The Only War We've Got

From life to novel to film

Incident at Muc Wa came out of a patrol in the Central Highlands--a homely name if ever there was, and one that doesn't begin to suggest the wild beauty of Vietnam's mountain backbone. I loved the Central Highlands. I loved Vietnam, for that matter, and gloried in my role as one of forty war correspondents in the country. It was 1964: early days in Southeast Asia.

I was accredited to The Nation, whose editor, Carey McWilliams, was always open to proposals from young writers. (With his budget, he couldn't afford not to be.) He'd helped me obtain a grant of money sufficient to buy me a round-trip ticket from Boston to Saigon ($1,276, about $400 less than my 1962 Volkswagen had cost when it was new--and he'd further agreed to pay $65 for each dispatch I sent him from the "war zone," as he called it. It was a haphazard arrangement, but not at all unusual for the time and place. Even NBC News was represented in Saigon by a stringer, John Sharkey, who was paid piece-work rates for the film and tape he mailed to New York.

I couldn't support myself in Saigon on The Nation's pay scale, so my strategy was always to work down the chain of command, into the boondocks, where I could live without cost by eating Army rations and sleeping on a poncho. As it happened, this suited me just fine. I've always felt uncomfortable with life's headquarters staff, and at ease with its enlisted soldiers.

Thus, in June of 1964, I joined a Special Forces "A" Team operating out of Cheo Reo--pronounced "Cheerio" like the breakfast cereal, but known to the Americans as Sin City. There were twelve Green Berets in the team. Admirably trained and motivated, they functioned as corset-stays in a mercenary Strike Force of 200 Montagnard tribesmen. In theory, the "Strikers" were led by Vietnamese officers and noncoms, but in practice the mountain men and the lowlanders detested one another, and both were content to let the Americans give the orders.

I loved the Strikers, too, especially a venerable corporal who guarded his Americans with mute, eloquent gestures. Move off this trail: it is booby-trapped with bamboo spikes. Follow that gully: it will lead us to water.... This grizzled warrior with bracelet-sized earrings became Corporal Old Man in Incident at Muc Wa; and Cowboy, our dashing interpreter, likewise made the journey from life to fiction almost without change. My other characters were inventions, more or less. The one American who was drawn from life--Major Barker, the team's commanding officer back in a fictionalized Pleiku--was thoroughly remodeled by my editor at Doubleday. Even his name was changed, so that if the original showed up, claiming damages, we could point to the namesake of our creation. (She was a young woman in Doubleday's editorial office. I've often wondered if Mrs. Barker ever saw the movie version of the story, and realized that it was her name adorning the right shirt pocket of Burt Lancaster's fatigues.)

With this mixed company of irregulars, I went on an extended patrol through the mountains east of Cheo Reo. Our assignment was to gather up any civilians we met along the way, and to shoot any Viet Cong. (The distinction, then as later, was that a civilian supposedly would stand still for our approach, while "Charlie" ran away.) We marched in a wide circle which closed, after three days, upon the village of Tan Hoa, whose population we were to take out with us to Cheo Reo. The operation was code-named Blaze. When we were done with the area, it would become a free-fire zone, to the detriment of all who moved therein.

In a small way, Blaze predicted the American strategy in South Vietnam over the next decade. Its futility was remarked in a joke that even then was making the rounds of American installations in Vietnam: "Do you want to know how to win this war? First line up everybody in the country. Ask the good guys to step off to one side and the bad guys to the other. Put the good guys on a ship and send it out to sea. Drop an A-bomb on everybody who stayed behind ... then torpedo the ship!" Blaze foretold our Vietnam policy, and the sick joke foretold the outcome.

Tan Hoa, when we reached it, proved to be little more than a name on the map. All that remained of the village was an open field, some scraps of a pierced-steel airstrip or road, and three or four French gravestones. Blaze was a bonehead operation, based on outdated maps and faulty intelligence. More from frustration than enmity, we mortared a young man who'd had the poor judgment to shoot a pig at the other end of the field. We ate the pig for dinner, were mortared in our turn, and slept the night beside a nearby river. To the best of my knowledge, the pig was the only casualty of Operation Blaze.

That fall I was back in New Hampshire and trying very hard to write a definitive article about the Vietnam war. Whether because the situation was changing so swiftly, with American combat troops arriving in the south and American bombers probing the north; or because I'd spent most of my time up front and none in the briefing room; or because the Vietnam war even then beggared description--I couldn't write an article that satisfied me. I was left with my dispatches and an image that wouldn't go away: the tall, confident Americans arriving at Tan Hoa, to be greeted there by the headstones of Frenchmen who'd fought the same war, ten years earlier.

So I turned to fiction, still keeping to the same small canvas, still making no judgments except the ones I put into the mind of my hero, Stephen Courcey: "A man should be careful what he choose to fight for, because life will damned well make the choice stick." When I read the novel now, I wish I'd omitted even that message, with its overtones of Hemingway and Sartre. What comes through with greater force is that it's a troublesome business for a soldier to abandon his comrades, or a nation its allies.

Incident at Muc Wa

To detach myself further from the real, and deteriorating, situation in South Vietnam, I dressed my soldiers in bush hats instead of green berets, and I didn't name the country they were fighting in. I wanted to freeze the moment when Operation Blaze brought us to Tan Hoa--called Muc Wa in the novel. "Hoa" is pronounced "wah," and since I was brought up in New Hampshire I pronounce "war" much the same. So: muck war.

The "what-if?" of my story was that, instead of merely passing through Muc Wa, the Americans and their mercenary allies are ordered to establish a garrison there--upon the bones of the French, as it were. Because it's an intrusion into their domain, Communist guerrillas naturally harass the outpost. Because it is attacked, Muc Wa is reinforced. Ultimately it comes under siege by a Communist main-force battalion. Muc Wa's defense becomes too expensive to sustain, and the American cadre are told to "exfiltrate" by helicopter, leaving the native mercenaries to make the best of their way to safety. Corporal Courcey defies this order, of course, and in the movie version is joined in this gesture by Major Barker.

The novel was published by Doubleday in 1967, in paperback and in a British edition the following year, and in Dutch translation in 1972. Yet for all its exposure it didn't catch on with readers. Doubleday ran off 15,000 copies in the first printing and sent them out into the world with full-page advertisements, though the effect was somewhat blunted by a newspaper strike that month in New York City. In the end, two-thirds of the books came back and were incinerated.

One example will serve: a few years later I was in Portland, Maine, flogging my third novel on television. The interviewer happened to be the owner of the downtown bookstore. Afterward, he told me that he'd designed a window display around Incident at Muc Wa, piling up the novels and piecing them out with maps, copies of Bernard Fall's books about the French experience in Vietnam, and whatever else he had on hand. It was his first window display in 20 years, he said, that didn't sell a single book.

But at least it was published. The movie version, for many years, had a harder time of it. Wendell Mayes bought the film rights in 1970 and wrote a screenplay he called Go Tell the Spartans, in reference to the French graves at Tan Hoa / Muc Wa. (When Corporal Courcey first sees the headstones, he's reminded of the men who held the pass at Thermopylae, and whose heroism is recorded in that noblest of epitaphs: "Go, stranger, and tell the Spartans that we lie here in obedience to their laws.")

When the one-year option ran out, Mayes negotiated an extension, with a renewal clause. Every September thereafter, as if dispatched by an errant computer or over-zealous secretary, a check arrived in the mail to keep the contract alive for another twelve months. I thought it was a mistake, and I never inquired about the screenplay's fortunes, for fear of stopping the flow.

So I didn't know about it progression through the studios. Over seven years, just about every major and independent Hollywood studio was on the verge of making it, only to back out for lack of money or nerve. Mayes had built the Major Barker character into a central one, in the specific hope of casting a great name who'd work cheap in a good cause. Among those who agreed to make the movie at one time or another were Robert Mitchum, William Holden, and Paul Newman; the final and finest name was that of Burt Lancaster.

The movie was released in 1978--fourteen years after Operation Blaze, eleven years after the novel was published, and three years after helicopters pulled the last Americans out of Saigon. As if to complete the chain of circumstance, the New York Times was again closed by a strike when Go Tell the Spartans opened in Manhattan.

I said at the beginning that I admired the Green Berets who took me to Tan Hoa. (After the Vietnam war memorial went up, I checked their names against those on the Wall, and was pleased to find none of them there.) They were good soldiers and decent men, as were virtually all the Americans I met in Vietnam. As they made the transition from life to novel to movie, however, an interesting and perhaps significant change took place in them. The characters in Incident at Muc Wa--written a year after Operation Blaze--were at once more clownish and more brutal than their real-life counterparts, as if goodheartedness were no longer an acceptable currency in Southeast Asia. By the time they appeared in Wendell Mayes's screenplay for Go Tell the Spartans, these men were even less admirable. My battle-wise Sergeant Oleonowski had become a battle-weary drunk; an opium-smoking medic was added to the team. A general weariness afflicted nearly everyone at the cinematic Muc Wa, and almost to a man they cursed and grunted whenever they were on camera.

As with the soldiers, so it was with their battleground. Where I had experienced a land almost African in its wide vistas, towering clouds, and cruel scarcity of water, the movie gave us a prototypical jungle, oppressive and soggy. Vietnam had become a literal quagmire, besmirching the men--and nations!--who marched through its mud.

Reading them today, I take equal pride in the novel and the screenplay. Each is true to the time in which it was written, and both end with the prophetic "exfiltration" of American troops from Muc Wa. I made a point of obtaining the Spartans screenplay, because I wanted to know how much it had changed in the eight years that elapsed before it came to the screen. Not at all, as it happens. The year 1964 appears in the final frames of the movie, to make the point that a decade of disaster is yet to follow, but Wendell Mayes wrote the ending the way I did, and the way it ultimately happened: the Americans bugged out.

Question? Comment? Newsletter? Send me an email. Blue skies! -- Dan Ford

Cowboy: interpreter, warlord, one more casualty

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