- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 26, 2001

More than a quarter century after the last American helicopter lifted off the roof of the U.S. embassy in Saigon, some of those who fought in Vietnam are still lost there.The "Lost Soldiers" of James Webb's haunting new novel are not the actual missing in action, although the search for American MIAs is crucial to the book's plot and symbolism. The lost soldiers of all nationalities — an American, Vietnamese veterans of each side, a Russian "military adviser" — are physically whole, but they have not found their way out of wartime Vietnam for emotional and psychological reasons. They are lost in anger, lost in regret and perhaps most importantly, lost in love.
Mr. Webb's tale is of men haunted by the same enigmatic, harsh and ultimately unattainable object of desire: the Vietnam that seduced them as young soldiers. The men in the book have all paid a heavy price for the time spent with their mistress Vietnam. And yet they can't escape the pull she exerts on them.
Listen to Brandon Condley, the central character in the book, musing near its conclusion on his relationship with his adopted home:
"Vietnam. Vietnam. It had suborned him all those years ago like a wily beggar, luring him inside the tangle of its tragedies and stealing away his boyhood. It had wounded and punished him as he dared believe he could change it … But despite it all he had remained, unable to end his passion for its jungles and alleyways. Was that not a monumental sort of love?"
Mr. Webb's decision to take his fiction back to the landscape where he served as a young Marine officer, and which he wrote of in a brilliant first novel, "Fields of Fire," will raise expectations among admirers of the earlier book. The writer's fans will embrace this work's graceful blending of action story and rich, knowing exploration of modern Vietnam.
The central character in the new book is Condley, who fought in Vietnam as a Marine and somehow never quite made it home. He has spent the intervening decades doing various jobs that are only hinted at, including some messy ones for the Central lntelligence Agency. Condley is involved in finding the remains of the American soldiers still lost in Vietnam when he discovers that one or more renegades who turned traitor and fought against the United States with the North Vietnamese may still be alive.
With that discovery, Condley is launched on a mission to find and kill a man he believes assassinated his fellow Marines during the war. He is revitalized by the task. It is a chance for him to bring a measure of justice and meaning to his Vietnam war, and just maybe finally to end it. While Condley's quest for retribution and redemption is the engine that keeps the pages turning in this addictive thriller, Mr. Webb is attempting and achieving much more than an action novel with "Lost Soldiers."
Perhaps first among his goals is to render Vietnam in a fresh way. For Condley, and one imagines for Mr. Webb, the juxtaposition of squalor and grace, brutality and sophistication, beauty and death creates a romantic bond that can't finally be broken.
One of the most compelling character in the book is Dzung, Condley's Vietnamese driver. A former South Vietnamese soldier suffering under the Communist regime, it is heartbreaking to watch him struggle to keep his family, his dignity, his faith in the world.
When Condley asks Dzung, mired in soul-crushing problems, what the American can do for him, his tersely whispered reply, "I would like to be free" is Mr. Webb's profoundly simple justification for America's effort in Vietnam, and his summation of the tragedy of the lost war.
Also well drawn is the North Vietnamese Col. Pham, with whom Condley has to work on his missions to find American remains. Mr. Webb gives a sympathetic portrayal of the former enemy as a man seeking his reward for decades of struggle during the war on the golf course, while suddenly confronting the problems of middle-class fathers everywhere. Some of the Westerners in the book are less carefully rendered and border on caricatures. Readers need not look for nuances in the foppish French perfume salesman or the sentimental Russian drunk. But a bigger disappointment than a couple of flatly drawn characters is the forced and unconvincing climactic encounter between Condley and his prey.
It is a notable coincidence that this book arrives within weeks of the re-release of Francis Ford Coppola's damaged masterpiece on Vietnam, the film, "Apocalypse Now." While Mr. Webb's sensibility, experience and political perspective on Vietnam could hardly be farther from Mr. Coppola's, the film and the book share a major plot element: the quest to find and eliminate a figure embodying evil.
It can be argued that Mr. Webb's "Lost Soldiers" is flawed in the same way "Apocalypse Now" was for some viewers, by the failure to fully render the character being hunted. And as the final confrontation in the film between the American commando assassin and the renegade Kurtz played by Marlon Brando seemed muddied and indistinct, the showdown between Condley and the man he is hunting does not deliver the emotional release promised by the rest of the book.
The principle reason the book's showdown falls short may be the somewhat one-dimensional portrayal of the man Condley is stalking to bring a measure of justice for atrocities committed during the war, an American turncoat named Deville. He is such a total embodiment of malevolence that readers may wonder why Mr. Webb bothered to add those last two letters to the name Deville. That is fine. Readers like to hate the bad guys. But Mr. Webb could have given us a fuller, more human and less cartoonish villain to loath.
But even readers who find minor faults "Lost Soldiers" will find that the novelist has acheived a great deal uncommonly well. Most of all, in "Lost Soldiers" Mr. Webb realizes perhaps the most complete, rich and dynamic portrait in American fiction so far of Vietnam after the last American helicopter departed. The relentless energy of the country, the ghosts that inform every action, the chaos, cynicism, deviousness, loyalty and joy are presented here in a way that make the place irresistible.
Readers won't wonder at or pity Condley and the other soldiers lost in Mr. Webb's Vietnam. Instead they'll hope at some point in their lives to be (or to have been) involved in an experience so intense that it creates a similar inescapable compulsion.

Michael Hedges is a Washington writer for the Houston Chronicle.


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