Regardless of a reader’s attitude about the Vietnam War, Richard Pena’s Last Plane Out of Saigon (Story Merchant Books, 136 pp., $12.95, paper), written with John Hagan, offers insights worth reflecting upon four decades after the fact.
Drafted into the Army out of law school, Pena served as an operating room specialist in Vietnam. He ended up among the last American troops to evacuate South Vietnam in 1973. Discharged upon his return to the States, Pena finished college and became a lawyer. During his Vietnam War tour of duty, Pena kept a journal that he stashed away for thirty years. That journal serves as the core of this concise flashback to the life of a wartime draftee.
Pena arrived in Vietnam amid the chaos of the 1972 North Vietnamese Easter Offensive. Upon deplaning at Tan Son Nhut, he wondered why he had been “sentenced to exile in this forsaken land.” He questioned whether America could win the war and worried about people “dying for a policy dictated out of ignorance and falsehood.”
Pena worked as a technician in the operating room of the 3rd Field Hospital in Saigon. Most of the patients came there straight from the battlefield, having received no treatment elsewhere. Pena therefore saw the results of war in human terms every day.
Throughout his tour, one question haunted him: “What does it mean?”
He tried to answer that question in several ways, and suffered emotionally along with the bloodied, shattered, men he treated. In his journal Pena analyzed his relationships with fellow American soldiers and Vietnamese civilians, the latter of whom he strongly distrusted.
Pena put his thoughts and theories in his journal because “to speak out about the tragedy is said to be anti-American.” To him, Vietnam became a land of lies, betrayals, and corruption that left soldiers and civilians “angry and bitter all the time.”
Despite his emotional turmoil, Pena persevered in his duties. Near the end of his journal, he wrote: “In these last days before departing, I realize that the weight I have carried for the past eleven months will never be lifted from my shoulders.” In other words, his journal tells a story that must never be forgotten.
Having read this short book three times, I believe it has its greatest impact when read uninterrupted. The journal is divided into four parts that are interwoven with chapters by John Hagan that provide background information about the war. I therefore suggest that those familiar with the Vietnam War read Pena’s chapters first. Those unfamiliar with the war should start with Hagan’s chapters.
The collaborators reach two conclusions: First, they agree that wars such as Vietnam are destructive to America’s society and economy. Second, they emphasize the need to learn from foreign policy failures and mistakes.
Neither idea is new, but the thought processes the authors follow to reach them clearly exhume the intellectual conflict of the Vietnam War era.
The author’s website is www.lastplaneoutofsaigon.com