Published: May 10th 2009May 9th 2009
There were only two ways to go for the Viet Cong; victory or death. Notice the motorbikers covering their mouths and noses with a handkerchief to prevent the harmful particulates from entering their lungs.
Got in a little hometown jam
So they put a rifle in my hand
Sent me off to a foreign land
To go kill, yellow man, now
From Born in the USA
by Bruce Springsteen
The dust has settled somewhat after thirty plus years since the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975. The Vietnamese Refugees have settled somewhat comfortably in the USA. Some have even comeback to visit the motherland. Others have totally abandoned the idea of ever coming back home to Vietnam. When I was a kid growing up in the Central Valley of California I had classmates whose parents were Refugees from Vietnam. Virtually all of them were also Fresh off the Boat (FOB) from Vietnam as well. Most of them tried their darnedest to fit in and not rock the boat. Most of them tried their darnedest to not get noticed in a negative way, which was hard since stories of Vietnamese Refugees settling in your area was hard to miss on the news, especially on television. But most of them took the ridicule and the insults and stayed humble throughout the ordeal, which was something that totally astonished me to this day because
The Streets of Saigon
A nice leisurely stroll along the dusty streets of Vo Van Tan
the natural inclination would be to fight back and be resentful, but my Vietnamese classmates which I gradually became friendly with even to this day did none of the things that you would expect from ordinary average Americans to do. They took the high road and prospered in the end.
There’s no longer a demilitarized zone at the 17th parallel. There’s no longer any pretension of who is in charge of this here country called the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. The long held belief that the dominoes will fall from China to Southeast Asia and all the way down to Austronesia and parts of Oceania has been forgotten, abandoned, debunked, and totally disproved. There has never been a point in the history of the Universe where the best and the brightest could be so wrong about the simplest things in life. The Commies won the war and the hearts and minds of the indigenous people. The Americans got out because they finally understood that there was no way of winning the Vietnam War that they so assiduously fought with the most technologically advanced military weapons this world has ever seen and the highest concentration of soldiers on the face
Another Huey on Display
At the War Remnants Museum, once called the War Crimes Museum
of this here planet Earth against a ragtag band of guerillas with makeshift headquarters made of thatch huts and palm leaves and second hand weapons either stolen from the enemy or bought in the black market from the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) soldiers who in turn got their weapons from the Americans. ARVN is pronounced Arvin in Nam era military parlance. They were supposed to fight their own war. The Americans were supposed to only serve as advisers to the Arvin soldiers. That’s how John F. Kennedy got us into this mess in the first place. Every Arvin unit had an American military adviser. The Americans would advice the Arvins to patrol at night. They refused and gave the night away to the Viet Cong. It wasn’t that the Arvin soldiers were diffident and were afraid to fight although there were certainly plenty who were. It was mainly because the leadership from above was afraid of mass casualties in a military engagement, which would reduce the number of military men who were used to protect and maintain the power of the leaders of the Republic of Vietnam. Eventually the role of the Americans increased from advisers to
combatants and fought a war that was not their’s to fight in the first place.
And let’s not forget that it was not an American War as everyone in Vietnam and the rest of the world would like you to believe, even the most popular Vietnam travel guides. Many Vietnam travel guidebooks defer to the Anti-American point of view. But, no. No! No! No! No! No! It was without a doubt a war between the Vietnamese elites who gained and maintained their power under colonization and the Vietnamese peasants and common folks who had legitimate grievances against the elites. It was a war fought on the principle of freedom and independence, not of communist ideology, and in the end the Socialist Republic of Vietnam virtually abandoned the communist manifesto.
Songs of the Night
It’s all about conspicuous consumption for the Vietnamese nowadays. The Vietnamese are the most aggressive capitalists I have ever seen in my life. You look around Saigon and you can see people hustling and hawking and trying to make a deal. It has been said that there are only two things that the Vietnamese people are interested in. Work, and more work. I believe it.
Red Diaper Doper Babies
I see Vietnamese eating noodles on the sidewalk. Afterwards they don’t just go home, they go back to work. They are out there hustling and selling goods and services till the next day’s morning light. They are probably hustling and selling in their dreams. No wonder the Americans couldn’t win. They never stop fighting; they’re tenacious as hell. Even in my hotel in the early morning hours, around two o’clock, some guy or someone was trying to make a deal.
I heard some voices in the hallway, the sound of it Chinese, although I’m not sure because I don’t understand Chinese; it could’ve been Vietnamese. It was some old man yelling directions to another. At that point it began to dawn on me that I was assigned to one of the best rooms in this hotel, as far as I was concerned. The room was facing directly to one of the busiest traffic in Saigon and a great spot for people watching right outside of my balcony. It was spacious, the carpeting was plush and ornate, and the furniture was classic French-colonial. But the best part of it was that it was on the third floor, which must be the most interesting floor in the whole building. It was quiet during the daytime hours but as I noticed for two nights in a row now there was always some commotion throughout the night and it didn’t seem to stop until sometime around four in the morning, if not later. The first night I noticed the voice of the same old man squawking in Chinese, having a one sided conversation with another, or so it seemed to me. I heard footsteps walking up and down the hallway, doors slamming, more footsteps and some cups and plates shuffling like they were bringing up room service to a room except this place had no room service available at this time of the day, at two o’clock in the morning. This went on until three in the morning. I know because I had a difficult time sleeping and the voices of Chinese conversations emanated from the hotel room three doors away from me and it contributed to my lack of sleep. I overheard the old man saying something in Chinese and finally a “Goodbyyyye” in English before the final door slam and the footsteps onto the elevator where I heard a ding! Followed by the doors opening and then the hum of the moving box down the shaft. I looked at my watch to see 3:00 AM on the dial.
Tonight, the same old man was having a lively, if not violent conversation with someone, maybe a lady, maybe a guy, but it was hard to tell because the other voice was dim compared the squawking old man. It literally sounded like quack tak kak kak tak continuously throughout the night. What the heck was going on in there? Is there some sort of enterprise inside this hotel that takes place only during the wee hours of the night? That’s another thought for me to ponder. It will probably keep me awake for the rest of the night if not the noises from the enterprising old man. Again, I heard sounds of teacups and plates. A party maybe? The suspense was driving me nuts. Then all of a sudden, out of nowhere, I heard a loud boom! It sounded like someone had thrown a hollow object against the wall. This was followed by a loud thwack! Then the sound of springs stretching and compressing going gnigh! gnigh! gnigh! At the same time a soft hollow moan was echoing ever so softly but audible from my hotel room. The sounds were coming from across the hall. The squawking of the old man had gone away. It sounded a lot to me like there was some serious sex going. The moaning of a woman never got any louder that a whisper but became more acute and intense as though she was experiencing orgasm. The stretching sound of springs came with more frequency for two or three minutes, then abruptly stopped. Everything was quiet for a few seconds until a hollow cry of ughhhh was followed by some heavy breathing. This was too much. I thought to myself that I was never going to get any sleep. I had thought for a moment that maybe this would be the end of it. I didn’t hear any noise for five solid minutes and I was hoping that the rest of the night would be quiet. I was wrong of course because just as I hopped onto bed the clanging of teacups and dishes started again. The voice of the squawking old man came back and this time it was accompanied by a shrieking voice of a young female. I heard the pleading voice of this young woman as if she was accused of doing something wrong. The squawking old man of course would have none of it. He’s accusatory tone sounded like guilty, guilty, guilty, and you will burn to hell for your sins. He said none of those things I’m sure, because the sounds I heard were Chinese.
The Legend of Edward Landsdale
I tried to ignore the noise on my floor by reading Graham Greene’s The Quiet American. I have always liked this novel even though its point of view irritated me at times. This is because the point of view is pretty one sided and it all comes from Greene’s English character Thomas Fowler, a British journalist who insists that he is a neutral observer, reporting only the truth about what’s happening in Vietnam. The novel was published in 1956 and the background of the story is set in the early fifties of Vietnam, from 1952 to 1954, when the French was furiously fighting the Vietminh in order to maintain their claim of “Indochina”. Much of the book is a castigation of Americans and American foreign policy, especially with regards to anti-communism, and that’s the part that irritates me the most because Greene reveals much of his communist leanings in this book. I suppose communism was fashionable among the literary types in those days. Perhaps it still is although it’s fading fast. The death of Susan Sontagg, hopefully, may have put the final nail in that coffin. The other characters in the book are pretty one dimensional, having no depth and serves merely as a prop for Fowler’s musings. One would think that the quiet American is the central character but instead he is just a minor character, a bumbling dufus full of idealism and inexperience, who inserts himself as the agent of the “Third Force”, an idea contrived by some fictional foreign policy theorist who came up with the notion while on a one week layover in Vietnam on his way to Bangkok. This character is so unbelievably clumsy and impressionable that it’s difficult to take him seriously, especially because his name, Alden Pyle, resembles so closely to one who wears a uniform bearing the initials USMC. Gomer would have been cleverer in his dealings with the locals. He probably could have fumbled himself into the communist camp and prevented the town square bombing that resulted in the accidental deaths of women and children. But this Pyle character is not so lovable, only a fool. Only a fool would fall in love with a Vietnamese girl who dances for money. Are you kidding me? That’s the other minor character, a Vietnamese girl named Phoung. Excuse me for saying this but how in the heck do you pronounce that name? Whatever, she is just another prop; an object of Fowler’s sexual whims and a docile servant who is only too eager to acquiesce his every wishes.
If this book was all about Anti-Americanism and its imperialistic orgy it would have been easily dismissed as ranting of some British old fool who thinks he is above it all. This novel has more than that however. Many of the incidents described in the book are rooted in Greene’s direct experiences. The napalm bombing he describes so vividly appeared in a London Times article under his byline. His assertion that the communist ways of persuasion-or manipulation, depending on your point of view-has led to a more favorable public opinion of them in Southeast Asia is arguably a noteworthy warning that was largely ignored by the American leaders of that time, although he wasn’t the first and only one to view that opinion. The model for the quiet American is not the lovable Private First Class Gomer Pyle, USMC, of course. That would be absurd since the TV show, which was spun out of the same character in the Andy Griffith show, came much later than the book. Perhaps Gomer was modeled after Alden then? Probably not. A lot of people have suggested, most notably the military historian Cecil Currey, that the model for Alden Pyle was the late Air Force General and CIA operative Edward G. Lansdale. That too would be absurd. Lansdale was not some idealistic dufus who stumbled into Vietnam without experience. He had successfully help subdue a communist insurgency in the Philippines years before he came to Vietnam. In addition he was savvy of the local ways. He went to great lengths and found ways to ingratiate himself with the natives. He learned how to play their local folk songs with his harmonica and he stood in the background and acted as a special consultant to the local leaders. In a way he was more of a low profile campaign manager, operating in the dark and always staying away from the spot light, letting the locals and their leaders take all the credit for the success that was often contrived by him. Public relations were his specialty and perhaps his advice to President Kennedy and Robert McNamara would have prevented a painful American experience in Vietnam. McNamara however, did not pay attention to anyone other than himself and his subordinate yes-men. His judgment was clouded by his ego and his idealism, which closely resembled Alden Pyle’s.
There is a lot to like about this book. Not only is it well written but the story is poignant for its desperation. Thomas Fowler is a difficult character to like. He’s a habitual wife cheater and opium smoker whose neutrality seems more like a thinly veiled cowardice than moral righteousness. In a lot of ways he is like a lot of lonely travelers, which I assume Greene must have been. We brave through the agony of travel because it is better than staying at home and be subjected to the agony of our personal hardships. In a way we are running away from our wives, our love ones, our families and our friends. The danger of travel keeps our mind away from our problems at home. We embrace the horror of a foreign assignment because it is better than the comforts of home. Perhaps the most revealing insight of Fowler’s character is his wish to die instead of being saved by Pyle during a violent excursion on a country road outside of Vietnam. This might be taken as ingratitude similar to the French indignation of the United States for saving them from the Nazis but in Fowler’s case it’s desperation. He is desperate to leave his wife, he is desperate for the communist to defeat the French, and most of all he is desperate to unleash himself into the fray of this chaos which he cannot do because of his insistence to be neutral. In the end he does not remain neutral, which reveals the human side of him, and his weakness makes the book compelling.
I have read this book several times and like any good book you will always find new insights or a different perspective the next time you read it. You can probably build several thesis topics out of this book because it has many dimensions in a literary sense, especially as they relate to politics and the human condition. And it’s that provocative! Greene does not hold back and that’s what makes him effective. As I turned each page slowly I thought about a rebuttal to Fowler’s arguments because I was irritated by Pyle’s simple minded response. He couldn’t give anything more than something ridiculous like “Aw, you don’t really believe that do you Thomas?” The first time I read the book I was hoping that there was some higher order behind Pyle, that he was merely a puppet whose strings were pulled inside some secret operations office at the US Embassy in Saigon. Perhaps Pyle was being set up by the US Ambassador. I wanted some secret agent to come out of nowhere to be The Quiet American, not Pyle. The story didn’t emerged that way and I finished the book feeling somewhat cheated. I got older and wiser of course, and realized that a good book is one that leaves the reader asking more questions afterwards.
I was thoroughly absorbed by the book when that irritating noise of the old man squawking became louder. I heard a door slam and several footsteps running down the hall way, passing my room and the opening of the elevator. Ding! and the noise ceased. Finally I thought, a little peace and quiet. I read several passages from the book after that, intending to finish the chapter before I went to sleep but then I heard a ding! again with the sound of footsteps and two people talking, arguing, something unintelligible and of course, the squawking of the old man. A door slammed and I heard the shuffling of papers and dishes, then more arguing. A few moments later I heard the door open and close gently in the room across the hall from me. Ding! As the elevator opened, closed and hummed on its way down. The noise from the room with the squawking old man is still audible but down a few decibels from normal, almost a whisper just above background.
I finished chapter one of The Quiet American with a few notes written in my notebook, much of which were things to find out and places to visit. I was basically planning a trip of Vietnam while reading this book. See the old Continental Hotel and ridiculous items like that were already at the top of my list. The other half were the more dangerous outings like taking the road to Phat Diem, surfing in Da Nang, cross the Dulong bridge, a bus up north to Laos near the border town of Dien Bien Phu. Satisfied with my wish list, I turned off the lights and tried to go to sleep. The noises a few doors down I could still hear but I tried to ignore. I was tired enough that I actually fell asleep a few minutes after I lied down.