We are told that John Rixey Moore’s excellent book, Hostage of Paradox: A Qualmish Disclosure (Bettie Youngs, 505 pp., $29.95, paper), is a true story with names changed and that it is based on the author’s experiences.
The short biography in the back of the book tells us lots of interesting stuff about Moore, but not one word about his military career. We are told that Moore can be seen from time to time being interviewed on the History Channel.
My close reading of the text of this monster of a book led me to believe that Moore enlisted in the Army for four years and attained the rank of Sergeant First Class, E-7, which would be some kind of a record based on my short experience in the Army. In the Author’s Note, Moore says that he was a part of the 5th Special Forces Group in Vietnam, and that he was also a part of SOG, the then-secret Studies and Observation Group.
Moore, that is, served in Vietnam as a Green Beret, aka Army Special Forces. In the book Moore mentions that he rarely wore the actual beret in Vietnam, though. He also states that he headed for Vietnam on July 27 1968, and that he had just celebrated his 25th birthday. He goes on to say that he had a bit less than a year left on his enlistment in the Army when he went to Vietnam. The back-cover blurb goes on to say more about what he did in Vietnam, which Moore covers in his book in powerful and poetical detail.
I am now compelled to discuss the title and subtitle of this large paperback. I found them both to be baffling hurdles to get over before I could get to reading the book. I tried to discover what the title and subtitle meant by reading the cover blurbs, the Dedication, the Foreword, the Acknowledgements, and the Author’s note, but got nowhere.
I racked my brain about the word, “qualmish,” but came up with nothing. Being from the Pacific Northwest, I thought that it had some American Indian connection. The cover photo tends to support that interpretation as it looks very much like a Pacific Northwest rain forest. Eventually I gave up, and looked up the word in the dictionary.
I was embarrassed to find that it related to the word “qualms,” and the notion of being squeamish. Once I began reading the book, I started circling the words ithat were unfamiliar to me. I found many dozens.
Our narrator, John Moore, the Green Beret, is not a typical Army soldier. He has a degree in philosophy from the University of Virginia. That explains some of it. The only other Vietnam War memoir writer I can think of written by a young man with a degree in philosophy attained prior to war service is Ernest Spencer, author of the classic Welcome to Vietnam, Macho Man.
The only other author I’ve read where I had to look up the meanings of so many words was some book by Alexander Theroux. The authors I was most reminded of while reading Moore’s book were Joseph Conrad, Herman Melville, and T. E. Lawrence. All of them wrote great, huge books of adventure, and they also used a lot of big words.
Is that all that Moore has in common with these classical authors? No, not at all. He also has written a fine book, one that ventures deep into a heart of darkness. John Moore is a smart, witty guy, with a fine classical education and a huge appreciation of history, which is not typically displayed by most Vietnam veteran authors published by small presses.
Moore states in his Author’s Note that the 5th Special Forces Group in Vietnam took part in the infamous Phoenix Program. According to William Colby, the head of the CIA’s Far East Division of Clandestine Services who head Phoenix, it was responsible for the deaths of more than 20,000 suspected Viet Cong. Moore says this process often was accomplished by a bullet in the head while the target was sleeping.Moore further states he was part of SOG, and that this group was used “in the conduct of small-unit long range reconnaissance, interdiction and/or assassination missions into Laos, Cambodia, North Vietnam.” That is the subject of this massive book—specifically, Moore’s role in this program.
One of the great delights of this book is the ability that Moore has to coin phrases or to pluck them from somewhere and use them. I’d intended to include a huge list of these wonderful phrases in this review, but when I took stock, I realized I had several pages of them amassed.
Someday, when I write an essay on Green Beret books, I’ll use that material there. I will mention a couple of them here just to give a flavor. I especially enjoyed encountering “scented bosom of illusion” to describe McNamara’s little group back in Washington D. C. Also I loved “sweltering pteridophyte ooze” for the field Moore slogged through in Vietnam’s jungles. Moore also refers to the jungle as the “Mesozoic wilds,” and as the “Mesozoic boonies,” which was my favorite. I could picture this ooze stuck to the soles of Moore’s jungle boots.
Hostage also contains one of the best John Wayne references I’ve read in any Vietnam War book, even better than those in Born on the Fourth of July. There’s no mention of my favorite Vietnam War expression—“ham and mother fuckers” though, as Moore and his team ate a different type of ration, the freeze-dried sort.
These Special Forces teams slogging in that ooze usually consisted of two American sergeants and a few Nungs, Chinese mercenaries. These few men often were kept in the dark as to what their agenda was, and I enjoyed reading Moore’s paranoid speculation about what he and his team were really being sent to do. Sometimes he figured they were being sent out to disappear, never to be heard from again, which is what happened to some of the teams.
The Americans had no language in common with the Nungs, so they relied on hand signals and pidgin English of a rudimentary sort. This lack of clear communication added to the horror and confusion of the situations they often found themselves in when they encountered bad guys out in the middle of the vast tracts of wilderness where they were the aliens.
As a reader, I got a powerful sense that Moore’s narrative was entirely written from his own experience, not heard second hand. The book is filled with suspense and sudden bloodshed, and it seems a miracle that Moore survived the events he describes with so much powerful, evocative details forty years later.
Throughout the book, I was impressed by Moore’s humanity and consideration of others, especially for the members of his team, the Nungs, but also for the Vietnamese who cleaned the hootches, polished the boots, did the laundry, and the like. Perhaps being raised in various countries around the world prior to his time in the Army explains this, or maybe Moore is just one of those very few Americans who are not ugly to those who are different from him in appearance and culture.
Whatever the reasons, this humanity sets this book apart. I grew to like the narrator a lot, especially his self-deprecating attitude and his honesty about everything, even about getting rank. As he states, rightly, in the highly stratified life of the military, rank does count.
I also loved his recounting of his two R&R’s in Hong Kong. He spent his time in Hong Kong about the same way I did. Very quietly. He didn’t spend the time in bookstores as I did, but he did spend a lot of time riding the ferry. He doesn’t mention the sign that advised against spitting and the penalty for doing so, but I totally believe he put in a lot of time on the ferry.
Only once in this book of incredible derring-do, did I doubt the narrator and wonder what went wrong. That is in the passage when he enters the clubhouse and says he heard Jeanie C. Riley yelping “Ode to Billy Joe.” Riley’s hit was “Harper Valley P.T.A.” Bobbie Gentry had the hit on “Ode to Bill Joe,” and she did not yelp it. Also it is “Jeannie” not Jeanie” and “Billie Joe,” not Billy Joe.”
I apologize for being such a nit-picker, but there it is. Either or both of these songs could have been on that jukebox in Vietnam when Moore was there. I suggest that his memory conflated these two songs. Memory can do that forty years later.
A reader can become drunk with the words in this book as they leave the page and enter the mind. It is so densely written and packed with action that it demands multiple readings. I’ve read many of the pages several times to savor the writing and the suspense.
I am going to buy multiple copies of this book and give them to friends as late Christmas presents. Moore’s prose envelopes the reader and takes him out of his world into a scary one, “a sclerotic black festival of brutal unknowns,” where dead men rise up out of “feculent excremental sludge.”
Read this book, you’ll be, as John Moore puts it, “transfixed, like kittens in a box.”
The author’s website is johnrixeymoore.com