At the Altar of War by Alan Cutter

Alan Cutter grew up in a pastor’s family. He served on active duty in the U.S. Navy for five years. In late 1972, he was commissioned an Ensign and went to Vietnam where he worked in and around Da Nang. A Presbyterian minister, he went on to edit the Vietnam Veterans of America Book of Prayers and Services.

Cutter was diagnosed with Agent Orange-related Parkinson’s Disease in 2010, having been earlier diagnosed with PTSD. Cutter holds a degree in library science, among other degrees. At the Altar of War (CreateSpace, 172 pp., $10.95, paper) is a work of fiction, but I suspect that much of it benefits from the author’s time in Da Nang.

Alan Cutter

Cutter calls the war “the usual comedy of false assumptions and futile reactions.” His main character, Brian Mewling, arrives in Da Nang as a Navy Ensign just as every other Navy officer is preparing to leave Vietnam due to the war winding down.

The higher ups don’t quite know what to do with Mewling. Soon, he is involved in a large number of dangerous enterprises. That includes the black market, a combined American-Vietnamese secret operation to murder suspected VC, and a love affair with a mysterious and beautiful Vietnamese woman named Linh.

Mewling is in way over his head and his pay grade. Then his lover, Linh, pregnant with his child, disappears, and his main black market connection is murdered in a fake VC rocket attack. Not to mention the fact that the NVA are encroaching from the north, and most American forces have left or are leaving Vietnam.

In other words, things are falling apart and chaos has ensued.  Vietnamization is in full swing and the inevitable result of that plan is apparent to all.

Cutter does an amazingly good job using Ensign Mewling to carry the freight of America’s failed enterprise in South Vietnam. Much Johnny Walker is consumed and gallons of sweat are exuded in this fine novel. No novel since Graham Greene’s The Quiet American better communicates the heat and dust and treachery of Americans in Vietnam. I would rank At the Altar of War right up there at the top of the list with Greene’s classic.

For those who think they have reached the limits of their cynicism about our dirty little war in Southeast Asia, think again. Read this fine novel, and keep in mind the cliché’ oft muttered by Ensign Mewling: “It is a good day to die.”

Mewling also says, “My God, I have no country anymore. I’m an alien in my native land.”  I know well how he feels.

—David Willson