Riding the Night Winds

Ron Ridenhour

  • Derailed in Uncle Ho’s Victory Garden: Return to Vietnam and Cambodia by Tim Page
    Touchstone, 248 pp, £14.99, April 1995, ISBN 0 671 71926 2
  • In the Lake of the Woods by Tim O’Brien
    Flamingo, 306 pp, £5.99, April 1995, ISBN 0 00 654395 2
  • In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam by Robert McNamara
    Random House, 432 pp, $27.50, April 1995, ISBN 0 8129 2523 8

In the days following the disastrous South Vietnamese incursion into Laos in early 1971, the people of Saigon became increasingly anxious. The ghosts of the thousands of unrecovered dead, it was said, the spirits of the men who’d gone across the Laotian border and never come back, were streaming home on the night winds, seeking answers to their fate.

Twenty years after the collapse of the US surrogate regime in Saigon, the ghosts of Vietnam are still riding the night winds home to America. For those of us who answered the call of America’s false political prophets, only to lose our innocence, our friends, our limbs and far too often the joy in our lives, those ghosts are never far removed.

Three men, each in his own way seared by the war, have recently published books whose central themes revolve around Vietnam, the war and its consequences. Each, in his own way, is introducing us to his own ghosts. Two, former British war photographer Tim Page and former American grunt Tim O’Brien, face the darkness squarely. The third, former US Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara, merely pretends to. In his own way, however, each writer tells the story of a quest or a flight, a search for redemption and understanding, a search for the truth, or an escape from it. Each, in his own way, is likewise a cipher for the American purpose and experience in Vietnam and beyond, but only O’Brien’s book, a work of fiction, is self-consciously so.

All three books were published near a date that has far more significance than the 20th anniversary of the reunification of Vietnam and the final, cataclysmic withdrawal of American forces from Saigon – 30 April 1975. April 30 1995 was also the 25th anniversary of the American-led invasion of Cambodia – the day American citizens erupted in a heartfelt but ultimately unsuccessful, month-long nationwide revolt against the war. And it was also the 50th anniversary of the end of the Holocaust and the beginning of the Third Reich’s reckoning with its legacy of war crimes. While they are absent from the pages of these books, the American leaders who played key roles in guaranteeing that Germany’s war criminals stood in the Nuremberg dock were the same men who set America on its brutal course in Vietnam, not to mention in much of the rest of the Third World. They, of course, have escaped any real-life reckoning for their own such crimes. Their successors, McNamara and company, the men who fed Vietnam through the mincer of US foreign policy, seem certain to do the same. America’s war crimes in Vietnam and beyond are absent from the stories told by McNamara and Page – just as they have been absent from American public discourse since the ‘fall’ of Saigon.

In Derailed in Uncle Ho’s Victory Garden, Tim Page – sometimes sad, sometimes mad, often funny and always stoned – leads his readers on a tour of Vietnam, south to north and south again into Cambodia. He frequently visits the DMZ, the old Demilitarised Zone, the symbol of Vietnam’s artificial bifurcation by the Western powers, at American insistence, in 1954. Fittingly, Page’s tale ends in the DMZ, where American involvement began; and, like Robert McNamara, Page finally concedes defeat, admitting that – although in a different context – he, too, never quite understood the Vietnamese.

Page’s modes of transportation are railcar, truck, marijuana and timewarp. He rides the last as often as the first, ripping back to 1965 and points forward while rolling up and down the spine of the country aboard Vietnam’s still rickety national railway in the actual year AD 1990. Three times wounded between 1965 and 1969, Page was one of the fabled Wild Bunch, a semi-crazed, war-loving gang of young, motorcycle-riding photographers and writers. Much of Derailed is the story of Page’s quest to discover the fate of two of his Wild Bunch sidekicks, American photographers Sean Flynn and Dana Stone. The focal point of the book, it sometimes seems, is a long paean to Flynn and Stone, who disappeared into the jungles of Cambodia during the US incursion there, never to be seen alive again by Western eyes.

Page also flashes back to his own personal horror stories. To my knowledge, no other journalist and few combat veterans survived as many ghastly wounds from Vietnam’s ‘acid nightmare’ as he did. Indeed, those wounds, his Wild Bunch membership and his dogged determination to return to the battlefield are the bedrock of the substantial Tim Page legend.

Page’s first brush with combat mortality came in the summer of 1966 when several pieces of shrapnel ripped into his face during the Buddhist uprising in Da Nang. Retreating to Hong Kong to heal his lacerations and restock his courage, Page returned to Saigon a few weeks later, again travelling north to Da Nang. To ease himself back into a warrior’s mind-set, he hitched a ride aboard a US Coast Guard cutter for what should have been a milk-run DMZ patrol. At 4 a.m. three days later US fighter bombers, mistaking the cutter for a North Vietnamese patrol boat, launched a withering attack. In a passage which captures the lunacy of the war and the terror America’s war machine visited on the Vietnamese every day for a decade, Page describes the crew’s desperate and futile attempt to identify their boat, bring the attack to a halt and save themselves. He saw one crewman vaporised, watched the cutter’s skipper get cut in half, and then, stunned and seriously wounded, splashed in the water as the vessel sank, before sinking into a morphine-clouded haze during rescue an hour later.

Page’s luck and nerve finally ran out in April 1969 when, ‘on a routine Time assignment’, he jumped out of a helicopter and stepped into the killing swathe of a command-detonated landmine. An American master sergeant three paces ahead of Page left his legs where he stood, the man’s torso blasted twenty feet into the air. Page remembers ‘only a strange wet feeling of sitting stunned, changing lenses, then staggering back to the chopper’. Shrapnel shredded his belly and another piece, ‘the size of a tenpenny nail’, lodged itself in the back of his skull. Logged as dead on arrival, his heart stopping three times in the emergency room, Page nevertheless survived, waking up the next day paralysed on his left side, blind in one eye, light ‘200 cc of strategic grey matter’. He was still in hospital a year later, having pieces of his head patched back together, when Flynn and Stone rode their motorcycles into the jungles of Cambodia – and legend. Sean Flynn, son of the legendarily bawdy Hollywood star Errol Flynn, and Stone, his most consistent sidekick, were two of the 19 journalists who vanished in Cambodia that spring. Tramping persistently back and forth through Cambodia’s killing fields, Page eventually unravelled the mystery of their disappearance.

Nearly three hundred journalists died in Indochina between 1945 and 1975. That fact, and Page’s anguish – survivor’s guilt perhaps – propel a new pursuit, and provide the theme for the remainder of the book. He resolved to wrest permission from the Vietnamese Government to erect a memorial in the DMZ to Flynn, Stone and all the other journalists who died.

That quest proves even more difficult than his original search for Flynn and Stone. It takes him north to the scene of Hanoi’s brief but bloody 1979 war with China, a war sparked by Hanoi’s intervention in Cambodia, then south again to the DMZ, then north again. In the course of these journeys, Page, through his various lenses, studies the lingering impact of the war and the resilience of the Vietnamese.

Much has remained the same in the old, American-occupied south. It has maintained its wily entrepreneurial spirit, a spirit that is quickly spreading north. Page describes bribing his way across the country, into and out of hotel rooms, airports, railcars, provinces and just about anything you can imagine with a favoured medium of exchange, 555s, a particularly coveted brand of cigarettes. Rusting carcasses of war still clutter the provinces, hordes of dispossessed scavengers still scramble daily through this landscape in a desperate effort to scratch out their survival. Today, however, the scavengers are not peasant refugees, but reeducated soldiers of the American regime. The refuse is the unexploded US ordnance which litters the countryside.

Through Page’s eyes we see the beauty of Vietnam as well as the horror and the excitement of the war that held so many bao chi – the Vietnamese for ‘reporter’ – with an often blinding fascination. ‘The war days had been the ultimate in experience.’ Page dreamily reminisces, ‘laden with a magic, a glamorous edge that none who went through it can truly deny.’ But despite this inclination to romanticise the war, Page’s recollections are singed with the anger and bitterness every veteran I have ever known feels – but usually keeps to himself. ‘Then,’ he says in a passage following the description of his final, nearly fatal wounding, ‘to have been a veteran instantly got you labelled as a murderer, baby killer, rapist, madman. Nobody wanted to know.’

Although he is often glib, Page at times writes with the stressed-out intensity he shares with GI vets. His story is flecked with images that read like delayed stress flashbacks: images which, if your own, it would feel better to forget. These visions sometimes seem to push their way into his prose unbidden, the way a beautiful glade in the middle of a city park on a Sunday morning suddenly transmogrifies into open ground a vet would not want to cross under fire. ‘There is nothing worse than plodding about squelching in wet running shoes,’ he writes in a passage describing his anxiety to keep his tennis shoes dry during a crossing of the Red River, which separates Vietnam and China. Wet tennies are ‘too akin to wet jungle boots in rice paddies in the war, feet forever damp, prey to rot, immersion disease, blistering and Agent Orange’. Any veteran will recognise such thoughts as our own, old ghosts which intrude uninvited at the least expected, and often, most unwelcome times.

In the end, Page’s memorial to the media’s war dead was not to be. In retrospect, he confesses in the final pages, he probably should have seen it coming. But even he, an old Indo-china hand, had, like the US Government, failed to understand. It was, he was told, ‘a question of sovereignty and perseverance’.

In his latest book, Tim O’Brien, perhaps the most critically acclaimed of America’s Vietnam-obsessed novelists, has written an extended metaphor about Vietnam, American politics, politicians and foreign policy. A veteran himself, O’Brien served in Quang Ngai province in 1969, roughly a year after the My Lai massacre. In the process, he trudged unwittingly through the ruins of My Lai, a place American GIS then knew as Pinkville. O’Brien’s ignorant passage through that place of tragedy and unconfessed truths, has driven him to produce a mystery so clever and mysterious that few reviewers appear to have understood it.

For those who, like Robert McNamara, remain necessarily, self-servingly clueless about what really happened in Vietnam, In the Lake of the Woods is that strangest of all mysteries, the whodunnit in which the puzzle apparently remains unsolved. Did O’Brien’s protagonist, John Wade, murder his wife? Or not? And what happens to Wade himself? O’Brien does not tell you – at least not directly. The conundrum has so confounded most American reviewers that, after a few lines detailing the primary components of the central plot – including O’Brien’s discomforting focus on the My Lai massacre – most have quickly segued into discussions of O’Brien’s previous novels.

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