Being in a war is not a good thing for writers or anyone else. Nonetheless, those of us who have experienced war seem to have to write about it. The best way to handle war is to follow Robert Graves’ example in Goodbye to All That – the title says it all. It was an act of exorcism that allowed Graves to get on with more important things, such as poetry and his books on Greek mythology.
My debut novel, A River in May, expelled my battlefield demons – and good riddance. But being a Special Forces officer in Vietnam wasn’t just about combat. It was also about going native, running intelligence networks and dealing with double agents – experiences which are invaluable for a writer of spy fiction. I was an SF advisor with the CIDG (Civilian Irregular Defense Group), a border screening force that patrolled from remote camps the length of South Vietnam. Our CIDG soldiers were mostly Vietnamese or Montagnards, although there were also Khmers and Chinese Nungs. My own CIDG were all Vietnamese; brave fighters certainly, but also heavily infiltrated with sleeper agents. It was estimated that at least 10% of our CIDG were undercover Viet Cong. None of our operational plans were ever secure, none!
One way of dealing with this lack of security was to change plans at the last minute. I once tried this on an ambush patrol comprised of only myself, one other American and eight Vietnamese. We crept into a village after dark and began, covertly, to ask for information about the Viet Cong. An old man took me aside and led me away from the others. He asked to see my map so he could show me where to find the enemy. I refused because there was classified information grease-pencilled all over it, but I finally let him see a little corner and he pointed to a trail where we should set our ambush. It seemed a much better site than the one we had already chosen. I then rejoined the others and put the plan to the Vietnamese in charge of the CIDG, who responded with a resounding ‘khong’ – which is non, no, nein and nyet rolled into one. I couldn’t order him to move his men; I was only an ‘advisor’. So we set our ambush on the site previously chosen.
Later that night all hell broke loose, but nowhere near us – or the trail the old man had suggested. A lot seemed to be going on at our own camp located on the other side of the river, but we later discovered this was a diversionary attack. The main action was against the Regional Forces (RF) outpost at Que Son which was overrun and sixteen of its defenders killed.
I’ll never know what really happened. Had the Viet Cong (assuming they were not regulars from the North) passed along the trail the old man had pointed out? Could we have saved those sixteen RF lives if we had redeployed there and ambushed the attacking force enroute? Or was the old man a Viet Cong agent who had tried to lure us to a place where we would have been killed? Or was our CIDG leader an undercover VC who refused to budge because he wanted to protect his comrades? But I did learn the intelligence officer’s dilemma: you can never be completely certain who anyone is. Every human being is a mystery. I hope I bring this into my novels.
The Whitehall Mandarin by Edward Wilson is published by Arcadia, hardback, £12.99.