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Dietz At War

ISSUE:  Autumn 1975

TWICE or three times a week Dietz wrote his children. They were informal letters that began Dear Girls and ended Much Love From Dad. He liked to describe the country and the hotel in which he lived, and at every opportunity he wrote about the various animals he saw. Around the corner from the hotel was a crippled vendor with a monkey and once a month he’d visit the zoo. The zoo’s attractions were a single Bengal tiger and two mangy elephants. The tiger he called Charlie and the two elephants Ike and Mike. In his frequent trips to the countryside he’d see water buffaloes and pigs, and once he’d taken a photograph of a Marine major with an eighteen-foot anaconda wrapped around his neck. Dietz hated snakes but his children didn’t. He invented wild and improbable stories about the animals, giving them names and personalities and droll adventures. From time to time he’d give the girls a glimpse into his own life, opening the door a crack and then shutting it again. He thought the letters and his motives for writing them were straightforward, but his former wife did not. On one of Dietz’s visits home she told him that the letters were interesting, but not much use to the children. “You’re really writing those letters to me,” she said.

Dietz was very serious about the letters; in three years in the war zone he missed a week just once. He wrote the letters early in the morning, before he began the day’s work. When he expected to be out of touch for any length of time he’d leave several letters with the concierge of the hotel, with instructions to mail one every three days. It was important to him to be part of the lives of his children, and he considered the letters as valuable and necessary substitutes for personal visits. The letters were as long as they needed to be, and were posted with exotic stamps.

However, he was careful never to disclose too much. Because he lived in a war zone he felt entitled to keep his personal life to himself. He did not want to alarm or upset the children, nor did he want to leave the impression he was enjoying himself. He thought if he phrased the letters with care the girls would understand his obligations to himself and to his work. Dietz never had the slightest feeling of heroism, still less of advancing any national interest. He was a newspaper correspondent and believed in journalism. He believed in his value as an expert witness whose testimony might one day prove valuable. The work was demanding and not to everyone’s taste but Dietz found it congenial. Because the war zone was dangerous he felt he had the right to make his own rules and that meant the right to withhold certain information from his children and the others.

There were several love affairs, and many friends both male and female. During the worst part of the war scarcely a week went by without someone he knew, or knew of, being wounded or killed. There was one terrible week when five correspondents were killed and a number of others wounded, but Dietz did not mention this to the children except in an oblique way. In a letter home he told a long and complicated animal story and assigned the names of the dead to various enchanting animals. Dietz felt in that way he commemorated his colleagues.

He worked eighteen-hour days and considered himself at the top of his craft. Everyone he knew had difficult personal problems that obliged them to sail close to the wind, as his friend Puller expressed it. Puller described the war zone as a neurotics’ retreat no less than the Elizabeth Arden beauty farm or the Esalen Institute. While recognizing the truth of what Puller said, Dietz did not apply it to his own life. The various personal problems, serious as they might appear to outsiders, were not allowed to interfere with the job he was paid to do.

Therefore, the letters home were not factual but invented. Dietz did not completely understand this until years later, when he chanced upon the correspondence and reread it. Dietz kept carbons of everything he wrote.

Odd—there was not a line in any of the letters about the good times he’d had. It was awkward to talk of good times because people put you down as a war lover, a man who drew pleasure from the suffering of others. And from this war, no less. Borrowing a concept from older writers who had covered earlier wars, Dietz told himself that a sense of carelessness and adventure was necessary in order to remain sane. In order not to become permanently depressed. He explained this idea one night to an experienced woman who had witnessed a number of European wars and she laughed in his face, not unkindly. The other wars were sane, she said. This war was insane.


“Draw your own conclusions.”

Still, in his letters home, there was not a word about casual things—pleasant walks through the damp scented air in the deserted parks early in the morning. Nothing about late night swims in the pool at the old country club, nor afternoons at the rundown race track. Nothing about the long evenings playing bridge, nor the occasional sprees at restaurants in the Chinese quarter. There was nothing at all about the constant noisy laughter as the correspondents drifted down the boulevard to a cafe where there were drinks and hot roasted peanuts in shallow dishes. There were no descriptions or explanations of the many wonderful friendships he’d made.

While there was nothing at all in the letters about the good times, there was nothing about the bad times either.

Having decided to cut himself off from America, Dietz felt it was important and necessary to take an aggressively neutral stance in his attitude toward the war. He felt that the one could only be justified in terms of the other—for he had fled the United States, no question about that. This belief was reflected both in the letters and in the articles he wrote. His heaviest gun was irony. Dietz acquired an uncommon ability to turn sentences in such a way that left his readers empty and puzzled and, when he was writing at the top of his form, depressed. The facts he selected implied foreboding, and his descriptions suggested darkness and disease. This was done subtly. He wheeled his irony into position at the end of every story, and gave his readers a salvo. Standing outside events, even-handed Dietz believed he was uniquely equipped to describe an enterprise that was plainly misconceived: deformed, doomed. He never wrote of anything as crude and obvious as wounded children or wrecked churches. Instead, he devoted a series of articles to the remarkable military hospitals and their talented surgeons, who saved lives and left men vegetables or worse. He became something of a social historian, describing the furious whims and customs of those involved in the war. Dietz developed a theory that there was a still center in the middle of the war, a safe location without vibrations of any kind, and if he could occupy that center he could present the war from a disinterested position. A moral fortress. It would be the more precise and persuasive for being factually impartial because it was evident to him that the public was skeptical of anything that hinted at the lurid or the grotesque. Dietz worked at trimming adjectives from his prose, and was careful to spell everything out with near-mathematical precision.

He wanted to describe the war with the delicacy and restraint of Henry James setting forth the details of a love affair.

His life enlarged and grew in harmony with the war. He was rooted, comfortable and at ease, feeling himself outside the war and inside it at the same time. Dietz refused to learn the history of the country or its language or the origins of the struggle in the belief that the war was necessarily a sentient experience. He brought emotion to his portraiture, but the emotions were solidly based on fact.

He was scrupulous. Aircraft, artillery, small arms, battalions, battlefields—all of them were precisely identified by name, number or location. Dietz’s room at the hotel was covered with American military maps, and he’d obtained weapons manuals from a friendly colonel at American military headquarters. Readers understood immediately where they were and what was happening, who was doing the fighting, and with what weaponry, and the name and age of the dead and wounded. These facts, so precise and unassailable, gave Dietz’s journalism the stamp of authenticity and therefore of authority. Dietz believed that facts described the truth in the same way that shapes and colors describe a landscape, and in that way journalism resembled art.

One April afternoon he was almost killed.

They’d encouraged him to accompany a long-range patrol. They did . not conceal its danger: this was a reconnaissance patrol that would establish beyond any doubt the existence of sanctuaries in the supposedly neutral country to the west. They were frank to say that public knowledge of these sanctuaries would be . . . helpful. Dietz was free to write what he pleased, and of course it was entirely possible that there would be no sanctuaries. But they trusted Dietz to write what he saw.

Dietz was eager, listening to them explain the mission. This was not a patrol that would engage the enemy. It was purely reconnaissance for the purpose of intelligence-gathering. But they did not lie to him about the danger. There was at least an even chance that the patrol would be discovered in some way, and that would mean serious trouble. They would be deep in enemy territory. However, the commander would be the best reconnaissance man in the zone and his team would be hand-picked. It would be an all-volunteer force. A helicopter squadron would monitor their progress and be prepared for immediate action. The mission had the highest priority and Dietz was free to go along without restraint. It was appealing, the story was appealing on a number of levels; Dietz put danger out of his mind.

On the second day the patrol was ambushed and nearly annihilated. The commander and his number two were killed, and Dietz and half a dozen others were wounded. They owed their lives to the quick reaction time of the helicopter force, though for an hour they were obliged to defend themselves without aid of any kind. Of course they found no sanctuaries nor anything else of value, and in that sense the mission was a failure.

Dietz was five days in a field hospital, half-delirious and very weak from loss of blood. They watched him around the clock. As soon as they were able, the authorities moved him to a small private clinic in the capital. Having urged him to undertake the mission, they now felt responsible. They’d make certain he had the best medical attention available in the zone.

In ten days the danger was past, though the effects lingered. Dietz was euphoric.

His friend Puller, looking at him lying in bed, remarked, “You look like hell.”

“Feel fine,” Dietz said.

“White as a sheet,” Puller said.

“Lost all my blood,” Dietz said.

“You need a drink. Can you have a drink?”

Dietz laughed and extended his hand, and Puller poured him a gin and tonic.

“Actually you look OK.”

The nurse was working on his arm, cutting the steel sutures that bound his wounds. “It’s a load off my mind,” Dietz said.

“How’s that?”

“This can only happen to you once. The odds. I’ve used up my ticket.”

Puller looked at the nurse and asked her in French how Dietz was.

The nurse said, Fine. Recovery was rapid.

How long would Dietz remain in the hospital?

Perhaps a week, the nurse said. But he would have to remain quiet when he got out. He’d sustained shock and was more disoriented than he realized. If Monsieur Dietz were wise, he’d take a long holiday.

Puller observed that his friend seemed in very good spirits.

The nurse nodded, Indeed. A model patient, always cheerful.

Puller turned back to Dietz. “I talked with your office on the telephone today.” He smiled. “They wanted to know when to expect the story.”

“I’m writing it in my head,” Dietz said.

“Well, they said not to worry. They’re giving you a month’s leave, you can have it whenever you want it. They’d like you to return to the ‘States for a couple of weeks. But you can do what you want.”

Dietz winced as the nurse washed and dried the large wound on his forearm. “Ask her how long I’ll be in here.”

“You really don’t know any French at all?”

“Only the basics,” Dietz said.

Puller smiled, Dietz made no concessions. He was the same whereever he was, the Middle East, Latin America. He didn’t know Arabic or Spanish either. He was like a camera, his settings operated in any environment. “She says you’ll be out in a week but you’ll have to take it easy.”

Dietz pointed to a pile of mail on the bureau. There was a foot-high stack of letters and telegrams. “Did you pick up any mail today?”

“None for you,” Puller said.

Dietz looked puzzled. “Nothing at all?”

“You’re a greedy bastard. Christ, you’ve heard from everybody but the Secretary of Defense.”

“I love to read expressions of sympathy,” Dietz said.

“When are you going to write the story?”

“Well, I told you. I am writing it. In my head.”

“I mean for the newspaper.”

“I have to write it for the kids first.”

“Oh, sure,” Puller said.

“I have to get the characters straight. These stories are damned complicated, and the kids count on them.”


”. . . got to get the plot worked out.”

“Do you want your portable?”

“No, I’m writing it in my head, memorizing it. I’ll memorize it and write it up in longhand. But it’s taking a hell of a long time, I’m only up to the first night.” He smiled benignly. “Bivouac.”

Puller put two ice cubes and a finger of gin in Dietz’s drink, watching the nurse frown and turn away. He told Dietz that he had to leave but would look in at dinner time, perhaps bring a few friends. He moved to go, then looked back at the bed. “What did you mean a moment ago, that you’ve used up your ticket. What does that mean?”

“I’m invulnerable. This can only happen to you once. The odds are all in my favor. I’ve done everything now, I’m clean. They’ve got nothing on me.”

“I’d like to know the name of that oddsmaker. That bastard is practicing without a license.”

Dietz laughed. “It’s true!”

“And who hasn’t got anything on you?”

“They don’t. None of them do.” Dietz said, “I’ve paid my dues.” That was a private joke and they both laughed. “I’m in fat city.”

“Jesus Christ,” Puller muttered. “I suppose you are, as long as you’re here.”

Dietz drained his glass and grinned. “When you come back tonight, bring me some stationery. The kids are probably worried, they haven’t heard from me in two weeks. Probably don’t know where the hell I am.”

Puller nodded, Sure. Then, “Well, they know you got hit.”

“No reason for them to.”


“Listen. It’s a long story, so bring plenty of stationery.”

“Honest to God, you look in damn good shape,” Puller said.

“Feel fine,” said Dietz.

In the end Dietz wrote a story for the children and the newspaper, and they were entirely different stories. The story for the children was witty, crammed with incident and populated with strange animal characters in a mythical setting. He set one character against the others, though all of them were friends. The story began darkly but ended sweetly, it was very exciting and covered twelve sheets of paper. In the act of writing it, Dietz discarded most of the myths and composed a loveable story about animals. The article for the newspaper was deft and straightforward. He wrote the article in one draft from memory and did not consult his notebook at all. Reading it over, he was alarmed to find he’d neglected his facts, save the central incident and one or two names. To his surprise and confusion it was a cruel but cheerful story, and somehow uplifting despite its savage details. He kept himself out of it and most readers did not understand until the final sentences that it was an eyewitness account. But the editors liked it and put it on page one with a box and a picture of Dietz. The picture caption read, “Dietz At War.”

He cabled the story, then did a strange thing. He wrote the editor of the newspaper and told him to inform his ex-wife when the article would be published. The editor was to tell the ex-wife to keep the newspaper out of the house that day. Under no circumstances were the children to see the article Dietz had written about himself.

Dietz went from success to success. He matured Avith the war, developing a singular style of journalism in order to arrive at the still center of the violence. In the years following the murderous afternoon in April he devoted himself entirely to journalism and to his letters home. He removed himself from the life of the capital and ventured ever farther afield for his stories. He’d spend two weeks among the mountain people, then a week investigating the political structure of an obscure coastal province. His dispatches contained detailed descriptions of the flora and fauna of the country, its landscapes and population. There were many places where the war was not present and he was careful to visit those as well. Often Dietz’s stories contained no more than two or three facts—the dateline, the subject, the subject’s age. No more, often less.

But his sense of irony, his understanding of awful paradox, was exquisite. He saw the war in delicate balance and reported it as he would report the life and atmosphere of an asylum, or zoo. He adopted various points of view in his reportage, convinced that each moment possessed its own life; he often impersonated a traveler from abroad. Energetic and restless in his inquiries, he occasionally published fictitious information. These were the devices he used to move the emotions of his readers. As the dead piled on dead his images became blacker and more melancholy, though he fought for balance. He’d bring himself back into equilibrium by writing a long letter to his children. Every month he spent at least a fortnight with troops on the line, though he always refused to carry a weapon.

During one of the periodic cease-fires (they came as interregnums, pauses between seizures), Dietz’s old friend Puller returned from the United States. Puller’d done a year’s time in the zone and departed without hesitation. That was two years ago, and now Puller was back for a visit. They spent a long and sour night drinking in Dietz’s hotel room.

Puller demanded, “Why are you still here? No one cares any more, what are you doing here?”

“I live here. It’s my home.”

“It’s a forgotten front, I’ll tell you that.”

“Not by me.”

“No one gives a damn any more.”

“Well, I do.”

“Odds in your favor, is that it?”

“Well, I’m here. In one piece. Healthy. Sound.”

“You ought to quit it,” Puller said. “There’s a limit—”

“It’s a rich vein,” Dietz said. “Hardly touched.”

“A vein of pure crap.”

“The rest of you, it’s all right. You can watch it from the United States. The point is, you can’t know this place until you’ve lived here. You have to live here, in it.”

Puller looked at him. “It’s a place like any other. One more place to get stale in.”

“You think I’m stale?”

“The stuff you’re writing, a lot of it doesn’t make any sense.”

“Are you reading it?”

“Well, no. I don’t read it much any more.”

Dietz smiled. His expression was one of satisfaction. “Well, it’s strange. Perhaps true.” He smiled warmly, and poured fresh drinks for them both. “You know, because of the cease-fire there’s been no dead this week. No killed or wounded. No casualty lists.” He shrugged, amused, amazed. The casualty lists had been part of his life for so long that he could not imagine their absence. They and the war were what he lived with. He had not come to terms with parting from either of them, the dead or the war. America seemed to him remote, at an infinite remove; the back of beyond. “None,” he said.

“You think you’re part of this war. You think you can’t leave it. You think that if you go away, the war will disappear.”

“No man is indispensable.” Dietz grinned.

“Paying your dues. You’re paid up!” Puller glanced around the familiar room, it hadn’t changed in two years. The transistor radio, the bottles on the sideboard, the photograph over the typewriter—Dietz in fatigues, fording a nameless river in the jungle. Puller had taken the picture, catching Dietz’s winning smile as the water washed over his chest. Dietz hung the picture—why? Perhaps it reminded him of hardship. Whenever he looked up from the typewriter he saw himself in fatigues, fording some nameless river, smiling.

“Yes I am,” Dietz agreed.

“Then why—”

Dietz roared, “My God, Puller—how can that compare to this?”

Puller left shortly after midnight (they were both drunk, and less friendly than at the beginning), and Dietz prepared another drink and set about securing himself for the night. A hotel room was a world away, a haven in its safety and invisibility; its neutrality. No man’s land. Drink in hand, he set the latch and the chain and the bolt, and tucked the deskchair under the doorknob. He checked the tape that criss-crossed the windows that looked out onto the main square of the capital; on advice of army friends, he’d taped the windows to prevent flying glass in the event of an explosion. He locked the windows and carefully removed the pictures from the walls and stacked them under the bed, where they’d be safe. The bottles of gin and whiskey were placed in the closet, next to the carbine and the filled canteens. There was a full clip of ammunition taped to the stock of the carbine; he inspected that to verify that it was clean, and that the breech was oiled and the barrel spotless. His steel pot and knapsack were in their places, on the shelf in the clothes closet. He drew the blinds and covered his typewriter and put the table lamp on the floor next to his desk.

Dietz took a long pull on his drink and looked around the room, satisfied. He undressed slowly, taking small sips every few seconds. He listened for any disturbance in the street but heard nothing. The sentry was still in the square—how did they expect one man to fend off an attack, if it came? The sentry was leaning against a lamppost like some dapper soak in a Peter Arno cartoon; it was useless, he was probably asleep. He was either asleep or working for the other side. The most dangerous time was between midnight and three a. m., he’d learned that much from the military authorities. It was during the early morning hours that the enemy struck without warning, moving anonymously from the shadows, planting satchel charges and mines. A month earlier there’d been a scare in the hotel and half a dozen downtown restaurants were now off limits to American personnel. His drink empty, Dietz flicked on an overhead light and the two lamps next to his bed. The desk lamp on the floor was already burning, as were the lights in the bathroom. He stripped and lay naked on the sheets, listening to the hum of the air conditioner. Then he reached for his pen, and the box of stationery.

Dietz never wearied of writing to his children. Over the years the letters grew prolix, four and five letters a week, some of them five and six hundred words long. Dear Girls, Much Love From Dad. It didn’t bother him that his children didn’t reply for months at a time, and it did not occur to him at all that one of them was too young to write anything. His former wife, suddenly sympathetic, kept him informed of their progress. He had not been to America in more than three years; his vacations were limited to long weekends at a secure seaside resort. He felt it would be a tragedy to be out of the country the day it “blew,” so he kept himself in constant readiness. He invented wonderful stories about the animals in the zoo, and his letters home were entirely concerned with the Bengal tiger, the two elephants, the zebra, the monkey, the antelope, the water buffalo, the snake and the civet cat. These animals were assigned personalities that corresponded to the men who managed the war.

Dietz stayed on in the zone, assembling ever more powerful ironies with which to ravage the consciences of his readers. After five years the management of the newspaper insisted that he come home for good. When he refused, the publisher of the paper sent him a brief note informing him that he would either come home or consider himself fired. Dietz scanned the note and decided there were loopholes, they would not dare to fire him. He’d plead for time, and if necessary take leave and file on a free-lance basis. He knew that in the last analysis they would not fire him; they never fired anybody.

Dietz’s critics insisted that he was out of touch with the realities of the war. It was no longer a war but a depradation. The realities had changed but Dietz had not. He was rarely seen at the various important news briefings, preferring instead to investigate the mood of the provinces. In the provinces he found life and therefore hope and from time to time a strange sweetness infused his copy. He had long since given up his love affairs and was an infrequent visitor to the downtown cafes. It was true that his ironic turn of mind no longer puzzled or depressed his readers, as it was true his children found his letters home tedious. However, his readers still thought him authoritative and his children assured him they loved him. He was a majestic figure inside his moral fortress, healthy, astute and entirely free of bias. In that way the war never lost its savor, and Dietz was free of facts forever.


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