Most people will likely say that they don’t like war. War is ugly, dirty, bloody and brutal, and no-one leaves unscathed, even if one makes it home from the war. And there’ve been conscientious objectors to armed conflict for a very long time.
But some wars give rise to especially strong controversy, and feelings run very high about them. Yet, those who serve their country in the military have to participate in those wars, whether they want to or no, whether they think their country should be involved or no.
Among the modern wars generating perhaps the most controversy has been the Vietnam War. Emotions about that war still are still strong; and at the time, conflicts between those who opposed involvement in the war and those who supported it sometimes turned deadly.
Caught in the middle, as you might say, were members of the military. Whatever their own feelings about the war, they were expected to go. And those who came back often received far from a hero’s welcome. Add this to the not-very-surprising struggles they had with the trauma of surviving a bloody conflict, and it’s not surprising that many Vietnam veterans have had serious difficulties.
The controversy over the war in Vietnam has also, not surprisingly, found its way into crime fiction. Here are just a few examples. I know you’ll think of many, many more than I could, anyway.
Derek B. Miller’s Norwegian By Night treats this theme. Sheldon Hororwitz is an octogenarian, originally from New York, who’s gone to live in Oslo to be nearer his granddaughter Rhea and her Norwegian husband Lars. One plot thread of this novel concerns Horowitz looking back on his life and, especially, on the death of his son Saul in Vietnam. Horowitz feels a great deal of guilt about Saul’s death, because as he sees it, he’s responsible. He persuaded his son to go, telling him that it was his responsibility to support his country – to show how loyal he was, to put it another way. During his first stint there, Saul experienced some horrible things that made him question everything about the war. But he went back for a second tour; this time he didn’t come home. Among many other things, this profoundly affects Horowitz’ feelings about Rhea. And it impacts what he does when he gets mixed up in a case of murder.
Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch comes face to face with his memories of service in Vietnam in The Black Echo. In that novel, the body of an unidentified man is found stuffed in a drainpipe. The dead man turns out to be Billy Meadows, whom Bosch knew when both served in the war in Vietnam. Both men were ‘tunnel rats,’ responsible for finding and destroying the Viet Cong’s underground bunkers and supplies. Like many veterans, Meadows struggled with heroin addiction, so at first, his death is put down to an accidental overdose. But Bosch still feels the connection from the war, and starts asking questions. It turns out that Meadows’ death is more than just a junkie who overdosed. It’s connected to a large bank heist and to wartime events. In both Bosch and Meadows, we see how people came back from Vietnam physically alive, but bearing a lot of scars from service. Fans of James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux will know that he also is a Vietnam veteran. Like Bosch, he saw more than his share of ugliness in the war, and it still haunts him.
Service in Vietnam was hard enough for those who volunteered for military service before the war began. It was even harder for those who were conscripted. Many people were so opposed to the war that they chose not to fight. Instead, they went to Canada, rather than be drafted. Vicki Delany treats this theme in In the Shadow of the Glacier. Moonlight ‘Molly’ Smith is a fledgling constable for the Trafalgar, BC Police. She gets her first ‘trial by fire’ when she discovers the body of controversial developer Reginald Montgomery. Once it’s clear that Montgomery was murdered, Smith and her superior, Sergeant John Winters, investigate. In one plot thread of this novel, the town of Trafalgar is faced with a dilemma. Ex-pat American Larry O’Reilly has recently died. He came to Canada to avoid being drafted in the war in Vietnam and felt strongly that those who acted according to their consciences should be honoured. So in his will, he’s bequeathed a large sum of money to the town on condition that the money be used to create such a memorial. On the one hand, many citizens, including Smith’s mother Lucy ‘Lucky’ want to do as O’Reilly wanted and create a Peace Garden. Others (and Montgomery was among these) oppose the idea. They’re afraid that it might be too controversial (and therefore, bad for business), since many Americans viewed those who went to Canada as traitors. It’s not an easy question, and still causes a lot of hurt on both sides. And it’s a source of real tension in the story.
And then there’s George Pelecanos’ Hard Revolution, which serves as a prequel to his Derek Strange series. In this novel, Strange is a rookie cop in 1968 Washington, DC, a town on the point of revolution sparked by racial tension and controversy over the war in Vietnam. Burning, rioting and so on are convulsing the city; and it seems as though society is coming apart at the proverbial seams. Strange is a Black cop in a dangerous situation, and it gets even worse when his older brother Dennis gets drawn into a scheme to rob a local shop. Meanwhile, another person Strange knows, Dominic Martini, gets involved with a group of White thugs in the drunken murder of a young Black man and a planned bank robbery. The two events play out against the turbulent times, and Strange has to do his best to negotiate all of the high emotion as he tries to do his job. Both Dennis Strange and Dominic Martini have served tours in Vietnam, and it’s scarred both of them. Here’s what Martini has to say about his return from service:
‘In bars, he no longer talked about Vietnam. It didn’t help him with women and sometimes it spurred unwelcome comments from men. When he mentioned his tour of duty, it seemed to lead to no good.’
Many Vietnam veterans had a similar experience.
Today (or tomorrow, depending on when you read this) the US observes Memorial Day, a time to remember those who gave their lives in service to their country. I can’t imagine what it’s like to do that in any case, let alone in the case of an unpopular war. Whatever your feelings about Vietnam, I think it’s important to honour the memories of those who died there.
*NOTE: The title of this post is from Billy Joel’s Goodnight Saigon.