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Saturday, August 20, 2011

"Red Flags," a REAL novel about Vietnam

Hell no, I didn't go. My number was 80, so I could've gone. My local draft board sure wanted me to--my vice principal at Long Beach Poly, Ed Eveland, was top hand there and personally refused by C.O. application with a stern, "I can't let you do this to yourself."

My other bona fides for reading a book about Vietnam? Well, first, let me explain why I think anyone would need permission or approval. It's because of Rambo, the movies, and all the vets blamed for being psychos or drug addicts. It's because of every Hollywood screenwriter who needed a cheap and easy backstory, whether for a hero or a villain. It's because of the writer friend who drank late into the night and said, heavily, "I should've gone and I didn't and I missed the formative experience of my generation. Now I'm afraid I'll never write a real book."

Yes, he talked like that. Drink makes us stupid and also, unfortunately, quotable.

My bona fides: I reviewed about 20 Vietnam novels for Kirkus Reviews during the Great Nam Boom, roughly from 1984-92. I reviewed books by veterans, mostly. I also read everything about the war I'd fought against, as a lifelong captive of military history.

Dad was an Annapolis grad. His classmates were family friends. One spent a good portion of the war in the Hanoi Hilton. We talked on the front steps before he left when I was a teenager and the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution had just passed. "This is not going to be a good war," he said, resplendent in whites.

I already knew that. By ninth grade I'd read The Quiet American, The Ugly American and Sarkan, a novel set in a Vietnam-like country. I knew that we would be the clumsy, plodding, self-sabotaging bureaucratic occupying force. Raised on WWII war movies that exalted the outnumbered Americans fighting the occupying hordes--because who would ever make a movie about a country that ground down its opponents through sheer industrial might, as we did, in WWII?--I knew in my guts how this script would play out. Hollywood gets a lot of blame for prettying and exalting war, but in the case of Vietnam, more often than not, they got it right. Just try to watch The Green Berets (1968) with John Wayne, then rent or download, if you can find it, Go Tell the Spartans (1978). What a difference a decade makes. What a difference the truth makes.

This is a lot of throat-clearing to get to Red Flags, a novel of Vietnam that is somewhat mischaracterized by its publisher as a crime-and-detection story set in a war we think we know. Yes, there is a crime and there is a pair of detectives, military CID guys going undercover in the bush outpost to find out the identity of a drug smuggler in the Central Highlands. But the real crime is Vietnam, the war, and not just the American presence, or the French before that, but the ethnic-racial internal war waged by the Vietnamese on both sides against the aboriginal Montagnard tribes.

The story is credibly told, after a teaser of a prologue, and the writing relaxes into brilliance once the main character, Erik Rider, is in country. This story never leaves the jungle and its people: the CIA guy, the regular Army guys, the corrupt Vietnamese Army officer, his VC and NVA counterparts, the missionaries, the grunts, the flyboys... The whole sick crew is ably represented, but without the broad brush-strokes. And best of all, though Red Flags is full of the details of drug smuggling, and the reason dope is an underlying theme in every Vietnam story, this isn't a doper's fantasy out of High Times Magazine, the way some Vietnam fiction and film has been, including the two blockbusters, Apocalypse Now and Platoon. (I love the former and tolerate the latter.)

If you love a book written for all the right reasons--i.e., not to get rich, or inflate one's masculine cred, or to get your ticket punched, as they called it over there--then Red Flags will reward you. Unlike many Vietnam books, and most war books, it will appeal to readers of either gender. If you are a woman reading this, yes, there is a woman character (whew!) and she's essential to the story. (There are actually several, including a Montagnard wife and mother.) Red Flags is a love story, no doubt about that.

If you are a quasi-botanist or -naturalist or -anthropologist, or simply appreciate sharp and accurate description, Red Flags will finally describe Vietnam in a way that sticks with you. The author, Juris Jurjevics, says he read a thousand books about Vietnam and I believe him. But he wears his learning lightly, as they say.

And, if you are an obsessive about war and military history, like me, then you will appreciate the way tactics and weapons are employed in the service of the story. If you aren't an obsessive, you'll appreciate it even more, because, while weapons abound, there are no gratuitous passages for the Second Amendment wankers. (Though they will snap up the scenes when Rider and a LURP team go after a VC commander, as I did.)

Now, for the comparisons. Red Flags joins Herr's Dispatches, Caputo's Rumors of War and Stone's Dog Soldiers on the top shelf. Also Steven Wright's now overlooked Meditations in Green (which I reviewed out of the box for Kirkus) and John Laurence's massive memoir The Cat From Hue, which is, to my mind, the best book about Vietnam besides Red Flags for a modern reader who wishes to approach the war without the intrusive echoes of Coppola's and Oliver Stone's films.

But Red Flags' closest affinity, for me, was not a book about Vietnam, but one about an obscure conflict in South America that also involved tribes and missionaries and mercenaries: Peter Matthiesson's grand moral tale, At Play in the Fields of the Lord.

Red Flags is by Juris Jurjevics, who is, let it be transparently noted, an old friend and even a former publisher of mine (Hot Water, Soho Press, 1991). He has written a true book, a real book, suffused with love for those caught in the machinery of war and politics and corruption.

As were we all, pal, as were we all.


Red Flags is at all your finer, and harder to find, bookstores and websites:

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