U.S. Air Force Col. W. Bruce Arnold created Wilderness of Tigers:A Novel of Saigon (Chandelle of Sonoma, 524 pp., $17.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle) after serving in Vietnam in 1967-68 as the Chief of DARPA’s Research and Development Field Unit based in Saigon. Col. Arnold—the son of the famed U.S. Air Force Gen. Hap Arnold—was a 1943 West Point graduate who served in World War II, Korea, and in the Vietnam War. He died in 1992. His son, Robert Bruce Arnold, took on the project of publishing this novel after his father’s death.
“Warning: This book is not for sensitive readers,” the authors note. “It contains rough language, explicit sex, strong violence, and the attitudes of a time, before political correctness.” The novel’s title comes from Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, said by some to be The Bard’s most violent play.
The warning is not a false one. One of the most politically incorrect things about the book is the way ARVN troops are portrayed. They are referred to as “well-disciplined” and “hard-fighting.” Most Vietnam War books I have read cannot say enough bad things about the ARVN troops. But not this one—a refreshing difference.
As for the sex and violence, there is plenty. I was stationed near Saigon for most of my time in-country and witnessed little violence and less sex, but I didn’t get around much. Also, I went home before the Tet Offensive. This novel expends the first two thirds of its considerable bulk leading up to Tet 1968; the rest of the book is up its gunnels in it.
There is a huge cast of characters, and by the end I could keep most of them straight. There is a welcome table in the front of the book that helped identify the characters in my mind. The primary ones in this book do not fare well. Most die.
The women die in especially horrible ways, particularly those who have been shown in exacting detail during their sexual prolificacy. One dies in a manner that is similar to a Jack the Ripper treatment; another is napalmed.
There is a lot of lying and spying and skulduggery in this book. Most of it is believable. There is talk of winning the hearts and minds of the populace, lots of smoking of Salems, a mention of Andre Maurois’ The Silence of Colonel Bramble (a first for me as a reader), talk of the privilege of being there for “the birth of a democracy,” and a mention of Terry and the Pirates. One smart guy observes that Vietnam is “nothing but one big goddamn whorehouse.”
There also is some silly stuff, such as the assertion that it is the nature of Oriental women to eavesdrop and that golden breasts can quiver with fear. Mostly, though, the book is well-written, well-plotted, and moves right along.
We known that the Tet Offensive is coming, but when it arrives we are not disappointed. Not for the first time I mentally patted myself on the back for leaving Vietnam just ahead of the Tet Offensive. I am content to read about it, and this book is one of the best in showing how Tet tore Saigon apart.
For more info, go to the book’s website.