With the introduction of conscription in 1960, and the increasing possibility of its involvement in the conflict in Indo-China along with its ally, the United States, the Australian Defence Ministry recognized the need of a special unit within its armed forces to conduct ‘off the books’ missions to support national interests and security. Major Jack Roberts, who had served as an observer during the partition of Vietnam following World War II, was selected to command and train this special unit.
Roberts chose as the first members of his team, a group of diverse young men and a beautiful and patriotic young Vietnamese woman, and trained them on an isolated island.
Men With a Mission by Gordon Smith is the story of Roberts’ activities from the beginning of what we know as the Vietnam War through the immediate post-war period. It addressed the increasing American involvement and the problems faced by the Western allies as they struggled to deal with a culture and war they failed to understand. Incidents of misbehavior of US-backed forces in Vietnam, the actions leading up to the Khmer Rouge takeover of Cambodia, and the ‘secret’ war in Laos are all presented with rich detail. Against this backdrop of cultural misunderstanding, political corruption, and the long war, the team’s activities, and their subsequent history unfold.
While the theme of the book is somewhat epic, and extremely educational, the fact that it’s presented as semi-fictional (I found it hard to distinguish fact from fiction), it suffers from the ‘telling’ of the story rather than ‘showing’ the reader what happened through the dialogue and actions of the protagonists. Some of the most moving incidents, for example, lose a lot of their impact due to the lack of a ‘personal’ focus that would come from them being portrayed through the eyes of those involved.
Done in a more action-oriented style, this book could easily be transformed into a movie in the style of ‘Full Metal Jacket,’ or ‘Apocalypse Now.’ The author has a good command of the language, and has obviously done a lot of research—having served as a soldier in the war during the 60s and 70s, and a diplomat in China, Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia from 1983 to 2005, I can attest to the accuracy of many of the incidents portrayed. Changing the style of presentation would make this not just an interesting book, but one that would fill many of the gaps in the history of the region and its conflicts that currently exist.
I received a free copy of this book. While I give it high marks for the theme and research that went into it, the excessive ‘telling,’ forces me to give it three stars. I hasten to add, however, that this is an author with great promise, and look forward to reading future offerings.