New Excerpt from “The Reach of the Banyan Tree”

In this excerpt, the small teen, Long, who is large in spirit and hatred for the French colonialists, insists on trying to shoot a rifle and almost ends up shooting an Allied plane. Setting: Tan Trao – Tonkin, French Indochina – July 16, 1945. Enjoy.

“Can I try?”

“We don’t allow skinny school boys to shoot,” said one of the gruff soldiers.

“I’m not a school boy.”

“Well, you should be.”

“I wouldn’t go to a French school if you paid me,” snapped the precocious teen.

“Well that’s good because there aren’t any French schools around here, and I wouldn’t pay you to wipe my boots. What are you? Eight?”

“I’m fourteen, and my uncle says I can join the revolution in eight months.”

“I didn’t know they were allowing babies into the army now,” another soldier jested with him.

“I’m not a baby.”

“You could have fooled me. You have to be taller than a rifle to actually shoot a rifle.”

The gaunt, malnourished, height-challenged youngster scoffed at those petty remarks. He may have been small, but he had the spirit of a warrior who wanted nothing more than to help the revolution. His uncle had taught him a hatred for the French that bred easily amongst the weary-laden souls living in a war-torn colony that had suffocated under eighty years of the foreigners trying to squeeze blood from their Asian turnip. The French, somehow, found a steady stream of income where there was no money or resources, with only the raw-boned determination of the Vietnamese peasants willing to work all day for a bowl of rice gruel. The abuse was all well documented—the rubber plantations that used corvee labor in near slave-like conditions to produce the sap to profit the large French corporations. The French imposed a quota on alcohol that each village was required to purchase whether they wanted it or not and whether it took away from their necessary grain purchases. They opened opium dens, addicting large portions of the male population while forbidding the sale of opiates of any kind in France itself. They purposefully kept the education system unattainable for the vast majority of the population, giving a French education to just enough Annamese to fill the necessary low-level administration posts in order to serve the colony and the French Empire.

“Come on. Let me try one.”

“Go ahead. Teach him a lesson,” said one of the soldiers.

“All right. Here you go.”

He put the outdated French relic on his shoulder and pointed it down-field towards a broken wooden crate with an “x” painted across it.

“Watch this,” said the cocky young man.

His eye lined up along the barrel and pulled the trigger hard but nothing happened.

“You have to pull it back further.”

“I know,” said Long.

“You know about as much as my ox.”

He flinched once and pulled back with his finger as hard as he could. The barrel went flying upward and the shot rang out into the heavens as Long blew back onto the ground.

“What are you shooting at?”

“Must be that plane there,” chimed in another soldier.

On the horizon, the rolling hum of a C-47 pierced the sky.

“Idiot! That’s a friendly plane. It’s the Americans.”

Long hoped that the trajectory of the bullet didn’t find its way into the path of the Allied plane. As he watched it get closer, shouting could be heard in the camp.

“They’re coming! They’re coming!”

“Slim. You better hurry or you’re going to miss it!” yelled Long.

You can pick up a copy of The Reach of the Banyan Tree HERE!

Kindle $2.99  Paperback: $10.79

 

Know Your History: Christmas Invasion of Cambodia, 1978

The beginning of the end of the dark periods of modern history began on December 25, 1978, when a sure-footed, well-oiled, Vietnamese fighting machine crossed the border, heading straight towards the nearly deserted Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh.

The ramifications and irony of such an invasion were lost on many people at that time, and even today, it’s a period of Southeast Asian history which few people know much about.

Pol Pot, the enigmatic and dogmatic Communist leader of Cambodia, had created an illogical and frightening socialistic society. (We’ll have to deal with how he got there at another time.) His vision for Cambodia, inspired by Mao Zedong’s cultural revolution in China in the mid-1960s, was to create a completely agrarian society by removing every vestige of western, political, religious, and modern influences. This was cultural divergence on an unprecedented scale. Everyone was driven out of the cities and forced into labor camps, completed at the mercy of Anka, the all-knowing party. Kids were ripped away from their parents, taught to have allegiance only to Anka. And then the killing began. Elderly, educated, those with ties to Americans, those who spoke a foreign language, those who wore glasses, etc …  The hit list was long and brutal. Different factions of the party couldn’t be trusted, and purge after purge began, spilling blood on an unimaginable scale – eventually to be known as The Killing Fields. Upwards of two million, nearly 1/3 of the entire population of Cambodia was caught up in the unrelenting killing. This was the time period from 1975 – 1978.

But the Vietnamese did not cross the border on Christmas day in order to stop a humanitarian crisis. Something else had been brewing as well. Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot turned his eyes towards southern Vietnam, claiming the entire delta as belonging to the Cambodian people. He severely resented  the Vietnamese and ordered cross the border raids, slaughtering entire Vietnamese villages.

The Vietnamese tried to bring international attention to these atrocities, but no one was interested and in fact hardly even believed them until a western journalist documented the case. Why were the Vietnamese being ignored? Much of the western world considered the communist Vietnamese government to be nothing more than a pariah, one who had reneged on the Paris Agreement on Vietnam, until they eventually overwhelmed the South Vietnam government in April 1975. The west had little interest in worrying about the border issues between two communist countries. It eventually began evident to the Vietnamese that if they wanted the Khmer Rouge to stop the attacks on the Vietnamese border, they would have to do it themselves.

So they did, starting Christmas 1978. So forceful and effective was the Vietnamese fighting machine, that they rolled through the countryside, pushing into Phnom Penh and liberating much of the country from the Khmer Rouge in a matter of weeks.

In a twist that is in hindsight quite ironic, the U.S. and other allies condemned the Vietnamese invasion, which, they thought, proved their point that the Vietnamese government was nothing more than a pariah state, wanting to conquer more lands.

On the ground, however, the reception was very different. The Cambodian people welcomed the Vietnamese, thanking them for overthrowing the Khmer Rouge.

Only after this invasion did word of the real extent of the Killing Fields begin to spread around the globe.

The ramifications of the invasion were great:

  • China retaliated against Vietnam in early 1979. (more on that later)
  • Vietnam (unwisely) outlived their welcome in Cambodia, putting a pro-Vietnamese Cambodian government in power and leaving their troops in Cambodia for a decade, further alienating them from the rest of the world.
  • The Cambodian people, dazed and desperate, began a long, long journey back to normality. For perspective, it took thirty years to have the first Khmer Rouge trial in Cambodia. It started in 2009. A whole generation of people were scarred beyond imagination – no family untouched.

For a fascinating read on this incredible topic, I especially recommend Nayan Chanda amazing book, “Brother Enemy.”

Viet Minh and USA Relations in 1945

Part of my Master’s Thesis that I wrote a couple years back dealt with the Viet Minh, the Vietnamese nationalistic rebels who warred with the Japanese and French during and after WWII. The Americans had some very interesting interactions with them in the summer of 1945. Some have called these interactions nothing less than a missed opportunity which may have drastically altered the future geo-political alignments in southeast Asia. No matter what may have changed, the Viet Minh-USA relations in 1945 are fascinating – so fascinating, in fact, that I based a good portion of my third novel on a Viet-Minh-American connection. So in this post, I just want to highlight a paragraph from my thesis which outlines the politics of the region in the summer of 1945. I’m sure I’ll connect it to my novel at a different time.

 

After the initial contacts between the Viet Minh and the Allied forces in southern China, the U.S. sent some OSS officers to Ho Chi Minh’s Viet Minh headquarters in Tan Trao, one hundred miles north of Hanoi (Marr, “Vietnam” 286). The OSS officers spent several weeks training Viet Minh forces (Marr, “Vietnam” 364), which the Americans believed could be used to help fight the Japanese. The views of certain officers who came into contact with Ho during that time bolstered the claim that the Americans, perhaps in hindsight, had missed an opportunity by sidelining the Viet Minh’s nationalistic movement in favor of French restoration. OSS lieutenant Dan Phelan, who began his mission to Vietnam leery of the possible communist connections of the Viet Minh, soon raved about the Viet Minh, stating that they were “patriots deserving full trust and support” (qtd. in Marr, “Vietnam” 289). Other military personnel with boots on the ground in Indochina expressed the opinion that Ho could be trusted as a democrat at heart who cared about American ideals (Bradley 136-139). But the fractured nature of affairs in Washington had already delineated military operations with political realities as OSS assessments of the developments of Indochina had no bearing on policy toward the French. The OSS troops in Vietnam that summer were not privy to the fact that the non-French trusteeship model for Indochina was sidelined and that the administration had shifted its goals to the assumption that the French would once again rule Indochina (Marr, “Vietnam” 291). However, from a military standpoint, Washington did not want to limit the use of any groups, including the Viet Minh, to further military objectives (Marr, “Vietnam” 291). As the summer plodded on, the Americans helped train the Vietnamese, who were preparing for the end of the war to declare their independence, and hoped that this eventual announcement would be backed by the U.S. These naive hopes were later crushed by the Truman administration’s continued support of France’s control in Indochina.

Know Your History: Indochina 1945 from a Page in my Novel

I’m going to change up the “know your history” post this time around and use a direct quote from my new novel, The Reach of the Banyan Tree, to emphasize the strange WWII ties which existed in Indochina in 1945. Here’s a short paragraph from the chapter entitled “The Strange Ways of the Universe”:

On a cosmic scale, it all seemed kind of absurd. Communist trained guerrillas fighting to overthrow the Japanese, so that they could get a chance to overthrow the French, whom they really hated. Communist trained guerrillas, working with the communist Chinese in cooperation with the nationalist Chinese to fight against the imperialist Japanese with the help of the Americans. Americans, working with the communist Chinese and the communist-leaning Vietnamese, while ignoring the French of Indochina who had kowtowed to the Germans and cooperated with the Japanese, even though their Free-French brothers fought side-by-side with the Allies in Europe. So it was. July of 1945 in Indochina was a political and military mystery—common threads tangled in the strangest of ways.

Commentary: Confusing, isn’t it. But that was the truth and this confusion is what led the Viet Minh to feel confident to declare independence for Vietnam on Sept 2, 1945. They hoped greatly that the Americans would have backed their bid for independence. If only they had, history would have told a much different tale, and the Vietnam War may not have happened. But of course, it is futile to play the “what if” game with history. There is only that which “was”.  And so it was in the summer of 1945.

Ho Chi Minh & Truman: Part II

Part II of my post from yesterday: http://wp.me/p25YFc-C8  – The second part of this post even talks about Tan Trao, the mountainous headquarters of the Viet Minh which is home to the glorious banyan tree which inspired my third novel, soon to be released.

Ho took up the mantle of fighting for Indochinese independence by supporting the Allied cause against the Japanese, much like the CCP did in China. By the summer of 1945, Ho’s independence movement found itself in a favorable position with the French reeling from the Japanese takeover and Tokyo facing mounting war pressures.

Throughout the early months of 1945, Ho hoped for an Allied invasion of Indochina, which he believed would spell the end of French colonialism, commenting that “he would accept a million U.S. soldiers [on Vietnamese soil] but no French” (qtd. in Rossiter 29). Ho met with U.S. Air Force General Claire Lee Chennault in the hopes of gaining American favor by offering intelligence information on Japanese operations (Bradley 125). This solid intelligence led to a favorable impression of Ho by the OSS, which received approval to work more closely with him and the Viet Minh (Bradley 125-126). After the Japanese overthrew the remaining French administration in March 1945, Emperor Bao Dai declared Vietnam unified and independent under Japanese protection (“Summary”). But Ho and the Viet Minh did not jump on the Japanese bandwagon as they saw the bigger picture of the Allied defeat of Japan being of immediate more importance than the end of French rule. The Viet Minh resisted the urge to let their colonial animosity strike out against French soldiers retreating from the Japanese and even supplied the French with military provisions and intelligence (Marr, “Vietnam” 203). As the final summer of the war progressed, Ho and the Viet Minh worked closely with the OSS in hopes of building mutual goodwill and trust.After the initial contacts between the Viet Minh and the Allied forces in southern China, the U.S. sent some OSS officers to Ho Chi Minh’s Viet Minh headquarters in Tan Trao, one hundred miles north of Hanoi (Marr, “Vietnam” 286). The OSS officers spent several weeks training Viet Minh forces (Marr, “Vietnam” 364), which the Americans believed could be used to help fight the Japanese. The views of certain officers who came into contact with Ho during that time bolstered the claim that the Americans, perhaps in hindsight, had missed an opportunity by sidelining the Viet Minh’s nationalistic movement in favor of French restoration. OSS lieutenant Dan Phelan, who began his mission to Vietnam leery of the possible communist connections of the Viet Minh, soon raved about the Viet Minh, stating that they were “patriots deserving full trust and support” (qtd. in Marr, “Vietnam” 289). Other military personnel with boots on the ground in Indochina expressed the opinion that Ho could be trusted as a democrat at heart who cared about American ideals (Bradley 136-139). But the fractured nature of affairs in Washington had already delineated military operations with political realities as OSS assessments of the developments of Indochina had no bearing on policy toward the French. The OSS troops in Vietnam that summer were not privy to the fact that the non-French trusteeship model for Indochina was sidelined and that the administration had shifted its goals to the assumption that the French would once again rule Indochina (Marr, “Vietnam” 291). However, from a military standpoint, Washington did not want to limit the use of any groups, including the Viet Minh, to further military objectives (Marr, “Vietnam” 291). As the summer plodded on, the Americans helped train the Vietnamese, who were preparing for the end of the war to declare their independence, and hoped that this eventual announcement would be backed by the U.S. These naive hopes were later crushed by the Truman administration’s continued support of France’s control in Indochina.

Ho Chi Minh & Truman: Part I

My new novel coming out in a couple weeks, “The Reach of the Banyan Tree”, is in no small part a by-product of my love for 20th century Vietnamese history. Unlike most Americans who study Vietnam, I became much more fascinated at the 1945 connections between the Americans and the Vietnamese rather than the Vietnam War itself. This led me to write my master’s thesis on the topic of Roosevelt, Truman, and the shifting of US policy toward Indochina at the end of WWII. All of this is clearly connected with the story I created about Charles Carson, the fictional character who helped train the Viet Minh in the summer of 1945 before the Japanese capitulated. It’s a fascinating story – both the real one of the OSS team that came to Indochina and the fictional one that I had a blast creating. The following two posts come from my master’s thesis on the topic. And while it may be thick with references and rather boring academic stuff, I hope my underlying fascination of the time period seeps through. Here is part I:

Another matter of great importance that received only cursory acknowledgment from the Truman administration in the summer of 1945 was the issue of the Viet Minh and its leader for Vietnamese independence, Ho Chi Minh. The stature of Ho Chi Minh and his resolve to overthrow the French loomed large in the subsequent two decades of American Southeast Asian foreign policy, but in 1945, his faction was, to the Americans, nothing more than a curiosity and potential pawn to be used against the Japanese. Ho Chi Minh, known by the name Nguyen Ai Quoc (Nguyen “The Patriot”), founded the Indochinese Communist Party in the early 1930s. He arrived in southern China by 1940 to work alongside the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) guerrilla trainers, who were tasked to help Chiang’s effort in mounting a guerrilla resistance against their common enemy – the Japanese (Duncanson 60). The transformation of the CCP during the war years would not have been lost on Ho. The CCP’s image was strengthened by the United Front, formed with the Nationalists, against the Japanese invaders, demonstrating “the willingness of Communists to subordinate their own interests to national ones” (Gordon 167).  The CCP’s focus on the Japanese also convinced millions of patriot Chinese that it was using its energy on defeating the invading Japanese, when, in fact, the Japanese were the only ones who prevented the Chinese Nationalists (KMT) from completely decimating the Communist movement (Gordon 166). As Gordon states, “The CCP thus made itself appear the embodiment of moderation, reformism, and pragmatism rather than radicalism” (167).  Ho would have been conscious of the CCP’s tactics of cooperation against the Japanese as he initially came into contact with the Americans during this time (Duncanson 60). These contacts later proved useful to him during the Vietnamese drive for independence in 1945.

Ho, more a pragmatist than an ideologue, confused the KMT in some respects as to his true intentions, and eventually ended up in prison. Staffers at the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) – the precursor to the C.I.A. – saw a possible tool for the Allies in Ho Chi Minh and suggested that the U.S. could apply pressure on China to secure his release to support the Allies’ cause (Gardner 44). Ho likewise saw cooperation with the OSS as a possible way to further the cause of Vietnamese independence, but this view was widely disputed between the U.S. intelligence community, which tended to trust Ho, and the diplomatic corps, which did not look favorably upon the enigmatic Viet Minh leader (Gardner 44). The Chinese thought Ho’s popularity “threatened their control” but, after being pressured by the Americans, they released him from prison to head the Vietnam Revolutionary League only after he agreed to follow the lead of the KMT (La Feber 1283).

Tomorrow: The Viet Minh and the Americans in the summer of 1945

 

Happy Vietnamese New Year (and a reminder of Tet ’68)

Chuc mung nam moi!

Happy ‘Tet’ everyone. January 31 marks the most important holiday of the year for the Vietnamese. Yes, yes. It’s the same as Chinese New Year, but no self-respecting person from Vietnam who speaks Vietnamese (like myself) would ever refer to it using the name of their northern neighbor. It’s ‘Tet’! For the Vietnamese, it’s like Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s all rolled into the one. It’s the only work break of the year for some workers and shop owners. It’s the time to travel back to one’s hometown “que” and visit relatives and enjoy the revelry. It’s truly a time of celebration. I wish all of my Vietnamese friends around the world the most joyful Tet yet!

Below, I’m re-publishing a post I wrote about Tet 1968 which you may find interesting. It was originally published on this blog during Tet 2012.

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I enjoyed many Tet holidays in Vietnam, visiting neighbors, being stuffed with delicacies by eager grandmothers who wouldn’t be satisfied until I would hold my stomach in agony and beg her not to put more on my plate. (She always did anyways.)  Tet is a wonderful time for family and friends to commune and feast while the trials and troubles a a year’s hard work are long forgotten. It’s a three day, non-stop heaping dose, celebrating Vietnamese life. It’s a time to remember the past, enjoy the present, and drink for the future.

But for a different generation of Americans, the word “TET” means but one thing – a horrible reminder of the pain of war from 1968.

The Tet Offensive in 1968 changed the Vietnam War, but it didn’t do so in the way you might expect. Leading up to the Viet Cong attacks on the first day of their New Year, the American people had been led to believe from their government that great progress was being made in freeing South Vietnam from the Communist instigators who had been reeking havoc in the delta and central regions of the country for nearly a decade. But the Tet Offensive proved once and for all that the reassuring words from Washington via the press corp were hollow at best and possibly down right deceitful.

On the first night of Tet 1968,  the Viet Cong pulled off nearly fifty coordinated and simultaneous attacks which caught the Americans and the South Vietnamese armies off guard. From the former Imperial city of Hue, to the central highlands where American missionaries were killed, to the fortified city of Saigon itself, these attacks reverberated loudly throughout the country, the world, and especially the American media which drilled home this point to the American people – we were not winning the Vietnam War.

It mattered little that American firepower pushed back every single one of these advances. That’s right. America won them all, but the Viet Cong delivered a devastating punch and a massive dose of reality to the American people. From that point on, cynicism crept in and led to one of the most turmoil filled years in American history, from President LBJ deciding not run for president again, to the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, to the urban riots, the Tet offensive set the stage for them all.