At a time when the history of our recent Indochina wars is being revived by some, revised by others, and forgotten by most, Jerome Doolittle's novel strikes the conscience like a 200-pound bomb shattering a picnic.
But perhaps shock is what is needed to help us come to terms with those wars - in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. Doolittle's war was in Laos, the gentlest of the three Indochina nations. In making the flight from Vietnam to Laos, a newspaper reporter sometimes had the feeling that he was leaving tragedy only to arrive at comic opera - comic, that is, until the casualties rose and the Hmong tribesmen fighting the North Vietnamese faced the end of their traditional way of life.
Best known to the outside world by the pejorative term Meo, the Hmong guerrillas were organized, financed, and advised by the US Central Intelligence Agency. Despite that support the war devasted the Hmong.
Doolittle's novel deals with the US Air Force war over northern Laos against the North Vietnamese and their Pathet Lao allies. It was a battle that was separate from the more heavily publicized strikes against the Ho Chi Minh supply trail, which cut through Laos. The Air Force was supposed to support the Hmong, but after an escalation of the air war in 1969, its main accomplishment was to destroy Laotian towns and villages, forcing civilian villagers to live underground or in trenches and bunkers.
Like one of the journalists in the novel, I interviewed a number of those villagers after they came down from the Plain of Jars. The US Embassy was supposed to control the air war and approve the targets through a civilian foreign service officer. That officer was the bombing officer who is the protagonist of this novel. But the air war got too big to control. It developed a momentum of its own.
Having been to Laos and talked with the refugees, I share Doolittle's outrage at the bombing. But as I read the novel, I also found myself arguing, perhaps unfairly, with the author. This is a work of fiction after all. But was the Air Force as mindless in trying out its lethal toys as Doolittle would have us believe? Did the Air Force simply ignore embassy instructions to stay away from certain targets to the degree which is implied? Did the Air Force really want to dry up the ocean - the civilian population - in which the Pathet Lao guerrillas swam?
In other words, are the villains in the novel depicted too harshly?
Some of Doolittle's minor characters are too one-dimensional, in my view, to be believable. The American ambassador's wife and Harrison Bottsford, the columnist, for example. An Air Force officer and embassy security officer strike me as too stupid and insensitive to be believed. Is Doolittle simply recalling antagonists from the days when he was press attache at the American embassy in Laos? If so, here is his chance to blast them.
Some readers may be offended by the earthy language of Doolittle's characters. The lovemaking is explicit, and a particularly brutal sexual assault may offend. But those who have been there will recognize the language as true to the time and place.
In the end, I decided that what is important is that the main characters, and the ambassador, the press attache, the deputy chief of mission, and, of course, the bombing officer, Fred Upson, do ring true. The conversations among foreign service officers are fascinating. The head of the embassy's political section, Dennis Goldman, admits with honest calm to compromises made on the way up the career ladder. The kindly Fred Upson's fall from innocence through his encounter with bureaucratic reality reminds me of the innocent American in Graham Greene's ''The Quiet American'' and his encounter with Vietnam.
The love between Upson and his Lao mistress, Somchan, provides depth. Somchan , the heroine of the book, typifies Laos in all its lost innocence.
For those who never tuned in on the Laotian sideshow to the Vietnam war, this is the chance.