(Seattle: Thirty Second Street Raccoons Publishing, 2013)
So Long, Vietnam, a muscular, vigorous, even darkly comic, antiwar novel about the Vietnam War, is built around the premise: “What if Richard Nixon gave a 1970 invasion of Cambodia and the US GIs didn’t show up?” For that is the ending of this well-crafted novel, and presents very plausibly how a mass exodus of American GIs could have ended the war by simply refusing to fight it anymore, and marching instead on Saigon demanding to go home.
But So Long, Vietnam is not just premised on supposition, it is also based on fact, partly autobiographical. For the crucial meeting of Bros (disaffected African American GIs) and Heads (disaffected white GIs, many of whom used drugs to escape the tedium and purposeless danger of Vietnam service) was a real event, according to King, that led to the mutiny described in the novel. Many of the other incidents portrayed are also based on real events that King either experienced directly or heard about from other veterans. This is fiction based fundamentally on fact.
Self-disclosure: Brian King and I have communicated with each other by e-mail for the past three years (though we have never met in person) and have many parallels in our lives. Both of us are 67 and were active in SDS in the 1960s. King and I also had brushes with the military draft; but while I was classified 1-Y, King ignored his order for induction for a year, but then voluntarily turned himself in for Army service rather than face prison time.
Although he was trained for combat duty, King did not actually serve in Vietnam—but assiduously listened to the stories told him by returning soldiers he ran into in the Army. These give So Long, Vietnam a realism that’s apparent even to the reader unfamiliar with military life. So Long, Vietnam thus succeeds as a well-written and believable novel, and not just as an antiwar screed—which it is also, and powerfully so.
Another parallel in King’s and this author’s lives is that both of us had involvement with the Maoist Progressive Labor Party (PL) back then—mine as a rank-and-filer in the PL-initiated Worker-Student Alliance caucus in SDS, King’s as a member of a PL group trying to organize fellow GIs (though both of us broke later with PL). This shows in the novel’s generally favorable view of PL’s military work that’s given in two brief sketches, especially where a PL member who had served in the military advises an antiwar GI. This may be off-putting to some left political readers, who will applaud the novel’s positive portrayal of antiwar GIs generally, but may be queasy when this is extended to PL, because of PL’s centrality in the faction fight that destroyed SDS in 1969 at the height of its membership and influence.
The main narrative of So Long, Vietnam begins in 1969, and is a chronicle of three draftees whose lives intertwine in military service: Tom Kelly, an antiwar activist reporting for induction after draft-dodging for a year, who in important ways is an autobiographical portrait of King himself; Frank Dunlop, a vaguely anti-Establishment government clerk in Sacramento; and Willie Tuggins, a Black activist from South Carolina. The novel actually begins with a Prologue set in Vietnam in 1968, when a conscientious military helicopter pilot attempts to stop a massacre of Vietnamese villagers by US forces and reports it to the high command—a village known as My Lai. This helicopter pilot comes back, surprisingly but completely realistically, in the last part of the novel.
King has a remarkable ability to maintain flow throughout and make everything believable, from the three main characters all arriving to serve in the same Vietnam combat unit; to the GI mutiny over invading Cambodia; to the panicked and angry response within the White House, where King’s imaginative portrayals of Nixon, H.R. Haldeman, and their underlings are completely believable and in character with the public record.
Various vignettes drive home the message that, indeed, “War is hell”: a gung-ho young officer insisting on walking on what he’s warned is a booby-trapped path has his legs blown off; two GIs in the unit, one of them a lifer bragging how he’d raped a Vietnamese girl, are found dead and mutilated; an interrogation by US forces of a Vietnamese village turns violent because the villagers there speak only Vietnamese, and cannot answer the interrogator in the only languages he understands, French or English. Other vignettes remind us that “War is heck” too: the defusing role played by Army-provided watery free beer; the mickey-mouse and petty sadism of boot camp and combat training; the US combat unit suddenly pinned down by a unit of the North Vietnamese Army, which harangues the GIs politically before letting them go after taking all their weapons; and another unit of GIs accidently attacked by “friendly fire” ordered by a gung-ho officer eager for promotion.
So Long, Vietnam’s portrait of Army life both stateside and in Vietnam is simultaneously surrealistic and realistic in that quietly Kafkaesque way reality often is. Same goes for the myriad vivid, believable character portrayals throughout.
While marred, unfortunately, by a few notable typos, So Long, Vietnam is a book well worth having, reading and sharing, a strong and gripping addition to antiwar literature.
Reviewed by George Fish
Writer, poet, stand-up comic