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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The Ambassador – by Morris West, 1965

Mass-market paperback cover

Like The Ugly American, The Ambassador begins with a prefatory note: “This is a work of fiction, built by the time-honored literary method of peopling an historic situation with characters construed out of the imagination of the author.”

In the novel, an embattled Prime Minister of South Vietnam, under intense political pressure from the United States to resign, grants an interview to a visiting Australian novelist. In real life, Morris West was Australia’s best-selling novelist (The Devil’s Advocate, The Shoes of the Fisherman) when he interviewed South Vietnam’s Ngo Dinh Diem in October 1963. West felt compelled to report Diem’s views to Australia’s ambassador and notes of the interview were passed along to the American ambassador. A month later, on November 2, 1963, Diem was ousted by his Army generals and assassinated after attending morning Mass. A fellow Catholic like Diem and West, President John F. Kennedy approved the CIA’s decision to support the generals over Diem.

In the year following the assassination, West plumbed his imagination to create American characters and portray inside-the-Embassy conversations and gut-wrenching rationalizations. The characters peel away layers of religious, spiritual, pragmatic and patriotic reasoning as they explore the morality, practicality and military options of dealing with a despotic but democratically elected South Vietnamese leader.

A guilt-ridden West delves into what right America and its anti-Communist allies, including Australia, had to interfere in the politics of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. What right did Westerners have to choose sides, employing massive economic and military might – and ultimately resorting to war – to stand in the way of self-determination in Southeast Asia?

Though the author has construed a dozen American characters in the Saigon embassy and the halls of power in Washington, three well-drawn, highly complex characters stand in the crux of the morality play.

The ambassador of the title, Maxwell Gordon Amberley, is the newly arrived U.S. envoy in Saigon. Modest, mature, elegantly mannered, and measured in his approach to his awesome responsibility, the erudite Amberley appears to be the embodiment of what a U.S. ambassador should be.

Like Amberley, the dapper CIA Director Harry Yaffa is a true professional. But as the top CIA agent for Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, Yaffa is amoral. Without moral scruples, he takes on the Agency’s most sordid chores with efficiency and a near-sexual excitement. On Amberley’s first day on the job, Yaffa hands him an automatic pistol and warns, “This is an assassin’s town.”

The embassy’s First Secretary, Melville Adams, is intended as a study in contrast, reserving to himself the right to question and even refuse his Government’s bidding when it runs counter to his own beliefs. Like Amberley, Mel Adams must make difficult decisions in a morass of multicultural and morally ambivalent situations.

Reflecting West’s fervid Catholicism and intellectual interest in Buddhist philosophy, Amberley veers between the yin and yang of Yaffa and Adams. He cannot function in Saigon without Yaffa. He cannot live in a diplomatic bubble without Adams, the cloying conscience of well-meaning Americans.

In the end, Amberley acts as he must, as the instrument of United States policy.. “…(W)hat else was left to me?” the ambassador asks himself. “My small inheritance of good manners, polite custom and traditional morality had been laid waste by the processional march of history. My action, any action, was a futile gesture against the trampling might of elephants.”

The CIA-backed coup that led to Diem’s assassination continues to haunt U.S. policy around the world and the lessons, artfully illustrated by West in a beautifully written novel, go unheeded. As I write this, The New York Times reports that the United States is being accused of plotting with Army generals who oppose embattled Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro.

Deliver Us From Evil and The Edge of Tomorrrow – by Dr. Tom Dooley, 1956, 1958

Author-signed bookplate in my 1956 hardcover edition of Deliver Us From Evil

Mass-market paperbacks

Dr. Tom Dooley’s acclaimed books recount the medical and humanitarian miracles he wrought as a Navy medic in North Vietnam. His rousing descriptions of how he witnessed Communist atrocities, healed the sick, and aided legions of Catholic Vietnamese refugees, made Americans swell with patriotic pride and resolve to put an end to the evil. As the Cold War heated up, Dr. Dooley’s hair-raising anti-Communist vitriol was raising the curtain on expanding U.S. diplomatic and military involvement in Vietnam.

As a fifth grader in 1958, I was amused that there was a song on the radio called “Hang Down Your Head Tom Dooley” that was not about the bestselling author. But more to the point, as an impressionable young American and a Cub Scout for several months, I was horrified at how atheist Viet Minh Communists were torturing innocent Vietnamese Catholics seeking religious freedom. Dr. Dooley described in gory detail how Communists shoved chopsticks in children’s ears to keep them from hearing prayers, how they tortured priests by pounding nails into heads, and how they punished hundreds of Vietnamese women by disemboweling them for being Catholic. These indignities were akin to what we kids paid to see in the Medieval Torture Section of Ripley’s Believe It Or Not in Times Square. But being that this was happening in real time, and not in the Middle Ages, the Communists’ torture of Vietnam’s Catholics seemed even more egregious.

Although Dooley’s books are found on non-fiction and history shelves, it’s now known that some of his purplest prose, including his descriptions of wholesale torture techniques, was pure fiction. There’s a body of research illustrating that a lot of what Dooley wrote was exaggerated or fictionalized. In a post-Vietnam War light, one now sees Dooley’s tales of his own awe-inspiring exploits as propaganda, a literary form in its own right. The Pentagon Papers notes that Dooley was not only a doctor; he was an intelligence operative.

In fact the author William J. Lederer was in Saigon working for the C.I,A, when he first heard about Dooley’s work with refugees from Communism in Haiphong. Lederer encouraged Dooley to popularize his experience in books and actually helped edit some chapters. It is no mere coincidence that the harmonica-playing character of Colonel Hillandale in The Ugly American is based on Air Force Lt. Col. Edwin Lansdale, the C.I.A. chief in Saigon who recruited both Lederer and Dooley as propagandists for the anti-Communist cause. In The Ugly American, Lederer fictionalized Dooley as the good-guy hero Father John Finian, further blurring the line between fact and fiction.

Dooley the author did a good job of portraying himself as a selfless hero. Imagine that a handsome Navy medic from Missouri, scarcely 30 years old, could do so much to counter the scourge of Communism! It all seemed too good to be true and in fact, U.S. diplomats in Hanoi sent an alarm to the U.S.I.S., signaling their doubts that Dooley had done in real life what his character did in his bestselling books. The diplomatic report that doused water on Dooley’s doings was kept classified for decades, until after the Vietnam War.

After leaving the Navy, Dooley remained an icon of anti-Communism and American do-goodism, raising funds for hospitals and orphanages in Laos and Vietnam, appearing on TV frequently while bound to a contract with The Reader’s Digest that made him ubiquitous in that publication celebrating American values.

Dooley died of cancer on his 33rd birthday. Despite the falsehoods in his non-fiction, he left a true legacy in the form of the Thomas A. Dooley Foundation, which set up clinics and hospitals in rural and remote parts of Laos. A New York Times article published in 1964 eulogized him in this way: “Tom Dooley continues to live in the hearts of the deprived people of Asia. His life and the continuing program of the Dooley foundation stand for the best in American traditions.” Thankfully, there is some truth to his fiction.

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

The Ugly American (film) – directed by George Englund

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The Ugly American directed by George Englund

Universal International, 1963

Seen on YouTube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZRC2E46fFs0

Moviegoers who flocked to the screen adaptation of The Ugly American in 1963 were familiar with the best-selling novel’s celebrated cause, calling out American diplomats and aid workers for their ineffectiveness in the face of Communist aggression. If they’d read the book, they were probably as pleasantly surprised as I was to find that screenwriter Stewart Stern had turned clunky journalistic chapters into an action movie that still had a bit of whistleblower’s outrage. Rather than overload filmgoers with background as Lederer and Burdick had done to armchair readers, director Arthur Hill skimped on details, leaving critics and many viewers in the dark about the politics behind the action.

Variety put it this way: “Some of the ambiguities, hypocrisies and perplexities of Cold War politics are observed, dramatized and, to a degree, analyzed in The Ugly American. It is a thought-provoking but uneven screen translation taken from, but not in a literal sense based upon, the popular novel by William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick.”

After seeing the movie, Burdick wrote a newspaper column noting that the movie possessed “only the most passing resemblance” to his bestseller. But the professor conceded the movie was in many ways better than the book, crediting the filmmakers with doing a fine job of fleshing out the characters and creating drama without diluting the book’s political impact.

In his first post-“Mutiny on the Bounty” role, Marlon Brando stars as Ambassador Harrison MacWhite (rebranded from the original Gilbert MacWhite). Brando arrives in Sarkhan with a pencil-thin mustache, looking every bit as macho as Clark Gable. He’s no bumbling Lou Sears. He’s a savvy scholar who’s got wise-ass answers for everything, and in the movie version, he’s no newcomer to Sarkhan. Highjacking the backstory of another character in the source material, MacWhite was an O.S.S. officer who parachuted into Sarkhan during a secret mission in 1943. Back then he teamed up with a Sarkhanese named Deong to help liberate the country from Japanese occupation. Now as the new ambassador MacWhite wants to brush up on his Sarkhanese language skills and rekindle his friendship with Deong after a ten-year absence. As in the book, Deong has changed a lot since the Old Days. He is critical of American imperialism and spouts Communist ideology.

MacWhite is perceptive and well-meaning but blinded by naivete and stymied by pig-headedness. This keeps him from seeing and understanding what the Sarkhanese people really want and need. Homer Atkins is back, played by Pat Hingle, who later played the Commissioner in “Batman” movies. Living as he does in the boondocks, Atkins understands that the military highway MacWhite insists on completing is the wrong project at the wrong time.

When tensions explode in ugly, violent and realistically frightening riots, MacWhite begins to comprehend that America’s goals are not Sarkhan’s goals. He observes: “We can’t hope to win the Cold War unless we remember what we’re for, as well as what we’re against.”