Monday, June 06, 2005
The novel that blasted the war wide open!
The book was published in 1965, and most of it is set in 1963. It's kind of creepy.
The vignette I'm reading right now involves a guy by the name of Major Arklin whose job is to secretly train Meo tribesman in Laos in case the Pathet Lao (like the Americans) break the treaty that ended the Laotian civil war. In the chapter just ended, Major Arklin got in career threatening trouble when a 'straight-leg colonel' showed up at the Meo village for a surpise inspection. The colonel was upset because Arklin and the Meo were drinking the day before a (possibly suicidal) mission. Major Arklin tried to explain that the Meo are superstitious people and won't listen to him if he doesn't join them in their primitive rituals, but the colonel wouldn't have any of it. Apparently, drinking before battle is something that Americans are too civilized to do.
A lot of the book is like that, explicitly drawing a contrast between sophisticated virtuous American soldiers and dissolute barely civilized asians who would be helpless in the face of the godless communists if it weren't for the presence of a few dedicated green berets.
The most striking example occurs early in the novel, when it's discoverd that the Viet Cong has infiltrated a strike force advised by the green berets. There's a grotesque scene in which the Vietnamese intelligence officer Sergeant Ngoc -- acting under the approving eyes of his American advisors who praise Ngoc as "more refined than most" -- tortures a suspected VC by driving a needle underneath the suspect's thumbnail with a hammer. A few pages later the Americans bring in their own interrogators to finish the job:
"Good enough." Farnham turned to his sergeant. "Stitch here is an expert with the polygraph. If anybody can find the answers for you, he's the man."
Lieutenant Cau opened the door and three guards shoved a tiger-suited striker into the room. He looked around fearfully and then saw the ominous-looking equipment on the table and recoiled. He was shoved roughly into the chair.
Stitch walked over to the frightened striker and said a few words in Vietnamese. The prisoner looked up, swallowed, and nodded. Farham leaned toward me. "The only Vietnamese Stitch knows is how to say, 'We want to ask you some questions. If you tell the truth you won't be hurt.'"
The intelligence officer chuckled. "But the Vietnamese think he understands every word they say even though he uses an interpreter."
The reassuring words did little to erase the fear written on the suspect's face, and when Stitch started attaching electrodes to the striker's wrists and then wrapped the blood-pressure tubes around his biceps and started to inflate them, terror shone from his eyes.
Stitch flicked a switch and made some adjustments on the machine. A needle began to oscillate. Then, through the interpreter, Stitch began to ask questions. Ngoc was fascinated with the machine and stared at the needle. It quivered as the interrogation proceeded, and then even before the translator put the question into Vietnamese it vibrated noticeably. Stitch had said "VC."
The prisoner denied he was a VC. The needle jumped.
Ngoc grasped the significance of the box at once and in an instant was on the prisoner, cuffing him sharply on the ears. The prisoner let out a startled yelp and gave Stitch a betrayed look.
"Tell him I said he won't get hurt if he tells the truth," Stitch said. "Tell him every time he lies the box tells me." Stitch went back to casual questions, forming a pattern of needle oscillation when the striker told the truth. Ngoc watched the needle intently.
"Do you know of any other VC who have infiltrated the strike force?" Stitch asked. The question was translated. The striker shook his head and said no.
The needle jumped and once again Ngoc was upon the prisoner, backhanding him across the temples.
Stitch waved Ngoc away. He turned the dials and a humming noise came from the box. He pumped more air into the rubber tubes around the prisoner's biceps. "Now," Stitch said to the interpreter, "you tell this man that if he lies to me again the machine will blow his arm off."
From the look of terror on the striker's face there was no doubt he believed the infernal machine was quite capable of blowing his arm off or perpetrating any other form of fiendishness.