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Telling the Truth in Vietnam: The Spy Who Loved Us by Thomas Bass

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Like at least several members of my generation, my understanding of the Vietnam War is limited to a kind of shivery awful reverence felt in the presence of veterans, or when looking at photos of the great and glorious war dead.  My impressions are a mélange of movie stills (Willem Defoe), novels (Fallen Angels), songs (Adagio for Strings), photos (Eddie Adams), legends (friend’s dad’s Zippo collection), and, it must be said, Walter (The Big Lebowski).  I feel like this can’t actually be the case, but I simply do not remember learning anything about the Vietnam War in school.  I have read The Quiet American, but I had no idea what it was about, and I have read Tim O’Brien stories, which feature young men who had even less of an idea. Unfortunately for them, they still had to go and get themselves exploded, physically or otherwise.  Cue the Adagio, cue the hairs on the back of my neck.

Given my pathetically skewed and Forrest Gump-y understanding of the Vietnam War, I was very pleased to see The Spy Who Loved Us: The Vietnam War and Pham Xuan An’s Dangerous Game, which was written by my former college professor, Thomas Bass, whom I consider to be a huge fucking deal, not only because he writes books and was in The New Yorker, but because he taught a class wherein we read Neuromancer.  I’ll start my review with a digression, which is that there is a major problem with nonfiction books, regarding what to call them.  The truth being what it is (that is, stranger than fiction), nonfiction books with titles that accurately present the facts either sound absurdly melodramatic or tremendously boring. Some nonfiction books try to circumvent this by choosing titles of impossible vagueness, but that can end up worse.

Taking a short gander at the limited selection of nonfiction books in my home at the moment, I see a book called Rebel Land, a somber-looking read about Turkey with a title which could nonetheless pass as the forgotten third in the Gone With the Wind franchise (after Scarlett).  The Spy Who Loved Us attempted to solve the problem with a modest sort of pun, but puns tend to put everyone on the defensive right away.  I don’t know how to fix the problem (“Vietnam: WTF?”), I am just noting its existence.

James Bond references notwithstanding, The Spy Who Loved Us is, in fact, about a spy who loved us, “us” in this case being America, and the spy being Pham Xuan An, Reuters and then Time correspondent and go-to journalist in Saigon, who, while loving us and filing articles for the American news complex, spent his nights planning the Tet Offensive and writing messages to the North Vietnamese in invisible ink.  It’s a hell of a story.  In fact, it took me longer than usual to read, because there was much to process.  This book is not Vietnam 101, so I had to fill in some things on my own.

Given that the book is not 101, my hope of understanding the conflict remains unrealized, although I now have a better sense of how hard it might be to fully understand anything at all.  What I learned about the actual events are as follows:  the French were there, and felt very strongly that they should continue to be there, and espoused a (befuddling under the circumstances) enthusiasm for Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité.  The Japanese, were there, Chinese were also there betimes, and sometimes Koreans.  Vietnam told France to go away, but Americans were like, no, no, France stays (even though they apparently liked the Vietnamese when they were fighting the Japanese while France was collaborating furiously).  Then the Americans, for no reason that I can understand, started coming over for long visits and someone called Lansdale decided there was to be a war.  There was the North, which were the Communists, and the South, which were the non-Communists, except for the Vietcong, who were also Communists.  The Americans were with the South, and did something involving Catholics and puppet government.

Thomas Bass provides lots of background, but mostly to explain the education and evolution of Pham Xuan An, who, showing remarkable fidelity during several decades that would seem rife with near-constant turncoating, was a devoted (and heavily decorated) Communist. Through various channels, An worked in Intelligence for the South Vietnamese, and then as basically the most important journalist in Vietnam.  He seems to have been friends with literally everyone, but he was also a spy.  I know from John Le Carré that spies exist in nebulae and shades of gray, often simultaneously holding two incompatible views, and An was apparently no exception.  He seems to have been a moral spy, as moral as anyone could be during war.  In spite of spying, An, purportedly provided genuine assistance and objective reportage for every major news presence in Vietnam.

The thrust of the Bass’s book as I read it is that An was a purveyor of truths, as a spy and a journalist.  If journalism can be said to change the course of human events, An worked in two opposing ways to end the war, one directly, with a clear national objective, and the other obliquely, by reporting the ugly facts to the world outside (even if the ugly facts were subsequently rewritten by the Henry Luce/Time machine).  An’s story has breathtaking implications on a variety of fronts, which is clearly why Bass invested years and quite considerable effort to write this book (considerable effort admirably concealed, I should say; The Spy Who Loved Us reads like a book, and not a dissertation, always a threat in nonfiction).

The Spy Who Loved Us was well-researched and well-told by someone who obviously cares quite a bit about the material.  Reading it reminded me that I need to read more nonfiction, because history is full of incredible stories, and I know hardly any of them.  For example, I did not know that the CIA has admitted to orchestrating news stories like, a lot.  That a Quaker fellow self-immolated in front of McNamara.  That spies were incrementally cut into pieces to reveal their information, and that sometimes they didn’t.  That the man holding the gun in the Eddie Adams photo wasn’t such a bad guy to begin with.  That journalism is a byzantine nest of loyalties and codes of behavior.  That America lost the Vietnam War.

I will likely continue to ascribe certain cultural symbols of America’s Vietnam with a schmaltzy sacrosanctity (sleeveless jean jackets, empty helmets).  I sound facetious, but I think for people who experience history second- or third- or fifth-hand, for whom events have slim or no personal relevance, it is easy to make objects and images the locus of a lukewarm national sentiment. This book reminded me that the Vietnam War took place in Vietnam, not a tropical corner of America, and that Vietnam was full of Vietnamese people, who suffered horribly and made complex series of decisions, and for many of whom the end of the war was a victory wrested from a hundred years of occupation.  Throughout the The Spy Who Loved Us there are a number of people, American and Vietnamese, who describe An as the ultimate patriot, but it’s not as though the Vietnam War was simply Vietnam against the colonial and neo-colonial oppressors, it was between Vietnamese people as well.  And they all died in spades, so it seems likely there are people out there for whom An’s life and work would be a great source of rancor.  I don’t know.  It’s a lot to think about.  And it should be; war should always be a lot to think about.

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