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Cereal History

We are nine days away from Uprooted's March 8th release.

I am trying to breathe a little easier now the hard work is done. I also have the opportunity to read and watch the books, TV serials and movies about Vietnam that I had avoided during the latter part of the writing process, for fear they would lead me off Tung's story.

The merits of such avoidance will soon become clear. I have just started watching the History Channel's recent “Vietnam In HD” series. An emotive documentary, but one that presents such a specific account of the war, it runs the risk of being misleading.

The first episode included the Gulf of Tonkin incident. Occurring seven months before American troops landed, it was a key moment for the Johnson administration, which used it as justification for the resolution that permitted the President unlimited war-making powers.

It offers a key moment for me, in that I can justify a blog post, the contents of which I've barely permitted myself in the book. It is fascinating, but not relevant enough to Tung's story to justify the detail I'm now going to offer.

The show covered the incident in this way:

The North Vietnamese attack a U.S. destroyer in international waters off its coast. Two nights later a second attack is reported. Johnson uses the escalation to pass a war powers resolution through Congress.

I am no fan of the Communists. You'll have got that from last week's blog. But responsible reporting of the incident should surely include Johnson's provocation strategy. I felt like a proper researcher when I listened to Johnson's pertinent telephone conversations online (at the University of Virginia).

Johnson's Secretary of War told him:

"We had four TP [sic] boats from [South] Vietnam, manned by [South] Vietnamese or other nationals, attack two islands, and we expended, oh, 1,000 rounds of ammunition of one kind or another against them. We probably shot up a radar station and a few other miscellaneous buildings. And following 24 hours after that with this destroyer in that same area undoubtedly led them to connect the two events."

Clandestine raids along the North Vietnamese coast had incited the reaction against the American ship.

The History Channel put together an excellent documentary, and the constraints of time forces editorial decisions on you. Even writing the book, I had to cut out more than I would have liked. But they are clearly telling a particular version of history that will be most palatable to their audience.

In Uprooted, I also present a selective reading of history. But I have also tried to remain skeptical of all sides, including the South Vietnamese. Even Tung and other members of the family will not be happy with certain things they read about themselves. But if I present a picture, airbrushed of the bad stuff, the caricatures that remained would only be fit for the back of cereal boxes.

Treat everyone with suspicion and at least you can claim impartiality. That has surely been Jeremy Paxman's maxim and it hasn't done him too much harm.

So the raids had happened as a result of provocation. Johnson warned Hanoi that “grave consequences would inevitably result from any further unprovoked attack.”

More costal raids followed. Then two nights later sonar operators aboard two U.S. ships believed they heard incoming torpedos during a storm. Both ships took evasive action and began firing in all directions.

Washington received a message summarizing the attack: "The Maddox says she's evaded about ten torpedoes ... two craft were sunk ... as far as we can tell there are only three [North Vietnamese] boats, but that doesn't count out to that many torpedoes ... sounds to me like there are more boats than just three."

John White, a nuclear weapons officer and later witness on the Fulbright committee, recalled a conversation with the chief sonar operator on the Turner Joy, another U.S. ship in the area. "He told me that in his estimation there were no torpedoes fired at the ship or otherwise during that alleged attack, and that furthermore he constantly repeated this ... information to the commanding officer on the bridge."

Incredibly, when Hubert Humphrey – upholding that fine tradition of the Vice-President putting their foot in it - “blabbed” to NBC about the covert raids, the resolution still passed 88-2 in the Senate and unanimously in the House.

Johnson commented privately a few days later, “Hell, those damn, stupid sailors were just shooting at flying fish.” The administration had only accepted the reports and opinions that reflected their preconceived notions, regardless of a changing reality. It was a pattern that would continue.

Those are two pretty big omissions from any documentary, regardless of its focus.

A story of good guys against bad guys is an easy one to tell. Even if the good guys lose in the end, it's still a tight, easy to digest meal that you can serve in milk from a colorful box.

It's tougher when the good guys have some bad in them, and the bad guys some good. That feels closer to real life. Which is why The Wire is one of the best TV shows ever made. Conceivably, it is also why Gulag Archipelago is so, so long:

“If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the head of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

Alexander Solzhenitsyn

For the sake of clarity, I should point out, Uprooted is not a history book. The historical stuff in there is designed to support the story.

I have to keep taking a breath and remember that for me, marketing is tougher than writing. In both tasks, it is important to stay on-point. So my revised point is this: Buy the book next week, not because you'll learn something about history, but because it's a fascinating, moving, uplifting, roller-coaster of a novel.

There's heavy drinking, gunfights and diving for turds in paddy fields. There're CIA agents, secret policeman, godless priests and pious nuns; nightclub singers, twitchy GI's and smart-aleck kids; storms, famine, and war after war after war.

So I guess I am playing to my audience. And I possibly have more in common with that documentary that I'd care to admit.

Next week's blog will include further shameless plugging, an apology or two, and perhaps a coupon for a box of Cap'n Crunch to compliment your reading ... providing Quaker get back to me.

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