A Dirty Distant War

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

This action-packed novel focuses on what might be the most intriguing period in the Vietnamese struggle for freedom from foreign domination. Toward the end of World War II, Ho Chi Minh and his followers were united with the Americans against the Japanese, and Ho was even a consistent provider of valuable intelligence to the Office of Strategic Services. Ho greatly admired America’s triumph in the Revolutionary War, and he expected that the United States would champion his similar fight for independence. At one point in this fascinating novel, Ho Chi Minh raises his wineglass and toasts President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the United States and recalls that eighty years earlier the Vietnamese emperor had sought aid from President Abraham Lincoln. Later events were to dissolve this bond between the Viet Minh and the Americans, primarily because the United States thought itself more politically obligated to the next foreign invaders, the French.

Major John Reisman, still the hard-boiled survivalist who can live off the most hostile land, parachutes into Burma in September, 1944, on a clandestine mission. Officially, he is an observer gathering intelligence, but he is also supposed to help the Vietnamese in their fight against the occupying Japanese. As usual, the specifics of his assignment are left to his own considerable ingenuity.

He operates in China, Burma, and Indochina, and along the way he must deal with primitive mountain tribesmen as well as the unsavory underground of opium dealers and black marketeers. He encounters those hazards which have become familiar--booby traps and punjii pits and the fearsome jungle terrain. The ruthless combat tactics of both sides, including decapitation and torture, are described in authentic detail. In typical rich, evocative prose, the smells of the land itself are described, the musty stench of warm tropical nights that arises from human and animal manure which is incorporated into farmland soil in a land where nothing is wasted.

While this novel lacks the tight plot and clear-cut mission of THE DIRTY DOZEN, in many ways it is more thought-provoking. The innocence of American troops operating in Asia at this time is in abrupt contrast with later historical events. The character of Ho Chi Minh is especially well drawn. He emerges as a ruthless soldier, yet at the same time as a clever diplomat who is wise and charismatic. This is a long novel, but it is well worth the reader’s patience.