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Friday, May 03, 2013

Review of Red Flags: A Novel of the Vietnam War

Goodreads | Eric_W Welch (Forreston, IL)'s review of Red Flags: A Novel of the Vietnam War:

"We kill for peace," could be the motto of the US Army. 

The story is a nice mix of mystery, espionage, and social criticism.  Eric Rider is a CID agent on his second tour of Vietnam who is sent to the Montagnard area to interfere with the flow of money into VC and NVA coffers from the production and sale of drugs.  His ostensible cover is that of an intelligence officer sent there to collect information.  This provides the perfect mechanism for the author to reveal one of his themes: the ignoble treatment of the Montagnards.   

The Montagnards were miserably treated by everyone: the French, the Vietnamese, everyone, but were considered more trustworthy than the South Vietnamese by the U.S., especially the Special Forces, and the Montagnards cooperated, partly because of their hatred for the Vietnamese and partly because of the  promises of future independence (unrealistic) made by the Americans. The author clearly has a great deal of empathy for the Montagnards.  The scene where Rider assists in the delivery of a breech baby in a Montagnard village is quite extraordinary.  That he must later kill the child's father, a VC, makes it all the more poignant. 

One very interesting tidbit is that foreign civilian contractors were essentially immune from prosecution for any crimes they might commit.  Because Congress had not declared war, they were not subject to military courts or the Uniform Code of Military Justice, and because they were often American citizens they were immune from Vietnamese justice.  This situation led to some foreigners taking advantage of smuggling, black marketeering, virtually anything to enrich themselves.  NVA camps were found with piles of USAID rice.   

American soldiers were often placed in untenable positions, unable to trust the ARVN, who had been fighting foreign invaders for centuries and knew Americans were simply just a more recent variety of invader, nor American contractors and AID employees who were making piles of cash by playing off both sides, not to mention their own superiors who cared more about rotating in and out of combat zones just long enough to accumulate medals and "combat" time to help their careers.   Just why many Americans re-upped for second and third tours in Vietnam has puzzled many. Rider and Roberta, a USAID doctor talk about it.  "People who don't know who they are," is  what the Vietnamese called American soldiers.  Normality becomes ill-defined as soldiers returned to a society that didn't value them and was totally unreal compared to the super adrenaline flow overseas.  

There's quite a shocking (sorry) scene where Rider happens to see an extra wire running off one of the field telephones in the compound and realizes his phone has been booby-trapped.  They discover other electronic devices (tape recorders and such) set to blow up in the user's face. This was retribution by the local ARVN Colonel angry they had interfered with his profitable opium trade. 

The verisimilitude of the novel was lauded by many reviewers on Amazon who actually served in Vietnam and  the area  around Pleiku where it takes place.  I am completely baffled by a few reviewers who thought the book was boring. I could not stop listening and resented interruptions.   The audiobook was very ably read by Joe Barrett, one of my favorite narrators. 

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