Despair in the Empire of Graveyards
Forty-six years ago in a previous comedy I was in Saigon, recently having been evacuated from Phnom Penh in an Air America—CIA—Caribou carrying, in addition to me, several ARVN junior officers and perhaps a dozen BUFEs (Big Ugly Fucking Elephants, the ceramic pachyderms much beloved of GIs). America had already embarked on its currently standard policy of forcing small countries into wars and then leaving them in the lurch. In Cambodia this led to the reign of Pol Pot, the ghastly torture operation at Toul Sleng, and a million or so dead. In the unending fight for democracy, casualties are inevitable.
At the time Saigon was tense because Ban Me Thuot had fallen and the NVA roared down Route One toward Saigon. To anyone with the brains of a doorknob, the American adventure in Vietnam was coming to an end, but the embassy was studiedly unconcerned. Embassies do not have the brains of a doorknob, but are keenly aware of public relations. Acknowledging the inescapable is not their way. As usual, Washington would rather lie than breathe, and did. As in Cambodia, so in Nam, and so later in Afghanistan.
Apparently a genius at State realized that a lot of gringo expats lived in Nam—the number six thousand comes to mind, but may be wrong—and that six thousand hostages taken when Saigon fell would be bad PR. So the embassy in Kabul—Saigon, I meant to say, Saigon—quietly announced that expats could fly out on military aircraft from Ton Son Nhut. They didn’t, or at least many didn’t. The NVA continued its rush toward Saigon.
The expats didn’t fly out because they had Vietnamese wives and families and were not going to leave them, period. These wives may not have had the trappings of pieces of paper and stamps and maybe snippets of ribbon. These things do not seem important in Asian war zones. But the expats regarded them as wives. Period. The family went, or nobody did. Period.
The embassy didn’t understand this because embassies are staffed by people from Princeton with names like Derek who wear pink shirts and don’t know where they are. The ambassador is usually a political appointee being rewarded for campaign contributions and probably doesn’t speak the language as few gringos spikka da Pushto or Vietnamese or Farsi or Khmer. For example, nobody at all in the embassy in Cambodia spoke Khmer. The rank and file of State are better suited to a high-end Rotarian barbecue than a Third World city teeming with strange people in funny clothes eating God knows what horrible things in winding frightening alleys. And so the State people could not understand why an American would marry one “of them,” as in the embassy I once heard a gringa put it. It was a good question. Why would a man marry a pretty, sleek, smart, self-reliant woman who wanted family and children? It was a great mystery.
The Taliban—NVA, I mean–NVA kept coming closer. A PR disaster loomed.
Meanwhile the PR apparatus insisted that the sky wasn’t really falling even as it did and no, no, no the US had not gotten its sit-down royally kicked by a ratpack of rice-propelled paddy maggots, as GIs described the opposition. Many in government seemed to believe this. This was an early instance, to be repeated in another part of Asia, of inventing a fairyland world and then trying to move into it.
Finally State faced reality, a novel concept. It allowed quietly that expats and their families could fly out, military. It was getting late, but better than nothing.
The comedic value of this goat rope grew, becoming more amusing by the hour. I was trying to get a young Vietnamese woman out as she had worked for the embassy and we suspected things might not go well with her under the NVA. Call her Linda. Linda and I took the bus to Tan Son Nhut. The
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