Americans—many of whom know the Vietnam War only through stories told by their parents and grandparents—are looking back at that painful conflict to understand our contemporary foreign entanglements, veterans issues, the media, and especially the refugee ban as a painful shift in how our nation now treats the most vulnerable victims of war.
The wave of interest in a 40-year-old war that divided our nation and defined a generation accounts for the popularity of current literary offerings on Vietnam—among them “The Sympathizer,” “Tribe,” and the just published, “Escape from Saigon - a Novel." In addition these and other books, there has been a recent spate of films, TV documentaries and theatrical productions over the past year that shed light on a war that ended abruptly on April 30, 1975.
Vietnam War refugee Viet Nguyen’s 2016 Pulitzer Prize winning novel, “The Sympathizer,” shines a harsh light on conflicted foreign allegiances and an America-centric view of foreign conflicts. The “Sympathizer” stands up as an allegory for today’s new hyper nationalism and fear of the other. Nguyen’s companion book of 2015, “The Refugees” further examines the subtle complexities and conflicts of leaving ones native country for a new home in America.
Though not strictly a Vietnam War book, “Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging,” by Sebastian Junger, examines the plight of returning combat veterans by likening the military to tribal societies where individuals share loyalty, a common purpose and depend on one another for survival. Junger argues that post traumatic stress may stem partly from the loss of community veterans face as they try to adjust to civilian life. When a 22-year-old Army sergeant, who has made life-and-death decisions as leader of a four man-squad in combat, comes home to be surrounded by people who know nothing of his experience the loneliness sets in and becomes overwhelming.
Published in January of 2017, “Escape from Saigon - a Novel” by Michael Morris and Dick Pirozzolo looks at how the Vietnam War shaped contemporary American attitudes in a fast-paced fictional account that compresses the action into the final 30 days of that three-decades-long conflict and put the endgame in context through flashbacks, old news accounts and barroom ramblings about political decisions made in the 1950s that set the stage for war.
The novel recounts the events of April 1975 through the lives of ordinary people most affected by the fighting and political bungling of the powerful they encounter. In addition to Vietnamese and American civilians there are journalists, French expatriates, US Embassy staffers and CIA operatives, all seeking escape by any means possible as the North Vietnamese Army tightens its stranglehold on Saigon—a city once known as the Paris of the Orient. Indeed, the final scenes of “Escape” recount the courage of hordes of Vietnamese refugees and the aviators and sailors who helped them in the biggest air-sea rescue in history, and an America that welcomed them with open arms.
The story is as much about the war as it is about the evolution of media, with much of the plot being about the journalists who covered what was dubbed America’s first television war. Correspondents back then devoted their youth to covering Vietnam, often for a decade or more and shaped public opinion through vivid, nearly simultaneous TV pictures of battles and newspaper exposés on the Pentagon Papers and My Lai Massacre. “Escape’s” Lisette Vo, NBS-TV’s first Vietnamese-American war correspondent, foreshadows the rise of women in journalism and the advent of 24/7 cable news, while the hard hitting Sam Esposito of The Washington Legend rips into three presidents—especially Dick Nixon—with investigative reports that changed the course of history.
Access to news and information was fairly limited in 1975. There were only three networks. Their anchors were trusted, larger-than-life figures Americans invited into their living rooms. The evening news was appointment TV and we all watched and read essentially the same news—a far cry from today’s media environment with fragmented cable TV audiences and fake Internet news outlets. The technology has improved, but with it Americans lost its sense of community.
In addition to the several books on the Vietnam War, Miss Saigon will be reprised at The Broadway in March and simulcast to local movie theaters in HD to reach a large nationwide audience. Lana Noone’s new play, “Children of the April Rain” about Operation Babylift, the ill-fated evacuation of mixed heritage children during the last days of the Vietnam War is opening around the country. Rory Kennedy’s film "Last Days in Vietnam" and Ken Burns latest PBS-TV documentary "The Vietnam War" add to the contemporary offerings on the subject.
“Escape from Saigon - a Novel” by Michael Morris and Dick Pirozzolo was published in January of 2017 by Skyhorse Publishing, New York, NY, 264 pages and lists at $24.95. Further information and an excerpt are available at: www.escsapefromsaigon.com