At first glance, the books We Were Soldiers Once … and Young and Incident at Muc Wa would seem to be polar opposites. Yes one is fiction and the other borders on being a technical report, but that is not what I’m talking about.
In We Were Soldiers Once…, the Americans combatants are described as competent and professional. Furthermore, when the need arises, they are often heroic and resourceful. The North Vietnamese play a much smaller role, but they too come through almost entirely with a positive sheen.
In Incident at Muc Wa, nearly every character in the book is deeply flawed. The principles act for largely selfish reasons; reasons that put them at odds with other individuals in the story. In an endeavor where team effort, as exemplified in the narrative of Ia Drang, is at a premium, the level of cooperation seems nearly non-existent. Being fiction, we can follow the thought process of our characters and don’t need to dwell entirely on the fighting. While we don’t actually find ourselves among cowards or traitors, sometimes knowing the reason a man fights leaves us with a whole lot less respect for him than when we didn’t know. We see prisoners tortured, non-combatants killed, and women raped and it all just seems part of the collateral damage that necessarily rides in the wake of a war. In fact, these low-level war crimes seem less tragic than the clearly non-nonsensical decision process that puts the characters into pointless, stupid situations in the first place.
But what strikes me is that both books seem to get the nod from the war veterans themselves, who see in them a portion of the truth behind what they were a part of in Vietnam.
Now one reason for the difference in perception is simply one of focus. Hal Moore hints at some of the same ideas in his book. He describes how, with the ful knowledge that the North Vietnamese have withdrawn to the west, his air cavalry troopers are deployed to the east to search them out. He seems cognizant of the lack of competence but chooses not to dwell on it. Similarly, he talks in passing about how the needs of career officers (who are trying to fill in all the right boxes in their personnel files) drives policy to the detriment of the operation of the war. Its a major plot point in Incident at Muc Wa, but is brought up by Moore more as “something we could have done better.”
Incident at Muc Wa is, as I said, a work of fiction. There is no Muc Wa. While some of pointed out this could be a misspelling of Mộc Hóa, that real location is in entirely the wrong place to substitute for the Muc Wa in the book. In fact, the author points out that he made up the name to sound like how he, a New Hampshire native, would say “Muck War,” which he found a fitting description for Vietnam.
The characters in the book are all fictional, with one exception. The character named Cowboy, the unit’s interpreter, is based on a real person named Cowboy. Many of the others draw their inspiration from real people, but for all the names have been changed. The author, Daniel Ford, met Cowboy and the true-to-life counterparts in his novel while he was working as a reporter. He accompanied a South Vietnamese sweep operation in the general area and used his experiences as the basis for the novel.
Ford includes in the self-immolation protest of a Buddhist monk, perhaps attempting to referring to the protest/suicide of Quảng Đức (in 1963) or more likely simply attempting to portray the perpetual instability of the South Vietnamese governments and its impact on U.S. military operations. In his story, while a reporter (a proxy for himself) witnesses the protest, back in the field all friendly air support is grounded while the resulting revolt against the ruling government is dealt with. Perhaps tellingly, the story never explains (nor seems to care) whether the coup is a failure or a success. Eventually, air operations resume. It is enough to let us know that the U.S. military is hamstrung by political tides beyond its control.
At the time of the real events upon which this story was based, Ford was working as a reporter for The Nation and sent articles back home to the U.S. as piecework. The idea for the novel and its execution came several years later. The story takes place, one assumes, in 1964 shortly before the Gulf of Tonkin incident, if we correlate the fiction with Ford’s actual time in Vietnam. The novel itself was published in 1967, when the change in the character of the war has become obvious. To some extent, any prescient characters in the book really have the advantage of Ford’s own hindsight.
The book is a fairly short one, as far as novels go. It is written with some of Catch-22‘s style, such that we’re not expected to take everything at face value. The story makes for an easy read and the main story (the fighting over Muc Wa) is propelled with a secondary theme of sexual tension. Its the kind of thing that can work or come off as stupid but in this case it works.
Taken in the context of its publishing date, it can be seen as allegorical with respect to the forces at work in the escalating Vietnam War. We see how friction between supposed friends works to the determent of all. The regular army doesn’t approve of the special forces and their tactics. All Americans look down on the South Vietnamese, although Special Forces advisors come to respect those native combatants that others, far from the action, mostly just despise. Everyone depends on the South Vietnamese soldiers, officers, and politicians, but can never really rely upon them. Finally, we see opinions from the soldiers on what must be done to win the war, knowing (especially sitting here in 2018) that these steps will never be taken.
In 1967, the author admits, the reading public was not in the mood for this kind of a book. Real news from the already-escalating Vietnam was too common and too depressing to allow one to lose oneself in a fictional account of three years earlier. Eventually, its depiction on the big screen revived the book’s impact. According to the author, much credit here goes to Burt Lancaster’s interest and a personal investment of cash.
I stumbled across this book because it was the basis for that film, Go Tell The Spartans, which I have never seen. I found that movie while trying digging for that date where the Vietnam War became a suitable subject for filmmaking (roughly 1986 with the release of Platoon) and Go Tell The Spartans stands out as an exception to this rule. Surprisingly, given its age, the book is still being pushed by its author and is available in both ebook format and a fresh print run.
Seeing the ebook market as a new opportunity to distribute and old book, the author reworked his story a little bit in 2012 and published it afresh. His changes, so he says, were limited to taking some of the real events and places that, in the original novel, were obscured so as not to be identifiable. In the rewrite, he uses the real names where appropriate. The fictional location of Muc Wa and the fictional operation are retained.
We are fortunate that the author has taken the initiative to keep his book available. Too many good books become largely unavailable once a few years pass beyond their initial publication.