The Quiet American – by Graham Greene, 1955

 Bantam paperback, 1955

The Quiet American serves up a classic love triangle amid political treachery in Saigon. A jaded English journalist and a youthful American economic aid officer fall in love with the same woman, the willowy, amber-skinned Phuong, an embodiment of the eternal beauty and mystery of Vietnam.

It’s also a political novel, spiked with philosophical and ideological dilemma. Should men of conscience stand up to America’s intervention alongside France in opposition to Vietnam’s struggle for self-rule? Should America use its massive might to instill wide-eyed Western idealism and liberal individualism in a country that’s never known democracy? In the short term, should Washington support the tactics of torture and terrorism employed by  murderous Vietnamese allies? In the long term, is it better to enter a prolonged war that will cause unimaginable suffering, or allow Vietnamese nationalists to establish a Communist regime?

Thomas Fowler, the story’s narrator, is a red-faced, middle-aged reporter who finds refuge in his quiet romance, his opium pipes and his sense of dégagé, being uninvolved. Only when Fowler discovers that an earnest young American has stolen away his mistress  does he re-engage in events. Alden Pyle’s personality and C.I.A.-scented activism stoke Fowler’s hatred of Americans in Southeast Asia. He says, “I was tired of the whole pack of them, with their private stores of Coca-Cola and their portable hospitals, and their too-wide cars and their not quite latest guns,” he says. At another point he haughtily derides “the poverty of American literature, the scandals of American politics (and) the beastliness of American children.”

Fowler disses Pyle for his idealism and lack of real-world experience: “He was young and silly and ignorant and he got involved.” He mocks Pyle’s typical American preoccupation with “mental ideas,” including “-isms and -ocracies.” Adding fuel to the fire, Fowler learns that Pyle has thrown in his lot, and America’s, with a despotic general who leads a Third Force against both the beleaguered French and the advancing Communists. He sees Pyle as complicit in a terrorist bombing that kills and cripples civilians in the square opposite the Continental Hotel. Fowler is ruthless yet he’s shocked when Pyle defends the murder of women and children as a tool to effect positive political change. Worse yet, the reporter susses out that Pyle is importing plastic of the sort terrorists can mold into bicycle bombs.

Alden Pyle is a fine example of an American whose innocence and good intentions bring tragic consequences. Greene has granted the quiet American a few good qualities. He is Boston-bred and Harvard-educated, exceedingly polite and highly scrupled; he doesn’t drink, or smoke opium, and he has the decency to tell Fowler face-to-face that he plans to marry Phuong. In fact, he earnestly asks Fowler to translate his troth. And it is Pyle who gallantly risks his own life to save Fowler from dying under fire in a rice paddy. Pyle says he did it for Phuong. Fowler retorts that he would not do the same for Pyle, and apparently he means it.

In what could be an allegory for the way Western powers regard Vietnam, Phuong’s pair of suitors discuss Love Saigon Style. Pyle tells Fowler that Phuong can’t possibly love him because he lies to her. Fowler admits he lies because he wants to keep her. The Englishman tells his American adversary: “Love’s a Western word. We use it for sentimental reasons or to cover up an obsession with one woman.” Asians are too practical to suffer from obsessions, he asserts. Pyle says he wants to give Phuong “a decent life” in America, which Fowler paints as a deep freezer, a car of her own, the latest model TV and supermarkets that sell celery wrapped in cellophane. Fowler says his live-in lover is quite capable of deciding for herself. “She’s tougher than you’ll ever be,” he says. “She can survive a dozen of us.”

Greene’s novel is positively brilliant with conversation that cuts like a diamond. If you read only one of the books on the Ugly American bookshelf, read this one.

 

The Quiet American (films), 1959 and 2002

Movie posters, 1958, 2002

1959 movie directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz

2002 movie directed by Philip Noyce

There’s a story behind Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1959 screen adaptation of Graham Greene’s 1955 novel. It’s a story with political overtones and it’s not entirely clear what role politics played when Mankiewicz surgically depoliticized the novel. At the center of the  artistic intervention intrigue is Edward Lansdale, the real-life Air Force major general and C.I.A. operative most prominently associated with American military and espionage intervention in Southeast Asia. Greene denies modeling the quiet American Alden Pyle on Lansdale; but both the real Lansdale and the fictional Pyle walked a small black dog on the streets of Saigon in 1952, when Greene himself served as a foreign correspondent. Both Lansdale and Pyle had a consuming interest in keeping Southeast Asia free of Communism at all costs.

Director Mankiewicz met Lansdale in Saigon and it’s known that Lansdale advised the filmmaker when he was adapting Greene’s novel for the screen, boldly flipping an essentially anti-American novel into a pro-American film. In the transformation process, the novel’s Alden Pyle lost his name (He was simply called The American in the film.) Pyle not only lost his name; he lost his savvy East Coast upbringing, his Ivy League education and his job as economic adviser (cum C.I.A. agent) in the U.S. mission.

Portrayed by the World War II hero Audie Murphy, The American of the film is a Texan who works for a foundation. He’s more of a Gomer Pyle than an Alden Pyle: a do-gooder who says ” Oh, golly.” It seems his main occupation in Saigon is to make Phuong more American. Moviegoers may wonder if the Boy Scout was secretly a cowboy James Bond but there’s no way of knowing. Curious minds also want to know if Mankiewicz defanged his movie for political purposes, or merely to sell tickets?

The 2002 version of the film astutely casts Michael Caine in the role of Thomas Fowler although there were fewer accolades for the casting of Brendan Fraser as Alden Pyle (Pyle gets his name back). Caine was nominated for Best Actor in the Academy Awards, Golden Globes and BAFTA.

Critics agreed that the 2002 film was better written — without help from the C.I.A., — and better directed by the Australian Philip Noyce, who closely follows Graham Greene’s celebrated story line.

 

Saint Jack – by Paul Theroux, 1973

Penguin paperback, 1976

Rereading Saint Jack after 40 years, I wondered what Jack Flowers would think about today’s Singapore. Clearly, he would despise the single-party island state for its strict Confucian / hyper-Catholic moralism and repressive regulations, although he might dig it for the innumerable opportunities to make oodles of money.

Flowers was a colorful character out of Boston who washed up in Singapore, much like Paul Theroux, who lectured at a university there in 1968. The author first introduces Flowers as an untrustworthy narrator of his own tawdry Conradian tale. At 53, after years at sea and 14 years in Singapore, Flowers is no longer a Devil-may-care American college dropout. He’s as dispassionate about his day job as an odd-jobber in a Chinese ship chandlery, as he is about his sideline, conscientiously providing Chinese and Malay girls for sailors and married men. Despite a well-earned reputation for provisioning ships and hotels with local women, he doesn’t think of himself as a pimp, merely as A Useful Man, with a reputation for having “a finger in every tart.”

Flowers fawns over his johns like a sycophant, unable to speak his own mind. Dining with one of his customers, he reluctantly passes up the seafood he craves because the customer suggests the food isn’t up to par. Flowers is wilting but not without hope, composing over and over in his mind letters congratulating him on winning a fortune in a hoped-for future.

Into his dispirited life comes a cool-eyed English auditor named William Leigh, who casts shadows like a funeral shroud over Flowers’ purposeful life as a part-time ponce. When Leigh’s heart gives out, Flowers mourns him and thus embarks on his own canonization. A second archangel appears in the form of a U.S. Army employee named Edwin Shuck, who ensures Flowers’ financial success, at least for a while.

Flowers arrived in Singapore just as it was emerging from the cloak of colonialism. Even so, barflies leftover from the Empire populate the bars, exchanging enough British witticisms to make an American reader want to dump a crate of tea in Singapore Harbour.

Having left home for good reason, Flowers didn’t really want to be seen as an American, lampooning his countrymen as “the glad-hander, the ham with the loud jokes and big feet and flashy shirts.” But his Americanness had advantages when it came to pimping. “Being American was part of my uniqueness,” he says. Against his will, Flowers purposefully exaggerates his accent and becomes known as The Yank, making his rounds on a well-upholstered trishaw, making friends with Chinese bargirls and foreign sailors in order to twain East and West.

Remaining at his day job to keep his visa, the streetwise pimp and porn-pusher opens his own brothel, poetically named the Dunroamin. The brothel is a big hit in the demimonde of expats but not the underworld of Chinese secret society gangsters, who kidnap and torture him, tattoo him with Chinese expletives and torch his bordello.

With money from the U.S. Army, the burnt-out brothel owner survives purgatory to become the glad-handing proprietor of the Paradise Gardens, which succors G.I.s on R & R from Vietnam for five days at a time. Happy in his Eden, catering to sexually starved G.I.s, Flowers begins to see himself as a saint awaiting annunciation. “I was the kind of angel I expected to visit me,” he explains. “I was a noisy cheerful creature. But the mutters in my mind told me I was Saint Jack.”

On this Earth, Uncle Sam giveth and Uncle Sam taketh away. When a change in Pentagon policy shutters Saint Jack’s profitable Paradise, Flowers seeks out Shuck, the Government man who once told him, “We’re all whores one way or another.” Funny that it’s Shuck, a decidedly Ugly American, who gives Saint Jack a shot at salvation.

 

 

 

 

 

Sex in Singapore! – Saint Jack (Part 2)

Saint Jack by Paul Theroux, book cover, 1973; film poster, 1979

The peripatetic world-traveler Paul Theroux has observed that in the world’s oldest and greatest port cities, brothels were always conveniently located. In Singapore, Southeast Asia’s premier port, a classic Asian massage parlor and brothel might be tucked away in a tiled-roof suburban mansion.

Jack Flowers, the back-alley pimp and shore-to-ship procurer, notes that Singapore in the 1960s was very old, “not in years but in attitude.” Unlike other world ports teeming with sexually famished seamen, “the completely Chinese flavor of vice in Singapore made it attractive to a curious outsider, at the same time removing him from guilt and doubt, for its queer differences made it a respectable diversion…”

In the early 1970s, America was pulling out of Vietnam (pun intended) while at home Americans were engrossed in a sexual awakening that produced a proliferation of sexually explicit men’s magazines, women’s literature, and socially accepted pornographic movies.

Published in 1973, Saint Jack gave readers around the world an insider’s look into Asian prostitution. The book and the 1979 film directed by Peter Bogdanovich provided far more revealing glimpses than “The World of Suzie Wong,” the 1960 film directed by Richard Quine.

Theroux’s descriptions can be visceral, as when he describes a room reserved for commercial trysts: “As in all brothel rooms, a carnal aroma hung in the air, as fundamental as sweat, the exposed odor from the body’s most private seams.”

Jack Flowers’ debut in debauchery begins in 1959, the same year Harry Lee becomes prime minister of Singapore in all its squalor. In Flowers’ view, prostitutes enlivened the port city. “…(N)oiseless and glittering and narrow as snakes, they looked like anyone’s idea of the Asian concubine.” The look was a mask depicting the client’s sexual ideal” just as white shoes marked Flowers as a pimp. He suggests that colorful silk dresses gave cold quick girls “an accidental allure, titillating by flouncy mystification…”

Other men sold ordinary souvenirs, Flowers sold what he called “the ultimate souvenir – the experience, in the flesh, of fantasy.” Flowers never stated a price for his introduction service but he was not, he said, a pimp with a heart of gold. As a sideline of his sideline, he sold pornographic photos and decks of cards from his back pocket.

Flowers says the girls he peddled were “practical and businesslike, obsessed with their health… and they treated their tasks as if they were a medical treatment or minor surgery.” “Many of the girls were modest in a conventional way, which even as a pretense, was compellingly sexy in a whore.” Their friend and protector would never say they were kindly and cheerful but he praised them, saying “they understood their cues and were dependable” as well as obedient and useful. “They believed in ghosts and had a horror of hair and kissing and stinks and dirt, and complained we smelled like cheese.”

“Some didn’t feel a thing, but just lay there, sacrificed and spread, and might say, ‘You are finished, yes?’ before a feller had hardly started.” Most did their job convincingly without having the slightest interest in it, he says. Indeed they had “the genius for being remote at the time of greatest intimacy.” They could be sensationally foul-mouthed in English, but spoke softly in polite Chinese among themselves.

Sharing inside information gleaned from running a wang-house, Flowers catalogues how American men differed from other customers: “The Chinese clients, of whom I had several, liked the big-boned Australian girls; Germans were fond of Tamils, and the English fellers liked anything young, but preferred their girls boyish and their women mannish. … The Americans liked clean sporty ones, to whom they would give nicknames, like ‘Skeezix’ and ‘Pussycat’ (the English made an effort to learn the girl’s real name). Americans, he says, “also went in for a lot of hugging in the taxi, smooching and kidding around, and sort of stumbling down the sidewalk, gripping the girl hard and saying ‘Aw, honey, whoddle ah do?'” When they leave town, Americans write letters back to their girls who can’t read them.

Flowers observes that Chinese customers plunged into it “with hare-like speed” and treated their visit to a cathouse as casually as one might pop out for a hamburger; Europeans considered the whorehouse experience as a kind of therapy. and Americans saw it as part of their education.

The year it came to power, the new People’s Action Party began raiding massage parlors, presaging the moralistic puritanical regime that would transform Singapore in a thousand ways. Hardly anything is left of Saint Jack’s Singapore. It’s a safe bet there aren’t any Americans pimping girls and selling pornography in the canyons of gleaming high-rise hotels and multinational headquarters. Singapore has the Internet now.

The movie Saint Jack differs in many ways from the book. It’s set in a present-day Singapore with a lingering cloak of its colonial past. The likable, easygoing Ben Gazzara stars as Jack, who’s now an Italian-American from Buffalo. Bogdanovich, the film’s director, cast himself as a latter-day version of the original Edwin Shuck. Theroux earned a co-writer credit for the screenplay. Roger Corman is credited as producer and  Playboy‘s Hugh Hefner as executive producer. The movie was filmed in Singapore and banned in Singapore. Watch it online at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FxbfzGRVwiA

 

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.

 

 

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.