Thursday, September 20, 2012

An American at Sea in Viet Nam

A Dangerous Friend

A Dangerous Friend by Ward Just

"I believe that history never repeats itself in any way that we can observe. Certainly the comparison between Vietnam and Kosovo seems to me nonsensical . . . There's not anything like the kind of commitment and dedication -- wrongheaded as it may have turned out to be, but it was real commitment and real dedication among the soldiers and civilians in Vietnam -- to defeat the Reds. . . . I don't see anything like that level of commitment here." -- Ward Just, in an interview, (April 27, 1999)

Though Ward Just has distinguished himself as a journalist, he has also produced an impressive body of fiction. As a novelist, he has been compared favorably with Ernest Hemingway. Much of his work centers around war—portrayed by the keen eye of a newsman—as is often true of Hemingway; however, his characters and their settings would be out of place in most Hemingway-like fiction due to their affluence and jaded sophistication. The primary criticism of Just's work is that his action is slow and plodding. Although his characters are articulate and witty, they often do just sit and talk, especially in his novel of Washington during Vietnam, In the City of Fear.
Just's unnamed narrator (a device reminiscent of Conrad) insists that in describing Sydney Parade's experiences he is not telling a war story, and indeed  A Dangerous Friend  contains little violence. Menace is conveyed through glimpses of Vietcong guerrillas moving at night on black bicycles, of an American officer alone in a Vietnamese village, of blood on the sleeve of a suit. Battle scenes are described obliquely through rumors and field reports discussed around conference tables, their effects hinted at on slips of paper passed anonymously in exclusive Saigon restaurants. Just has a veteran war reporter's eye for the telling detail -- light from phosphorus flares ''so fierce you could see it with closed eyelids'' -- and a reporter's skepticism about his Government's stated objectives. his central character retraces the route his Western predecessors took, stopping in Paris on the way to Saigon, Just begins to establish a convincing allegorical dimension to the novel. We learned from the French, he seems to suggest -- and, then again, we didn't. To young political scientists like Sydney, the success of the Vietcong defies military and political logic: ''We had so much and they had so little; our 19-year-olds were supported by an arsenal beyond the imagination of the guerrillas facing them.''

In A Dangerous Friend, Just pictured America on the brink of full commitment to the Vietnam War in 1965. Through the eyes of a misguided civil servant, the book superficially depicts with a bit of hindsight the nation's descent down the slippery slope to folly. The plot eventually turns on the fate of a captured American captain who is also the nephew of a Congressman. The captain was last seen in the Xuan Loc sector near Plantation Louvet, which is managed by a Frenchman named Claude Armand and his American-born wife, Dede. The Armands are living a premodern idyll in an ''ambiance reminiscent of Winnetka, if Winnetka were tropical.'' They have little sympathy for the Americans and want desperately to remain neutral, but the Llewellyn Group has other plans. The ultimate result of this episode does not reflect well on the Americans.
As in his previous novels (the National Book Award finalist ''Echo House'' foremost among them), Just uses a somewhat complex network of imagery that leads the reader to see the tragedy of Vietnam in ways that throw into high relief the conflicted array of Vietnamese, French and American interests. The most graphic metaphors include a torture victim and the stillborn Vietnamese children of French and American parents. More subtle is the Panama hat that comes to represent not only the country's climate but the customs and dreams of the Vietnamese, as filtered through the lives of a Vietnamese woman and her American husband, a member of the Llewellyn Group who, in the view of his colleagues, ''had lived in Vietnam for too long and had lost perspective.'' Though his prose occasionally betrays a reporter's fact-laden unwieldiness and a weakness for cliches, he succeeds in evoking the dense, tactile weave of life in country circa 1965. But the author, in spite of the complexity of the novel, is always clear where his sympathy lies. Not only the episode of the downed flyer, but the whole structure of the novel is set up to support a view that is dependent on retrospective knowledge that no one, least of all the Americans involved, could have had at the time. This left me with the feeling that this novel, while well written, had a facile plot that weakened the book's message.

A Dangerous Friend by Ward Just. Houghton Mifflin Company, 1999.

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