Bin Laden and his friends were contemplating too before his untimely death. You think our trains are safe now that he’s eliminated.

What would literature be without the literature of war?

Funny. Uplifting. Real. Most war literature is a kind of pornography. Dick Lit. It is to war what a Playboy foldout is to an actual woman. Someone asked me what it was really like guarding a perimeter at night. You can imagine what it would be in a movie or novel. I told him to go home, take his lawn ornament into his bathroom, step in the tub with it, have his wife douse the lights and close the door. Then turn on the shower and stand there for two hours holding the fourteen pounds of dwarf.

Filed in Afghanistan, Central Highlands, Montagnards, Vietnam Veterans | 1 Comment

What is the sound of one leg walking?

Jeff Barber

The publication date for Red Flags arrives: September 20th. So does an email from Charli, Jeff Barber’s wife. Jeff is dead.

He’s in the dedication, along with the other guys who had made it home. Most of him, anyway. Jeff, a Marine, had left a leg in Vietnam – stepped on a land mine at the age of 18. He spent the next two years in hospitals. Besides losing his leg, he had suffered 47 other wounds that required surgery after surgery to remove foreign objects and repair his circulatory system. The nurses kept a Mason jar by his bed, filled with the growing collection of jagged metal excavated from his body. Had he not been so young and athletic, so fit, he never would have survived.

At first he tried to ignore the obvious disability. He skied on one leg, bicycled, swam. But amputated above the knee, the remnant wouldn’t heal properly, no matter what medicines or therapies were applied. He was forever on some new medication or being put into hyperbaric oxygen chambers. They kept operating: procedures aptly called reductions, mini-amputations.

The primitive artificial leg issued by the VA proved too painful to walk on. Jeff would wear it only as a cosmetic and maneuvered on forearm crutches. Long-haired and bearded, he was soft-spoken and calm on the outside, anguished on the inside. He took up meditating and driving at high speeds through the southwestern deserts. Once, after being pulled over, he got into it with the officer, who handcuffed Jeff’s hands behind his back and made him “walk” to the cruiser for the drive to jail. Quite an image: Jeff silhouetted, hopping on his one leg down the highway. Welcome home, son.

Though he married a wonderful woman, had two boys he loved, he couldn’t alight, couldn’t settle. He tried living in the west, in California; he tried living in New York, where I met him in the late 70s. He’d gotten a job in human resources in the company I worked for. Everyone was very decorous with Jeff, proper to a fault, treating him as if he were no different from the rest of us.

He wore the pretend limb to the office but it was uncomfortable and he’d take it off for much of the day. I swiped the phony leg and hid it behind an open door. “What leg?” I said. People were aghast. Who would make off with a prosthesis?  Jeff found it hilarious. My wife announced him as my “little vet friend” whenever he called or showed up, and totally charmed him.

Jeff hated the Veterans Administration, which wasn’t making much of an effort to get him a better artificial limb and regularly tried to reduce his benefits. I’d accompany him when he went there on some errand like picking up crutches, after which he liked to stroll back and forth in front of the local recruiting office. He also liked invitations to speak to high school kids, especially when recruiters were in attendance, pitching esprit and the rewards for military service. The recruiting officer, dazzling in his dress uniform, didn’t have a chance with Jeff standing there in his beard and long hair, pant leg empty, smiling.

One night Jeff talked calmly about suicide, said he couldn’t figure out where all his anger and turmoil was coming from. I rattled off the list of the self-evident, amazed he didn’t see it. I found him the shrink he wanted – ex-military. “Well?” I said afterward. Jeff said the doc was nuts but likable. He had talked about bathroom tiles and handguns, and totally distracted Jeff. Sounded eccentric but somehow it worked.

We went shopping for a birthday present in Soho at a store owned by an exotic Bedouin woman. He was fascinated by her. Little wonder, I thought: two nomads. He took the family to California. I visited them in San Diego. The disquiet was back. The marriage went south, Jeff went north, toward San Francisco. A little while later he met Charli and they had a child.

My daughter and I stopped by on a trip west. They’d moved again, to Hawaii this time. Along the way he’d gotten into collecting minerals and rocks, and Asian artifacts. Then opened a shop, which he eventually transferred to their new home in Novato. The house was amazing, as was Jeff. Over the years he’d gone from naïve high school graduate to a man of genuine understanding and gentility that showed in his youngest son Jack and in his relationship with his devoted wife. I told him he looked like the Buddha, sitting in his wheel chair surrounded by sacred objects – upper body massive with muscle, scarred stump showing, overweight from diabetes and poor circulation – and all the while exuding tranquility and anxiety in equal measure while masking the ever-present pain.

Vietnam, like every war, keeps on giving. Every month new names go up on the Memorial in D.C., joining the others who’ve finally succumbed to their wounds. And soon my friend’s name will join the ranks of silenced lives. Holy ground and top tourist attraction though it’s become, I want to blow up that Wailing Wall. I wouldn’t have traded you a single bead of his sweat for all of Indochina.

Filed in Vietnam Veterans | 1 Comment

Dinky Dau: A World of Crazy

Dr. Douglas Bey

My favorite psychiatrist practices in a town called Normal. In 1969-70, Captain Douglas Bey was with the 1st Infantry Division, one of only six psychiatrists assigned to combat units in Vietnam. His radio call sign became the title of his memoir: Wizard 6: A Combat Psychiatrist in Vietnam. Four years ago I interviewed him for The San Diego Reader. The Catch-22 quality of his experiences seem particularly resonant at this moment in our history. Dr. M, for instance, wasn’t one of his patients. He was a colleague.

JJ: You were a young psychiatrist in 1968 when you were appointed a captain in the Army medical corps. You trained at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, along with other doctors, learning the barest rudiments of military deportment and skills, like how to about-face and fire a weapon. When ducks flew over the firing range, you docs started shooting. At your graduation ceremonies, you all sang the Mickey Mouse Club song. (The military band joined in.) The next year you were ordered to Vietnam, and the base camp of the 1st Infantry Division, where it was even wilder. You actually witnessed what I always thought was an apocryphal Vietnam story about an army dentist.

DB: Dr. M, yes. He was African American, a Guardsman, had finished school heavily in debt, rented his offices, bought all the equipment and then was activated and sent to Vietnam. Upsetting. He’d disassociated himself from the military. He wore only loud sports shirts, flip-flops, and shorts — usually boxers. And he danced all the time — bopped. In the monsoon rain, during inspections by generals — it didn’t matter. One day a nervous infantryman arrived in the dental area with a problem. In comes a black guy in a bright red short-sleeved tropical shirt and boxer shorts, who looks in his mouth and asks the corpsman assisting what he thinks is wrong. The corpsman says, ‘You’re the doctor, Doctor.’ Dr. M looks in the man’s mouth again and says, ‘I never should have left the motor pool. Looks like we’ll have to blast.’ He tears off a long piece of dental floss, anchors it in the guy’s teeth and lights the other end. Then retreats to a corner, crouches down, and plugs his ears with his fingers. The poor patient leaps out of the chair and runs, trailing smoke.

JJ: Most of your peers dodged service. What were you doing in the Army? In Vietnam?

DB: I was from the Midwest. My dad and uncle had served, my cousin did two tours as a Marine pilot, and I just kinda thought, “Well, everyone’s going.”

JJ: So there you are, a psychiatrist in Vietnam, handling 400 patients a month, among them soldiers with hysterical symptoms who have gone mute or blind or been paralyzed in combat from no apparent injury. You conduct sodium amytal interviews that sound amazing.

DB: They were a big deal in World War II. We did some. We’d tell the patient that after a little rest they were going to feel better. That they’d be able to walk, talk, hear, or see — whatever function their psyches had shut down to escape the conflict between their being in combat and the fear of being killed. We’d administer the drug, and that would do it. The GIs would awaken and recover and be fine, as long as you didn’t try to send them back. We had zero results with that: we couldn’t get anybody to go back.

JJ: You write that schizophrenic patients loved marching, loved drilling. How did you make that discovery?

DB: In the psychiatric unit at Ft. Knox, Sgt. DeLeon would line ’em up and march ’em. The ‘behavior disorders,’ trying to get out of the Army, bitched and moaned. The schizophrenic patients thought it was terrific. They felt part of the Army, loved the order of it.  Then one GI was brought to us who was hearing voices, but it turned out he just had a tunnel underneath his tent.

JJ: It’s surprising how little knowledge the American side had of the enemy’s tunnel systems. They must have been tunneling for decades. You mention one of the VC tunnels was eight stories deep.

DB: Yeah. They had a big hospital installation in it. Two thousand beds, refrigeration for plasma, and all of this literally under the feet of a division [which had set up its huge base camp on top of this complex]. I don’t have a desire to go back, but I’d be curious to see what the tunnel complexes looked like in our area and what was actually going on there. Whenever there were B-52 strikes, the civilian workers would cry because their relatives were out there in the tunnels.

JJ: You write that one of the doctors you were most impressed with was Capt. John Hamilton.

DB: A tremendous guy. He was captain of his Florida A&M football team and is being inducted into their Hall of Fame this month. We’re going down there for the ceremony. Our company commander and his wife too.

JJ: He was one of the few black officers.

DB: Right. He tried to be a good model for the younger blacks. Over 13 percent of the soldiers were black, but only 3 percent of the Army officer corps and 1 percent of the Marine Corps officers were African Americans. Initially, there were a disproportionate number of blacks in combat, and they were pretty unhappy, holding meetings and scaring the hell out of young white officers. The officers had very little experience, much less with ghetto blacks who didn’t want to be there and were armed to the teeth.

JJ: You say that John Hamilton was surprised by the xenophobia of the Vietnamese.

DB: I think he was shocked. He expected to be welcomed as a fellow person of color. And they were more prejudiced than we were.

JJ: They thought we were all mongrels with red hair and yellow hair and black hair and different skin tones.

DB: And long noses.

JJ: And body hair. They were appalled by that.

DB: I think odor too. Though they didn’t smell so good to us. Their sewage systems left something to be desired. And when we went on R&R, our clothes must have smelled terrible, because people were offended by our odor.

JJ: You encountered men who purported to like killing. What did you make of them?

DB: A couple were crazy. Some had medals and were responsible citizens. I think they got a high off it. There’s probably a genetic predisposition to being a risk-taker. If you have a loving family, you may go into a high-risk occupation, like the military, or be a racing-car driver or bullfighter. If you’re from a dysfunctional family, you may end up a homicidal killer.

JJ: Either way, you like your work.

DB: There were really not too many restraints over there. You could do just about whatever you wanted to. Some people killed and really got off on that.

JJ: And others cracked up.

DB: Yeah. I had a corpsman who’d been a combat medic. Usually you don’t carry weapons if you’re a medic, but he did. His unit went into a village and shot it up. He participated and killed people. It bothered him. He was raised in a Christian family and he has tremendous guilt about this. He calls me up every now and then, when he’s drunk or high on drugs, and talks about it.

JJ: There was a good deal of heroin use in Vietnam.

DB: Yes, there was plenty of it. It was incredibly pure, almost 100 percent, as opposed to the diluted heroin you got in the States. And sensationally cheap. Two or three dollars per dose. Opium cost a dollar; morphine, five bucks. Statistics said heroin users in Vietnam in 1970 exceeded the known users at home: 81,300 versus 68,000. A survey of two divisions indicated 11 to 14 percent of the men had used heroin since arriving in country. A survey four years later said 34 percent commonly used it. Meanwhile, the officers were living on cheap booze mostly.

JJ: Only officers and sergeants were allowed to buy hard liquor, theoretically. Though GIs bought mixed drinks at bars for a quarter, and beer in quantity. Drinking was subsidized and practically encouraged; drug use was preached against. You were asked to participate in that.

DB: The division surgeon, me, the psychiatrist, our chaplain, and a CID [Army investigator] were to address the enlisted men about the dangers. It was frigging ridiculous. I kept thinking, what if we appeared at the officers’ club and started showing a little board with martini glasses and shot glasses and lecturing how some of them drank out of this type of glass and some of them put cherries in it…? It was a farce, demonstrating drug paraphernalia. I made my views known and was not invited again.

JJ: A fifth of booze was a dollar and a half.

DB: Oh, yeah, it was dirt cheap. A beer was a dime. Everybody I knew was drunk most of the time.

JJ: The old sergeants especially seemed vulnerable to alcoholism.

DB: Yes, outfits would kind of pass them around. They’d cover up the man’s drinking and recommend him to another unit. It would take the new unit a few months to figure out that the guy was an alcoholic and then that command would pass him on the same way.

JJ: There seemed to be a number of suicides among that group.

DB: I was aware of one. It was pathetic. A division surgeon told the sergeant he would be kicked out of the Army and lose all his benefits if he took another drink. He did, of course; got drunk, thought he was ruined, and killed himself.

JJ: Have you seen a lot of vets in your practice?

DB: Some. I took care of a couple Special Forces guys, and they told their buddies.

JJ: You mention in the book that you were shocked to learn Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara already thought the war was unwinnable in 1965. Most of the 58,000 who eventually fell were still alive at that point. Yet it’s rolling forward.

DB:  Yeah, I was ticked off. I didn’t realize I had that much feeling about it, actually, until I heard that. Because the war resulted in a lot of unnecessary loss of life, tremendous expense . . . and look at all the damage we did to the Vietnamese. We skewed their economy and corrupted a lot of the rural people. We bullied the Vietnamese and threw our money around. We went into Saigon and indulged ourselves at expensive French restaurants with white tablecloths and crystal and us wearing grubby fatigues. We must’ve looked like the Nazis did to the French. The Vietnamese women became bar girls, and the males were involved in illegal activities. We ruined their farmland with bombs and ordnance and defoliants. One of our Army trucks, I remember, ran over a child on the road. What looked like a pink football in the middle of the street were this kid’s brains that had squirted out of his head.

JJ: In the book you sound slightly surprised by how much of Vietnam you carried with you to civilian life.

DB: I was. The people at home have been able to forget. The vets haven’t.

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Who Are The Cowboys?

General Westmoreland gets Montagnard bracelet as part of tribal initiation at Mai Linh, camp A-226, 1966. Photo:  Ed Sprague

Some higher-up had decided that movies maintained morale. So every large military installation, base camp and tiny outpost in Vietnam was supplied weekly with reels of film for our viewing pleasure. The usual shipment of canisters contained two half-hour television series shows, like Combat and Batman, and a three-reel feature. Often as not, the three reels were mixed up and from different films, but the troops watched them anyway for a lack of anything better to do.

The Montagnard soldiers at the far-flung Special Forces camps enjoyed the feature films immensely, even though they didn’t understand English or – when the reels didn’t match up — the incoherent jumble of stories. While for the most part they understood that the images were probably an illusion, they regularly lost themselves in the dramas and went proactive, shooting up the screen in a kind of real-life precursor of the combat video game. Projecting the movies onto a whitewashed wall proved a problem: their bullets punched holes through the screens — and often through the walls. So the Americans improvised, using a white sheet or bleached mosquito netting hung in front of stacked sandbags to absorb the hits and keep discharged rounds from flying everywhere.

Westerns were a particular favorite of the tribespeople, who naturally enough sided with the Indians (their situations being so similar). But sometime after 1967 their loyalties shifted and they decided the Indians were Vietnamese (whom they didn’t trust or like after years of persecution) and shot them up when they appeared. Suddenly the Yards identified with the cowboys and the cavalry.

I wondered for years what lay behind this shift, and only recently found the answer to the mystery in a moving essay by George “Sonny” Hoffman.  His is the best description I’ve ever read of the “Mountain People” and the jocular physicality (especially compared to the fastidious, reserved Vietnamese) that endeared them to the Green Berets they fought alongside. You’ll have to read his essay to find out which lone hero caused this sea change in the Montagnards’ attitude toward cowboys when he accepted initiation into the Rhade tribe. It certainly wasn’t General Westmoreland.

Filed in Central Highlands, Montagnards | 1 Comment

Only Funny If It’s Dangerous

The guys in the 101st Airborne liked their jokes dangerous.

In the spring of 1974 I was at the Gramercy Park Hotel attending my first sales conference as a senior editor with a major publisher. I had high hopes for a first novel I’d acquired and I was all kinds of revved. One of the nonfiction titles being presented at the conference — with the help of its handsome blond author — was the story of a former 101st paratrooper – enlisted — who went undercover after Vietnam, infiltrating the campus anti-war movement back home for the FBI. Bringing the author to the conference was unusual: a signal of a big investment and big expectations on the part of the publishing house.

The editor did his introduction and the well spoken author took over. Nothing he said sounded right to me. I tried not to listen, concentrating instead on my own upcoming presentations. I’d had the job less than a year; this was my moment to do it, put over a book I believed in. My jumping on this guy could look awful, hurt the firm’s bottom line, out me to the whole world as a Vietnam vet (risky in those days). Never mind humiliating and pissing off his editor – my brand-new boss. But my heart pounded with resentment. The guy’s pitch made me livid. The f-ing gall.

For six years I’d listened to Vietnam vets’ books being shot down as unsalable, the subject likened to cancer, and now this was going to be the book to break through? Blond white 101st paratrooper as heroic government snitch. What was wrong with this picture? The guy had no sashay, no swagger. Well scrubbed, wound tight. No peace sign on his helmet liner. Was I the only one not buying this story?

At the end, the author asked for questions. The staff was respectful and solicitous of the proper young veteran returned from the wars, only to risk himself again on the home front. Impulsively I raised my hand.

“The Airborne ranks were heavily black.”

“Yes,” he said, “somewhat.”

“What was the nickname of the 101st in Vietnam again?”

The memoirist looked uncomfortable. “The Screaming Eagles?” he said, the outfit’s well-known moniker inspired by the eagle’s head on the division’s emblem.

If I’d had any doubts, they were gone.

Sales reps a few seats away stared at my expression. “Isn’t that right,” one said quietly, “Screaming Eagles?”

I shook my head: “The 1st Afrika Corps.”

Afrika Corps — as in Rommel’s crack Aryan juggernaut of racially exclusive supermen in North Africa in WWII, outfighting and outwitting the allies for their racist Fatherland. GI humor, funny because it was dangerous: a slur and a backhanded salute all in one to the mostly black 101st.

Somebody got wise. The book slipped from the list a few days later, never to reappear.

Filed in 101st Airborne, Vietnam Veterans | 2 Comments

Instead of Shaking My Hand

George Ruckman, Juris Jurjevics, Mo Moser [?] the late Glen Casperson

I recently came across  two interviews with the Dean of Faculty at the Virginia Military Institute, Dr. Alan Farrell, conducted by VMI student cadets for a course in Military History and Strategic Analysis. Dr. Farrell, a rare teacher by all accounts, taught at another southern college for 25 years before being lured to VMI. Before that he was in Special Forces, training and leading indigenous highland tribesmen against North Vietnamese soldiers sneaking across the Laotian border. And then writing poetry about it (Expended Casings).

Alan Farrell

You couldn’t find two people with more different backgrounds. Me, an immigrant kid from New York (with all that implies), a homeless refugee for the first 7 years of my life. Farrell from a rock-ribbed New Hampshire military family that fought in the Revolution.

And yet I was shocked to discover that we couldn’t agree more. About everything: from the terrible reality behind the mythologized battle in the Ia Drang that we’ve all seen being won on screen by Mel Gibson to the current occupation of Iraq. But most especially we agree that there needs to be an end to Congress’s draft dodging. Congress needs to face the issue of universal conscription if we are ever to cope with the “wars” we keep stumbling into. I never thought I’d find myself advocating for reinstatement of the draft, but here I am, standing with Sergeant Major Farrell.

“The trouble with the way America fights wars now,” says Farrell, ” is that the whole population doesn’t go . . .  We’re still letting a very narrow segment fight our war for us…if we’re talking about volunteers and a special sort of person who’s willing to suffer in the name of the Republic, whether he understands it or not – that means that you lose your best guys in that kind of warfare…I’m not in favor of war. I’m inclined to think, if we’ve got to have one, everybody goes – everybody. ”

This is not just coming from the older vets. Some months ago a young Marine sergeant back from four tours in Iraq writing anonymously, argued that “a government that wants an indefinite, badly managed war placed on a credit card without complete consent of its citizens could only do it with an all-volunteer military… As my senior drill instructor said the morning of graduation, ‘Ladies and Gents, it’s time to sac up and eat the shit sandwich.’ We are going to have to make hard decisions that will not look anything like the irresponsible, childish partisan bickering of the preceding three decades. We are going to have to do what Americans do best in crises: SACRIFICE AND COMPROMISE… An open and vigorous discussion of compulsory national service, for all classes…needs to be part of the way forward . . . As a young person who served in a war you made, I don’t want your handshake, your pity, your daughter’s phone number, or your faded bumper sticker. I did my frigging job, so now do yours.”

The young Marine’s essay was titled “You can go strangle yourself with that yellow ribbon, or, here is what I want you to do instead of shaking my hand.”

Amen to that.

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Tiger Medicine

The local civilian militia (CIDG) claimed they’d just happened to hear something walk through their night ambush site. More likely the only thing they’d ever been planning to ambush was animal, not human. The giveaway was the condition of the hide: if they’d shot it by mistake, it would have been riddled with holes. Instead, the tiger had gone down with just one perfect shot. The pelt was valuable, but the real prize were the teeth and organs, destined for the local apothecary.

The pharmacist in the town market in Cheo Reo worked hard to impress townspeople with the potency of his remedies, prepared from organs and excretions of powerful creatures like the tiger, or the reptile curled up on top of the barrel. A bear’s head and hide are just out of sight. My personal favorite: a brew of rice wine mixed with bat’s blood that was supposed to combat tuberculosis.

Filed in Central Highlands, Cheo Reo | 1 Comment

Tour Guides for the NVA

The Montagnards were our allies, but they also worked for the North Vietnamese, who promised them autonomy over the highlands after the war. The Montagnard gentleman standing next to me in the old uniform shirt and hat, carrying the machete-ax, was either trekking home or off to tend a North Vietnamese shelter. There was no telling.

North Vietnamese soldiers traveled the infiltration trails that ran through Phu Bon province, heading east in small groups toward the populated lowlands along the coast. Sometimes, having already trekked for a couple of months from North Vietnam through Laos into South Vietnam, they used the northern part of the province for R & R.

The NVA soldiers traveled mostly at night, led by local Montagnard guides who knew the trails and stream crossings like this one. They covered seven to nine miles a night, depending on the difficulty of the terrain. Midway between shelters a new Montagnard guide would take over, escorting the group to the next rest shelter. At dusk they’d set out with their new guide, who would hand them off again at the next midway point. Other Montagnards serviced the rest huts with water and food for the infiltrators.

One of our team’s missions was to count heads along the trails, and sometimes to gather intelligence by intercepting a few of the infiltrators, which invariably made the local Viet Cong insurgents unhappy with us. Since we were laughably outnumbered, there was always the risk that one day they’d get unhappy enough to decide to wipe us out.

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The Montagnard Smile

The narrator of Red Flags is warned not to smile too broadly at the Montagnards he meets – to them, our full Western teeth looked feral. Their standard of beauty required teeth to be chiseled down, sometimes into crude points, and lacquered black – or dyed black naturally by the frequent chewing of betel nut (a mild narcotic). I certainly remember the shock the first time a beautiful Montagnard woman smiled at me.

Montagnard women did all the farming and all the heavy lifting, but they also owned everything, including the men. A groom went for about two dollars and a couple of water buffalo. The husband entered his wife’s clan, took his bride’s name and moved into her family’s longhouse. Their kids belonged to her clan; she arranged their marriages. Men had no power; her clan made all the big decisions. His role was to service her relatives. He hunted small game, trapped exotic birds or monkeys. If they divorced, she kept everything.

As fit as they may look, most Montagnards suffered from half a dozen chronic tropical diseases. Treatments existed, but medical care for the tribespeople was close to non-existent. The Vietnamese, who despised the Montagnards, simply wouldn’t treat them, and Western doctors and nurses were few and far between. In the era in which Red Flags is set, Montagnard life expectancy hovered around forty. I doubt it’s any better today.

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The Boy in the Batman Shirt

Montagnard kids, joyous and disarming. Note the loincloth on the boy with the Batman t-shirt. The further you got from town and from the missionaries who gave the kids Western clothing, the more primitive the attire.

My friend Mike Little was an Army MP patrolling Route 19, forty miles upstream from me in Cheo Reo. Burned out on the war, Mike lost his heart to the Montagnard kids frolicking in the local river. Soon he was visiting their village, bringing them gifts and supplies, and forging a remarkable bond. These Montagnard kids and their families “redeemed” him, Mike says. He has gone back nine times since the war to visit his extended family of 172 villagers, even taking his own seven-year-old son, Sean C. Little. At nine, Sean wrote his wonderful account of the experience,  They Don’t Speak English Here.

Mike’s trips have grown difficult since the tribes in the Highlands rose up to protest human-rights violations. Since 2003, he’s been turned back, detained, interrogated, arrested, his former three-day visits cut down to four hours. But he hasn’t given up.

Like Mike, many American soldiers (myself included) developed much closer ties to the indigenous Montagnards than to our nominal allies, the South Vietnamese. As one of the characters in Red Flags says, it’s pretty impossible not to love people who are “innately honest, don’t have a calendar, can’t read or count, rely almost entirely on barter to get by, and insist that everyone get drunk at their ceremonies.”

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