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Saturday, June 9, 2012

Above and Beyond by Jim Morris


I was born during our nation's involvement in Vietnam, but by some strange combination of coincidences, I never learned what Vietnam was until I was 14 years old. Oh, I'd heard of the Green Berets (both the Special Forces soldiers and the movie made about them). I'd watched an episode of The Six Million Dollar Man with a scene depicting some wacked-out veteran's flashback of Vietcong chasing him through the jungle (though it didn't make sense to me until many years later..."Who are those people with the funny hats, Dad?"). And I'd listened to "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" on the radio and even memorized the lyrics without understanding their specific reference.

It might be hard to imagine now, but not only that, I had also absorbed the anti-American sentiments that were en vogue ever since that ugly conflict.

I obviously overcame that, in time.

I was cured of my ignorance about Vietnam eventually, too. By the time I myself was a soldier, many of the senior NCOs and most of the field-grade officers were Vietnam veterans. Until Operation Urgent Fury (Grenada), the most recent combat American troops had experienced was in Southeast Asia. Some of the jargon I picked up dated back to American occupation of Germany or Korea. But most of the Airborne Creole I learned (and remains a component of my dialect, to the chagrin of my family) was of French-Vietnamese origin.

I once had the opportunity to meet General Westmoreland. He was retired, but in uniform. We shook hands. I was young and dumb…but not so dumb that I dared ask him what was on my mind: “Yo, General, how did it feel being Johnson’s stooge? Was it worth the cost of so many American lives over there to accomplish absolutely nothing?”

OK, it would be unfair to hold him solely responsible, I know. But I never met Johnson, Nixon or Kissinger, who should have been held responsible. I might have been dumb enough to ask them some tough questions.

When something causes me to think about Vietnam, depending on my disposition at the time, I either become depressed or infuriated. So I have to be in just the right mood before I'm willing to read a book or watch a movie about that historical debacle. Since I've been in that mood from time to time over the years, I've read a few Vietnam war novels. One of the best was one I reviewed here on the 2-Fisted Blog not long ago: The Return by Charles W. Sasser.

Even more recently, I've had the pleasure of meeting (via the Internet) a friend of Sasser's, and a renown writer in the military fiction AND nonfiction universes: Jim Morris. I was somewhat familiar with Jim Morris' work by reputation; also because I'd read some of his articles and a very fun semi-parody of men's fiction called Breeder. But now his books are being re-released digitally for E-readers, and I've just finished his Vietnam war novel Above and Beyond.

This is a novel Morris began writing in the hospital in Japan in 1968 while recovering from wounds that ended his military career. His right hand in traction, he wrote the first draft left-handed. It took 36 years before Above and Beyond saw print. (Geez, Hell and Gone took eight years from completion to published and that was maddening.)

Morris won three Purple Hearts before the first combat troops were deployed to Vietnam and before the first anti-war demonstration. There have been a lot of Vietnam veterans who became authors, but Morris was in the first wave. You could even say he blazed the trail for others to follow.

Above and Beyond’s protagonist, Neil Thompson, was a third-generation West-Pointer. He was booted from the then-prestigious military academy for failure to report a roommate who cheated on an exam. As the story opens he is a Special Forces “Green Beret” in Vietnam, having had to claw his way, tooth-and-nail, into a deployment that so many others wanted desperately to avoid. Now he wants to go to OCS and receive a commission before his former classmates get theirs and outrank him (enabling them to make his life a living hell, as small-minded officers can).

Thompson was born to be a soldier—or at least he’s convinced himself of such. He’s a likeable guy, with some perhaps heroic qualities, but Morris kept him real. He’s got some cognitive functions that are not quite as noble as an action-adventure hero’s. They’re more like what you’d find inside the brain of a real-life human being.

Thompson and his zany team leader Shoogie are part of Project Theta. Theta’s mission is similar to that of the LRRPS (Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols), and, later, SOG (Special Operations Group/Studies and Observation Group)—basically snooping and pooping inside the enemy’s back door. Like author Morris did, they work closely with the Montagnards—the ostracized hill people of Vietnam.
In an army of unwilling cannon fodder the only elite volunteers were the paratroops; in the airborne the most elite were the highly-trained, independent men of Special Forces; and within the Forces the absolute crazies inevitably gravitated to the reconnaissance projects.
While in-country, Thompson meets and falls for Juliana, an International Volunteer Service worker. ( IVS was kinda’ like the Peace Corps…only the Peace Corps wasn’t in Vietnam.) You would think a dope-smoking progressive and a minion of the military-industrial complex wouldn’t last long beyond a one-night stand, yet what drama they do suffer is rather typical of military families.
There is just enough combat depicted to show what this aspect of the “police action” in Vietnam was like. Any more might have mired the reader down in the minutia of a tragically futile conflict with no sensible strategic objective.

When a leg general arrives to take command in Project Theta’s Area of Operations, Morris’s storyline struck a chord. What followed was illustrative of, not Vietnam, really, but the US Army’s officer corps dating back possibly as far as the Civil War…or farther.
“Frenier never admitted to being wrong about anything in his life. He won’t stop the attack, or go up the reverse slope. He’d throw away his whole brigade first.”
Brigadier General Frenier just happens to be the same officer (a bird colonel, then) who kicked Thompson out of the Point, too. He’s an unimaginative, vain, pompous ass. He does show a couple redeeming qualities after sacrificing his troops on the altar of his self-importance; but there’s no mistaking what kind of commander he is. And as far as the novel goes, the joke’s ultimately on him: He berates the marines once or twice as sacrificing their men needlessly, and knowing no tactic other than the frontal assault. Can you spell H-Y-P-O-C-R-I-T-E? And in case you aren’t sure what kind of father this egotistical boob would be to his children, we find out later that his son eschewed West Point for Annapolis and branched USMC.

One more interesting point about Frenier: Another character described him as “trying to fight World War Two with helicopters,” or something very similar.

I’ve seen this sentiment a lot in fiction. And if you hang out with people interested in military science, you’ll eventually hear the old adage: “Generals spend their peacetime careers planning to fight the previous war.”

There was an attitude in many circles during the ‘80s that conventional forces were just about useless; and future wars would be won or lost solely by special operations. Frankly, I found that idea about as cockeyed as Billy Mitchell’s notion that, after WWII, air power alone could win conventional wars. Morris purports nothing so extreme in this novel, but his characters rightly hint that the conflict in Southeast Asia (at least with the limitations placed on US forces by Washington) required a whole different combat doctrine.

Shoogie pointed off in the distance. "Who burned that village over there?"
The driver glanced in that direction. "We did," he said. "The people was supposed to be Cong sympathizers."
Shoogie drawled, "If they weren't before they sure as shit are now."

Police actions, by definition, allow little room for victory in any reasonable sense. Whatever his faults, MacArthur was a commander willing to do what was necessary to achieve victory. You know: like the war he’d just helped win in 1945. But in 1950 he faced an enemy with many fellow travelers in Washington whose concept of victory had (and has) nothing to do with America (or any representative government) prevailing in any given struggle. The MacArthurs had to go. All hail the Westmorelands.

Ahem. I warned you what Vietnam does to my mood. I’m choking back my instincts to rant on about politics and military strategy.

By the time of Vietnam, the MacArthur/Patton-type officers (represented by McLeod in Above and Beyond) are a shrinking minority. Frenier is a picture of the new breed. Or, at least, the favored breed. And to win a war with the limitations the Johnson State Department imposed, it would have taken 30 years…or a couple more Tet Offensives until the NVA wiped itself out charging into the meatgrinder.

Despite my own political commentary, Above and Beyond is politically ambiguous. It’s poignant and almost ecclesiastical in its dichotomies: love and hate; war and peace; passion and indifference; loyalty and betrayal; selflessness and selfishness. Like the composer of a symphony, Morris weaves together a variety of notes, chords and tempos to give the audience (reader) an experience that engages the emotions, yet rings true.

To read my interview with the author about this book, visit Virtual Pulp Press.