- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 28, 2002

By Jonathan Stevenson
Free Press, $25, 227 pages

The East, particularly the Far East, has held an attraction for certain Europeans since at least the time of Marco Polo. War, trade, adventure took them there but whatever their reasons, in every age since Western expatriates have left their own world to find a home among the peoples of Asia. During the latter half of the 20th century it has been Southeast Asia, particularly the countries of Vietnam, Thailand, and Laos, that has exercised a special allure for some of the Americans who served there during the Vietnam War.
In "Hard Men Humble" Jonathan Stevenson presents the stories of 21 American veterans of the Southeast Asian war who have returned there in various roles to work and live. Mr. Stevenson, a researcher and journalist who has also written a book about the conflict in Northern Ireland, is not a historical revisionist and he has no political agenda, although throughout this book his sympathy for the men who served in Vietnam, regardless of their political views, is always just under the surface.
I found that refreshing and although some might consider it a bias of sorts, nevertheless Mr. Stevenson's writing is consistently evenhanded. His objective in this book is to look at the war through the eyes of these expatriate GIs, allowing their stories to reprise the successes and failures of our recent involvement in Vietnam.
The once hard men, presumably now humbled by time and reflection, that are the subject of this book represent a varied crowd. Some, Mr. Stevenson is quick to point out, have exaggerated their role in the war. In this one regard Mr. Stevenson is a cut above most non-veterans who have written about Vietnam in that he was careful to check his subjects' military service records through the Freedom of Information Act. But most of the men in this book are genuine veterans of the Vietnam War. They fall generally into three broad categories: those who opposed the war then and now; those who supported the war at the time but have reconsidered their views; and those who are still fighting it.
Among the latter is ex-Army major Mark Smith, who as a U. S. Army Special Forces operative in Vietnam won the Distinguished Service Cross (the second-highest award for valor). "A loveable rake and a cagey operato … part career soldier, part loyal American, part Horatio Alger, and a large part war hero," is how Mr. Stevenson describes Mr. Smith, who has made his headquarters in Thailand since 1985.
"Smith's vocation in Thailand for the past fifteen years has been fighting the Vietnam War," Stevenson writes. With four Purple Hearts, five tours in the 'Nam, and 10 months as a prisoner of the North Vietnamese, Mr. Smith considers that war unfinished personal business. But he never hated the Vietnamese communists, Mr. Smith insists, only what they stood for, and he considers his mission today to "continue the fight for freedom and democracy" in Southeast Asia. "Whatever else he is," Mr. Stevenson concludes, [Mark Smith] is an authentic hero of the Vietnam War. He deserves to be honored for it."
Eric Herter, scion of an old Boston family, grandson of former Secretary of State Christian A. Herter, went to Vietnam as an enlisted photographer and, availing himself of the "old boy" network of high-placed family associates, wound up in the Mekong Delta in a program designed to lure communist defectors to our side. There he developed "sympathy for the Vietnamese and disgust with his compatriots." He strove to alleviate his Weltanschauung by smoking pot. He came to view the entire U. S. involvement in Vietnam as "somewhere between misconceived and criminal, and way more on the side of criminal," he told Mr. Stevenson.
Today Mr. Herter lives in a remote suburb of Hanoi, one of about 30 Vietnam vets living in Hanoi. Nowadays his "existential preoccupation is American vice, not Vietnamese virtue," although he considers the Vietnamese a "morally superior people" to his own. He makes his living as a freelance photographer and journalist. He feels this hand-to-mouth existence in the Democratic Republic of Vietnam somehow expiates the guilt he shares for his country's war against the Vietnamese communists.
When asked whether he ever killed anyone up close in Vietnam, retired Army Col. Andre Sauvegot "hyperventilates, sniffles, and begins to cry" and announces how thankful he is that because of his rank during the war he never had to "put a Vietnamese in the sights of a rifle and pull the trigger." He weeps when he talks about America's having created "new widows [and] orphans" during the Vietnam War. But Mr. Sauvegot boasts that he is a Ranger-qualified, airborne-qualified combat arms officer and, presumably between crying jags, maintains that "any time the United States begins to have a military involvement when one is on active duty as a combat arms officer, then one should volunteer for that involvement."
He sounds like a man who is proud to be a cowboy but has never ridden a horse. Today he is General Electric's chief representative in Hanoi. A photograph memorializing his participation in the official opening of the War Crimes Museum in Ho Chi Minh City hangs on one wall of his office along with "medals donated by stateside GIs with their testimonials of regret for helping to prosecute an imprudent war."
In the final chapter of "Hard Men Humble" Mr. Stevenson attempts to analyze why the men in this book have become expatriates. "A biased media, a sonorous intelligentsia, and a suggestible academy have perpetuated Vietnam's status as a black hole of U. S. history and its veterans as unwanted reminders of the Vietnam era. From the expats' point of view, veterans lose little from living elsewhere." He concludes that the lives of these exiles, "as extended war stories, do justice to the Vietnam experience" as "part of a valorous heritage that has cost soldiers dearly in every war Americans have fought in and will fight."
This is indeed a noble sentiment and 20 years ago it would have resonated loudly among this country's Vietnam vets. But most of the men who went to Vietnam did not see heavy combat there and of the 2.5 million who served in-country, the vast majority have successfully returned to productive lives in their homeland and entertain no thoughts of leaving, especially not going back to Vietnam. And I strongly disagree with Mr. Stevenson's contention that the sons of our Vietnam veterans do not appreciate their fathers' service.
I leave it to the reader to decide just how hard these men were or how humble they are now. While the 21 stories in the book make fascinating reading, they are pictures out of time and out of context. Whatever reasons these men had for returning to Southeast Asia, they are strictly personal. I wish them luck.

Dan Cragg, who spent several tours in Vietnam with the U. S. Army, is author of "Inside the VC and the NVA, the Real story of North Vietnam's Armed Forces" with Michael Lee Lanning. He lives in Springfield, Va.

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