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Friday, July 25, 2003

A BRILLIANT NOVEL ABOUT VIETNAM AND THE US, AND PROBABLY THE BEST FILM ABOUT THE WAR THERE TOO

This is a re-run of an article, revised and updated, that came to life originally on the buggy site May 28th, 2003 --- the original itself, three weeks after the hacker attack of July 1st, still a long lost stray wandering haplessly in the Blue Nowhere like the rest of the archives for the weeks between April 19th and July 2nd.

A follow-up of the previous article, this one deals with Nelson DeMille's Up Country and the wider implications it highlights brilliantly about the US war in Vietnam during the late 1950s, 1960s, and on into the early 1970s . . . along with the continued fall-out on American life today, for good or bad. It's a dazzling novel, and on all levels. Later, the article then deals with probably the best film ever on the war, Go Tell the Spartans, set in Vietnam and dealing with an American advisory group in 1964 --- a year before the war was escalated and we sent 500,000 men to fight and die there
 

The Background Here

In the previous article, we mentioned how much James Woolsey --- our former and outspoken CIA head, often deservedly hard on our intelligence agencies' failures to anticipate the 9/11 attacks --- stressed that corrective action required that the government open up to imaginative non-employees who think about the war on terrorism in boldly new ways . . . and hence outside the confines of the narrow boxed-in perspectives set by bureaucratic and political pressures.

In particular, as we noted, he singled out Bernard Lewis, Steven Emerson, Fouad Ajami, and the novelist Tom Clancy as creative thinkers of this sort, writers --- two of them professors (Lewis near 80 now), one a novelist, the other an investigative journalist --- who had fully anticipated the hostility and hatred crackling at the heart of Arab and other radical Islamist movements. And all thinkers, as it happens, who are and have been at odds with the Middle East Studies Association's products, not least those of John Esposito of Georgetown, the former president of the MESA and a leading apologist for Islamo-fascist fundamentalisms. As one observer noted, Esposito has described Hamas, on the US State Department's list of terrorist organizations threatening American citizens everywhere, as a community-focused organization that, in addition to its political activism,"cheese-making and home-based clothing manufacture"; portrayed Yasser Arafat's call for jihad as but a social initiative comparable to starting a "literacy campaign" or a "fight against AIDS"; called a fellow professor with links to the Islamic Jihad organization a "consummate professional" rather than a supporter of terror; condemned attempts to associate militant Islamist movements "with radicalism and terrorism"; and blamed American foreign policy for the September 11 al-Qaeda attacks. Imagine further how you might feel upon learning that your child's professor not only deems it unjustified to criticize Shari'a, or Islamic law, but actually minimizes the fact that those nations governed by Shari'a are, by and large, totalitarian regimes that export terrorism and rank among the world's worst offenders of human rights."

Huh? Is that possible?

Yes, that's the nature of Middle East Studies in the US, dominant Establishment-style, thanks to the impact of 25 years of politically correct orthodoxies and huge financial bribes offered to universities by the Saudi royal Mafioso-family --- 4000 rich greedy gangsters, living fat off the land of oil even as the per capita income of Saudi Arabia, after more than $3 trillion of oil sales since the early 1970s, is one-third of what it was in 1980.

And Esposito and his teeming followers of irrelevance and apologetics on a full-tilt scale have the cheek to demand more finance from the US government to support their mighty insights in the light of 9/11's terrorist massacres on US soil and hence the growing importance of Middle East studies. What next? Will Ptolemic astronomers petition Congress for more funds to pursue their matchless work in equants and deferents to explain the heavens? Or maybe astrologists demanding funds for the ultimate breakthrough in metallic conversion? (On the Wahhabi fanaticism that the Saudi royals use as part of their world-wide effort to prop up their fortunes, see the recent symposium at Frontpage.com, "The Future of US-Saudi Relations" with four Middle-East specialists, none tainted with briberies and pc-pablum. On how the Saudis have endeavored to spread hatred and racism in the US, see the article of September 2002 at Frontpage . On James Woolsey's own recent analysis of the Islamist terrorist threat --- [1] three kinds, all fueled by fanaticism and vitriolic hatred: Islamofascism of the bin-Laden, Taliban, Saddamite Baathism, and Syrian Baathism; [2] Shiite fanaticism pushed by the Iranian hard-core die-hard mullah zealots; and [3] Saudi-sponsored Wahhabi anti-western frenzy --- see his recent article in the London Guardian entitled "A War for Freedom" . . . dazzling in its crisp astute mastery of the combined threats we face, along with some sage advice about how to deal with them . . . such as destroying the fanatical regimes or forcing them to change that sponsor such vicious, violent anti-US, anti-Western terrorism and apologies for it.)

 

Woolsey and Novelists and Other Non-Academic Types

No wonder Woolsey cited a handful of dissident writers as far more reliable sources than most of the Middle East professoriat in this country. Then, after mentioning Woolsey's views here, the buggy prof went on in the previous article to note this:

Woosley, I add, could have also singled out an even better novelist and far more foresighted writer, Nelson DeMille, whose Lion's Game --- which came out one year before 9/11 --- is a probing, packed-with-suspense study of an Arab terrorist who lands in New York (after killing all the passengers on board) and is then hunted down by a New York Cop and an FBI agent, the characters anything but stick figures for ideas . . . just the contrary. That includes the terrorist himself, a Libyan whose interior world and actions are featured in alternate chapters with the cop and FBI agent --- the man, crackling with hatred for Americans, a consummate terrorist, duped by the Khadaffi regime as we find out into believing that the American air attack on Khadaffi's compound in 1986 in retaliation for Libyan-supported terrorism against us, into believing the air attack caused his parents' death when in fact . . . . The NY Cop and the FBI woman are paired off against one another in clever witty ways --- DeMille a master at the sexually charged complications in a working relationship that puts both at risk where authority and hierarchy and inevitable bureaucratic machinations enter into play. And also a master, more specifically, of the tricks, buck-passing evasions, and careerism that pervade our intelligence services and police forces despite lots of dedicated people who get caught up in its internal antics. And the military too. Come to that, I just finished Up Country by DeMille, which came out last year. (See the continuation of our evaluation of this brilliant novel and possibly the best film on the Vietnamese war ever in the next article at thebuggyprofessor.org site.)

 

Nelson DeMille: Up Country

A former combat soldier in Vietnam, DeMille returned there with two friends in 1997 on a lengthy visit, in effect an effort by him to come to terms with that complex frustrating war that haunted his memory --- no clear front, no clear enemy in the countryside, terrorism, counter-terrorism in both senses of the term, lots of madness (Apocalypse Now, an uneven if daring and brilliant film, is deft on that topic), and atrocities on both sides. Not that DeMille, bitterly critical of our government's role and involvement and duplicities during the war and after, is anything but an apologist for the Communist tyranny the triumphant North Vietnamese imposed on the anti-Communist people of the South --- most of them still with friendly feelings about the US. On the contrary, he hates the Communist tyrants who have come to dominate the South, and some of the best scenes have to do with the main character, Paul Brenner, being constantly hounded and interrogated by a North Vietnamese Colonel in intelligence, who rightly suspects that Brenner isn't on a simple tourist trip like tens of thousands of other American vets of the war, to visit the country where they fought and witnessed such bewildering and deadly warfare.

 

The Wider Theme

All this, and more. Lots more.

As you come to expect when you read DeMille, our own government's intelligence agencies turn out to be teacherous double-dealers up to no good either in sending DeMille's stand-in in Up Country, a retired military police-investigator, back to Vietnam on an espionage mission that is supposed to sacrifice him one way or another. By now it's clear. The book is the latest installment of Demille's pained inner struggle to come to terms with the harrowing time he had in Vietnam --- including bloody combat when the Viet Cong and North Vietnam launched the Tet offensive in early 1968, penetrated and held several South Vietnam cities for days or weeks, and executed tens of thousands of South Vietnamese civilians. In many ways, too, the main female character he's paired off with, Susan Weber (apt name) --- who struggles with her own snarled inner complexities, including falling in love with a man she's supposed to betray for the CIA and maybe even kill to bury something sordid that happened in the past that involves a well-known US politician (you'll have guessed this anyway by page 60) --- is even more interesting, though since the story is told through the mind and perceptions of Paul Brenner, we never get as deep into the dark corners of her mental world as we could. Still, if you know anything about psychotherapy, it won't take you long to recognize a woman with a frazzled bipolar disorder, swinging from one manic wild-eyed action to another, even as these actions are repeatedly interrupted and undermined with her own struggles of suspicions and sense of personal betrayal and self-doubt of an edgy, coiled-up sort. The interplay between Brenner and Weber, a complex man and a complex woman --- their careers, their volatile sexual life together, the ways their exhilaration with one another is repeatedly undercut by their mistrust and suspicions that blend with their own inner raw struggles --- is as engrossing as any I know of in contemporary literature. Brenner has to struggle all the time with his suspicions and fears about her, despite the erotic chemistry that binds them. Even when the book ends, he's left uncertain about her: her motivation, her overall state of mind, her love for him that he won't accept.

The book, I add --- given DeMille's personal emotions that it engages on every page --- isn't totally successful as a thriller novel. No help for it. Because, quite simply . . . the novel's drama runs wider and deeper than a thriller, and in murky mental surroundings --- the stuff of superior literature. To clarify briefly: we've seen that Up Country isn't just a thriller --- the story of Paul Brenner and Susan Weber and their daring espionage-investigative pilgrimage north out of Saigon and all the daily and hourly dangers it creates for them . . . nor just the wider story of the various conniving CIA and military and political types trying to use the two of them for their own purposes, Brenner himself forced to fight mentally almost every minute to figure out who's bullshitting him and one another, his own life at stake in every one of those minutes. Nor even the deeper personal struggle of Nelson DeMille himself to come to terms with his past in Vietnam as a soldier and his ongoing conflicts about it decades later. It's all this, of course; but it's also more ambitious, the novel, and it largely succeeds. To put this as plainly as possible, it's no less about what that lengthy mad war did to us and to the Vietnamese, and still does in recurring, sharply intense manner . . . Paul Brenner, it turns out --- the compulsively reflective man who can't stop reminiscing at length about what he and other Americans and the Vietnamese went through and endured --- not just a clear alter-ego for DeMille but a stand-in as well for a whole generation of Americans.

Like DeMille and Brenner, most Americans tried and still do to make sense of the craziness of those times, the 1960s and early 1970s --- all that madness and mayhem and murder with no clear point to it after a while ---- and the ongoing fall-out still active in our national life today. And of course even more so in Vietnam. When Brenner returned to Vietnam on his pilgrimage in 1997, he found a more peaceful country in the South, but also one crushed by Communist tyranny. His sympathies lie with the South Vietnamese, whom we abandoned even as Brenner, like most Americans, realize that we should never have let ourselves stumble into a brutal civil war complicated by the impact on both sides of the cold war.

 

No Innocents

Something else too --- an implicit leitmotif that you grasp only at the end: there are no innocents in Vietnam on any side: the South Vietnamese, the Viet Cong who fought them and were then taken over and crushed by the North Vietnamese Communists, the North Vietnamese, and not least we Americans. For just as the American politician who killed four innocent people back in the late 1960s gets away with it, so Brenner and Susan kill four Vietnamese innocents, cops and militia, in the course of their journey northward out of Saigon toward Hanoi . . . all the while manipulated, the two of them, by bigger forces than they can control --- the manipulators powerful men full of deceit and pushy careerist ambitions and a facile ability to bullshit themselves into rationalizing what they're doing to Paul and Susan. What DeMille's trying to say with this outcome is clear enough: there's no easy justice for anyone when it comes to Vietnam and its past and present. Not for the Vietnamese, North or South; nor for Americans, then or now. Brenner's sympathies, as we noted a moment or two ago, are with the South Vietnamese who hated the Communists and still do, but who were ruled by corrupt and ineffectual leaders until their conquest by the North in 1975, and who have been mistreated and brutalized even since by its agents, including Colonel Mang (also aptly named), the Communist intelligent agent who tracks and tries to trip up Brenner and Weber . . . even as Brenner knows, like us, that the US betrayed the South Vietnamese too and fought a war that we shouldn't have been involved in and killed way too many innocent people in a form of brutal unconventional warfare that we can now avoid and should. Period.

There's also one scene, dazzling in its conciseness and emotional impact, where DeMille shows his contempt for the pc-radicals, now tenured and comfortable or just comfortable and marching against so-called American imperialism at the drop of a pin. It takes place in Hue, where Brenner overhears two of these American pilgrims reading the Communist propaganda hand-outs about the Communist invasion of that and other South Vietnamese cities during the Tet offensive in 1968 . . . the two nodding their head in self-righteous affirmation, gabbling about how the US brings "death and destruction everywhere it goes." DeMille-Brenner, who fought in the Tet offensive of 1968, walks up to the couple and says he'd be happy to photograph them against the background of the monument and plaque. As he clicks away with their camera, he says very casually, "Oh, by the way, did you know that the Communists killed 5000 people when they entered the city --- civilians, all. With bullets and bashed in heads. Smile . . . click. When the Communist forces were through with that, they scoured the houses and apartment buildings and killed more. By shooting, bashing their heads in, or burying them alive.. Broader smile, please." Click! Click!

The clear implication: not only are there no innocents who fought in Vietnam, the US left and others who opposed the war haven't clean hands either. Morally, they are responsible for conniving in the triumph of Communist brutality and tyranny in the South, where the people, however much they were divided and badly led and often demoralized, nonetheless hated the Communists and liked the American soldiers. Something very hard, and probably impossible, for the hard-core radicals to accept, most of them Uncle Ho-loving types (Ho Chi Mihn, the Communist dicator of the North).

 

An Extraordinary Novel

All of DeMille's laudable talents are on display here --- characters of extra depth and knotted complexity; revealing and often wildly witty dialogue that reflects all these raw emotional and intellectual conflicts, our inner and outer dilemmas without satisfying resolution, and hence the way life happens to be whatever fairy tales to the contrary we're told whether by parents, clerics, teachers, or ideological true-believers (hey, guys and gals: implement my scheme and we'll be happy and connected meaningfully to ourselves and others; fully, I guarantee it); and an ability to play off characters in ways that count through dialogue and actions ---sex, love, hatred, power, self-acceptance or not at stake constantly --- and illuminating them that way --- that few novelists can ever master, whatever the genre they use: thrillers, police-mysteries, science fiction, satire, comedy, or what we're assured by the high-minded guardians of culture, usually pedants or hypocrites, is classic serious literature and its imitators.

 

And films about Vietnam and the war? You probably know most, but not maybe the best of them all --- largely uncelebrated and not popular with the audiences when it came out in 1978 . . . though now in a video I ordered two weeks ago from Amazon, Go Tell the Spartans. It arrived on Friday, following which Nancy and I then watched it over the weekend.

It lacks the bold conceptions and captured craziness of the war that makes Apocalypse Now an enduring film despite its excessive length and occasional dramatic lapses; and it doesn't have quite the immediate wrenching impact of Platoon by Oliver Stone, himself a former soldier seeking to come to terms with those mad days of the past, but in numerous respects it's the best single film about the Vietnam war. Nor, come to that, does it replicate a battle like Once We Were Soldiers, which deals strictly with the gore and violence of the battlefield itself, and in graphically memorable ways . . . after a 35 minute prelude about the training of the 7th Cavalry helicopter troops, the first ever sent to combat this way in large number; the first also to engage the tough, bold North Vietnamese regulars, a whole division unexpectedly holed up in an area where the 600-strong American battalion led by Colonel Moore is ferried into from the air. As for The Deerhunter, another good film, it's mainly about what the war did to the generation sent off to fight it, and there's really little about the war itself --- purposefully --- except for the loony, brutal, drama-driven scene where the Viet Cong guards force their American and Vietnamese prisoners to play Russian Roulette, betting deliriously on the outcome: an apt symbol for the war. Go Tell the Spartans stars Burt Lancaster as an old hard-bitten but uncorrupted major, Asa Barker, heading an advisory mission to the South Vietnamese army in 1964, a year before we escalated the war and sent an expeditionary force of 500,000 men and bombers and planes and helicopters galore . . .

 

The Plot

All the later craziness of the war --- in 1964, we still had confined American troops to a level of 25,000, mainly as advisers who accompanied the South Vietnamese forces into battle (always requiring bribes and other inducements to the corrupt South Vietnamese officials in charge of any area) --- is foreshadowed and unfolded with quieter cinematic skill here. No preaching, no long speeches: just expert direction and a movie about a tough, world-weary major who sees through all the double-dealing and odd mixture of American naiveté, idealism, and manipulative behavior and the rottenness of the government and elites of South Vietnam, despite the determination of most South Vietnamese --- shown as good soldiers and volunteer mercenaries here (civilians from the area) --- to fight the home-grown Viet Cong (Cong = Communism in Vietnamese) and the tough, disciplined North Vietnamese forces, and the deaths of all the American characters, Lancaster included. The story starts this way. Forced by a general he detests, a careerist who once served under him, Major Lancaster --- kept from being higher in rank because of his candor --- has to send out a small company of these South Vietnamese forces and a small American unit of about a dozen makeshift advisers, only one of whom, a frazzled sergeant who had served under Lancaster in the Korean War (1950-53), knows anything about combat, to defend an area where well over a 1000 Communist forces are poised to attack. In the village where the unsuspecting American-South Vietnamese company digs in, there's a large family that takes refuge there. The lead South Vietnamese, the interpreter for the US military and himself a savvy if brutalized combatant, knows the family is Viet Cong and wants to kill them. The idealist American lieutenant, freshly arrived --- out to serve his country --- stops and chews him out: Hey, we have to win the hearts and minds of the people, they're OK, you'll see!" One of the family, a pretty teen-ager, even seems to have an affair with an American corporal, another idealist.

Naturally, the family betrays them to the Communists and is responsible for their deaths, each and every one including Lancaster who flies in with a helicopter, orders the US advisers out, but stays because the young corporal, maybe out of moonstruck love, probably more out of idealism, refuses to abandon the village family and the South Vietnamese force. The corporal may survive; it isn't clear at the end as he wanders in confusion back to the destroyed village. As for the frazzled sergeant, he's unable to stand the carnage that occurs, knowing we're in a war we shouldn't be --- no clear good guys, no clear bad guys, rampant American idealism gone haywire --- and kills himself. The even more idealist lieutenant, out to win the hearts and mind of the peasantry, is killed, and precisely for his foolish self-sacrificing ways that helps no one. Lancaster himself dead, maybe out of shame, having been convinced by the eager corporal's refusal to obey orders and abandon the village to play the professional and oversee what was supposed to be the evacuation at night. The betrayal of the Viet Cong family, especially the teen-age daughter, prevents the evacuation and causes all their deaths. Lots of insights into a war that turned deadly and crazy.

At one point, when the 1000 Communist force is massing around the village, the US air force can't bomb it because the local regional Vietnam head fears a coup and needs to have them at hand to destroy any mutiny by the regular South Vietnamese forces near Saigon. No exaggeration: the best South Vietnamese units were generally kept around Saigon right through the war itself, and for this reason. Right to the very end, when the North Vietnamese, ignoring the Paris Peace Accords of 1973, invaded the South in massed armor, convinced rightly that the US air force wouldn't be allowed to bomb them, and overran the South in a matter of weeks, the Southern forces --- mighty on paper, weak in discipline, morale, and leadership --- collapsing in a rout. There's no preaching, no didactics of an explicit sort --- nor any vast pyrotechnic battlefield scenes as in Platoon and Once We Were Soldiers, only one good but brief battle and a very effective study of personalities, vast cultural gulfs, treachery and double-dealing all around, and idealism engulfed by the realities of power and war . . . along with the hope of many professional officers that this was their chance for heroism on the battlefield and advancement (not Lancaster, he knew better; rather the well-played captain he sends out to take control of the company in the village before he arrives himself). This too was an ongoing reality of the war. Even as American conscripts arrived and fought and died, the higher officers --- new 2nd Lieutenants faced a life-span of fewer than 20 minutes in fire-fights with the Viet Cong or North Vietnamese (after 1968 all the big confrontations were with the latter, as in Platoon at the end) --- were rotated every year so as to give the entire professional corps a chance at war and promotion. It was one of the disasters of our strategy: it took months or a year for the captains, majors, and colonels --- never mind corps commanders --- to begin to understand the nature of the war and the bold determination and fighting skills of the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong irregulars; they no sooner started getting savvy than they were then whisked out and replaced by other aspiring officers, all eager for combat and promotion. The augury of our future in Vietnam, post-1965, is sounded in the film when an American officer says --- learning how the regional South Vietnamese political head had to be cajoled into granting support for a military mission and later deciding to hold back the use of air power, even US air power --- that it would all be different if only we had enough American forces on the ground.

  What the Title Means

The title Go Tell the Spartans will be familiar if you remember your ancient Greek history. The huge conquering Persian Empire landed a vast army of bowmen on the shores of Marathon near Athens in 490 B.C.E. There, to their astonishment, a small phalanx of Greek spearmen -- the Phalanx their great military innovation, improved on by the Roman Legion later. Pheidippides, one of the Athenian survivors and a famous runner --- just 3 or 4 days earlier, he had from Sparta all the way to Athens, a 150 mile journey, in under 24 hours! --- volunteered to run from Marathon to Athens to inform the city that it was safe. He did so, then died instantly, a victim of self-exhaustion. Ten years later, the Persians tried again, and this time the Greeks were united. When the vast Persian army crossed into Greece through a narrow mountain pass at Thermopylae, 300 Spartan soldiers held them off, but were slain when a traitor showed the Persians a way around the pass. Just before they were all killed in battle, their leader, Leonidas, that read:

"Four thousand warriors, flower of Pelops' land, Did here against three hundred myriads stand." "Go tell the Spartans, stranger that passeth by, That here, obedient to their laws, we lie."

In ancient history, the Athenians --- now faced with sure conquest --- abandoned their citadel on the Acropolis and fled to a nearby island, where the Persians --- forced to give battle on the sea --- were decisively beaten. In the film, it's the French army --- which is depicted as losing several hundred soldiers defending the village 10 years later --- that erects the same inscription in French above the entrance to the graveyard where all of them, perished, were buried. What the film is trying to show is that we Americans, for all our misguided idealism, were about to suffer the same fate as the Spartans had thousands of years earlier, and the French a decade ago.

"Go Tell the Spartans, stranger that passeth by, That here, obedient to their laws, we lie."

  Best Book for Making Sense of the War's Mistakes and Futility

Jeffrey Record, The Wrong War (Naval Institute Press, 1998): concise, to the point, rigorously analytical, a study of how our strategy and tactics were all misguided and went astray. The author, a military specialist with a Ph.D., has been at the Brookings and Hudson Institutes. See the customer reviews at Amazon