Vietnam ‘snow job,’ Lawrence of Arabia and Pol Pot

| December 18, 2017 | 0 Comments
Black smoke covers areas of Saigon while fire trucks rush to the scene of fires set during attacks by the Viet Cong during the Tet holiday period in 1968. (Photo: U.S. government National Archives and Records Administration)

Black smoke covers areas of Saigon while fire trucks rush to the scene of fires set during attacks by the Viet Cong during the Tet holiday period in 1968. (Photo: U.S. government National Archives and Records Administration)

At about the midway point between Pearl Harbor and the collapse of the Twin Towers, the United States was the victim of another giant surprise attack. The pummelling assault on Hué, the old imperial capital of Vietnam, close to the sea, south of the Demilitarized Zone, was the work of communist Viet Cong guerrillas and regular North Vietnamese troops.
They struck on the first day of the Tet, or lunar New Year, when Vietnamese families pray for their dead, appeal to the Kitchen God for peace and prosperity and perhaps visit the tombs of the Nguyen emperors. In previous years, a ceasefire had been observed during the holiday season. That understanding was broken on Jan. 31, 1968, when a communist army flooded in from the north, joining two regiments that had already sneaked into the city and dispersed, waiting for a signal to be given. Thus began what became known as the Tet Offensive, which included attacks on a great many other cities and towns. At one point, the Viet Cong shot their way into the U.S. embassy in Saigon — briefly.
Hué was and is an attractive city on the Huong River (“the Perfume River”) and it had been built with military matters in mind. The majority of the citizens lived in the Citadel, the old city that slept behind kilometres of high stone walls, protected by moats. It was the home of a South Vietnamese garrison, but also a place that, until this time, had been largely left alone by the communists. Aside from some diplomats and the like, the American presence was limited to a small group of military advisers on the opposite side of the river. But once a rocket barrage announced the start of the attack, orders were given for U.S. soldiers and Marines to pour into the scene and lay siege. So began a 28-day fight that is often called the bloodiest battle of the Vietnam War, though there are many rivals for that title. Documentaries about the war often show footage of American troops huddled behind a wall, so badly pinned down that they can’t show themselves or look at the enemy, but must simply raise their automatic weapons over the top and fire wildly.
The above is the subject of Hué 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam (Grove Atlantic, US$30). Author Mark Bowden is best known for having written Black Hawk Down, which Ridley Scott made into a film of the same name. Bowden uses his familiar technique of telling the story painstakingly by recreating the actions and words of a mixed bag of survivors from both sides, following them day by day, even minute by minute. The book is somewhat like those old black-and-white Hollywood war movies that are sure to feature a young soldier who’s shell shocked, another who went to Harvard and a third who is nostalgic for his home in Brooklyn and pronounces these, them and those as dees, dem and doz. Here we have, for example, Marine Sgt. Alfredo Gonzalez, known as Freddie, who wins the Congressional Medal of Honor, and Big Ernie Cheatham, a former lineman with the Baltimore Colts and the Pittsburgh Steelers.

A game of winners and losers
DIPLOMAT_12-17-2017_0066The book’s women are vastly more interesting. For instance, Catherine Leroy, a French photographer, first followed the Americans, but later found the other side, known collectively as the National Liberation Front, to be better subjects. The character in the book who stands out most vividly is Che Thi Mung, by trade a maker of those conical straw hats called non-la. She was one of a group of teenaged girls, known as the Huong River Squad, who infiltrated the city under the cover of youth to reconnoitre. Bowden has chosen the right time to write this work as it’s the 50th anniversary of these events and enough survivors are still alive.
The most important figure in the story was likewise one of the most famous Americans of his day. Walter Cronkite, the anchor of CBS News, hurried off to Vietnam to see the retaking of Hué in person, and what he reported shook the fillings in the U.S.’s teeth. The North Vietnamese considered the capture of Hué a victory, but were driven out. The Americans, too, claimed to be the winner, though they were made to look foolish for not having known what was going to take place. Such situations often happen in wartime. Antietam, one of the key battles of the American Civil War, was a draw, though each side labelled the other as the loser.
There had been a similar situation in Vietnam only 10 days before the surprise attack on Hué, when a spot near the border with Laos was besieged by the communists. The place was called Khe Sanh, where U.S. advisers had been stationed since 1962. The Marine outpost there was considered especially important because it was so close to the Ho Chi Minh Trail in neighbouring Laos, the route by which the North Vietnamese supplied their fighters in the south. At the time, the U.S. was considering a full-scale invasion of Laos and U.S. president Lyndon Johnson demanded that the chiefs of staff promise in writing that Khe Sahn would never be allowed to fall. It didn’t, but only because 6,000 Americans and South Vietnamese somehow managed to withstand a siege until their enemy withdrew in early April. The U.S. suffered more than 200 fatalities. The overall American commander, Gen. William Westmoreland, claimed that the North Vietnamese lost 10,000. Or maybe 20,000. The general was well known for his unique military arithmetic.
Again, who won and who lost? Sometimes an event must have seemed pointless to both sides, but neither would admit it. In May 1969, the U.S. made an airborne assault on the Laos border, at a spot shown on maps as High 937, but actually named Apa Bia. There, the North Vietnamese, well entrenched on the peak, beat back four American and South Vietnamese battalions for 10 days, only to give up and move on. Life magazine outraged half its readers by running photographs of each individual American killed in the battle. Public opinion in the other half of the population had begun to shift when Cronkite, returning from Hué, told listeners that the Tet Offensive was proof that the tide was turning, that Americans were not going to win the war.
Certainly the offensive’s consequences were real. The events showed that Westmoreland was being “out-generaled” (he was replaced). In April, Johnson announced that he would not run for a second term. U.S. strategy shifted to what was called Vietnamization, the policy of getting South Vietnamese to do more of the fighting. Chaos was everywhere.
The Vietnamese in both camps were the direct descendants of Viets who resisted their Chinese adversaries for 1,000 years — literally, on our calendar from the 8th Century to the 18th. In various ways, they struggled with the French for almost 100 years, from the French invasion of 1858 to the final French defeat at Diên Biên Phu in 1954.
The North Vietnamese lost about 2,500 troops, killed in the fighting at Hué and massacred or otherwise executed, and at least as many civilians. As for the French war against the Vietnamese, French president Charles de Gaulle summed it up by saying “C’était une entreprise sale des deux côtés.” (“It was a dirty business on both sides.”) Let us leave it at that.

Forgotten tales

Robert McGill, author of War Is Here: The Vietnam War and Canadian Literature (Photo: Fiona Coll)

Robert McGill, author of War Is Here: The Vietnam War and Canadian Literature (Photo: Fiona Coll)

Except for giving some material support to the government in Saigon, Canada, fortunately, stayed out of the Vietnam War. That being the case, it is remarkable that Professor Robert McGill, of the University of Toronto, has been able to write a book as long as War Is Here: The Vietnam War and Canadian Literature (McGill-Queen’s University Press, $35.95 paperback). True, a large number of Canadian poets did write anti-war verse during the Vietnam period. He mentions many of them, but skips the most surprising instance — an anti-war screed by, of all people, Raymond Souster, who was otherwise a writer of nostalgic lyrics and gentle urban fantasies.
By contrast, hardly any Canadian novelists made hay out of the war directly. So McGill must fall back on that period’s intense nationalism and anti-Americanism. “Even today,” he writes, “ideas about what being Canadian means, or should mean, show the Vietnam War’s influence.” He does, however, find a number of the relatively recent Canadian novels about war resisters who came to Canada.
The newest such book appeared too late to be included: The Salvation Army Tales by Nancy Naglin (Creative Space Publishing, US$19 paper). After graduating from McGill University, Naglin, now a cultural journalist in the U.S., went to Vancouver to study the American exiles there. That was in 1972. She set the finished manuscript aside until this past autumn.
DIPLOMAT_12-17-2017_0068War Is Here is most useful in its treatment of political writing. I was surprised, however, that the author mentions Charles Taylor, the Montreal philosopher, but not the Charles Taylor who reported the war for the Globe and Mail and then wrote Snow Job: Canada, the United States and Vietnam (1954 to 1973). When Vietnam was split into two countries following Diên Biên Phu, Canada became part of the International Control Commission and remained neutral, unlike the other members, India and Poland, which favoured the North. This first commission was supplanted by another: the International Commission of Control and Supervision, with Indonesia taking over from India. In time, it became apparent that North Vietnam would not abide by the accords on which it had signed off. So Canada stepped aside and Iran took its place. It’s not a happy story, but Taylor’s is one of the keenest works on Canadian diplomacy.

The man who invented Lawrence of Arabia
Mitchell Stephens begins his beautifully written book, The Voice of America: Lowell Thomas and the Invention of 20th-Century Journalism (St. Martin’s Press, $37.99) by pointing out that hardly anyone these days remembers who its subject was. Well, that’s easily fixed. Thomas (1892-1981) was a newspaper reporter, author, broadcaster, movie-maker, traveller extraordinaire, and, most important, a showman of sorts. He became famous for his stage presentations about exotic places. They were lectures illustrated with still photos, audio and film and they drew millions of patrons around the globe. He wrote many books, but only one is commonly read now: With Lawrence in Arabia (1924). Interest in T.E. Lawrence has always been high. It’s even more so now because the map of the Middle East that he helped to draft has been, and is still being, redrawn. He was, indeed, a remarkable person. He was also five feet two inches tall and resembled Stan Laurel of Laurel and Hardy far more than he did Peter O’Toole, who portrayed him in David Lean’s film, Lawrence of Arabia.

Mitchell Stephens, author of The Voice of America: Lowell Thomas and the Invention of 20th-Century Journalism (Photo: Richard Moulton)

Mitchell Stephens, author of The Voice of America: Lowell Thomas and the Invention of 20th-Century Journalism (Photo: Richard Moulton)

Thomas first glimpsed Lawrence in Jerusalem in February 1918 when the First World War still had nine months to go. The still-obscure British officer had just taken part in the battle for Tafila (Jordan) and was rallying his ragtag Arab fighters for an assault on Deraa (Syria). He was almost 30 and was conspicuous only in the limited context of the military sidebar that was the British campaign against the Turks. But Thomas, who was only 25, gradually realized the potential of Lawrence’s tale, however true or untrue it might be. As Stephens writes, Thomas “recognized that an Englishman [at the head of] a group of Arabs on camels in successful desert raids against one of Britain and America’s enemies was news.” A year after their first meeting, Thomas had created “a show combining narration and music with slides and documentary film footage.” He considered it “a wholly new and spectacular form of entertainment.” At one point, he needed more photos of himself and Lawrence together. So they secretly met in London where Lawrence posed in his robe and keffiyeh.

The last, but certainly not the least…
At the latest count, Christopher G. Moore of Vancouver and Bangkok had published 27 crime novels, most of them set in the countries of Southeast Asia — cultures he knows intimately. But increasingly in recent years, this keen student of George Orwell’s life and work has turned his hand to serious political non-fiction as well, and he has endowed an annual international prize for the year’s best DIPLOMAT_12-17-2017_0070English-language book on human rights or free speech. In his latest work, Memory Manifesto: A Walking Meditation through Cambodia (Heaven Lake Press, US$14), he revisits the crimes of Pol Pot, who ruled Cambodia from 1963 to 1997, killing a quarter of the population. It is one of those rare books that is best reviewed by quotation. “In this book,” Moore writes, “I explore questions about the forces of memory annihilation. Who were (and are) they? How did they gain authority? What have their bankrupt ideologies, broken dreams and failed social experiments left behind? The meaning of absolute power over others is that you may use whatever means available to destroy, eradicate and erase […] the whole lot of existing memories and replace them with your chosen memory content. That impulse to power has always represented the greatest threat to human freedom and liberty.”

George Fetherling’s new novel is The Carpenter from Montreal.

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Category: Delights

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George Fetherling is a novelist, poet and cultural commentator

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