The Red Badge of Knowledge, a Review of Douglas Valentine’s TDY
Remember Pete from college, circa 1971? Older than most under-grads–early twenties. Quiet, introverted, so it’s no big deal if you can’t place him. Didn’t do anything special except lead that small chapter of Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) and there weren’t many veterans on campus, so why should we remember Pete?
Well, Pete’s seen some things we’re not supposed to see, that nobody is supposed to see, except maybe the CIA. It’s not Pete himself–after all, he’s only Pete–but what he remembers that should concern us now, for what Pete remembers about being conned into accepting a TDY mission (military talk for "temporary duty," a one-time gig) that blew his mind with a truth so hot as to be almost useless, like napalm, has not only happened before, to Pete and his whole generation in South East Asia, it’s happening again all over the world. Bigger, scarier, more intense, with less accountability for a few and more despair and misery for the rest.
Knowledge is always useless when it can be neither communicated nor acted upon, or used in some meaningful way, but just burns like fuel fire, sealing off vast regions of the cerebrum. It’s not even knowledge then, just facts. Like the Internet. A whole lotta information but very little wisdom.
No, Pete’s not all that important–again, he’s only Pete–but his memories, what he has seen and done, described vividly in Douglas Valentine’s masterfully concise "TDY," are extremely important, for they tell the usually unspoken and unspeakable story of America’s experience in Vietnam. Thousands of Americans were suckers, conned into playing a game the y didn’t even know they were playing, not even after the game allegedly "ended."
But Pete, the narrator and protagonist of "TDY," to quote another Pete, "Won’t get fooled again." Will we? Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. But not necessarily, and not always. It is possible even for us–and most of us are not as sharp as Pete–to learn from experience, which is probably why books like "TDY" are written: to prevent us, for the love of Pete, from being fooled again and again and again.
So how’d Pete get into this mess? Same way we all get into all our messes (even Iraq): first gradually, then suddenly. Pete was a more or less "ordinary" guy who went to college in the mid-sixties, intent on becoming a photographer. He misplaced his priorities, flunked out of school, joined the Air Force to avoid being drafted into the Army.
"Like many people growing up in the Sixties, I was more conservative by nature than I pretended to be," Pete confesses on the first page of "TDY."
He’s not looking for war, he’s looking for work, that is, something meaningful to do.
He leaves school to become a bored Air Force photographer and general non-combatant military employee. A TDY assignment promises travel, relative excitement, and extra money. So when a TDY comes his way, Pete signs on. The mission was to last a couple of days, nothing dangerous, his superiors assured him. They just needed an experienced photographer to take photographs.
But things get creepy. First gradually, then suddenly.
"The briefing that night was as quick as it was uncomfortable, lasting maybe ten minutes; just long enough to meet the security team and learn that after collecting our survival gear and weapons, we would be flying the next day to Travis Air Force Base in California on the first leg of our journey. Before asking the Team Leader to break up the meeting, the Major did, however, present us with the camera and sound equipment, which we brought back to our rooms, packed and ready to go. If it didn’t exactly belong to us it was, at least, in our possession, providing us with some-thing solid to hold on to while our link with the real world rapidly began to slip away." "TDY," pg. 27
Vague descriptions of where they are going, what their mission consists of: quick trip to Southeast Asia to record some stuff, take photographs. They’re told the mission is to be a safe one, yet in addition to camera and recording equipment, they are issued grenades, M16s and automatic weapons. In addition, Pete and three other "technicians" are accompanied by a security staff of real killers who mean business. All is secrecy. No unnecessary conversation. No personal histories or full names. Descriptive moniker’s like "Doc," "The Team Leader," and for the man in charge of the TDY, "The Major."
It is a long flight to their destination. The plane windows are painted black. They won’t know where they’re going till they get there. The more that is asked of them for the sake of the mission, the less they are told about the mission. Until it’s too late to do anything but the mission.
Those looking for a fast-paced action story, a "good read," will be satisfied by "TDY;" those who demand more are in for more than most readers can handle. For Valentine’s "TDY" uses clear, straightforward language to follow an intense but traditional plot to a level of moral ambiguity and "confusion of values" that is some what beyond the experience told by most writers and ex-soldiers about this most ambiguous, confusing and cynical of wars.
Pete, the "hero" of "TDY" is no hero at all and knows it, which is not uncommon. But what he and his fellow "technicians" learn quite early in the war, well before the Tet Offensive taught another invaluable lesson, is that they are patsies, suckers. They’re being played by the Air Force for matters that have less to do with the war itself than personal rivalries and competition between branches of military and intelligence.
Pete and the TDY crew touch down not in South Vietnam, but Laos. They are frightened and confused, particularly since they’re staying near a village of Montagnards (mountain and jungle dwelling tribes recruited as mercenaries by the CIA; wouldn’t know Ho Chi Min from Lyndon Johnson). The Major and his security team draft a crew of Montagnards to assist with the Mission. That night, the Major participates in a blood-drugs-and-bonding ritual with the Montagnard chief. He calls his technicians and security team together for a meeting and explains what they’re really there to do.
This is an Air Force mission. The Air Force suspects certain Americans of dealing opium with drug lords in Laos. Pete and the technicians are there to collect sounds and photographs; the security team is there to ensure the safety of this material and, as a second priority, the lives of the technicians.
Pete and his colleagues are understandably shocked, terrified, pissed off and betrayed. But what to do except what they were told to do–gather evidence–and get the hell out of there?
Proceed to real "war story" type adventure as the crew of 22 techies, commandos and Montagnards travel miles to the opium "farm," photograph a plane landing and two Americans stepping out with a case full of money to pay the tribesmen for their opium, and record the minutes of the drug deal.
But Pete is not a soldier, he just works for the Air Force Corporation. When a bloody fire-fight ensues between the TDY team and the drug dealers, assisted by North Vietnamese Army (NVA) personnel, Pete "makes his bones," experiences his first kill. And gets shot at. And runs for miles through the jungle with his team. Quite an ordeal, one that nobody warned him about or prepared him for. They have to run for their lives to make it to the Landing Zone (LZ) where a chopper will lift them to safety.
Pete’s so infuriated by the whole ordeal–the false pretenses of the mission, the lies about his safety etc.–that he wants to kill the Major. But he doesn’t have to. For there is only one chopper coming in, enough to carry away Pete and the techies, the Montagnards and some of the security team. The Major and a few other real soldiers stay behind to distract the drug dealers and NVA while the others catch the chopper. The Major literally gives his life so Pete can live. Or rather, gives his life so that Pete can deliver the film to a man named Mr. Jason, who he will meet back at the Air Force Base. The Major actually is less cynical than Pete himself; he believes these "corrupt" American drug dealers can be stopped. The whole "a few bad apples in a good American Pie" theory.
But when Pete reaches the Air Force Base to hand off his photographs to Mr. Jason, three armed CIA agents, dressed in suits, try to abduct him. He is saved by an Air Force Officer and uniformed Air Force personnel.
Mr. Jason debriefs Pete by politely explaining to him that the mission had nothing to do with the war or U.S. security, but rather, rivalry between the Air Force and CIA. The CIA was running the drug operations to recruit various Montagnard tribes. The Air Force sent Pete and the rest of the crew to Laos to nail the CIA red-handed and possibly end its "irregular" style of war fare. Moreover, though Pete is paid $2500 cash for the mission, he is warned that the CIA is not through with him yet. They may try to assassinate him.
Thus Pete loses his "innocence" about good guys versus bad guys in record time. There are people, mostly CIA people, who are making money off the war. Lots of money. And living like royalty in relatively inexpensive South East Asia. While American soldiers and Vietnamese civilians are dying by the truckload in order to pursue the fantasy war described in the American Media.
Instead of hanging around an Air Force base bored, waiting for the CIA to kill him, he accepts a gig in the relative safety of Vietnam, where he will not see combat, but work as an English Language Instructor to South Vietnamese, and get his share of the action on the "black market."
"Money was the name of the game and I learned how to play the game well. I taught four hours a day, five days a week, and that’s all. The rest of the time was mine, and in the afternoons the Vietnamese Air Force and Army officers would pay me as much as two hundred dollars a session to go to their homes and give private English language instruction to their families. It was a gold mine, and once the money started pouring in from my extracurricular tutoring, I moved out of the MACV annex into a hotel on Trung Huang Dao Street. My Vietnamese lover was living with me, I was making about three thousand dollars on the side, and I was doubling those earnings on the black market by changing military script and money; and by selling all sorts of commodities, from liquor and cigarettes to major appliances and marijuana." "TDY," pp 120-121
I will end this brief, all-to-inadequate synopsis of this complex, concise (127 pages) book; but there is more, a lot more for Pete to learn and experience before he can navigate his own path somewhere between "believer," like the deceptively deceptive Major, or absolute cynic and war-profiteer with a possible future in the CIA (if they don’t kill him first).
Douglas Valentine’s "TDY" is dense with action, dense with meaning. Pete is an allegory not just for the typical American soldier, but for the typical American of his age and era, and "TDY" is America’s Vietnam parable.
Pete wasn’t anxious to join the military, but if it would help him pay to continue his education, and he could join the Air Force rather than end up a grunt in the Army, he had no strong feelings against the war. Once in the Air Force, Pete is offered money for a special "TDY" mission he is assured will be safe. Why would his superiors lie to him? When he finds out the mission is definitely not safe, he figures it must be important, otherwise, why would the Air Force pursue it? And so on, down the line of lies, deceptions, subterfuge, greed and violence until Pete himself, coming to believe that there are no "good guys" or "bad guys," engages in the very practices the Major died to prevent.
To learn the extent to which this existential Odysseus navigates the "moral ambiguity" that changes his life (and America’s) over the course of the Vietnam War, I refer you to "TDY," by Douglas Valentine. Or you can travel to Iraq or Columbia and experience your own "TDY." Just because the average sucker is not quite the sucker he used to be (pre-1967), and "knows" a little more about how things work, it doesn’t mean he will use this knowledge to pursue the general good rather than his own financial portfolio.
After all, how many of the soldiers and CIA operatives the American Empire has stationed all over the planet were even born when Pete experienced the animal adrenaline rush of his first kill?
ADAM ENGEL is utterly nonplussed at email@example.com