Many books have been written about the Vietnam War; memoirs from the men and women who experienced the blood and dirt of the war, fictional accounts of the grunts in the boonies, and allegorical novels of things that never were. As a veteran of that conflict, I’ve read most of them, impressed by some, troubled by many, and entertained by a few, but never before have I read a novel about Vietnam that affected me so profoundly as Targets by Don McQuinn.
Marine Major Charles Taylor, a Korean War veteran, about to end his service after being denied promotion to lieutenant colonel, is starting his second tour in Vietnam. Burned out and disaffected, he’s not looking forward to spending his year as a paper-pusher in the headquarters in Saigon, but as a good marine, he goes where he’s ordered. When the gruff, but enigmatic Colonel Winters offers him a job with his top-secret, off-the-books unit, Taylor is not impressed at first, but then decides, ‘what the hell!’ and accepts the assignment. The research unit’s mission is to conduct counterintelligence operations to neutralize or eliminate the enemy—regardless of which side they’re on.
Very quickly, Taylor finds himself mired in intrigue, deceit, and betrayal—and, at the same time, he finds love, only to have it snatched away. He’s forced to decide just how far he’s willing to go, and whether he can do his job and still retain his honor.
Though fictional, this book tells the story of Vietnam in a way that few before it have been able to accomplish. The reader is taken into the minds and hearts of the people on both side of the battle lines, but more importantly, those who inhabit the middle ground, and those who fight in the shadows, where success is not rewarded with medals and adulations, and failure is met only with contempt.
f you think you understand the war, after reading this book, you’ll realize that you didn’t know jack. This one will keep you up at night, long after you stop reading.
A resounding five stars.
I received a free .pdf copy of America’s Destruction of Iraq by Michael M. O’Brien in exchange for my review.
While I find the author’s views on presidential powers a bit naïve, and some of his history of the Vietnam War is a bit off the mark (I served in that war, so I have first-hand knowledge), his assessment of the politicization of the military’s senior officer corps and the cluelessness of civilian politicians of both political parties is pretty insightful.
I don’t agree with his comparison of the wars in Vietnam and Iraq—again, I participated in the first, and served as a senior Pentagon official during the second—but, he does get it right on Iraq. For that matter, his judgement of the mistakes made in Vietnam is pretty good, despite what I view as a mistake in equating the two wars. For instance, there wasn’t nearly as much reliance on or use of contractors (especially security forces) in Vietnam as in the second Iraq war. The arrogance of civilians with limited or no military experience, and the timidity and dereliction of duty of senior military leaders is a problem the country has had since Vietnam.
Having said that, the book loses steam through the author’s apparent insistence that war is an all or nothing affair, which demonstrates a lack of understanding of the current age. Nor does he seem to believe or understand that there is a place for diplomacy and compromise even after the shooting starts.
Now, at this point, a reader will probably have concluded that I didn’t like this book. On the contrary—I found it an interesting read, even the parts with which I disagree. The author is at his best when he’s describing events in which he was a direct participant, making this an essential read for anyone who wants to understand the quagmire our politicians have dragged us into. That he does not spare his ire for either party is also refreshing, as so many books about this war tend to take one side or another.
The key take-away from O’Brien’s book, and one that should be engraved on a plaque and presented to every American politician: pay attention to history and learn from it. I give it three and a half stars.
In 1968, artist Andy Warhol said, “in the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” I don’t know exactly what he meant by that; nor do many others who have paraphrased him, but I think he was probably right. I do know that, after 50 years of roaming the globe, and, often like the character in ‘Forest Gump,’ being on the fringes of momentous events, I’ve probably accumulated my 15 minutes – and, maybe even a few seconds more.
If being seen in a movie counts as fame, though, I think I had my quarter-hour in the limelight in 1990, or maybe it was 1991, when I had the opportunity to be an extra in the movie, ‘Air America,’ starring Mel Gibson and Robert Downey, Jr. Unlike those who actively seek notoriety, my moment under the lights was a combination of pure accident, and being in the wrong/right place at the right/wrong time.
I was the U.S. Consul in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai when the movie company came to town to do the location shooting for this black comedy about the Vietnam War, and the exploits of the CIA’s airline’s operations in Laos. They recruited some 50 people in Bangkok as extras, many of them Vietnam veterans who’d settled in Southeast Asia rather than returning to the U.S. As a matter of information, I too am a Vietnam vet, but I’d chosen to enter diplomatic service after leaving the military over running a bar in Patpong.
One of my duties as consul was to provide services to American citizens in the area, and unfortunately, one of the movie company’s assistant directors, an Israeli-American, became ill and died shortly after they arrived. His was a complicated case, because his American relatives wanted the remains shipped to Israel. I was around the set so often taking care of his affairs, someone (and, I no longer recall who) suggested I be an extra in the film’s bar scenes which were being filmed at a local pub. My boss, the consul general, and the embassy approved, and since the filming was being done at night, I didn’t even have to miss work.
After several days of ‘drinking,’ ‘dancing,’ and ‘carousing,’ for the camera; all make believe, but very much like activities I’d participated in in the 60s as a young military man; the company began packing up to travel to Mae Hong Son, on the Burmese border, to film the flight and pilot briefing scenes. I was asked to go along to be an ‘extra’ pilot. Again, the embassy approved, provided I used my personal leave to do it. No problem, I thought, after all, it might be fun.
It was; in Mae Hong Son, most of the shooting was during the daytime, so evenings were free for my wife and I to explore the border area. We even had a couple of free days that allowed a visit to a nearby village occupied by the famous long-neck women. I had a chance to spend an evening with Mel Gibson; barely recalling riding back to my hotel on the back of his rented motorbike; and shoot the breeze with some of the other actors like Tim Thomerson.
But, we’re still getting to the ‘fame’ part. During the shooting, the director finally noticed that even though the film was about the Vietnam War, a war in which a large percentage of the American GIs were people of color, there were only two ‘extras’ that were non-white. Kudos to Roger Spottiswoode; he had a small role written in – or maybe it was there all along and they just hadn’t cast it – of a few lines. It was near the end of the movie, when the Mel Gibson character ‘rents’ a military plane to move his ‘collection’ of weapons, and features Gibson, Downey, and the ‘dispatcher.’ Someone suggested I read for the part, along with three or four other guys, including the only other person of color, and to my utter surprise, I was chosen.
I mean, I had to sign a contract and everything, and the rate paid for filming that scene was more than I got as an extra for two or three days shooting. It was done in two takes – and didn’t end up on the cutting room floor, although, in final editing, they dubbed in someone else’s voice. I didn’t get to go back to L.A. with them – no sense trying to push my luck, I figure.
The movie only did so-so in the theaters, but it’s been on cable movie channels around the world regularly. I saw it on South African cable around this time last year, and several people have mentioned seeing someone who ‘looked like me’ on hotel cable when they’ve been traveling. It’s also available on DVD for anyone who is a fan of not quite B, but not A movies either.
It was fun doing it, although, I wouldn’t think of acting as a profession. Hours are too erratic, and with all the food on movie sets, unless you have a real action part, you’re in danger of putting on weight.
Now, you might well ask, what does this have to do with anything? Well, nothing really; I just happened to be getting a jump on spring cleaning and ran across a faded copy of the contract I signed way back then, and thought it’d be a fun thing to write about.