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No Facts, Only Perceptions

ISSUE:  Summer 1994
Us. By Wayne Karlin. Henry Holt. $22.50.

The most persistently nettlesome legacy of the Vietnam War is the belief that U.S.servicemen missing in action (MIAs) are still alive in Southeast Asia. So powerful is this belief that no U.S.president since Richard Nixon—who is largely responsible for creating it in the first place—has dared to suggest to those who believe that what they believe is a fantasy.

Indeed, no successful politician at any level of government has dared to say such a thing in public, and people who have—H.Bruce Franklin, for instance, in his cogently argued M.I.A.or Mythmaking in America— have been ignored, vilified, or marginalized. Aging men in camouflaged jungle uniforms incongruously bedecked with medals and ribbons maintain a permanent vigil for our MI As at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., and the black-and-white POW/MIA flag—the only flag besides the Stars-and-Stripes ever to fly atop the White House—adorns state and local government flagpoles from Massachusetts to Montana.

And it doesn’t end there. Thanks to Sylvester Stallone, Chuck Norris, Tom Selleck, and other Hollywood war heroes who never got within 5, 000 miles of Vietnam during the war, an entire generation of Americans who weren’t even alive during the war take as a given that MI As are still alive in Southeast Asia. This cross-generational transmission of belief ensures that the ghosts of the MIAs, if not the MIAs themselves, will end up outliving the rest of their generation, both those who served and those who didn’t.

Moreover, these ghosts are an exceedingly effective weapon with which to punish the Vietnamese for having had the audacity to embarrass and humiliate the United States. Ronald Reagan used the MIAs to justify continuation of the economic and diplomatic embargo of Vietnam that has been in place since 1975.Recent attempts by the Bush and Clinton administrations to end that embargo have each been thwarted by the sudden appearance of dramatic new evidence supporting the existence of living MIAs: in 1991, photographs of three aging U.S.prisoners being held in Laos; 18 months later, a Soviet copy of a Vietnamese politburo memo dating from the war and claiming that Vietnam held over twice as many U.S.prisoners as it has ever admitted to.

It matters not at all that these and every other sensational lead on MIAs are each time quickly and conclusively demonstrated to be bogus; those POW/MIA flags still fly above every rest stop on the New Jersey Turnpike, the National Park Service still allows those middle-aged warriors to haunt the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Congressional committees still spend millions of dollars on one investigation after another, and millions of school children still believe America’s bravest sons wait forlornly in bamboo cages for rescue that never comes. One cannot kill a myth. Ghosts are immune to facts.

“There are no facts,” says Jake Loman in Wayne Karlin’s new novel Us, “ only perceptions.” Take pretty Kitty of the front desk at the Miami Hotel in Bangkok who spies for Aung Khin, the Kuomintang warlord who controls much of the opium trade in the Golden Triangle of Laos-Thailand-Burma (now Myanmar). Kitty turns out to be Sadong, who’s really spying for the Burmese rebel Taksin, Aung Khin’s most bitter enemy, who’s actually Dr. Dawee of Thailand. But Sadong turns out to be Aye Than, who might or might not be Aung Khin’s daughter, or lover, or both. Maybe she’s Taksin’s lover, too. Maybe not. Meanwhile, Taksin appears to be a man but turns out to be a woman, while Taksin’s lieutenant, Auntie Soe, appears to be a woman but is actually a man. “There are no facts,” says Loman, “only perceptions.”

It’s the early 1990’s in Karlin’s novel, and Loman is a three-tour Vietnam veteran who owns the Naga Queen, a bar in Bangkok, where Fat Al, Chuckie’s-in-Love, and Helicopter Harry pass the time telling war stories to tourists and carrying on with Loman’s prostitutes as if they were still on R&R from Vietnam, which in a perverse sort of way they are. Into Loman’s bar, in rapid succession, come a scar-necked man with Montagnard bracelets on his wrists who stabs a German tourist menacing Loman with a broken beer bottle before hissing the word “Us” at Loman and disappearing into the night; Charlene and Usama, documentary filmmakers who tell Loman they have information about “sightings of MIAs, possibly the ones who call themselves Us, with the Taksin group”; Congressman Elliott Mundy, who tells Loman he has “confirmed sightings, eyewitness accounts of Westerners who meet the age requirements [for MIAs] working with Aung Khin’s band;” and Arthur Weyland, ex-CIA officer (or is he ex-?), who tells Loman, “You’ll do what I want because I have my connections and because you have a bar you’d like to keep.”

Loman himself has always wanted to believe that the MIAs are alive, “one long patrol unraveling from his memory, a line of green disappearing into a vastness of green. A yearning.” He has tried often enough to find them that the hill people of the Golden Triangle call him Kon Ahn Harm Kon Die: “ The One Who Carries the Dead.” And though his previous attempts have led him to conclude grudgingly that “the missing were just another illusion” of the war, he agrees to make one more expedition into the jungle because “in his heart he wanted the missing to be there; he searched because he wanted to find, not just for the money” Weyland, Mundy and the filmmakers are offering.

To explain how that search unfolds and what it finally reveals would be to ruin the suspense of a wonderfully suspenseful mystery tale, but I’ll say this much: I can’t recall ever before encountering so many twists and turns and counter-turns in 215 pages. Karlin is a deft storyteller and a master of brevity, wasting no words yet creating vivid characters and luminous images. Here is his introduction to Bangkok: “The rest of the world in fifty years: permanent gridlock, the sidewalks thick with people grinning as if caught in a joke they could do nothing about.” This is Aye Than, a. k. a. Sadong, a. k. a. Kitty: “A hole in the earth for secrets.” Here’s Fat Al explaining why Mundy and Weyland have come to Loman’s bar:

We’ll be an expeditionary force. That’s why you want us vets, right? We’ve been to the edge and the edge is us. You can take the boy off the edge, but you can’t take the edge put of the boy. There it is. It don’t mean nothin’. That’s why we love it so. We can use double negatives. We can do anything we want. Then we go back to the World.

This is the first encounter between Mundy and Taksin:

Taksin reached out and seized his face between her hands. She pushed hard on both sides of Mundy’s face, bringing her own face closer, staring as if a sickness or her own death had been given eyes into which she could stare. Mundy’s eyes darted back and forth, as if trying to look for a way to get out of his head.

Karlin writes both empathetically and knowledgeably about other peoples and other cultures. Of his three previous novels, Crossover (1984) and The Extras (1989) are both set in the Middle East and neither has an American character in it; Lost Armies (1988) is set in Elliott Mundy’s tidewater Maryland congressional district, but contains a number of Vietnamese characters both major and minor.Us moves fluidly from Bangkok to Rangoon to tribal villages where what is Thailand and what is Burma become lost in what is merely “mountains. Mountains don’t care. Got teak, got elephants, got tigers.” Mountains where nats live, prankster spirits of animism predating Buddha and found in one form or another all over Southeast Asia, mischief makers who “do much harm to the order of the world unless appeased with money, food, and the respect of belief.”

This particular quality of Karlin’s writing—his ability to see through the eyes of people not only different from himself, but culturally removed from us—reminds me very much of Robert Olen Butler. Indeed, until recently, when Butler won a Pulitzer Prize for his seventh book, A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain (part of which originally appeared in the Virginia Quarterly Review), the two men shared the bittersweet distinction of being the most undeservedly underappreciated writers to emerge from the Vietnam war (Karlin having served as an enlisted Marine in a helicopter squadron).

Now Karlin holds that dubious honor alone. Free Fire Zones, a short story collection Karlin coedited in 1973, and in which his first published stories appeared, was utterly lost in the national hysteria of silence that enveloped this country before the Vietnam War was even over. His three previous novels all received favorable but limited reviews, low sales in hardback, and no offers for paperback editions. It appears as though Us is headed for the same fate.

This is a great shame because Karlin really is a fine writer and because Us is an informed and unusual exploration of that most nettlesome of legacies from that most nettlesome of American wars.Us weaves history, geography, and humanity into a seamless narrative that is relentlessly compelling, frequently startling, and quietly profound. Loman’s assertion not withstanding, Karlin skillfully reminds us that there are indeed facts concerning America’s MIAs, what did or didn’t happen to them, and why their ghosts have achieved a kind of immortality that is both disturbing and dangerous, and he tells a very good story in the process.


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