Hustle the East – by Mark Tawen, 2018

Black Rose Writing, November 2018

Here’s 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 360.

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 Good Old 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?

 

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Air America – book and film, 1979, 1990

 

Air America by Christopher Robbins nonfiction, 1979

Air America (film) directed by Roger Spottiswoode, 1990

Here’s one for the books: a serious, well written work of nonfiction about heroic American pilots you can respect is turned into an unfunny comedy action movie about Americans acting like idiots in Laos, a country few Americans cared about.

Christopher Robbin’s Air America chronicles how the O.S.S. and its successor the C.I.A. secretly set up airlines to move men and materiel around areas of strategic interest, e.g. declared or undeclared war zones. The C.I.A.-chartered airline operated in support of U.S. government operations in Vietnam and Laos, from 1959 to 1975. At the height of its activity, Air America operated 80 aircraft, making it one of the world’s largest airlines.

While the book is a valuable resource, the movie of the same name is a worthless exercise. Although author Robbins fought for a screenwriting credit, he later tried to disassociate himself from the cinematic disaster.

The movie is about two Americans who fly for the C.I.A. airline during the so-called Secret War in Laos, which was no secret to the people of Laos. On one level, it’s a buddy movie about two wacky pilots. An old hand played by Mel Gibson, and a neophyte, played by Robert Downey, Jr., take on the challenges of flying the unfriendly skies between U.S.-backed Lao forces and Vietnam-backed Laotian Communists insurgents. Even if you liked Mel Gibson in one or more of his many roles, you probably won’t like him here.

You can view the movie on YouTube with Spanish subtitles:

https://gloria.tv/video/cSkzSxikfMZo6ZDuZvCDiwP73

We’re supposed to take interest in the sophomoric freshman pilot’s initiation into the ranks of the vaunted flying fraternity. We’re supposed to turn a blind eye to the veteran pilot’s sideline business of selling U.S. weapons on the black market to finance his retirement. We’re supposed to root for the pair to escape being framed as fall guys for higher-level Americans involved in the heroin trade.

We know that America’s warriors were disillusioned over our nation’s catastrophic failure in Southeast Asia. This post-Vietnam version of the Vietnam-era turns cynicism into silliness. After a few minutes in the cockpit with Gibson and Downey, we don’t care much about what they think or do, or what happens to them, even after they’re shot down behind enemy lines.

Central to the movie’s plot is the unscrupulous General Lu Soong, a fictionalized version of the real-life Hmong hero General Vang Pao. There’s a scene where General Soong’s aircraft arrives at a crash site to recover a drug shipment without bothering to rescue Downey’s downed pilot character. The Hollywood types who made this movie seem to have delighted in vilifying Vang Pao, who was living in exile in California at the time.

The movie also lampoons a fact-finding mission of U.S. senators who get the runaround when they come to investigate Air America’s involvement in trafficking drugs. A key scene takes us into a Laotian heroin factory but for a more compelling look, follow Denzel Washington as drug dealer Frank Lucas on a buying trip to the Golden Triangle in “American Hustler” directed by Ridley Scott.

Before the movie “Air America” is done with frat-boy antics in a deadly serious war, the two buddies deign to help an attractive USAID worker rescue raggedy refugees. Even in their saving grace, when Gibson and Downey swing into action we are unmoved.

The New York Times panned Air America as a film that “fails on every possible level.” Writing in The Times, investigative journalist Robbins said the movie distorted his book and falsely implied that Air America was in the business of helping the United States get heroin money to finance the Secret War – something he himself hinted at – and moreover, the comedy dishonored the courageous men who flew dangerous missions. One of the film’s directors responded, saying that the Gibson and Downey characters were “complex, sympathetic and ultimately heroic.” I found them inane, pathetic and ultimately idiotic.