Great Page Turner! Shades of Catch 22—Australian style
Seldom do I use the term, “page turner.” It’s an overused cliché and when potential readers see that in the headline, they roll their eyes and think, “Must be a friend of the author,” then move on. Well, I’m not a friend of the author and I’d never heard of Bernard Clancy until I received an email inviting me to review this book. I’m glad I accepted the mission.
Most stories about Vietnam, whether they are fiction or non-fiction, center around the country that lost the most during the conflict, the US. This one centers around an interesting group of Australians, who, like their US brothers-in-arms, have signed up or were drafted for a one year tour.
They are drawn to the conflict to preserve national pride, travel to an exotic country and make some good money while serving. What they don’t realize is it’s not what they think it’s going to be.
The main character is Brian James “Donkey: Simpson. When he lands at Tan Son Nhut airport in Saigon, the first people he meets don’t welcome him to the conflict, the same words are spoken as a salutation, “You’ll be sorry.” A bit ominous isn’t it?
Now, you might think he’s headed into the bush or “in country.” Not the case. When he’s conscripted, one of his mates helps him fill out the form stating, “he was prolific in typing and shorthand.” This small oversight puts him in a situation he could never imagine in his wildest dreams or darkest nightmares.
He is assigned as the personal secretary to General, Big Al, the main stud at COMAF–Commander, Australian Force, Vietnam. From here he meets, Corporal Nickoli—antagonist, Major Swanker—antagonist, The Padre—roommate, Ned—his adventurous, horse trading mate and Jilly—double agent for the VC! There are a few more, such as the outlandish, General Cassidy of the CIA—does the name Colonel Flag ring a bell? Natasha–Cassidy’s assistant, twin sister to Jilly and VC double agent, General Dong of ARVN/VC and last but not least Jansen. Who he is, nobody knows; but his timing is impeccable when the heat is on.
Quite a cast of characters, don’t you think?
Let’s get the run-of-the-mill stuff out of the way. There is an excessive amount of drinking, dinking and cussing through the story. No big surprise there. We are constantly reminded of the oppressive heat and foul smells wafting through Saigon on a daily basis. There is some combat, but just enough to keep the story moving ahead and satisfying those who want to start their own body count and rice caches.
The real plot is “Operation Santa Claus.” The scheme is hatched by Big Al and his second-in-command. They suspect there is a spy in their midst and the only way to flush he/she out is to be careless with “Top Secret” information. The ploy works. The unwitting part is Donkey. This poor bloke has no idea that all eyes are on him. All he wants to do is serve his time, go back to his gal, Allison and pursue his career in journalism. A lot can happen in twelve months and believe me, it does.
There is also a sub-plot through the story. This is what I found the most fascinating. Like its predecessor, “Catch-22,” Mr. Clancy explores the madness of the War in Vietnam. Why are we fighting a war where the people we are fighting for, don’t care who wins or loses. Why are the folks back home condemning them for serving their country while they are supporting Ho Chi Minh? What is the point of Aussie mates dying for a cause they don’t understand and don’t want to? Why does anyone or any country care what happens to South Vietnam? Bottom line, they don’t.
Therein lies the madness to the whole conflict. Add on top of that, “Winning hearts and minds,” while the allies and VC/NVA are destroying everything in sight, and the mind numbing bureaucratic army BS from both sides, you have entered either a very bad madhouse or worse, Rod Serling is going to read your invocation and eulogy. Yeah, a bloody mess we’re in!
Donkey and his mates concern themselves with two primary thoughts: counting down the days to the “Freedom Bird,” and attempting to rejoin and be accepted by civilization. For many who did serve the second only happened after decades of being cajoled, shunned and humiliated for serving their country.
Bottom line, this is one hell of a story. The first part drags a bit, but once I hit the 50% mark I couldn’t put it down. I was completely engrossed in the espionage plot and how it would affect each of the characters. Surprising is an understatement.
Last thought. Even though the title is “Best We Forget” and the main character echoes those thoughts in the end, “Lest We Never Forget” is the compelling message.
Amazon link: Best We Forget