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?

 

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FIrst They Killed My Father – directed by Angelina Jolie, 2017

Unlike any movie you’ve ever seen, this is a Cambodian feature film with an all-Cambodian cast who speak Khmer. Naturally the $24 million it took to make the Netflix movie came from Americans. Principal among the filmmakers – credited as director and cowriter – is the American actress and humanitarian Angelina Jolie, a citizen of Cambodia.

In the first two minutes of the movie, we see a sorry pair of Americans: President Nixon and presidential adviser Henry Kissinger. They appear in archival news footage, mouthing off lies about their policy of noninterference while hiding the truth about the war they are prosecuting in Cambodia.

The Pinocchio-nosed Nixon says: “Cambodia, a small country of 7 million people, has been a neutral nation since the Geneva agreement of 1954. American policy since then has been to scrupulously respect the neutrality of the Cambodian people.” Interspersed with footage of U.S. Air Force bombing runs, Nixon explains, “What we are doing is to help the Cambodians help themselves… This is not an invasion of Cambodia.”

And in Hitleresque prose, Kissinger adds that “civilian casualties are occasional difficulties in reaching a final solution “

Well, Dr. K., your policy of dropping tons of bombs on Cambodian civilians was not the solution – just as it did not work against the Pathet Lao movement in neighboring Laos.

Carpet-bombing of neutral Cambodia began in March 1969. Over four years, the United States dropped nearly 3 million bombs, killing an estimated 5,000 civilians annually. And that was only the beginning of Cambodia’s agony.

According to war historians, the United States escalated its bombing campaign in January 1973 trying to halt the advance of the Khmer Rouge. The stepped up bombing destroyed large swaths of land around Phnom Penh but only delayed the take-over and in fact assisted recruitment into Pol Pot’s murderous ranks. Official sources indicate the United States spent more than $1 billion on military assistance and half a billion more on economic assistance to support Lon Nol’s government. In mid-1973, Congress halted the Pentagon’s illegal U.S. military incursion into Cambodia. Lon Nol fought the K.R. for two more years before fleeing to the United States

Jolie’s film is based on the autobiography of Loung Ung, who was five years old in April 1975 when the Khmer Rough consolidated its control over Cambodia. The horror of genocide is seen through Loung’s unblinking unbelieving eyes. When Pol Pot orders the evacuation of Phnom Penh, her family is forced to leave their comfortable home in the city. They were not alone as the Khmer Rouge ordered all 2 million residents of Phnom Penh to leave the city.

Wide-eyed, never understanding why this is happening, Loung is marched deeper and deeper into the jungle. Because all private property is banned, she and her family must surrender all of their possessions. Loung watches as her father is taken to be killed, calling out, “Come back, Pa.” It is heartbreaking to watch her – and scores of other children – doing hard labor in the Khmer Rouge work camps, experiencing sickness, starvation and  separation from family members.As a seven-year old, Loung is taught hand-to-hand combat, how to use a bayonet, how simple it is to fire an AK-47 and how tricky it is to set land mines. She is brainwashed and programmed to kill Vietnamese soldiers who entered Cambodia in December 1978.

Like little Loung, we watch wordlessly as Pol Pot’s lieutenants take Cambodia backward and begin filling the Killing Fields with corpses, as many as 3 million in all. A history student, I found myself reflecting on a time 40 years earlier when Hitler embarked on a ruthlessly inhumane campaign of extermination in Europe. The handiwork of the Khmer Rouge was equally insane and the civilized world was equally or even more aware of what was going on. Surely Kissinger knew. Surely the genocide was known at the United Nations, where the Khmer Rouge occupied Cambodia’s seat.

In war movies Americans watch, Vietnamese soldiers in their olive-green uniforms and pith hats are the bad guys. In this story, they’re the good guys. But the Vietnamese saviors were eventually seen as invaders. Cambodia was Vietnam’s Vietnam. Bogged down for a decade, Vietnam suffered 30,000 casualties in its battle to break the Khmer Rouge and pacify the countryside for its own ideological reasons. Vietnam finally pulled out of Cambodia in 1989.

Loung Ung was 10 when she left her homeland. She now lives in Ohio.