Good Morning Vietnam, directed by Barry Levinson, 1987

Movie poster, 1987; book cover, 2018

There’s a big new biography of Robin Williams, the always (it seemed) hilarious improv comedian, TV and film star who was sadly, a tortured soul. I’m not reviewing the well received book Robin by Dave Itzkoff, and I’m not recounting Williams’s meteoric rise from improvising TV’s Mork from Ork through two dozen Hollywood films including an Oscar win as Best Supporting Actor for “Good Will Hunting.”

Here at the Ugly American Book Club we are reminiscing about Williams’s star turn as Armed Forces Radio broadcaster Adrian Cronauer in the 1987 movie “Good Morning Vietnam.” Just stringing those three words together echoes the ebullient wake-up yell of Saigon’s most memorable morning disc jockey.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3m

As New York Times film critic Vincent Canby observed, the Cronauer character’s irrepressible sunniness filled Saigon’s airwaves at a time when the reality of the escalating war in Vietnam was becoming increasingly grim. As portrayed by Williams, the disk jockey’s irreverent, iconoclastic, antiestablishment monologues proved to be a daily tonic for ordinary G.I.s ground down by military regulations.

Williams improvised a good deal of his disk jockey banter to the delight of director Levinson and screenwriter Mitch Markowitz. Markowitz himself apparently improvised the script “based loosely” on the real AFRN disk jockey. The result was nothing short of a tour de force performance by Williams.

The set-up of the plot is initially predictable. Airman Cronauer settles in at a U.S. Army radio station following a much cushier stint at a military base in Crete. Mindful that there’s a war on, Cronauer’s superior officers insist that the fast-talking, wisecracking Cronauer stick to the soothing music of Perry Como and Percy Faith. Knowing what G.I.s want, Cronauer crosses the line and launches a musical frontal assault against established military policy by throwing red meat rock’n’roll at his audience and serving up a potluck of potty-mouthed humor. His on-air vocal impressions of Nixon and Johnson, along with a cast of made-up on-air persona, mocked U.S. policy in Southeast Asia.

When his sidekick Ed Garlick takes him to a bar, Cronauer falls for Trinh, a Vietnamese woman in a white ao dai. Although fraternization with local women is taboo, the music-spinning miscreant buys a bicycle and follows Trinh to her English-language lesson. In an effort to impress her, he takes over the class and runs Vietnamese students through a gamut of English obscenities. When he invites Trinh to the movies on a date, her whole family chaperones her. Later when G.I.s in a bar harass her brother Tuan, Cronauer springs to his defense. An ensuing barfight lands Cronauer in hot water. To this point, our reckless the G.I. D.J. is a hero, at least to his buddies.

In 1965, Saigon’s cafes were soft targets for Viet Cong terrorists. One day Tuan comes to collect Cronauer from Jimmy Wah’s Bar. Moments after they leave together, the bar explodes, killing and wounding bar patrons and passersby on the street. Cronauer assists the rescue by carrying out the injured. But when he gets back to base and attempts to describe the terrorist bombing on the air, his Army bosses pull the plug on his report and sideline him from further broadcasts.

Cronauer is laying low at his girlfriend’s house when she breaks the news that any future relationship between them is impossible because of her family’s objections to a friendship with an American.

When Cronauer and Garlick drive to An Loc, about 60 miles north of Saigon, to do some interviews, their Jeep hits a landmine. They escape injury and flee into the jungle in Viet Cong-held territory. It is Trinh’s brother Tuan who finds them in the jungle. An Army helicopter locates them and brings them back to Saigon. When Cronauer threatens to quit, Garlick convinces him to stick with it, and when they are stuck in a traffic jam, G.I.s heading to battle recognize him, reinforcing for him the unique role he plays as an on-air cheerleader and morale-booster for the troops.

Cronauer is faced with another personal crisis when his C.O. informs him that Tuan is a Viet Cong operative. Cronauer finds it hard to believe because Tuan has saved his life on two occasions. When the American D.J.’s friendship with Tuan and other Vietnamese becomes an issue, he is ordered to leave Vietnam. He can’t leave without seeing Trinh, and though it may be treasonous, he feels it’s his duty to inform Tuan that U.S. Army counterterrorist agents are after him. So is Cronauer a hero or a chump?

When Cronauer confronts Tuan, the enemy agent, an amusing, thought-provoking movie starring a comedic genius is set for a tragic ending. But there’s comic relief when the screenwriter tosses in a good ol’ American baseball game where Cronauer gets to play with his “good Vietnamese” English students. His buddy Garlick also finds a way for Cronauer, who has been banned from the airwaves, to bid his radio audience farewell. Gooooodbye Viii-et-naaam!

Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy, 1945-1975 – by Max Hastings

My comments below are based on Mark Atwood Lawrence’s review in the November 25 issue of The New York Times Book Review.

In 1964, North Vietnamese operatives were forcing South Vietnamese peasants to join the Vietcong’s struggle to topple the American-backed Republic of South Vietnam. In his epic book on the Vietnam War, the British journalist and war historian Max Hastings recounts the story of a villager whose son is being conscripted by the Vietcong. The anguished father lashes out at the Communists for calling the Imperialists evil because from what he can see, the North Vietnamese are “even worse” oppressors of South Vietnam’s people.

Isolating this little story, Professor Lawrence observes that Hastings’ view of the entirety of the Vietnam War falls along the same lines. Cruelty on one side was met with cruelty on the other in a decades-long escalation of atrocity and inhumanity.

“In his telling, it was a conflict without good guys. An appalling conflagration in which the brutality, cynicism and incompetence of the United States and its South Vietnamese ally were equaled only by the wickedness of their enemies, leaving the hapless bulk of the Vietnamese population to suffer the consequence.”

Hastings points out that U.S. forces were often effective on the battlefield but Washington failed to create a South Vietnamese state that could command the loyalty of its own people. It was as if America chose to use a flamethrower instead of an edger to trim a garden path.

I am reminded of the novel Hustle the East, where American ambassadors are espousing freedom and democracy for Laos while ordering B-52s to obliterate the Laotian countryside.

The novel’s first narrator, who arrived in Vientiane in 1973, quips: “It took me a while to figure out that in Laos, the good guys were the bad guys.

In a similar vein to what Hastings describes in neighboring Vietnam, more than 60,000 North Vietnamese troops in violation of Laotian neutrality committed atrocities in the name of liberating their Lao brothers from Imperialism. And the Americans responded with the ultimate in flamethrowers.

 

 

Hustle the East – Love It or Leave It (Excerpt)

Here’s an excerpt from the new novel Hustle the East, from Black Rose Writing 

1 – Love It or Leave It

My time in Laos taught me that even I was not the person I thought I was. An ordinarily apathetic American, the son of CPAs, I never imagined I would be tossed in jail for killing a prostitute. Back then I wasn’t a murderer. Murder, with premeditation, came much later.

As the newest teacher in the Buddhist kingdom, I resolved I would do everything by the book. I would rely on my good intentions to pave the road ahead. As good intentions often do, mine led me to a place I hadn’t planned to go. It took me a while to figure out that in Laos, the good guys were the bad guys. Who knew that the American saviors of Asian democracy, who bragged they’d never lost a war, would abandon their lofty undertaking and ditch loyal allies without warning?

Jack Gaines was one of the Americans who came to save the Kingdom from Communism, and stayed around to watch it fall. Like Asia itself, Gaines was a charmer and a seducer. I disliked him from the get-go. Based on what I heard about his caddish behavior, I summarily condemned him for his lack of couth and civility. Decades later, I can still see him smile and hear him say, How much civility do you expect in a civil war?

In February 1973, Laos was squooshed between Thailand, which was fighting to remain free, and Vietnam, which was freefalling into Communism. The civil war in Laos was a sideshow in the Vietnam War. “Laos was only the wart on the hog,” a U.S. diplomat once observed undiplomatically. But, as Gaines would say, Oh, what a wart it was!

To this day, when I think of Laos I wonder if it’s possible for love to grow true in a place poisoned by lies and deception.

. . . . .

An open-air motorboat ferried me across the milewide Mekong River from Thailand. Upon landing on a muddy bank, I scrambled up ahead of the other passengers to reach Royal Lao Immigration and Customs. Royal though it was, the Immigration office was a shack no bigger than a telephone booth back home. I presented my passport to a ruddy-faced officer in a green uniform and high-peaked hat.

“Patpawt no good more three days,” he said. He admitted me to the Kingdom anyway.

A decade earlier, my parents had made us passports for a trip to Hawaii. As a consequence of my old man’s colossal incompetence, I was condemned to spend precious hours of my first day in Laos renewing my passport.

Arriving in Vientiane, more bad luck. I checked out the Sanook Hotel but couldn’t check in. The no-stars Sanook had been highly recommended by a hippie I’d met in Bangkok, who’d just come down from Laos still high.

“Up in Vieng, you can buy dope by the kilo,” the hippie told me. “Old grannies sell it at the Morning Market. They make soup with it, Man. I shit you not.”

“What about the war?” I asked.

“It’s far from the capital. You’ll never even know it’s there.”

“I heard a rumor about a ceasefire.”

“Yeah, that rumor’s been around for years.”

After waiting for what seemed to be years, a reedy Lao man of indeterminate age appeared before me like an apparition. I handed my passport to the anemic desk clerk.

“I’m Benny Bendit,” I said.

“Say here Paur,” said the clerk.

“Paul Bendit is my real name. Benny is a nickname.”

“You name Nick?”

“No, Paul. But you can call me Benny. I need a room.”

“No loom. Maybe rater.”

“How much later?” I asked.

“Yes,” said the clerk.

It was not yet eight a.m. Roomless, restless and afflicted by the hotel’s ailing air-conditioning, I ordered coffee.

“Nohm, or no nohm?” asked the clerk who was also the barista. The coffee cup of my brain was brimming with incomprehension.

“Nohm it mean lady’s boob and also mean milk,” the gaunt man explained.

“Kafe nohm it mean kafe wit’ milk.”

Ten minutes later, I got my kafe nohm. Lao coffee was a mountain-grown Arabica blessed with a unique flavor and blended with chicory to stretch the meager crop. Kafe nohm was served in a three-inch high glass with a half-sized spoon atop a saucer. Wallowing in the bottom of the glass was an inch-thick dollop of sweetened condensed milk. In a quaint custom that defied a coffee-lover’s logic, Lao coffee was always served with a glass of weak Chinese tea. Coffee comes with tea. Welcome to Laos.

At quarter to nine, the kafe nohm was a sweet memory. The weak tea had miraculously washed away the sticky-milk residue of the coffee. I removed my passport and Traveler’s Cheques from my Samsonite and made sure to lock it.

“Is it safe to leave my suitcase until a room becomes available?” I asked the druggy-eyed clerk.

“You come back too soon,” he said.

“Is it O.K. to leave it here for half an hour?”

“Yes.”

“How about one hour?”

“Yes.”

I looked into the young old man’s dilated eyes.

“You don’t understand English, do you?”

“Yes.”

Passport in hand, I set off for the U.S. Embassy. I was confident I could conclude my embassy business, check into the hotel, and collect a teaching certificate before the end of the day, maybe even before noon. My unfettered

enthusiasm belied my unbound naïvete. As a newbie, I had no inkling this would be a red-letter day in the Kingdom’s six-hundred-year history, a date that would live in anti-Communist infamy.

On the streets of Vientiane the first thing that hits you is the capital’s signature fragrance, an eau d’égout that emanates from open sewage trenches. The next is the feeling that a soggy blanket of moist air is smothering you. Sweating bullets, I trod a treacherous pedestrian terrain over tilted and cracked sidewalks.

Rue Samsenethai was a jumble of two-story shophouses that mingled the sights and smells of Siam, China and India with those of France, Corsica and the Hippie Trail. The main drag’s distinctive characteristic was a mélange of

motorcycle fumes mixed with the pungent aromas of curry, incense and the Vietnamese soup called ph. There were few cars. Three-wheeled bicycle taxis took up the prime parking at the Constellation Hotel. Samlor drivers parked willy-nilly near the curb, sitting on their bicycle seat, or lounging on the passenger seat under its canvas awning.

In Rue Chanthakhoummane, I discovered a dilapidated bell-shaped Buddhist monument. Tufts of grass and little trees reached out from its cracks. The sooty pile of broken bricks and century-old mortar looked like a twelve-layer cake topped by a stone party hat. Plopped down in the middle of the road, the resolute black hunk compelled traffic to circulate around it. What a stupid place to place an ancient monument! A quarter of the way round it, I caught sight of an American flag flapping high above a canopy of flame trees.

The U.S. Embassy compound stood on Rue Bartholoni, a short street named for a French aristocrat who drowned when a mail boat went down in the Mekong River. Behind equally high walls, the Consulate stood on one side of the shady little street, the Chancery on the other.

Within the ramparts, the whitewashed buildings were chockablock with puffy-faced, paunchy Americans. The diplomats who were fighting a war within a war wore a hangdog expression that foretold the futility of their mission.

The first time I saw Jack Gaines he was standing ahead of me in the queue for the Embassy cashier. It was impossible to ignore a big lug with bushy blond hair in a loud Hawaiian shirt. Even from the back, his posture was an affront. He continually shifted his leggy weight from one buffalo-hide sandal to another.

Sensing my stare, Gaines turned around and flashed a toothy grin. Jeez, I thought. This guy’s got gleaming teeth, a tan like he just got off a beach, and a physique like he spends all day in the gym. But landlocked Laos had no beach and at the time there weren’t enough health-conscious foreigners to support a fitness club. Not only did he lack a gym, he lacked good manners. He was so American. Here was a prime example of the kind of American in Asia I intended to avoid.

As the idiot in the Hawaiian shirt advanced to the window, I caught a glimpse of the graceful Lao woman behind the narrow brass bars of the cashier’s cage. Craning my neck, I could see the cashier wore an immaculate white blouse. Atop her smiling face, her shiny black hair was piled high in a chignon adorned with gold ornaments. Admiration for the cashier melted away when the lout in the loud shirt waved a check in her face as if there were no bars between them.

“Look, Dollface,” said the toothy check-waver. “You really have to cash this. It’s got my name on it: Jack Gaines. You know me: Jack Gaines, The All-American Boy.” I was irritated by the way Jack Gaines The All-American Boy was treating the angelic cashier. Despite the rude treatment she was getting from Gaines, the cashier delivered her refusal to cash his check with a certain sweetness.

“Sorry, I no can do, Mister Jack,” she said. It was customary in Laos to use the honorific Mister with a person’s first name.

Mister Jack kept up the verbal barrage.

“Look here, this is a perfectly good check in perfectly good U.S. dollars. If I paid any taxes, I’d be paying your salary.”

“You choking me, Mister Jack.”

To Lao speakers of English, “joking” and “choking” were homonyms. However, the pretty cashier’s meaning was clear when she added, “You too funny.”

“O.K.,” said the badgerer. “If you won’t cash my check, you can come to my house and swallow my one-eyed snake.”

That did it. I’d had enough of The All-American Boy.

“Excuse me,” I said to Gaines. “But I’m in a hurry.”

“Take it easy, Buddy Boy,” said Gaines. “This is Laos. There’s no such thing as a hurry here.”

He turned to leave, slowly. Like he said, no hurry. Making a mental note to ignore Gaines if I ever saw him again, I stepped up to the lovely doe-eyed woman in the cashier’s cage. I felt the need to apologize on behalf of the American people.

“Miss, I’m really sorry about that guy,” I said.

The pretty cashier accepted my payment without looking up. As I stammered on about Gaines’s rudeness, she completed the transaction.

“Hav’a ni’ day,” she said.

To read more: https://www.amazon.com/Hustle-East-Mark-Tawen/dp/1684331455

 

Interview with Mark Tawen, author of Hustle the East

What was the inspiration for Hustle the East?

I was living in Laos in 1975 when I discovered the book Voices from the Plain of Jars; Life under An Air War. The stories and drawings from adults and children collected on the Plain of Jars brought home to me that the United States was engaged in a horrific air war against villagers not very far from where I was. My idea was to reveal details of the illegal and immoral U.S. bombing campaign in a novel that would shock Americans. By the time I got around to finishing it 43 years later, the Secret War was no secret.

Why did you use three first-person narrators?

My first draft was written entirely in the third person. Then I decided that Benny Bendit, the American college grad, should tell his story from his own perspective. But Benny never set foot on the Plain of Jars, so I let the orphaned Lao monk Sangkhom tell that part of the story. Then it occurred to me that both narrators were male, and that a younger, female point-of-view would add another dimension, so Chansamone gets to explain for herself why she made the life-changing decisions she made.

Why is the last part of the book in the present tense?

I borrowed that device from Anthony Duerr, the master of present-tense narration. In this way, events of the 1970s move into the new Millennium.

Are you a veteran of the armed services? Have you ever killed anyone?

Like Benny Bendit, I was in a draft lottery and the ping-pong ball with my birthday came up toward the end, meaning I escaped the draft. Unlike Benny, who is fictional, I never killed anyone.

How does it feel to be a pen name?

If I said it posed a problem, I’d be lying. As my namesake Mark Twain once said: “A man is never more truthful than when he acknowledges himself a liar.”

Hustle the East – by Mark Tawen, 2018

Black Rose Writing, November 2018

Hustle the East is a new novel that tells a touching story of love and loss while touching all bases of Ugly Americanness. Three narrators trace the tragic history of Laos as a pawn in the Cold War, shedding light on America’s immoral and inhumane bombing campaign.

In what the author calls “faux memoirs,” we witness the turbulent downfall of a centuries-old monarchy through the eyes of an American teacher and two Laotians of starkly different backgrounds. The future of the Kingdom of Laos and the lives of the narrators come under the shadow of reckless Americans back when America thought it was invincible. The repercussions of what happened in the Seventies last for decades, into the new Millennium.

The American narrator Paul “Benny” Bendit is a straight-arrow straight out of college in Illinois. As a newbie, he naively imagines he can help erase the image of the Ugly American in Southeast Asia. On his first day in Laos, Bendit glimpses Henry Kissinger on a historic peace mission that has dark implications for the 600-year-old Kingdom. Bendit also meets Jack Gaines, a feckless fellow teacher who’s siphoning money out of hopeless situations. From the get-go, Bendit marks Gaines as a charlatan. But seen through other eyes, Gaines is a complex con artist, a loathsome and lovable bad guy. In retrospect, Bendit recalls: “… It took me a while to figure out that in Laos the good guys were the bad guys.”

The second narrator is an orphan of colonialism who became a monk and a gravedigger. Sangkhom notes wryly that he and Gaines were born on opposite sides of the world and they started out on opposite side of the war. When East twains with West, their fates become entwined — but only as far as the next plot twist.

In the opinion of the third narrator, the enigmatic Lao ingénue Chansamone, Gaines is like a centipede: “The first two legs don’t tell the whole story.” A complicated love triangle arises out of chaos but the course of love doesn’t run true in a country on the verge of collapse.

Borrowing pages from The Ugly American, this new novel is like a Who’s Who of (Fictional) Americans Mucking About in Southeast Asia. Apart from Bendit and Gaines, we meet half a dozen Americans attempting to influence history or hustle the East. Tommy Mangold was a helicopter pilot and bona fide war hero in Vietnam before giving up his Air Force wings to work as a civilian in Laos. As an aid worker, he worked behind the scenes and below the radar to defend democracy in Asia. On the day Kissinger comes to Vientiane, Mangold curses all he’s done in the name of the democracy, and does a 180.

Mohawk Jones was born to missionaries in the mountains that merge northern Thailand with Laos. His knowledge of highlands culture and languages made him invaluable to America’s efforts to win the hearts and minds and military service of the Hmong and other mountain dwellers. Recruited by the C.I.A., Jones abandons the Gospel and trains the highlanders to kill for Freedom and Uncle Sam.

Ernest Leitner is a widower who landed in Laos after selling his farm. If he wasn’t so short, Leitner could have stood in for the pitchfork-wielding Iowa farmer in Grant Wood’s “American Gothic.” Obviously patterned after one of the good guys in The Ugly American, Leitner is an agricultural adviser who’s spending his life savings to lift Hmong farmers out of poverty. A saint among the scoundrels sent by USAID, Letiner makes personal sacrifices to improve the lives of Laotians displaced by bombs.

Warren Rippington delivers the milk and hard rice (ammo) for the C.I.A.’s Air America. The fearless mercenary pilot admires President Nixon’s anti-Communist gumption. But when the course of history takes a wrong turn, even a gung-ho guy like Rippington can shed a tear. Unbelievably it’s not the Communists but Congress that brings Humpty Dumpty down.

Stanford Oh is a Korean-American Vietnam War veteran who serves as a Consular Affairs Officer for the U.S. Embassy in Vientiane. When a fellow American is arrested by Lao Communists, Consul Oh advises him to confess to everything. In a newly Communist country, the diplomat doesn’t know if it’s worse for an American to be charged with murder, espionage or anti-social behavior.

The author rejected the standard Disclosure Statement that states: “Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.” That’s because the fictional sweep of Hustle The East takes place against a backdrop of actual historical events. It’s no coincidence that readers learn more about the actual persons named Eisenhower, Kennedy, Nixon, Kissinger, Dr. Tom Dooley and a pair of American ambassadors who directed the bombing of Laos.

How many Ugly Americans can you count?

 

NOW AVAILABLE AT AMAZON.COM and BARNES & NOBLE

 

The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam – by Max Boot, 2018


Anyone who investigates the behavior of Ugly Americans in Southeast Asia (what my friend Jim calls Ugly Americanity) in fiction or fact, will stumble upon Edward Lansdale. Every major work on the C.I.A. has had to deal with Lansdale’s personality, professionalism and impact on the intelligence organization; some praising him as a Good Guy in the idealistic Kennedy mold and a genius at anti-guerrilla tactics; others deriding him as a lightweight ad man, if not a madman, who loved to gab with Asians but did not grab the complexity of their cultures. President Kennedy teased Lansdale that he was America’s James Bond but Lansdale demurred. saying he was not the 007 type.

I’ve been hearing about this larger-than-life intelligence operative psy-war guru for 50 years and now, thanks to military historian Max Boot, I know a great deal about him, about 600 pages of novelistic non-fiction about him.

Followers of the Ugly American Book Club will recall that the real-life Brigadier General Edward Lansdale, who was U.S.A.F. and C.I.A., was the model for Air Force Col. Edwin Barnum Hillandale, a hero of The Ugly American. They both played the harmonica and ate in panciterias to make friends with Filipinos. William J. Lederer, author of The Ugly American, was a friend of Lansdale’s and an unabashed admirer of the undercover agent’s uncommon approach to patriotism and quashing Communism.

Lansdale also has a connection to The Quiet American. Both he and Graham Greene lived in Saigon in 1954. When the book came out in 1956, Lansdale told his wife that Greene’s undercover intelligence agent Alden Pyle was “supposedly based upon me.” For his part Greene denied it, saying Pyle was “younger and more innocent” than Lansdale and besides the book was written before Lansdale arrived in Saigon. When he finally read the book, Lansdale complained that Greene got the politics wrong as well as his description of plastic explosives.

In 1956, Lansdale invited the Hollywood director Joseph L. Mankiewicz to his home in Saigon to discuss a film version of Greene’s best-seller. The Hollywood producer had acquired the film rights to prevent Europeans from making an “anti-U.S.” movie. The two witty conversationalists hit it off, and it was Lansdale who came up with a plot twist that made the movie anti-Communist and infuriated the English author. Boot describes the plot inversion as an example of Lansdale’s touch for psychological warfare.

In fact, Lansdale already had some experience in spinning yarns to paint the Vietnamese Communists as Evil Incarnate in the eyes of the American public. In 1954, a flotilla of U.S. Navy vessels transported tens of thousands of Catholics from North to South Vietnam in what became known as Operation Passage to Freedom. The most influential, hair-raising account of the exodus came in the form of Dr. Tom Dooley’s 1960 book, Deliver Us from Evil. The handsome young American doctor vividly describes accounts of Vietminh persecuting Catholics and using chopsticks as instruments of torture. A USIS official, who believed Vietnamese would never waste chopsticks, said he first heard the chopstick torture stories from none other than that wild and crazy psy-ops guy Lansdale.

Boot describes Lansdale as an early purveyor of fake news with a political purpose. Lansdale was very proud of “black psywar” leaflets he penned purporting to be Vietminh leadership preparing an attack on Hanoi, and instructions he distributed on how to inventory prospective war booty, and fake charts showing how U.S. atomic bombs would annihilate the North.

Though Lansdale was not present when the South Vietnamese President Ngo DInh Diem was ousted and assassinated (the turning point of Morris West’s The Ambassador), he served as an adviser to Diem during the Geneva Convention that split Vietnam in half.

Boot’s bountiful new book is a superbly researched biography of Lansdale that covers more than a century of American military intervention in Asia, beginning with the Filipino-American war. Through Lansdale’s letters and author interviews, the biographer lovingly recreates Lansdale’s family tree and the tricky relationship he had with his American wife and his Filipina mistress. But more tellingly, Boot traces Lansdale’s path from ad copywriter for Levi’s to psywar expert and nation-builder. We follow his secret exploits in the jungles of the Philippines, his friendship and mentorship of the Philippine President Ramon Magsaysay, and the brilliant unorthodox strategies he employed to undermine and eventually disarm the Huk Rebellion of Filipino Communists.

Based on his success countering insurgency in the Philippines, and despite his lack of knowledge about Cuba, Lansdale was put in charge of America’s campaign to counter Fidel Castro. Though Lansdale was one of the few C.I.A. men who opposed the Bay of Pigs invasion, he bore the brunt of blame for the Agency when the invasion failed. Before long, Lansdale was back in Vietnam.

The second half of the book sets out on the road to war in Vietnam before it steers us toward an analysis of the road not taken. Some Monday Morning armchair generals say American presidents should have authorized the use of even greater force against North Vietnam, sooner and spread wider, to nip the Communist insurgency in the bud. But what if Uncle Sam had used less force? It should have been obvious to the Joint Chiefs of Staff as it apparently was to Lansdale, that Vietnam was not a conventional battlefield that could be won by artillery and air power. What if Washington had focused its massive economic and political power on how to best serve the Vietnamese people and make them prosper? Could a lighter military hand guided by a more enlightened nation-building brain have succeeded where tons of bombs and Napalm failed?

 

 

Insurrecto – by Gina Apostol, 2018

Here’s a new book I haven’t read. I’m writing about it now to give the author a boost and reward her for writing a novel that tackles the complex relationship between the United States and the Philippines on many levels.

The publisher Soho Press describes the book as a military history but according to Pulitzer Prize-winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen, Apostol’s fourth novel is “meta-fictional, meta-cinematic, even meta-meta, plunging us into the vortex of memory, history, and war where we can feel what it means to be forgotten, and what it takes to be remembered.”

Wow, that’s what I call heavy meta!

From the author’s website, https://www.ginaapostol.com/praxino-org, I’ve learned a little about the plot: It begins in the present, with Chiara, an American woman filmmaker, heading to Samar Province to work on a film. Balangiga, Samar, was the site of a 1901 attack by Filipino insurrectos on an American battalion. In retaliation, Americans massacred the insurrectionists, or as Apostol says, “Soldiers created a howling wilderness of the surrounding countryside.” Sounds like Vietnam to me.

Few Americans have heard of the Philippine-American War, which was a bloody awful practice run for the even bloodier American War in Vietnam. Beginning in 1898, U.S. Army volunteers fresh off the farm found themselves in Southeast Asia using an early version of the submachine gun and an early version of waterboarding, against an enemy they called niggers and goo-goos. It was a war fueled by jingoist American nationalism and latter-day imperialism. Don’t tell a Filipino that America never had any colonies.

The plot takes a few turns when the filmmaker’s translator, a Filipina mystery writer named Magsalin, reads the film script and decides to write about the massacre from a Filipina’s perspective. If Google Translate is not mistaken, the Tagalog word magsalin can mean “translate,” “transfer,” or “transfuse.” I suppose Ms. Magsalin can be seen as an artistic insurgent in a cultural war.

We’ve all heard the quote “History is written by the victors” but in modern literature we find that history is also written by the survivors, and by professors and students of history inspired by them.

According to the website blurb,

“Within the spiraling voices and narrative layers of Insurrecto are stories of women — artists, lovers, revolutionaries, daughters — finding their way to their own truths and histories. Using interlocking voices and a kaleidoscopic structure, the novel is startlingly innovative, meditative, and playful.”

Let’s listen to these spiraling, interlocking, innovative, meditative and playful voices and learn from them.

With Hearts Aflame – by Victor M. Ordonez, 2002

While you’re focused on the Philippine-American War, I’ll discuss With Hearts Aflame, A Historical Novel.

Full disclosure: I have history with this novel. Over several years of envisioning this project in the 1990s, originally as a screenplay and later as a novel, I helped the author shape the American character. However the novel – with all the Filipino nuances – was masterfully written by a dear friend of mine while he was battling cancer. Dr. Victor Ordonez was a Renaissance man who served the Philippines and later the United Nations Organization with distinction and sophistication. Everyone who knew him misses his intellect, his wit, his warmth and his loving ways.

The American hero Lt. Tom Wilcox arrives in the Philippines on a scouting mission in 1886, while the archipelago is still a Spanish possession. A keen and passionate observer, Wilcox sends periodic reports to Army General Wesley Merritt in San Francisco, analyzing Manila’s potential as a regional trading post. But Merritt wants more. As America is rattling sabers in preparation for war with Spain, Merritt asks Wilcox for military intelligence on the strength of Spanish forces and their armaments, and the loyalty of their locally recruited troops.

During his reconnaissance, Wilcox falls in love with the Philippines, and with a fiery Filipina named Coring. It’s no surprise that he also falls in with the brave Filipinos secretly plotting to oust Spanish overlords after three centuries of oppressive and cruel colonial rule. Wilcox vows his love for Coring and his devotion to the cause of Filipino self-rule ignited by the patriot Dr. Jose Rizal, who is then awaiting execution. In this fictional retelling of the martyr’s death, Wilcox smuggles Rizal’s last poem, Utilmo Adios, out of prison in his boot. The book’s title comes from a line in the poem that speaks of Filipinos who fight in their country’s name “with hearts aflame.”

Unfortunately, President Grover Cleveland and Governor William McKinley are not dancing to the merry tune Wilcox is playing. After Commodore George Dewey vanquishes Spain’s Asiatic fleet in Manila Bay, General Merritt arrives with the U.S. Volunteers of the Philippine Expeditionary Force to wrest control of the country from the remaining Spaniards.

The proud Castilians won’t give up without a fight but the Battle of Manila in August 1898 is a sham, its outcome predetermined. The Spaniards agree to surrender and the Philippines (named after their King Philip) is nominally free of a European power. They surrender to the Americans, not the Filipinos, and under the terms of the surrender, no armed Filipino may enter the capital. In other words, the Americans, who were supposed to be helping the Filipinos, are taking control of Manila, and snatching victory from away Emilio Aguinaldo’s Katipunan revolutionaries down in Cavite.

When Coring learns that Wilcox was with General Merritt at the surrender ceremony aboard the ship Ayuntiamento, she’s confused.

“Her mind could not wrap itself around the Americans’ betrayal and Tom’s possible role in it. She thought she knew Tom so well, but now with this turn of events, she felt maybe she did not know him at all.”

A few months later, with the Filipino independence movement in utter disarray, Coring has even more reason to doubt Wilcox’s love for her and the dream of a free Philippines. It is with an aching heart that Wilcox sends her a letter describing the events of February1899 at San Juan Bridge, the first bloody skirmish between American soldiers and Filipinos. (Spoiler alert: the battle does not go well for Wilcox’s Filipino friends and their cause.)

Wilcox writes to Coring:

“My dear Heart, The last few days have been tragic… General Otis has declared outright war against the Aguinaldo forces… I am lost. I joined the military of my country as a young man full of ideals and principles, ready to lay my life down in the fight against evil and injustice. Now these armed forces have become instruments of evil and injustice.”

The U.S. Army hunted down the originally anti-Spanish, then anti-American revolutionary leader Aguinaldo and captured him in 1901, effectively ending his term as the first President of the First Philippine Republic.

Celebrating America’s first counterinsurgency victory in Southeast Asia, President William McKinley put the archipelago of 7,100 islands under the American flag. William Howard Taft, the first U.S. Governor General in Manila, and later 27th President of the United States, said Filipinos – whom he called “our little brown brothers” – would need America’s assistance for 50 or 100 years before acquiring the requisite Anglo-Saxon skills for self-rule. It would be half a century before the Philippines achieved full independence.

The cover art featured on both this book and Insurrecto by Gina Apostol are works by Ben Cabrera. Learn more about this renowned Filipino artist at:

http://www.bencabmuseum.org/national-artist/

 

 

 

For the Boys – directed by Mark Rydell, 1991

Movie poster, 1991

My cable company offers the Starz Network for free. Even for free, I’d give Starz only 2 stars. The other day I watched “For the Boys,” a star vehicle for Bette Midler. The 1991 film was a red, white and blue flop that lacked sizzle despite musical numbers intended to let the Divine Miss M. dazzle.

Here she’s teamed up with James Caan in a cheesy script intended to pay homage to American entertainers who went on U.S.O. Tours to cheer up and cheer on U.S. troops. The tale traces the careers, friendship and enmity of the musical partners over 50 years, from World War II to Vietnam.

James Caan plays Eddie Sparks, an exceedingly charming fellow with limited song and dance skills in the mold of Bob Hope. Kids of my generation who saw a lot of Bob Hope on TV couldn’t understand why he was so popular with our parents’s generation. Bette Midler’s Dixie Leonard is a singer-comedienne who gets her big break when she’s paired with Eddie for a U.S.O. tour of North Africa, where Dixie’s husband serves as an Army combat photographer.

Right away we see that Eddie’s patriotic sacrifice in volunteering to entertain the troops is mostly a publicity campaign to advance his reputation as an altruistic American patriot. He’s married, with three young daughters, but lusts after Dixie and plays father to her fatherless son Danny.

Fast forward to 1969 when Eddie lures Dixie for another U.S.O. tour, this time in Vietnam, where Danny Leonard is an Army captain. Danny commands a firebase, a temporary encampment set up to provide artillery support. The word “firebase” portends an unfortunate end to the tour.

Eddie is his gung-ho self, blindly supporting U.S. policy in Southeast Asia with a kind of Make America the Greatest Generation Again ethos. “I can’t tell you how damn proud we are of what you’re doing here,” he tells an incredulous Capt. Leonard. “We’re gonna beat those little bastards, y’know,” he says. Expressing the futility of carrying on a conventional war against a jungle-based guerrilla army, Capt. Leonard retorts, “Yes, sir, soon as we find them,”

Later Leonard points out a sweet-looking G.I. from Chicago, and tells his mom: “He collects ears. Cuts them off dead bodies.” Cut-off ears is a common theme in Ugly American literature.

Their time in Vietnam shows the old hoofers that times have changed. Their audience consists of drug-addled draftees who don’t believe in their mission. They’re not like the polite, hopeful young American kids who volunteered to fight fascism fifty years earlier. The whole U.S.O. thing – intended to remind soldiers what they’re fighting for – essentially white American culture – is stale. When a blonde go-go dancer takes the stage to dance the frug for the boys, the grunts aren’t content to watch her moves; they move in and nearly devour her. When Dixie, now about sixty years old, appears on stage, a G.I. shouts, “Show us your tits, Mama.”

“For the Boys” might evoke a bit of nostalgia among eighty-somethings but Millennials will find it as outdated as Bob Hope.

The Consul’s File – by Paul Theroux, 1977

In a New York Times review, British novelist Anthony Burgess (A Clockwork Orange) muses that when Britain’s professional meddlers retreated from The East, Americans filled the vacuum. More recently, I’ve observed that when Americans left a void in Southeast Asia, Australians eagerly took up diplomatic, economic and cultural initiatives. Life goes on ob-la-di, ob-la-da.

In The Consul’s File, a youthful American diplomat who remains nameless narrates the comings and goings of Americans and British expats in the fictional town of Ayer Hitam. Never important, the tiny town is languishing as its rubber plantations, a symbol of British colonialism, shut down to make way for oil palm estates.

In 20 stand-alone stories, Theroux is at his best describing “the Empire’s orphans” – quixotic Malay, Chinese, Tamil and mixed-race characters – as they interact clumsily and cannily with each other and the expatriates who play fateful roles in their lives.

The polyglot locals are engaged in Chinese clans and secret societies, Communist cells and Indian sports clubs while the expats wile away their time smoking, drinking and playing tennis at the Club, where it’s perennially 1938.

Here and there, Theroux tosses in details of the ex-pat lifestyle: dealing with amahs and jagas, drinking Tiger Beer, smoking mentholated cigarettes, taking malaria-suppression tablets like Communion, and serving a 16-pound holiday turkey brought up from Singapore’s Cold Storage company.

Four women are notable among the Americans in the file. A shapeless, graceless teacher of English claims she was raped by an oily attacker, who may be a spirit. An anthropologist goes native in the jungle and marries an aboriginal chief. A skinflint travel writer’s shtick includes never paying for anything. An older-wiser U.S. embassy secretary, who had a fling with the consul in Kampala, invites him to the Raffles Hotel to discuss “diplomatic relations.”

Sadly, the “moderate and dependable” consul is a cheese sandwich in a land of sambal and spicy food. He makes a few tricky decisions but doesn’t embark on any real adventures. He’s nothing like Jack Flowers, who wheels and deals down in Singapore in Theroux’s Saint Jack. From the outset, the uninvolved consul senses that Americans won’t last as the professionals who pulling the strings in Southeast Asia. He begins by describing his assignment:

“It was my job to phase out the Consulate. In other places the consular task was, in the State Department phrase, bridge-building; in Ayer Hitam I was dismantling a bridge not a difficult job: we had never been very popular with the Malays.”

This collection was published in 1977 although some of the stories seem to have been written years earlier. There is an early reference to being in the Federation of Malaysia, which melded Malay sultanates with Singapore and Borneo into one country until it broke up in 1963. Theroux taught at the University of Singapore for four years beginning in 1968, the timeframe of these stories.  Mixed with his memories of Malaysia, Theroux shoots a few darts at the State Department for its failures and ignominious 1975 retreat from Vietnam.

A flinty U.S. diplomat named Flint complains that mollycoddled, malcontent Foreign Service wives in Saigon supported the Viet Cong by nagging and nagging.

“They talked about ‘our struggle’ as if there were some connection between the guerrillas shelling Nha Trang and a lot of old hens in the embassy compound refusing to make peanut butter sandwiches. It’s not funny. I knew lots of officers who were shipped home – their wives were a security risk.”

When a polo-playing American planter is hacked to death in Ayer Hitam, the Consul notes that a resurgence of revolutionary zeal is to be expected as “a natural result” of America’s collapse in Vietnam.

The consul’s ex-lover, who enjoyed a Saigon posting in an air-conditioned embassy compound, envisions a day when both she and the Consul are posted to Hanoi. “It won’t be long,” she prophesies.