Hanoi Reprisal by John Riedel

Hanoi reprisalAuthor John Riedel makes it clear that his latest book, Hanoi Reprisal (JR Publishers, 313 pp., $19.95, paper), is is a novel, a work of fiction, and that real people referred to in the book are mentioned only “to give the fiction a sense of reality and authenticity.”

I like the cover a lot. It features a herd of helicopters above a field of tall green grass and distant green hills. I counted at least seventeen helicopters. The words, “Pleiku, Vietnam,” are emblazoned about two thirds down the cover, but are not a part of the title, even though they appear to be. The words “Camp Holloway” are faintly visible on a sign above the tile.  I wondered what all of that meant.

The back cover blurb tells us that Patrick Barringer, the hero of this adventure tale, is a retired CIA officer who had been attached to the covert MACV-SOG Team 36 in Vietnam in 1965. Barringer learns from his Vietnamese brother-in-law that his (Barringer’s) Vietnamese wife and their daughter have been taken by the Vietnam People’s Security Force and are being held in the T-20 Detention Center in Pleiku. This bad news sends “frissons of trepidation” up and down Barringer’s spine.

The first half of this book introduces us to the Barringer family (Patrick, his wife, and their two children) and makes an effort to get the reader to care about them. I didn’t really take to any of them.

The second half of the book is about what Barringer does to get his wife and daughter back, with the help of his son. Much of his book reads more like a history than a novel, starting on page one with a daunting list of the ancillary units based at Camp Holloway in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam.

John Riedel

I was relieved that in the very beginning of the book I’d discovered the meaning of the mystery words on the excellent cover. Page one sets the tone for this novel, as one of the primary narrative techniques Riedel employs is the list, often seeming canned and obtained in toto from reference material.

The book is organized into seventy-four short chapters with an epilogue.  The chapters are dated and given geographical locales. For instance, the first chapter is called “Camp Holloway, February 1965.” The last section of the book takes place in 2001.

Halfway through the book it’s revealed that Patrick Ballinger has become a drunk due to his guilt about Operation Cyclone and the billions of dollars the CIA expended placing weaponry and ammuntion into the hands of jehadists such as Osama bin Laden. Shortly after that, Patrick Ballinger puts together a team to go “over there, to free our family members and, with any luck, kill a few of the sons-of-bitches who did this.”

I won’t spoil the suspense by telling what happens. Either their hare-brained plan is successful and his mission saves his wife and daughter, or it isn’t and “the Red bastards in the current regime in Hanoi” kill them all and get even with Barringer for all the VC and NVA soldiers he killed during the American war in Vietnam.

This is a clearly written, well-edited, and organized book. But the author’s excessive reliance on lists and potted history and information made it a tedious read for me. For instance, Riedel presents the reader the list of AA’s 12 steps, and then he follows it with another list. I would guess that most of his readers are over-familiar with those 12 steps; I know I am.

I guess I should also mention the author’s over-reliance on clichés. Real people do use them in their everyday speech. But I’d rather an author not rely on them for his narrative. For instance, on a page picked at random the reader encounters both “piece of cake,” and “on the fly.”  I’m not sure what purpose these clichés serve. The word “easy” could have been used for “piece of cake.”  Probably “on the fly” could have safely been left out.

I admit that I am a picky English major with a degree in creative writing and that Riedel is unlikely to have written this book with me and my ilk in mind as potential readers. So perhaps most readers will enjoy this book.

Riedel does perform a positive service in calling attention to the injustices being done in Vietnam in the Central Highlands to the Degar people, many of whom fought with the U.S. Special Forces during our long war in Vietnam. The Degar picked the wrong side in that war, and have been punished by losing their ancestral lands to resettlement and farming schemes of the current government in Vietnam. Still, the cover remains my favorite aspect of this novel. Hanoi Reprisal is a fine-looking book.

One last thing—sort of a bone to pick with the author. Riedel presents the reader with the notion that Vietnam veterans struggled when they returned from South Vietnam because of “the humiliation of being spat on and being called a ‘baby killer’ by anti-war hippies in California” when their planes landed. This bothers me in several ways.

This sort of casual reference in a book that intends to be an adventure thriller is inappropriate, and is done in a way that implies that this was a common occurrence. But civilians had no easy access to planes landing from Vietnam loaded with returning veterans. There was no way antiwar protesters could get through the fences and other barriers to get close enough to returning veterans to spit upon him and to call them names as they left the planes that brought them home.

I spent a lot of time with a lot of antiwar protesters and hippies after I returned from Vietnam in 1967. I encountered none of this spitting or “baby killer” talk. It is irresponsible for an author to off-handedly present this stuff as though it happened commonly to returning Vietnam veterans.

Did some veterans return and find out their wives had left them or that jobs were not awaiting them? And did some folks speak rudely to them?  Sure. I’m surprised that Riedel didn’t pull that old cliché out about when the going gets tough, the tough get going, or something about sticks and stones.

After all, he is brave enough to end his book with the ultimate cliché: “Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home.”

Whoops, that sort of gives away the ending. Sorry about that.

—David Willson