Vietnam War

Book Review – The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Viet Thanh Nguyen’s brilliant character crafting made me sympathize with the communist sympathizer in The Sympathizer. This year’s Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction earned the honor for that feat alone. The author didn’t stop there, however. He presented not just a unique take on the experience of a North Vietnamese agent under deep cover as an officer in the South Vietnamese secret police. This gifted novelist also delivered an exceptional character study of a “man of two minds.”

I liked Mr. Nguyen’s atypical choice of character names; or rather, in many cases, the lack thereof. He told the majority of the story through the nameless narrator’s confession; a person whom others in the story simply referred to by his military rank: “Captain”. We also met the “General”, his wife “Madame” and—most memorably—“the crapulent Major.” These unorthodox apellations gave the tale a unique character all its own.

It’s difficult for a novelist to generate reader sympathy for an unreliable narrator. It’s nearly impossible to do so with one who is a traitor and engages in morally objectionable activities to cover it up. I won’t give away spoilers, but several of the Captain’s actions caused his guilt to overwhelm him to the point of making him hallucinate.

While the narrator may have had misgivings about his dubious conduct, he didn’t allow them to influence his behavior. The author, therefore, humanized the character through his recollections of his departed mother. While consulting on a film regarding the war, the Captain painted her name on one of the prop gravestones in a cemetery. He explained why:

At least in this cinematic life she would have the resting place fit for a mandarin’s wife, an ersatz but perhaps, fitting grave for a woman who was never more than an extra to anyone but me. (Location 2589)

Most authors insert clever uses of language into their works. Nguyen included more than most. Here are my favorites.

Besides my conscience, my liver was the most abused part of my body. (Location 1934)

What was it like to live in a time when one’s fate was not war, when one was not led by the craven and the corrupt, when one’s country was not a basket case kept alive only through the intravenous drip of American aid? (Location 411)

Before the communists won, foreigners were victimizing and terrorizing and humiliating us, now it’s our own people victimizing, terrorizing and humiliating us. I suppose that’s improvement. (Location 2554)

One only needed to ask why the idealist was not on the front line of the particular battle he had chosen. (Location 3536)

And the most notable: “We would all be in Hell if convicted of our thoughts.” (Location 3368)

I was suffering from an eye injury when I began reading The Sympathizer. Because of that, I opted to listen to Francois Chau’s audio narration of the book. While I thought it excellent, I did catch one mistake. The line in the text read, “Innocence and guilt. These are cosmic issues.” (Location 1756) During the narration, Mr. Chau said comic as the penultimate word. I point this out because the error altered the sentence’s meaning.

The author set the pace and delivered tension exceptionally well through most of the book. The most noteworthy example occurred towards the beginning when the Captain and General evacuated South Vietnam. In one of the most outstanding passages in modern literature the aircraft came under enemy fire. Between scenes like this and the various tense conversations the sympathizer had with other characters the novel held my attention.

This is why the Captain’s interaction with the Commandant and the Commissar disappointed me. At this point the book became heavily philosophical. While relevant to the story it froze the pace. This section reached its climax when the captors placed the Captain under duress and forced him to answer the question, “What is more precious than independence and freedom?” I remembered that issue coming up earlier in the book. The drawn-out interrogation caused me to lose interest in the answer.

In spite of this one shortcoming I’d still recommend reading the novel. Mr. Nguyen found creative ways to keep the story interesting. During this portion of the narrative the author wove in a surprise plot twist. In addition the Commissar expressed his concurrence with Ayn Rand’s observation that those who support communism never lived under it.

In the opening of the book, Mr. Nguyen wrote, “After all, a talent is something you use, not something that uses you.” (Location 173) The brilliance of The Sympathizer shows how both can influence the same author.

Book Review: Zinky Boys by Svetlana Alexievich

Ms. Alexievich explained her goal as writer to animate the “feelings of war.” (Page 8) She achieved this by presenting Zinky Boys through personal interviews. She told the story of the Soviet experience in Afghanistan from the late 1970s through 1989. The resulting book illuminated an emotional portrayal of anger, sorrow and disillusionment. As the author published it in 1990, those interviewed presented fresh recollections of their involvement.

Many have compared the USSR’s involvement in Afghanistan with the American war in Vietnam. I can understand the parallels. Many Afghansti—the nickname for the Soviet soldiers–expressed great anger and resentment towards their government. Those in power had multiple explanations as to the need for military intervention. The Afghan government required help with the socialist revolution there. The Soviets’ southern border needed protection. While there, the troops came to doubt these rationales. A private who fought in the conflict said, “We were given medals we don’t wear and will probably return, medals honestly earned in a dishonest war.” (Page 18)

Numerous combatants commented on the lack of empathy they received upon returning home. (While Americans in Vietnam served a one year term, the Soviet government required a two year tour of duty in Afghanistan.) The best quote in the book came from a construction engineer. He spoke with the author about earlier excerpts that he’d read from her work-in-progress.

These boys were heroes! They weren’t fighting for any so-called “mistaken policy”. They fought because they put their faith in us (the Russian people). We should kneel before every one of them. If we truly faced-up to the comparison of what we did here (at home) with what befell them there we might go mad. (Page 186)

That’s a very intelligent and incisive observation of what society owes its men and women in uniform. It should also remind policy makers of von Clausewitz’s dictum about mobilizing all of society for war.

The Afghanistan endeavor never had popular support. Most civilians living in the USSR expressed either apathy or contempt towards returning personnel. This led a Major from the propaganda section of an artillery regiment to remark, “Don’t confuse the ones who sent us with those who were sent.” (Page 89)

Alexievich aimed to connect with readers emotionally. Here’s a devastating passage from a former Private.

When it was our time to go home we expected a warm welcome and open arms—then we discovered people couldn’t care less whether we’d survived or not. In the courtyard of our block of flats I met up with the kids I’d known before. “Oh, you’re back—that’s good,” they say, and went off to school. My teachers didn’t ask about anything, either. This was the sum total of our conversation:

I, solemnly, “We should perpetuate the memory of our school fellows who died doing their international duty.”

They: “They were dunces and hooligans. How can we put up a memorial plaque to them in the school?”

People back home had their own view of the war. “So you think you were heroes, were you? You lost a war, and anyhow, who needed it apart from Brezhnev and a few warmongering generals?”

Apparently, my friends died for nothing, and I might have died for nothing, too. (Page 77)

As a young man I recall reading descriptions of Vietnam as a “conflict”. The Soviet Union never declared war in Afghanistan, either. The government referred to those lost as “Died in the execution of his international duty.” That’s an awfully glib way to refer to someone who gave his/her life in the service of his/her country.

Since Moscow never declared war, they didn’t issue soldiers with ID tags, or dog tags as Americans call them. The government didn’t provide them out of a fear they would fall into enemy hands. (Page 170)

The people interviewed commented on the troops’ poor training. One solider practiced with live ammunition only once before going to Afghanistan. This lack of training may have led to their despicable treatment of civilians. Units engaged in “revenge actions” by burning fields and killing livestock. A soldier shot up a melon stand when he thought a vendor charged too much money. In her diary the author commented on, “The limits of morality defined by the commands they receive.” (Page 3) I’m not sure the instances I cited had anything to do with superiors’ orders, though.

The esoteric choice of title is my only criticism of the book. At one point a deranged woman told a mother that her son would return from Afghanistan a “zinky” boy. It took me a while to understand the reference. The military buried those killed in action in zinc lined coffins. To be fair to the author, when I did understand the title, it added much more impact to the overall narrative.

I abhor Communism. It’s one of the few things in this world I truly hate. But still, I have great respect for the Soviet soldiers who fought in Afghanistan. Like anyone they had hopes and dreams, loved their families and believed they went to war for the betterment of the “Motherland.” Like the tragedy inherent in Shakespeare’s Brutus, they acted nobly but made a wrong choice. An anonymous person explained to the author: “We must distinguish the war from those who took part in it. The war was criminal and has been condemned, as such, but the boys must be defended and protected.” (Page 193) Perhaps the Soviet experience in Afghanistan has more in common with another American military endeavor.

Thank a Veteran

It’s a time of year where we all enjoy spending time with friends and family. Let’s never forget those who are unable to because of their commitment to defending our country.

I frequent a Starbucks near a local military base. I often encounter men and women in uniform there. Even if I have to go out of my way, I always make a point to express my gratitude for their service. Most politely smile and thank me for my support. I do remember a special encounter I had with a veteran several Christmas seasons ago.

I saw an Air Force captain standing in line with a woman I presumed to be his wife. I walked up to him and said, “Thank you for your service.” His head jolted back. After a brief pause he extended his hand. As I shook it he thanked me. His wife also seemed surprised while she thanked me, as well. This time I was the one who politely smiled back.

I returned to my seat and resumed reading the current edition of Foreign Affairs magazine. (For those who don’t appreciate what our veterans are doing for us, try reading that publication.) Over my shoulder I noticed the captain and his wife sitting at the table across from me. His gaze firmly locked on me. Visions of an unanticipated trip to the Air Force recruiter entered my mind.

I let out a mild sigh of relief as the captain and his wife stood up and walked to the door.  Before leaving he approached me. He extended his hand once more and said, “I just want to tell you how much it means that you thanked me.”  I tried to pshaw the idea, but he was adamant. He’d just completed 90 days in Afghanistan and was home on leave for Christmas. He sincerely appreciated the recognition for his service. It troubled me that it surprised him so much.

Seeing him and his wife reminded me of my own family history. My father, Ed Stephany, Jr., served in Vietnam. He and my mom had only been married three years when he received his draft notice.  They’d just started their new life together. With a new bride at home and a job that had been going very well, Dad dutifully entered the Army. On his very first day in country his bunk mates told him how fortunate he was to be stationed in Nha Trang. “We never get attacked,” they laughed. That night the Tet Offensive began. My father and his unit were shelled several times a week for the next year.

Thank a veteran.

People in my family have served in America’s conflicts going all the way back to the Revolutionary War. I’ve never personally served in the military. I have no illusions as to why my entire generation hasn’t been subject to mandatory military service. The sacrifices of our service people past and present allowed us that luxury. Let us never forget to express our appreciation to those in uniform. We all owe them, their families and friends an immense debt of gratitude. It’s one that we’ll never have the capability to repay. At the very least, especially during this Holiday Season, we can say, “Thank you.”

Book Review – Promise and Power : The Life and Times of Robert McNamara by Deborah Shapley

Many called Robert McNamara the “greatest management genius” of his era and yet today his name is synonymous with failure, mismanagement, and deceit. In this book, Shapely narrated this “whiz kid’s” meteoric rise to the heights of respect and prominence, through his downfall and disgrace as the architect of “McNamara’s War”: the tragedy that was the Vietnam conflict.


Shapely described McNamara’s education as the formative years of his life. He received an undergraduate degree in Economics from Berkley and later received his MBA from Harvard. McNamara was driven to do so by an idealistic belief that management was the key to solving the problems that plagued his society. He was an ardent believer in the capability of business to benefit society.


In school, McNamara learned the concepts of statistical controls and “throughput” which were pioneered by Donaldson Brown at du Pont and later adopted by Alfred Sloan at General Motors. These ideas were to shape American industry and make the 20th Century the “American Century.”


McNamara rigorously applied these ideas to first the U.S. Army and later to Ford Motor Company. For his efforts, he rapidly rose through the ranks of both organizations: he left the Army as a Lieutenant-Colonel and eventually rose to the Presidency of Ford. The later was a post he held for only a month as he was summoned by newly elected President John F. Kennedy to accept a position of even greater responsibility to society: that of Secretary of Defense. Because of his belief in public service, it was a call he couldn’t refuse.


The majority of Shapely’s narrative focused on McNamara’s seven years as head of the Defense Department. It was to be a tumultuous time as McNamara’s unshakable faith in statistical controls was to alienate many members of the military, and later the American public as a whole.


Shapely sharply criticized McNamara’s management of the Defense Department. McNamara took the ideas of economies of scale he leaned at Ford and contracted to design a plane that could be used both by the Navy and the Air Force. Both services didn’t like this concept, but it went forward anyway as McNamara believed, “the more important the decision, the fewer people should be involved in making it.” The plane never got off the ground and the project was later scrapped.


McNamara’s intractable belief in his brand of management blinded him to larger political considerations. Shapely described the cause of the Cuban Missile Crisis as a “political issue” as opposed to a matter that jeopardized U.S. national security. She also disparaged how McNamara tended to promote people in the military who were “numbers crunchers” instead of individuals with “operational” proficiency. And then there was the Vietnam War…


McNamara has been pilloried by many historians and journalists for his conduct of the Vietnam War. Shapely emphasized the duplicitous way in which McNamara was positive about the way the war was going in public and yet expressed grave reservations in private. The biggest criticism of McNamara was his “gradualist” approach to the war; in other words, his belief that the war in Vietnam could be a war fought with limited means for limited ends.


This may seem like an inordinate amount of criticism for the “greatest management genius” of his age, but Shapely had more to come. Shapely disparaged McNamara’s presidency of the World Bank. Through his emphasis on “throughput” McNamara made development the Bank’s primary mission. While this was a well intentioned move on McNamara’s part, it led to the developing world becoming overloaded with debt.


Shapely painted a very tragic portrait of our longest serving Secretary of Defense, but there’s a larger point that she missed. Robert McNamara was a brilliant man who received the best education this country had to offer. He studied and mastered the conventional management theories of the time and applied them rigorously in every organization he worked. He did exactly what he was trained to do and did so better than anyone else in his time. He applied these lessons in some of the most powerful public and private institutions in the world: and today “the computer with legs” is regarded as the epitome of hubris and failure. That is the tragedy of Robert McNamara.