Viet Nam Generation
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Moriarty, Chatain, and Deming--three unpublished novelists. The three authors I will present this time are authors of REMF novels which have yet to be published and may never be published. I will have to manufacture the title of Tom H. Moriarty's REMF novel, because I have been unable to contact him to cross examine him about anything. The title I've bestowed on his novel is Joe Rodriguez in Saigon. If I could locate him, I'd attempt to get his permission to publish his Joe Rodriguez stories in one volume.
The Joe Rodriguez stories are not particularly well told, nor do the characters ever come alive on the page, but the details fascinate me. The Tonto-speak of the bar girl/informant Poc Lo Nang is unlike any lingo I ever heard from the many bar girls with whom I had endless confabulations during December 1966 (the date of publication of this story). But I would not claim that I could do any better than Moriarty at representing the speech of bar girls. Many readers of my unpublished novel Bobby & Billy in Saigon have told me that one of the novel's main characters, Snow, a Saigon bar girl, is entirely too proficient in the English idiom. Here is Poc Lo Nang speaking: "Student Luong Bai. I meet here. He say VC ready fo' big bango. You meet him, Fled?" ("The Saigon Charade," p. 101) You have to give Moriarty credit for trying to create a major Vietnamese character for his stories.
"Murder in Saigon"--The blurb sets the scene, "Somewhere in troubled Saigon lay the key to a deadly riddle. And somewhere a lone Yank had to follow a trail of blood and danger--even into Red China itself..." (p. 61)
This story is about greenbacks appearing in Saigon. "Because the people of Southeast Asia are hungry for United States money." (p. 64) "Murder in Saigon" was published in the same month and year I arrived in Saigon, and I certainly agree with Joe Rodriguez's view of the Saigon scent. "They called Saigon The Pearl of the Orient and The Paris of the East...a breeding nest of spies, traitors, and two-way opportunists...It was alive with the excitement of young stuff, hard liquor, spicy foods, and bizarre sights." (p. 64)
Whether Moriarty has based his stories on personal experience or careful research I don't know, but I suspect he has been to Saigon, probably as a journalist.
"...South Vietnamese looked exactly like North Vietnamese or like Viet Cong. In this wedge of Southeast Asia, natives of neighboring Laos and Cambodia were also look-alikes to Vietnamese.
A waiter, a bus boy, a pedal jockey on a tricycle taxi could be a Viet Cong agent probing for new CIC arrivals to stake out for later mayhem or robbery. Those Americans who had gone before had learned the hard way." (p. 64-65)
I'm certain I never had that thought during my six months or so of hanging out in Saigon, nor do I remember my buddies expressing such notions. Of course the hero of these stories is Joe Rodriguez, a 27-year-old, activated Army reservist, a sergeant and an L.A. cop. He's bound to think differently than a typical teen-age soldier or even from a 24-year-old draftee with an English B.A.
The language we as readers have learned to expect from Viet Nam War stories is in short supply in this material. Moriarty uses the term "Saigon Commando" (p. 66) and that's about it. He does have a nose and on page 66 refers to Cholon as "dark and gamey," and later comments, "The awful odor of Cholon lessened." (p. 73)
"The Saigon Charade" has another great blurb. "Deep in war-torn Viet Nam, the Red hordes had fashioned a monstrous weapon of death--and only a lone Yank detective had a chance to find and destroy it in time!" "The Saigon Charade" has a nice awareness of the enemy. "The VC had long since proven exceptionally crafty at improvisation--to disguise themselves and raid well-guarded air fields, to bomb and to mine large hotels in the heart of Saigon, to bring in quantities of military supplies under the noses of military surveillance, and to disappear underground in caves." (p. 115)
Some language of the time pops up in this story. "Look to the left of the gooks firing at us!" (p. 103) On page 108, Joe calls Saigon "a city which had long become a symbol for the foulest and most unexplainable, most illogical treachery in the world." Repeated lectures begin to appear. "One of the eternal obstacles [sic] in this war was sorting out the invisible tags on these uniformly saffron-colored members of the Mongoloid sub-race." (p. 113) An elegantly racist way of saying that all gooks look alike. But he didn't fool me.
"Condition Red in Saigon"--another great introduction blurb, "Alone, deep in enemy territory, a hunted man and a girl sought the answer to the awesome secret that had cost a good man his life--and threatened to reduce Saigon to rubble!" (p. 107)
Sgt. Joe Rodriguez has been promoted to Lt. Joe Rodriguez (maybe I have missed a story or two) of the U.S. Army Counter Intelligence Corps, and has left Saigon behind for a while. He is in Hanoi impersonating a Brazilian merchant playboy. This story is less believable than a "Rambo" story, but still chock full of fun details.
A misprint caught my eye, "...the discotheque gyrations of G.I.'s and the hostesses in their bao dai pantaloon sheaths" and references to V.C. helicopters, "...V.C. forces had put a flight of seven Russian-built helicopters into the air against the Americans close by Saigon to the northwest." (p. 119)
As in previously discussed stories, Moriarty alludes to the wily Asian tendency to visual similarity. "What a problem was this war of cousinly mongoloid lookalikes." (p. 121) Not only did the V.C. have helicopters, but also an A- bomb with which they intended to wipe Saigon off the map. But they were foiled by Lt. Joe Rodriguez and his derring-do.
Moriarty has written three mostly dumb stories about American military spies doing their spook work in the Saigon of 1966-67, but which contain observations which are often interesting and sometimes intelligent. A probably unintended side-effect of the stories is the valorizing of the enemy. Their willingness, their weaponry, and their Chinese allies make them almost impossible to defeat. And even when defeated by Joe Rodriguez in a thrilling episode, the story makes clear that they are lurking in the wings, ready to try again. God help us when Joe's tour of duty ends. I think the Commies may win!
Robert Chatain is the author of the novel Ant War. In his own words, "On Ant War, I've decided not to do anything with it for now; the manuscript is a mess and a quick look through it last year convinced me that many of [the] stories were better in earlier versions than the way they finally wound up after making the rounds of publishers in 72-73, so eventually I want to go through it and restore the cuts, cut the adds, maybe even rewrite chapters that didn't work, but I can't look at it for awhile yet." (personal letter of 24 May 1991)
Bob was born in San Francisco and attended Columbia University. He served in the U.S. Army in Viet Nam, stationed at Long Binh with the Saigon Support Command from January to October 1968.
No novelist has captured better than Robert Chatain the special circumstances of being a clerk at Long Binh. His story, "Notes on the present configuration of the Red-Blue conflict" was actually written in a "frigid, air-conditioned office in Long Binh, Vietnam" in 1968. His other stories were written directly from his experience as a clerk, a REMF, at Long Binh. I arrived home from Vietnam in October 1967, which gave me just enough time to grow out my hair and beard so that when I watched the Tet Offensive on TV, I shared no outward packaging with the soldiers at Long Binh.
I had considered (briefly) re-upping or extending further in Vietnam. But the mamasan who cleaned my hooch and polished my boots took me aside and had a chat with me one day in September 1967. "No stay Vietnam. Go home. You stay, number 10,000." She was shaking her head at me and looking into my callow American soul. "V.C. come in Tet, kill you." Yeah, right mamasan. I'm scared. But I thought about what she said, and I went home, melted into the University District in Seattle, and waited for the New Year. When it came and the Tet Offensive followed, my suspicions that our hooch maid was a serving officer with the Viet Cong were greatly increased.
Robert Chatain's story (from Ant War) "On the Perimeter" deals with many of the usual Viet Nam War story subjects: guard duty; the tunnels ("Long tunnels, winding back upon themselves, coiling for miles, VC moving south in such tunnels, some captured with stories of traveling two hundred miles underground." (p. 115); currency fiddles; dope smoking; the special smells of Viet Nam; and Army chow--from C-rations to lobster tails with drawn butter.
Chatain's novel also deals with less familiar subjects. His "On the Perimeter" has a brief but telling section about the riot at Long Binh Jail.
"How come you went in?"
"Well, what are you going to do? Let a bunch of militants take the place over? (p. 130)
"What's the status of things now?" I asked.
"Most everyone is sleeping outside; the fucking Afros are fenced off by themselves. When they feel like giving their right names, they can come out."
"I guess technically it was the worst stockade riot in Army history."
The MP sneered. "Technically." (p. 131)
The section of Chatain's story which chilled my blood and made me thank the mamasan for her advice is headed "RAGNAROK": (p. 128)
"When it comes, the attack rolls through the bunker line effortlessly. Some of us escape by lying in our bunkers pretending to be dead. The depot is destroyed: Long Binh's thousands of clerks take to the woods. A general offensive throughout Vietnam panics the U.S. commanders and triggers full-scale bombing raids on Hanoi, Haiphong, the panhandle, and the Ho Chi Minh trail. We cross the DMZ and fight our way deep into North Vietnamese territory. Chinese troops enter the war and bring us to a standstill. Russian, Chinese, North Vietnamese, South Vietnamese, Laotian, and American aircraft battle in the skies. U.S. ships engage Russian and North Vietnamese craft at the approaches to Haiphong harbor. Our bombers strike at supply routes on both sides of the Chinese border. Fire storms destroy Saigon; the government falls. A provisional coalition government is formed. Plans are announced for the possible evacuation of all American troops from Indochina. The President of the United States is assassinated and right-wing pressure forces the new President to take strong military action in Southeast Asia. Our troops make amphibious landings along the North Vietnamese Red River Delta and strike directly for Hanoi. Chinese planes attack ships of the Sixth Fleet. Limited nuclear war begins. Land-based missiles are launched against enemy missile sites. China's government is destroyed. The United States suffers fifteen percent casualties. Russia suffers ten percent casualties. Ballistic missile submarines at sea are given orders to strike population centers. Everybody dies."
Bob's comment in a letter to me (dated 24 May 1991)-- "After Tet most of the clerks were confined to the post most of the time. My only trips to town were riding shotgun on courier runs." One of the side-effects of the post-Tet confinement of American soldiers was much increased alcohol consumption and dope use. Few ever believe me when I'm queried about my dope use in Viet Nam (they've seen Oliver Stone's Platoon and believe every word. "It was so real. I'm sorry I missed it man.") I used no dope in Viet Nam, nor saw any used, but if I'd been stationed at Long Binh post- Tet, with the total lack of illusion about being a tourist in sunny and gay South Viet Nam, and was (in some dank corner of my mind) awaiting another Tet Offensive ("Long Binh's thousands of clerks take to the woods." p. 128), God knows what self medication I may have sought.
Chatain's work brought home to me how different was the war for post-Tet REMFs, and has done a lot to reduce my feelings of contempt for those who followed me in Viet Nam and had much rougher tours of duty than I had, even though they occupied the same desks in the same air-conditioned Army office building. Air conditioning is no defense against rocket attack or NVA soldiers.
John Deming's novel is entitled Saigon Tea. John worked for USAID and for RMK-BRJ intermittently from 1966 to 1971 in the Saigon area. In his own words, "There has been virtually nothing written about the experiences of civilians during the war aside from my work." He has been unable to interest any publisher in his novel, although a considerable quantity of it has been published in literary journals. John's fictional treatment of his experiences as a member of the Cercle Sportif and part of the "French educated elite" crowd is unlike any Viet Nam War fiction I have read.
I guess strictly speaking, Deming's Viet Nam War fiction isn't REMF. Deming was a young American civilian, and so are most of the important characters in the stories from SAIGON TEA, which I've read. The milieu, the experiences, and much of the context (minus the Army bullshit) is the same that I as an Army clerk experienced in the six months I was stationed at Tan Son Nhut.
Certainly his story "Saigon Tea" intersects significantly with my Saigon experience. Deming's first sentence, "There was a record player, a bartender, and a girl behind the bar" (p. 45), puts me right where I'd been so many times. "The woman turned and smiled at me. She moved her hand under the bar, the front of her dress came out when she leaned over. I could see most of her breasts. I decided that I liked her after all." (p. 47)
Deming's presentation of the Tu Do Street bar scene is unsurpassed in Viet Nam War fiction. I can attest to the accuracy of the details, physical and emotional. His other stories (all part of the novel) however, I take on faith. Everything he presents happens close to where I was, but as a civilian and a member of the Cercle Sportif, he was intimate with things I had no access to.
In his story "Hotel St. Jacques," the characters, who we see in most of Deming's stories, go on a sort of weekend vacation to a beach hotel. The beach is covered with black lumps of fishermen's shit and the group is fired upon by trigger-happy ARVN soldiers. "We drank the wine and toasted the Vietnamese Army, and President Thieu, and President Nixon, and all the other wonderful people we could think of." (p. 12) I had no experiences of this sort in South Viet Nam, nor did I wish such. I went water skiing on the Saigon River once, but that's a very different story. An Army story.
"Beside the Dakao Bridge" presents another experience alien to me. The scene at the Cercle Sportif is fully presented and intimately. I stood in front a few times, very much on the outside looking in, but I never had a clue about how I could get to the rich Frenchified young girls in bikinis. Deming's story makes it clear I never could have. My lack of French was the smallest barrier.
"Later, out at the pool, I sat in a lounge chair and looked at the Vietnamese girls. The girls of the Cercle Sportif were young, mostly in their teens, slim and small breasted, bikinis barely covering pubic hair and nipples, bodies sleek and tanned, gleaming with oil and the glow of health and youth. They were the children of privilege, the daughters of rich businessmen and high government officials, and although some were virginal, none were innocent, with even the youngest old beyond their years and knowing exactly what they wanted, hungry to get out, to escape the inevitable collapse that everyone knew was just a matter of time, the only way they could, the way their older sisters had, encouraged by their parents, hoping for a Frenchman, but willing to settle for a German or an Italian, or even as a last resort, an American, anyone really, as long as they would marry them and take them out of Vietnam." (pp. 23-24)
Deming's stories drip with sweat--"Otto was new in country and not used to the climate and the hair on the back of his neck was wet with sweat" (from "New in Country/Novel Excerpt" p. 132)--and authenticity. He continues to work on his Viet Nam stories and I continue to hope that he'll find a publisher for his novel. I expect that the depressed market for Viet Nam War books will continue to make room for MIA fantasies and grunt memoirs, but will not make available John Deming's stories of the Cercle Sportif crowd. John is right when he says, "Still everyone who has been in Vietnam has lived through many of the same shared experiences and we are all brothers in a way that those who weren't there can't understand." (letter of 9 February 1990)