ASA Trilogy by Robert Flanagan

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Bob Flanagan served sixteen years in the Army Security Agency, which is the focus of his ASA Trilogy from Connemarra Press and AuthorHouse: Involuntary Tour (324 pp., $31.99, hardcover; $22.99, paper, 2009), Dragon Bait (336 pp., $28.95, hardcover; $19.95, paper, 2011), and Fall Off (392 pp., $31.99, hardcover; $23.95, paper).

Prior to his Army service, Flanagan had served in the Marines for seven years. “Though neither protagonist is Flanagan, the characters must, of necessity, embody much of his life, philosophy, experiences, and biases,” his publisher says.

Flanagan began keeping a journal in Vietnam in the spring of 1964, he says, “with the intent of producing a novel.” He continued that practice until late fall of 1969. I believe that his novels benefit from that journal keeping because he has come up with pages packed with telling details of military life. Other readers might disagree, as they might find the thicket of military jargon daunting.

Flanagan anticipated that potential problem and addresses it: “If there is one element for which I feel some explanation is due, it is the heavy use of slang, military jargon, acronyms, and other terminology more familiar to military and military veterans than to the general public,” he writes. Flanagan says he wanted to portray “events and characters within a military world as truly as possible.”

He has done that. In fact, no one has done it better, not even James Jones in From Here to Eternity or his other masterworks. I was thrilled to read this trilogy, which is close to a thousand pages and deals with the life, loves, and military career of David Winter.

Flanagan presents us with three thick novels filled with memorable characters. Some we see off and on again throughout the entire length of the trilogy. Others we meet briefly and they are gone forever. I became so attached to the recurring characters, especially WO David Winter, that I was sad when I finished reading the third volume.

It took me a while to get into the rhythm of Flanagan’s writing. He is not writing for junior high school students—far from it. His writing is demanding, but rewarding. For instance: “The demand for bodies for that distant conflict was insatiable, swallowing them whole, ingesting, assimilating all into its bowels, converting into waste, vomiting out others in a partially consumed state, forever changed.” I’ve never read a better description of what the Vietnam War did to those of us it gobbled up.

David Winter is described as not being “a war junkie, a militant groupie,” and he wasn’t. But in the course of almost one thousand pages his part in the Vietnam War changes him in many painful ways—especially painful to those of us who have grown to love him. We root for him, and it is hard when he seems about to be crushed by the War Machine.

Winter is often on the edge of cataclysms that destroy others, but which spare him, or seem to. Winter’s dear friend Brenner at one point states his mantra: “There is no God but irony.” There is plenty of irony in these three novels. So if you are born deaf to irony, these books will be a challenge.

For those who don’t like to get your Vietnam War history by reading historical novels, I recommend that you read Unlikely Warriors: The Army Security Agency’s Secret War in Vietnam 1961-1973 by Lonnie M. Long and Gary Blackburn. That book offers an organized history of the ASA.

Flanagan’s books are not chronological and sometimes seem to be written to deconstruct any possible logical view of the military.  Also, Flanagan offers episodes of apparently supernatural events, or at least magical realism, in which the reader butts up against people who cannot be explained scientifically. I enjoyed those occurrences, but I can see where some might be hornswoggled or nonplussed by them.

Flanagan does a better job than most  in showing what he calls “the barricaded worlds” of Tan Son Nhut and Bien Hoa, Can Tho, Nha Trang, Plei Ku and other U.S. military installations in Vietnam. I spent a lot of time in three of those barricaded worlds, and attest to the truth of what he writes about life in those special military worlds.

Flanagan also does a brilliant job evoking the world of the sneakers and peepers of ASA, whose endemic motto was, “In God we trust; all others we monitor.” The world of military monitoring is nowhere more fully explored than in this trilogy. Probably the thing Flanagan does best is to show the effect on his main character of “what it would be like to suddenly know all you had believed in was a shopworn joke.”

We get references to John Wayne, Indian Country, My Lai, Terry and the Pirates, Operation Ranch Hand and Agent Orange, Graham Greene, Sergeant Rock, Hemingway, Robert Ruark, and Isak Dinesen.  Because I spent thirteen months in Vietnam working for the Inspector General, I especially enjoyed the rant about the “persnickety ways” of the I.G. Funny stuff.  Yes, we were a chicken-shit outfit; I don’t deny it. We reveled in it.

I loved these three books, “the whole phantasmagorical magilla,” to steal a phrase from Flanagan. If you loved Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 and John Ashmead’s The Mountain and the Feather, Flanagan’s books are for you.

If you want a challenge, if you want to immerse yourself in this military world, read these books. You will be rewarded beyond measure.

—David Willson

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