The author of Red Flags on the Vietnam War responds to our review by Tom Glenn.
I love the interview. I unburdened myself of nearly every frustration about our Vietnam experience in record time. Just got so much off my chest thanks to Tom Glenn’s subtly ingenious questions. His review couldn’t have been more generous. You have my thanks. I even loved a couple of his criticisms, most especially the incredulity expressed about a lowly private gaining any fluency in Vietnamese. I don’t for a moment blame him for his skepticism. We were all kind of surprised, too.
There really was an untrained GI who picked up the language. And the truth about his proficiency was even stranger than my fictional version of him. I figured it would be trouble. To try and make the character more plausible, I gave him a background as a diplomat’s brat. In life, the GI was the most slovenly and reluctant soldier, often unshaven, never in jungle fatigues (he liked his old stateside variety), and was rarely seen carrying a weapon even when collecting courier bags. He clerked for the colonel who was our CO and was worth his weight in gold because this college dropout jock from the Midwest so rapidly picked up the language as he moved among the local Vietnamese absorbing it like a sponge. As I said to him recently, as far as the language went, he exhibited the brain of an Einstein and the hearing of a German shepherd.
I vividly remember him trying to teach me the most basic Vietnamese and illustrating the various tones for a word that lent it half a dozen different meanings. He’d say them and repeat them for me to hear again. I could not replicate the sounds of the words, much less distinguish one tone from another. He could. How? I have no idea. But there was no question the kid could communicate well with the Vietnamese. He loved the culture and loved learning the language and kept extending in small increments. Nonetheless, given his distinctly unmilitary bearing and attitude, I left Vietnam fourteen months later, assuming he would be homeward bound too, shortly.
Just a few years ago I located him and another close friend and we met up in California. Only then did I learn that he had stayed in Vietnam. Someone had finally cottoned to his facility with the language and proposed him for intensive training in Monterey. He finished the immersion course easily and went right back. He had two children with a Vietnamese woman, stayed seven years, and would have remained longer except that he says he made the mistake of marrying the mother of his kids, whereupon the Army informed him that she was now a US dependent and couldn’t remain. Military logic you’ll readily recognize. That’s when he finally came home. The civilian work he invented for himself totally involved the Vietnamese community in LA. Just recently he relocated to Indianapolis to be closer to his children.
Glenn’s other criticisms:
The mention of Chinese generals advising North Vietnamese regiments in South Vietnam is equally unlikely, given the millennium of enmity between the Vietnamese and Chinese.
The Chinese generals I took straight from two research sources. I have to do some digging in my bookshelf to come up with them. Glenn was of course again right in his skepticism. There was no love lost between the red Chinese and the red Vietnamese. But Ho convinced the Politburo and the Chinese were invited to train recruits for them on North Vietnamese soil and also brought in 60,000 of their troops in ’65. More arrived later – ultimately some 320 thousand – to free up North Vietnamese divisions for service in the south lest we get some idea to invade in their absence. You can imagine how much the Vietnamese worried about the Chinese using such an understanding as a pretext to occupy Vietnamese territory, but Hanoi took its chances.
North Vietnamese resorting to growing opium poppies and marijuana for profit stretches plausibility.
Given the public condemnation by Ho and others of French exploitation and corruption of Vietnamese with their devilish opium dens, I was surprised to read that the Northerners did nonetheless sell to traffickers the opium and heroin caches they captured, and even bought opiates from growers and manufacturers to sell. This gave me the idea for taking liberties in giving them poppy and marijuana fields in the South, where they might get away with hiding it politically — a delicate deviance from their antipathy in order to gain some international buying power. The hollowed out trees idea was inspired by one of the ways they transported arms and ordnance at times.
[About] my bad Vietnamese Glenn is absolutely right about. My Vietnamese is long forgotten. What can I say? Xin loi.